How Floating "Repair Yards" Helped the U.S. Navy Win in the Pacific

Manus island drydock
The battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) in a floating drydock at Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 28 December 1944. (U.S. Navy)

Published Apr 15, 2021 10:58 PM by CIMSEC

[By LCDR Ryan Hilger, USN]

USS Houston (CL 81), in a hard turn with her underside exposed, felt the torpedo explosion across the ship. Commander William Behrens recalled “that all propulsive power and steering control was immediately lost. The ship took a list to starboard of 16 degrees. All main electrical power was immediately lost.” Behrens ordered Houston abandoned, save key personnel and damage control parties. Over the next two weeks, the crew, assisted by the fleet tugs USS Pawnee, USS Zuni and other ships managed to limp more than 1200 miles to Ulithi. 

That Houston, and many other ships during World War II, survived such attacks and returned home was due in part to the heroics of the crew, but equally to the unsung heroes of Service Squadron Ten. The squadron's efforts allowed the Navy to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations continuously for almost two years without returning to port. Service Squadron Ten kept the fleet supplied, fed, fueled, repaired, and happy during that time. The ability to generate combat power so continuously for half the war was a decisive advantage for the United States in the Pacific. 

The Service Squadrons played a pivotal role in sustaining the Fleet as it fought across the Central Pacific. It is a largely unknown history, but one worth relearning with the reemerging possibility of war between major powers. That experience highlights the need to make forward deployed logistics and repair capabilities both robust and mobile to better support the Fleet. Battle fatigued sailors and battle damaged ships simply cannot afford the five thousand mile journey from the South China Sea to Pearl Harbor. Nor can they count on facilities in East Asia for support, just as their predecessors realized during the interwar period when developing War Plan Orange on the game floors of the Naval War College.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has ordered that the Navy and Marine Corps must make naval logistics more agile and resilient to support distributed maritime operations, generate greater readiness, and support the increasing numbers of unmanned systems that will enter the Fleet in this decade. The Navy should take a page from Admiral Nimitz’s playbook and re-establish the Service Squadrons with aircraft carriers as their core. The history of Service Squadron Ten affords the opportunity to replicate the magic of the Central Pacific campaign in the modern era. 

The Great Western Base

Strategic thought at the turn of the 20th century required the Navy to accomplish one of two objectives: to gain, in peacetime, a strongly fortified base in the Western Pacific or to rapidly establish a major alternative land base in the Western Pacific early in the war. Most timetables required seizure of islands within months after the outbreak of hostilities. 

By the early 1920s, war games and diplomatic failures to secure the “Great Western Base” in the Philippines had forced even the most conservative admirals to reconsider these core tenets of naval doctrine and start innovating around them. The Navy began developing larger colliers, auxiliaries to service ships at sea, fleet oilers, floating drydocks, and more. By 1923, the need for mobile basing had become sufficiently accepted that it became an appendix in War Plan Orange. These advances paved the way for the Navy to unhesitatingly reject Great Britain’s request in 1941 that the U.S. take over one of the finest bases in the Western Pacific: Singapore. The doctrine of fixed bases had completely given way to strategic mobility. 

During the interwar period, admirals and planners shifted to a mobile strategy when the basing problems in the War Plan Orange games proved so intractable and unsatisfying to the objectives for the drive across the Central Pacific. These revelations must have been unnerving, “yet they were steps along the path to a formula for victory because planners learned from their frustration to distinguish viable programs from evanescent dreams.” A career of preparation, for all the officers involved, allowed them to rapidly adapt to the conditions on the ground and effectively establish the concept of operations for Service Squadron Ten.

American bases in the Western Pacific today - Japan, Guam, Okinawa, Korea, and Singapore - provide vital operational command, logistics, and repair services for U.S. and allied navies, but will be untenable in wartime based on the reach of Chinese weapons. The U.S. military must prepare to fight the war from a sustained position at sea. 

Hawaii is too far removed from the theater to effectively exercise command and control (C2) in the digital age, with contested electromagnetic, cyber, and information domains, or efficiently sustain forward-deployed combat operations. It is fitting that during World War II, most fleet commanders exercised their authority primarily from the repair ships - USS Argonne (AS 10) being a favorite.

If We’ve Got it, You Can Have it

In September 1943, Admiral Nimitz ordered two service squadrons established to provide for fleet logistics and repair in preparation for the drive across the Central Pacific. After a bloody battle on Tarawa in November 1943, Service Squadron Ten moved forward to Funafuti to establish a fleet anchorage there. Several hundred miles closer than the United States’ western most base at the time, Espirtu Santo in Vanuatu, Funafuti provided a closer location to attend to the fleet and provide for repairs should the Japanese Navy decide to offer battle near the Gilbert Island chain. 

Admiral Nimitz gave Service Squadron Ten the responsibility to “furnish logistic support, including general stores, provisions, fuel, ammunition, maintenance, repair, salvage, and such other services as necessity may dictate in the support of an advanced major fleet anchorage in the Central Pacific Area.” The squadron would fall under operational control of Admiral Spruance, now in overall command of naval forces driving across the Central Pacific, and service anything that floated, along with Marine Corps and Army units to the maximum extent possible, in keeping with their motto: “If we’ve got it, you can have it.”

Admiral Spruance began his bombardment of Kwajalien and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, operating from the anchorage provided by Service Squadron Ten at Funafuti. The aerial bombardment lasted two months, and Service Squadron Ten’s reputation built by the day. The sailors of Service Squadron Ten often worked around the clock, despite being undermanned, to get the Fleet back to sea. A listing of various messages to the squadron shows the daily breadth of work that they did: 


There were certainly shortages of food, fresh water, ammunition, supplies, and even fuel at times, but the squadron distributed what they had equitably to all the units. 

By January 1944, Admiral Spruance realized the value that Service Squadron Ten provided, and insisted on a major change to the upcoming Operation Flintlock to take the Marshall Islands: the Marine Corps needed to first seize Majuro, the easternmost island in the Marshalls, to establish a forward fleet anchorage before executing the landings at Kwajalein and Eniwetok. Doing so would allow the Squadron to service the carriers so that they would not have to withdraw out of range to replenish, thereby leaving the Marines to face the Japanese airfields on the other islands alone. Admiral Nimitz and the Chiefs of Staff in Washington immediately approved the plan, and the result was significantly higher combat readiness and operational tempo for the Fleet.

After Operation Flintlock, the Fleet remained at sea for the duration of the war, with Service Squadron Ten supporting it. At the Squadron’s commissioning on January 15, 1944, it consisted of thirteen ships (out of an original request of 100), consisting of tenders, tugs, repair ships, survey vessels, and barges. By the end of the war, Service Squadron Ten had grown to more than 600 ships, and the entire Service Force consisted of 2,930 ships and more than 500,000 sailors and officers - a third more than the entire active duty navy today. 

Repairing the Fleet

It took years during the interwar period for the various Navy Bureaus and shipyards to believe that a repair ship or tender could provide any service of consequence beyond minor repairs. Actual combat and sailor ingenuity proved otherwise. In December, 1942, the predecessor to Service Squadron Ten fitted USS New Orleans (CA 32) with a temporary bow made of coconut logs after her bow was blown off at the Battle of Tassafaronga, enabling her to make the transit, stern first, to Sydney, Australia for further repairs. 

Naval battles mean hurt ships and sailors. “Ships had their bows blown off, their sterns blasted away, huge holes torn in their hulls by torpedoes whose explosions created a chaos that had to be seen at the time to be fully realized.” The closer the help, the better off the ship and crew were—the Houston never would have made it to Pearl Harbor, nor would hundreds of other ships and their crews no matter how heroic their efforts. Service Squadron Ten enabled the Fleet to keep the Japanese from realizing operational gains from damaging U.S. ships.

For Service Squadron Ten, floating drydocks, repair ships, tenders, crane barges, and a myriad of other assets allowed them to make major repairs to battle damaged ships. Service Squadron Ten made similar repairs throughout the war, and floating drydocks were critical in restoring ships to seaworthy and operative conditions. Their drydocks could easily dock an aircraft carrier or battleship. In February 1945, for example, the repair work of the squadron “varied from such big jobs as rebuilding 60 feet of flight deck on the carrier Randolph in 18 days and new bows on blasted ships, to replacing guns and electrical equipment. In that month 52 vessels were repaired in floating drydocks.” 

Becoming Truly Expeditionary

From late 1943 on, the Fleet remained at sea conducting prompt and sustained combat operations. The planning for the campaign required the Navy to consider more than just keeping the Fleet supplied with food, fuel, and ammunition. Ships needed deep maintenance that could not be deferred, Marine companies needed replacements, carriers needed replacement planes and pilots, and sailors needed to rotate back to the states—all without the Fleet returning to Pearl Harbor. How did they do it?

Service Squadron Ten had carried the theme of mobile basing beyond its original conclusions: the Squadron was the Great Western Base. The myriad of repair ships, tenders, oilers, concrete barges, tugs, and other small boats rendered extensive land bases unnecessary. The squadron simply moved with the Fleet, recalling the remnants of its rearmost bases forward. Escort carriers, usually remembered today for their heroic stand off Samar Island in October 1944 or hunting U-boats in the Atlantic, provided many of the third-order services that the Fleet needed to maintain sustained operations. 

21st Century Service Squadrons

Today’s fleet train will be woefully inadequate in wartime. Two aging submarine tenders, both at risk in Guam, a few floating drydocks, two hospital ships, and the small combat logistics force are all that is available to service a battle force of nearly 300 ships. With most maintenance done ashore in contractor facilities, sailors have lost the ability to conduct the deep maintenance and repair that their predecessors did as a matter of course. 

The Navy has started to procure new auxiliaries, but the penchant for making a ship a jack-of-all-trades has driven the Common Hull Auxiliary Multimission Platform to a price tag of more than $1.3 billion per ship. The Office of Management and Budget sent the Navy back to the drawing board. Ships take a long time to procure. The Navy would do well to buy more floating drydocks and a flight of the new National Security Multimission Vessels, a training platform for merchant marine academies, and integrate them into fleet logistics and repair operations now. With space for a thousand personnel, a helicopter pad, roll on/off capabilities, and container storage, they are flexible platforms that could provide a myriad of services. 

The aircraft carrier should form the core of a modern Service Squadron Ten to meet the CNO’s call in FRAGO 01/2019 for more agile and resilient naval logistics. Combat Logistics Forces require significant protection and must remain mobile to allow Navy and Marine Corps forces to conduct expeditionary operations in the Western Pacific. Sustaining distributed, far forward operations requires the Navy and Marine Corps to rethink how they supply , maintain , and repair forces in a true threat environment. Like the escort carriers that enabled logistics in World War II, the aircraft carrier must shift its role from generating strike aircraft to becoming the sustainment and C2 hub needed to run the war. 

The rest of the service squadron forms around the modern misfits: expeditionary staging bases (T-ESBs), staging docks (T-ESDs), expeditionary fast transports (T-EPFs), assorted supply ships, hospital ships, floating drydocks, tenders, and a host of combatants, ranging from littoral combat ships to amphibious ships to cruisers. This arrangement keeps the historical responsibilities of Service Squadron Ten alive by generating greater operational availability for combat forces and giving damaged ships an improved chance at survival. 

Change the Operational Narrative

The best innovations in warfare do not result simply from deploying new technology, but from using technology differently than the adversaries expect . The linking of technology with doctrine enables revolutionary advances in how the Navy fights. Given that China has spent two decades optimizing its national forces to counter American carrier strike groups, the U.S. Navy has the opportunity to change the character of that fight in a single stroke by leveraging its history. Service Squadron Ten provided Admiral Nimitz and his commanders with the necessary facilities, capabilities, and logistics, to keep the press on the Japanese through sustained combat operations at sea. As Admiral Carter noted in Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil

“Daring initiative has been a characteristic of American operations in both strategy and tactics. Our enemies have known the book doctrines as well as we, but they could not throw the book overboard and try something new as freely as we. Thus at times we have had the advantage of projecting moves that they did not anticipate.”

The Chief of Naval Operations should throw the book overboard today. 

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington D.C. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC and appears here in an abbreviated form. It may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.