USS Beagle: A Liberty Ship

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God was on the side of the nation that had the oil.
—Professor Wakimura of Tokyo Imperial University in Postwar Interrogation


USS Beagle: An Armadillo Class Mobile Station Tanker

The USS Beagle was an Armadillo class Mobile Station Tanker, but on the Beagle it seems nothing was called by its real name. The vessel was an "Oiler," the commander was "the Old man," the cooks were "Messboys" and my dad was "Red." As in "Red, that is just how Navigators pile ships up on the rocks!" This the new Commander who had arrived February 13th 1946 as Red remembered it. Soon after he would be promoted to navigator trainee and work side by side with the The Old Man. The USS Beagle had survived the war and in the coming months Red was going to help bring her home.

The USS Beagle's ID number was IX-112, and it was first named the David Rittenhouse in a nod to the first director of the US Mint. It was a Liberty Ship, Oil Tanker design, laid down on 27 September 1943 at Wilmington, California, made to transport gas and oil in the Pacific Theater During WWII.

An outstanding article by James Davies at shows how the oil-tight fuel tanks comprise the majority of the below deck space in a Liberty fuel tanker such as the Beagle, though on-deck cargo was added as well. Davies' article provides the most technical and comprehensible explanation of how "Oilers" worked. It ran on a big steam engine. The crew used pumps and hoses to transport oil when feasible. The ship had three big booms, but they also used planks and elbow grease, rolling drums of fuel where ever it needed to go, sometimes rolling them on planks between ships.

Red told me their primary focus was providing light fuel (gas) for combat aircraft, but ship logs show they also delivered heavy fuel (diesel) to many ships as well. They earned one battle star for their support role during the Battle of Leyte. After the War and Occupation tasks were completed, Red recounted that the USS Beagle voyage from Nagoya through the Panama Canal to Norfolk, Virginia for decommissioning. She was sold into merchant service and operated under various names until about 1970.

Liberty Ship Model at the Smithsonian Institute

Liberty ships were critical to a successful war effort. The US strategy was to build them faster than the enemy forces could sink them. 2,711 were constructed. Their expected duty life was only five years, due to their rapidly welded construction. 200 were lost to attack, and another 50 or so to weather and accident. One burned out on the slipway before launch and was never commissioned. Three cracked in half with no warning due to "brittle fracture" (see source link) where welds failed. They were slow. Only two fully restored Liberty vessels exist today, and those can be visited: the SS Jeremiah O’Brien(at Pier 45, San Francisco) and the SS John W. Brown (at Baltimore). The USS Arthur M. Huddell, renamed the Hellas Liberty, is a Liberty Ship converted to a museum in Greece. Other War survivors are thought to have all been scrapped.

The USS Beagle's ongoing supply missions in the Asiatic/Pacific Theater involved great risk due its fuel cargo, gas being particularly dangerous and yet so critical to the allied efforts. Bombs, torpedos. kamikazi pilots, and mines could change a functioning ship into a floating inferno. Then there were the Typhoons....

Ida: The Typhoon off Okinawa

Oiler struggles to maintain position during a Typhoon

While the Japanese formal surrender occurred on September 2, 1945, the USS Beagle and the other ships in the area would soon face a ferocious Typhoon Season. The Beagle and its crew were almost lost in a September 1945 Typhoon off Okinawa. This was Typhoon Ida, and she destroyed two Liberty Ships in the area. Despite warnings, Ida showed up early and took a number of vessels by surprise as they attempted to get away from the hazards of the Okinawa shoreline near Buckner Bay. An accounting of the peculiar circumstance that lead to the USS Beagle's unlikely survival was printed in Reader Digest and penned by the commanding officer.

Lt. Commander Robert Esson Rew described various troubles including hours of waves breaching the deck, some waves measuring 80 feet. Life rafts were swept over board, life boats stove in, gas and oil drums ripped loose from their lashings rolled around the deck and puncturing and leaking, a vent cowl torn off the deck allowed water to fill the rudder's engine room and saturated the steering engine's internal workings, debris solidly jammed the rudder gears. During the horrendous night, the storm pushed the USS Beagle back West straight toward to the lights on the shores of Okinawa. With a non-functioning rudder somehow a sharp turn South was executed. In his account to his parents, Lt. Commander Rew had no earthly explanation for the maneuver's success and though glad to be alive, was troubled as to how to write the official log of events.

Clip of USS Beagle log during Typhon September 1945

When the storm finally calmed down, the USS Beagle returned to Okinawa's Buckner Bay to assist in the repair efforts for the many damaged ships there. A few weeks later they were sent out from Buckner on a Typhoon Sortie to avoid the next incoming Typhoon (probably the monstrous Louise of October) The sortie was successful, though they saw great damage to the fleet when they returned to Buckner.

Asbestos Exposure Risk: All crew members were exposed to asbestos as this was routinely used in the construction of all ships of this era. Some photos of crew are seen on a webpage devoted to asbestos risk on the USS Beagle. The site states "Everyone who served on the USS Beagle (IX-112) inhaled the asbestos fibers and is at risk for developing lung disease. " [1]

Occupation Service

The National Archives Records are spotty. We are going to have to rely on Red's letter home and photos to fill in the gaps and this could get choppy. September and October 1945 were taken up dealing with Typhoons. Lots of them. November was a month long lay-up in a port in Korea. Thet steamed to China probably in December or January. Commander Rew left the vessel sometime after November 1945. There may have been an interim Commander for a few months, possibly the Exec (second in command) covered. That would have been Alvin Thorson, called "Al" and "Granny" by the crew. Could have been J.R. Ogden who was dubbed "The Little Man" by the crew.

On February 13 1946 the new Commander arrived. Red called the new commander "Skipper" and "The Old Man" and says he was lots older, commissioned in 1921 and ran a tight ship. This Ancient Mariner had been commissioned so long he was SOPA, (Senior Officer Present Afloat) at some of the places they moored: "King of the molehill", Red called it. After China, they steamed back to Korea, then through Van Dieman Strait in Japan's south where they saw smoking volcanos and first got news they might come home.

They got the order to prepare to come home while in Nagoya in March 1946. Destination port was to be Mobile, Alabama, but later was changed to Norfolk, Virginia. Officially the return trip began at Eniwatok Atoll , Marshal Islands, which had been their base for the majority of their fueling tasks. Transited the Panama Canal. Red spent a month in Norfolk helping decommission the vessel, landed in the hospital for a few days with his first kidney stone: one last trial before being returned to civilian life and college.

The Crew

The USS Beagle was manned primarily by merchant marines, but with a coordinating crew of naval officers and naval specialists. Liberty ships were designed for about 80 crew members, but the USS Beagle's muster logs show they often had more passengers on board for transit. These logs name the individual Merchant Marines, but not the Naval personnel who are tallied just by rank or specialty.

Information from the Smithsonian says that Merchant Marines had the highest mortality rates of all branches of the services. It was dangerous work even in peacetime and during WWII, this branch had the lowest criteria for enlistment. Any merchant marine, any age, could enlist, since the special skills of moving goods and keeping ships running were so critical.

  • Lt. Robert E. Rew, Jr., USNR, in command through November 1945.
  • The Other Commander arrived the 13th of February 1946. Name unknown. Can anyone help with this? He was commissioned in 1921. He ran a tight ship. ( Called "The Old Man" by crew)
Lt. J.R. Ogden
  • Lt. James R. Ogden, Executive Officer (2nd in command) Might be the same James Robinson Ogden who wrote a Navy Memoir.
Lt. Alvin Thorson
  • Lt. Alvin Thorson, Executive (2nd in command)
  • Wright Atkins Baily , Plank owner MMC
Navy Portrait of Robert T. Adams
Garret Dawson "Sonny" Look , Ship's Cook
  • Garret Dawson "Sonny" Look, Ship's Cook
  • Hammond: Cook
  • San Nicholas: Cook
  • Buchanan: Cook
  • Pastor: Cook
USS Beagle's Messboys: Hammond, San Nicholas, Buchanan, and Pastor.

left to right

  • H.M Grubbs
  • Howard Lee Eisenhour S2

*Many more crew ran this ship. Can anyone add some of them?

Additional Photos of crew or ship

Garret Dawson "Sonny" Look and RedUnnamed Crew Member
OD's messenger, Red, and Passing Coxswain Red with Flare Gun From Lifeboat
Red Peers Through EquipmentRed at Controls


  • A detailed description of events aboard USS Beagle condensed from letters to his parents, by Robert Esson Rew, Jr., “Typhoon Off Okinawa,” Reader's Digest 48(285) (January 1946): 67–72. While there is no free online access to this, if your library has a subscription to Reader Digest one might view it there.

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