The TAGS Ship Mission

Excerpts from: Hydro to Navoceano, by Charles C. Bates.
Copyright © 2005 by Charles C. Bates. Used by permission.

Global Surveys par Excellence (1959 - 1969)

"Whenever you work with surveys it always feels like exploration."
Commentary by Captain Michael Barritt RN upon retiring as Hydrographer of the Royal Navy during March 1, 2003.

More Ballistic Missile Support

By using the "Key West Agreement of 1947," during 1949 Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson ruled that the Navy should not become involved in ballistic missiles. Instead, the Air Force would specialize in intercontinental missiles (ICBMs), the Army in intermediate range missiles (IRBMs), and the Navy could observe. In September, 1955, a new SecDef, "Engine Charlie" Wilson formerly of General Motors, realized that placing all of his launch sites at well-known locations on land invited a surprise attack like that at Pearl Harbor. So he ordered the Army to modify its liquid-fueled JUPITER for launching from a Navy vessel on the high seas. With this assignment came funding. Immediately the Bureau of Aeronautics claimed this new version of JUPITER would be an "air vehicle" under its domain. On the other hand, the Bureau of Ordnance argued it was merely an "extra long-range explosive shell" launched from a battleship aft of the rear 16-inch gun turret.

Instead of resolving the squabble, SecNav Charles Thomas created during November 17, 1955, a Special Projects Office (SPO) under a former aircraft carrier skipper, RADM William F. "Red" Raborn (USNA 1928). Although the latter reported directly to ADM Arleigh Burke, the new Chief of Naval Operations, and to SecNav Thomas, "Red's" next 13 months were spent escaping from Dr. Werner von Braun's belief that a liquid fueled rocket could be safely launched from the fantail of a rolling ship. Fortunately, a ONR-sponsored National Academy of Sciences summer study at Woods Hole during 1956 generated a design for a shipboard IRBM weighing one fifth of the von Braun design by utilizing one of Charles Stark Draper's light weight self-inertial guidance system, a new fusion warhead invented by Dr. Edward Teller, and solid propellants concocted by the Atlantic Research Corporation under a ONR contract. Moreover, RADM Hyman Rickover, the curmudgeon of nuclear submarine design, agreed with Raborn that this new missile, soon to be called the POLARIS, could be launched from a submerged submarine.

At that point in our nation's history, it was postulated that the Soviets might well have 300 submarines capable of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles against the United States as early as 1958. In order to exchange tit-for-tat, during December 8, 1956, the Special Projects Office was authorized to achieve an interim POLARIS counterstrike capability by early 1963 via unlimited funding. To do so, Raborn's top assistants, CAPT Levering Smith, the smartest missileer in naval uniform, implemented a "Program Evaluation and Review Technique" (PERT) capable of keeping track of in near real time the work of what ultimately became 2,000 contractors. Internally, Raborn and Smith utilized five technical branches: Launcher; Missile-Fire Control-Guidance; Ship Installation; Navigation, and Operations-Test to control the concurrent development of missile, guidance, positioning, fire control, and launch sub systems.

Everyone and everything worked so smoothly that the submerged USS George Washington (SSN-598) fired the first POLARIS missile under operating conditions off Cape Canaveral, FL during July 20, 1960, or some 30 months earlier than had been projected back in late 1956, i.e., in less time than the U.S. Army utilized to develop the M-14 rifle. Moreover, the POLARIS concept was so expandable that between 1960 and 1964, the evolving POLARIS A-1 through A-3 models increased their firing range from 1,200 to 2,500 nautical miles. Then in 1972 came POSEIDON that, although it had no change in range, could deliver multiple warheads with increased accuracy. Finally during 1979 came TRIDENT I with a 4.000 nautical mile range, followed by TRIDENT H in 1990 with a range somewhat better than that.1,2

But despite all of this advanced technology, both the submarine and its outgoing missile must know their geospatial positions precisely if it is to be an accurate launch. Consequently, during the same month that Raborn's office was initiated, that office acquired the 18.000 ton Garden Mariner and converted her into the USS Compass Island (EAG 163) for evaluating the accuracy of various navigational systems and also of those being installed aboard the "boomers" when they came on line during the 1960s.

The first system capable of providing adequate navigational support proved to be LORAN-C, an Air Force derivative of LORAN-A but operating in the 90-110 KHz band. Upon being field tested by HYDRO during early 1959, the technique offered positional accuracies of 50 to 300 feet, i.e., a ship's length. 99 percent of the time out to 500 miles from the transmitters. After some urging by RADM Rickover, by the end of the year the U.S. Coast Guard had a LORAN- C chain up and running in the Mediterranean area. Then in March, 1960. came a Norwegian Sea LORAN-C chain well before a Polaris missile had been launched in a quasi-operational mode.

Meanwhile, great progress had been made in developing a precise but passive navigational system independent of surface read-outs. Once again advantage was taken of a defunct Air Force program. Back in the early 1950s. the aforementioned Professor Draper had developed an inertial navigation system for the Navajo missile. As its inventor noted, this device "... does for geometry - angles, distance and speed - what a watch does for time." Although the unit consisted of a complex mix of precision accelerometers and sensitive gyroscopes. its amazing end-product continually and instantly determined the host vehicle's position, heading, velocity and attitude with respect to the earth's rotation. But there was a limitation. Because the device was designed for a cruise missile, its reliability was of the order of three hours. So in early 1957 the SPO placed Draper under contract to rework the concept into a system reliable for several months.

By early 1958 the Compass Island had successfully tested a Ship's Inertial Navigational System (SINS) known as the North American Autonetics N6A autonavigator. Moreover, this highly classified device was seaworthy enough to merit installation aboard the Nautilus and Skate as a means of facilitating their under-ice cruises that just happened to reach the North Pole within nine days of each other, namely August 3 and 12, 1958. Although the SINS was now recognized as a revolutionary device for submerged navigation, gradual internal wear and incoherencies caused it to experience a slow but unpredictable drift away from true positional values.

To overcome this issue, CDR James A. Dare, skipper of the Compass Island, re-explored the concept of bathymetric navigation keyed to modern displays of seafloor topography supplemented by local readings of gravity and geomagnetism. In due course the Department of Defense's Appropriations Act for 1958 called for the conversion of three 16-knot ships into survey vessels to support the POLARIS program. As a consequence, the 13,050 ton vessels South Bend Victory, Tuskegee Victory, and Joliet Victory were withdrawn from the Fleet Reserve during August, 1957, and upgraded into the USNS Bowditch-II (T¬AGS 21), USNS Dutton (T-AGS 22), and the USNS Michelson (T-AGS 23).

Once that was done, these ships, now called "The Triplets" by their operator, the Military Sea Transportation Service, were assigned to the technical control of the Hydrographer of the Navy. Moreover, at this very point in time the Chief of Naval Research had released on New Year's Day, 1958, a much touted report, The Ten Year Program in Oceanography. As a follow-on, RADM Henry C. Daniel announced that HYDRO, too, had initiated a new "Oceanographic Survey Program" (OSP) to enhance man's knowledge of the deep sea.

Because the Triplets spent nearly 11 months of the year underway, HYDRO's Division of Marine Surveys gradually hired nearly a hundred new shipriders with skills primarily in geophysics, geology or civil engineering although foresters, mathematicians, geographers and marine biologists were included. As very few of these individuals had ever performed classified surveys at sea, they were first exposed to a two months course describing how to work and behave aboard a naval vessel. To this end, Joseph Cheeseman and Joseph Polio taught how to convert raw sonic data into smoothed field sheets while George Weston and Robert Seaton taught the "care and feeding" of the Varian V4901 proton precession magnetometer that trailed about 1,200 feet astern of each vessel. In addition, Sebastian Odend'hal offered the same type of instruction for operating the Lacoste & Romberg S-1, S-2, and S-3 type shipboard gravimeters. A.L. Riggs's lecture was the most popular, however. It related how recruits, even though they had been hired as lowly GS-5's, in six months could be GS-7's, a year later GS-9's, and full-scale GS-11 professionals a year after that.

Another lecture by Riggs was also carefully listened to for it dealt with a very touchy issue for their military managers, overtime pay for deployed civilians. As Robert Higgs, an early OSP geomagnetician, recalls:3

"The idea was to have six bathymetrists, three geomagneticians and three gravity specialists plus a senior scientist assigned to each ship to stand a 24-hour watch on the equipment and to process the data obtained. After about four months, i.e., three consecutive 35-day ship deployments interspersed with five- day periods of shoreside refueling and replenishment, this 13-person "Oceanographic Unit" would be relieved by a new team of the same size. Then for the next four months while ashore this initial unit would smooth up the field plots, produce the final charts, take some time off, and prepare for their next deployment. In order to provide continuity aboard ship we alternated the return so that there still would be at least one person on the ship who had made the previous deployment. Although there were three eight-hour watches, each man on watch usually worked at least twelve hours per day to complete the shipboard processing prior to entering port. Once in port, because of the SECRET classification of the data, everything had to be bundled up and shipped off immediately. However, only the "Gravity Guys" were permitted to work in port and get some compensation for it because the gravimeter readouts were meaningless until dockside calibration from readings of an accompanying Worden meter after it, too, had been re-read at the closest local gravitational benchmark. As for the geomagneticians we worked in port many times in order to get the equipment ready for the next deployment. Our tow cables and sensors always needed attention, but we were never permitted to get overtime pay for it".

With respect to the gravimeter, the original concept was to have it placed upon a "stable table" about 12 foot square near the ship's center of gravity. But no matter how hard everyone tried, the concept would not work. Higgs reports:

Oh the Gravity Guys, the Gravity Guys,
Those raggedy, shaggedy, Gravity Guys,
Wander about and rave and shout
And pour the saddest stories out
...About their "stable" table!
They jump up and down and stammer and scream
And say that it's all a very bad dream!
They've pounded and hammered
And jimmied and jammered
And leveled and beveled
And become all disheveled!
They add a weight here, and add a weight there,
Cuss a bit, fuss a bit... getting nowhere!
But they go on and on and even tell lies,
Knowing darn well they can't stabilize
...That sorrowful "stable" table!
Oh the Gravity Guys, the Gravity Guys.
Those poor disillusioned Gravity Guys,
Won't they ever realize,
No matter how long or hard their tries,
They'll NEVER be able to stabilize
...That stupid old "stable" table?

So in lieu thereof during the early 1960's, the LaCoste-Romberg gravity meters were switched to ''HYDRO Plot" where they hung in small cages equipped with accelerometers whose data were utilized in making adjustments for the ship's motion.

But long before the "Hydro pukes" could worry about the niceties of overtime duty, they were adjusting to the OSP's atypical seafaring practices. Instead of a ship's complement being an adhesive group operating as “One for All, All for One!”, it consisted of four disparate components. Group ONE that lived in the conventional central cabin area of the ship were grizzled mariners under contract to the Military Sealift Command to operate the vessel and provide food to all hands. Group TWO consisted of several technicians from Sperry Gyroscope whose only function was to keep the six-foot in diameter SINS running accurately. As a numbered "Oceanographic Unit" (OCU) led by a lieutenant commander who was also the "Senior Naval Representative (SNR) aboard, Group THREE lived in #2 and #3 cargo holds and consisted of some 30 military personnel including quartermasters, electronic technicians, intelligence specialists, a photographer and a medic. In theory, the specially trained electronikers would pass on to their reliefs the know-how required to maintain the unique survey sensors on board, i.e., the LORAN-C, magnetometer, gravimeter and precision depth recorder. However, these technicians knew within their naval career they would never again operate such gear. Consequently, to make certain that the sensors were acquiring valid data, the geophysicists usually ended up maintaining their own equipment.

In 1964 came an exception. After being drydocked, the Bowditch and Dutton received a classified Sonar Array Sounding System (SASS) utilizing fan beam technology. As invented and manufactured by the General Instrument Corporation's Harris ASW Systems, Inc., the device utilized two hull-mounted sonar arrays oriented at right angles to each other — one for transmitting and one for receiving — in a Mills Cross format. After adding roll and pitch compensation and proper time delays, the end product became 60° 1 stabilized acoustic beams providing a 90° swath of the sea floor with each swipe of the sonar as the vessel moved forward at 16 knot cruising speed. For the first time, man could not only trace the sinuous courses of deep-sea canyons but also their natural levees, lava flows, fault scarps, and turbidite-generated deep sea fans.4

While NAVOCEANO's civilians who comprised Group Four of the OSP were becoming some of the world's best bathymetrists, other members of its Survey Division were traveling the globe submerged. During early 1960, for example, gravimetrician Michael Smalet, bathymetrist Gordon Wilkes, and oceanographer Nicholas Mabry were ordered to New London, CT, to participate in an upcoming cruise by the huge 7,900 ton USS Triton (SSRN-586). Only after reporting on board did they learn that they were about to sail with the noted CAPT Ned Beach on a record-setting submerged circumnavigation of the earth, i.e., Brazil's St. Paul's Rocks and return between February 24 - April 10, 1960. But even as the Triton cruise participants were celebrating this feat, other HYDRO gravimetricians were readying their instruments and seagoing gear for Project Seascan which would depart New London, CT on May 18, 1960.

This, too, was a globe-circling project but one utilizing a World War II "smoke-boat," the USS Archerfish (SS-311), famed for having sunk the largest warship in the world, the 72,000 ton Japanese carrier, Shinano, with a spread of six torpedoes during November 29, 1944. For publicity purposes and in the spirit of the times, Seascan would be an open scientific study of ocean depths, seawater temperature profiles, wave heights, and water chemistry. In practice, the basic purpose was measurement of the earth's gravity every 30 miles along the ship's path by submerging if necessary to a depth of as much as 150 feet as had been practiced in HYDRO's earlier submarine gravity cruises of 1928 - 1937. This time, however, the submarine's 61-man crew was selected via a ComSubLant notice requesting volunteers — single men only — for a two-year cruise around the World.

Once it became known that the ARCHERFISH operated in a relaxed mode, the waiting list to join SEASCAN grew to over 300 names. Initially, it was their innate skills that allowed refurbishing of the decrepit ARCHERFISH on schedule. To do so, however, required so much "midnight requisitioning" at the Philadelphia Navy Yard that by May, 1960 the ship's complement was short listed as being "Kenny Woods and his Sixty Thieves." Then over time, that epithet was replaced by the label, "Playboys of the Pacific," for highlighting their new style of behavior ashore. Even so, by the time that label further switched into being "Scotty McComb's Traveling Animal Act," RADM J. H. Maurer still gave their boat a COMSUBPAC commendation during May 24, 1967, "For exceptionally meritorious service as a member of the Submarine Force during the period May 10, 1960, to February 7, 1967..." (Table 23).

Table 23

Geographic Scope of Project Seascan (1960-1968)


Sequential Ports of Call



(Phase I)

Portsmouth, England; Hammerfest, and Bergen, Norway; Faslane, Scotland; Julianehab, Thule and Godthaab, Greenland; Port Churchill, Manitoba; Belfast. Ireland.

Crossed Arctic Circle 16 times.


(Phase II)

Curacao and Bonaire, Dutch West Indies; Canal Zone; San Diego, CA; Pearl Harbor, HI: Yokusuka and Hakodate, Japan; Hong Kong; Subic Bay, P.I.; Bangkok, Thailand. Penang, Malaya; Colombo, Ceylon; Fremantle, Australia; Yokosuka, Japan.

Recorded depth of 28,374 feet north of Puerto Rico.


(Phase III)

Sasebo, Japan; Guam, M.I.; Cebu City, P.I.; Pago Pago, Samoa;

Pearl Harbor, HI; San Francisco and San Diego, CA; Pearl


To within 50 miles of Soviet coastline.


Yokosuka, Japan; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Vancouver, B.C.;

Yokosuka, Japan; Midway I.; Pearl Harbor; Newcastle and

Sydney, Australia.

Ship visited by 44,000 Australians.


Guam, M.I.; Pearl Harbor; San Francisco. CA: Vancouver,

B.C.; Seattle and Olympia, WA; Pearl Harbor; Suva, Fiji I;

Auckland and Wellington, NZ; Yokosuka, Japan; Guam, M.I.



(Phase IV July, 1967)

Multiple but routine ports such as Subic Bay, P.I.: Hong Kong:

Guam and Pearl Harbor for Phase III. In Phase IV, Bremerton

and Bangor, WA; Acapulco and Mazatlan, Mexico.

Performed 5,000th dive on 2/1/66. COMSUBPAC commendation on 5/24/67.


Decommissioned at San Diego, CA, on 5/1/68. Intentionally torpedoed in 2,000 fathoms during 10/17/68.


From the Hydrographer of the Navy's point of view, did the Archer fish accomplish her assigned mission? Considering that she was worn out prior to starting on this new venture, it may be concluded she performed well during the nine year assignment. Within this period which included making some 3,000 dives for gravity readings, her overall manning utilized 42 officers, 394 enlisted men and 48 civilian "Hydros." Although the latter received overtime pay, it was hard earned for the tiny "Hydro Hole" could only be accessed by dropping downwards through a narrow hatch cut into the deck of the signal shack.

"Gravity Bob" Bowles, a University of New Hampshire geologist, adds:5 "With the poor quality of navigation we had in most areas of the Pacific. the ARCHERFISH could only survey to an accuracy of 3 to 7 milliGals at best, while in calm seas with excellent navigation 1 to 3 milliGals was achievable routinely. This was especially true when the L&R meters were converted from gimbal to gyro controlled platform systems beginning in 1966. However, the ARCHERFISH only saw the gimbal version that required excellent and devoted operators to keep it calibrated properly. Moreover, once the sea state exceeded 3.5 on the Beaufort scale, the sub had to dive every 30 miles in order to get a good reading.

But even as the Archerfish was fulfilling the long-standing Air Force requirement for global measurements of marine gravity, HYDRO had assembled a ship duo, the 2,747 ton USNS Shoup (T-AG 175) and the USS Harris County (LST 822), to transport members of the Air Force's 158r Geodetic Survey Squadron and its own gravimetricians as they measured gravity near New Guinea and then throughout Micronesia. Because this field effort ran from 1963 until 1967, the on-island USAF geodetic teams were able to utilize the Navy's new TRANSIT navigational satellite for reducing errors in island location from four miles down to a hundred feet.

By then, in a strange quirk of fate, HYDRO's hydrographic survey ship. the Navy-manned Tanner, had merited receipt of a commendation letter from CincLant's ADM Robert Dennison which read in part:

"For meritorious achievement in the performance of duty during the period Jul) 28. 1962 to November 22, 1962 while Tanner was assigned and conducted a mission of utmost importance to the United States.

In this instance, the Tanner had suddenly been sent to the Barents Sea off Norway to observe a series of atmospheric detonations of Soviet nuclear devices above Novaya Zemlya. Among these were shots of 21, 19, and 10-plus megaton yields during August 5, September 25, and September 27, 1962, respectively. Besides contending with radioactive debris, the ship was buzzed so frequently at very low altitude by Beriev Be-6 seaplanes that Secretary of State Dean Rusk complained formally to the Soviet Foreign Office about this dangerous practice.

More books and technical papers about the Ocean Survey Program:

Ocean Survey Program (OSP) Bathymetry History: Jousting with Tectonic windmills.
Smoot, N. Christian
Himalayan Geology; Vol. 22 (1); 2001; 65-80

Chris Smoot provides a brief history of the Naval Oceanographic Office (originally, Naval Hydrographic Office) and of the Ocean Survey Program (OSP). Dr. Smoot's interest is in the use of multibeam sonar data, developed by OSP for the Fleet Ballistic Missle program, to examine the scientific basis for the theory of Plate Techtonics as applied to the ocean basins.

This is a fine example of how the data which we generated has been used in important civilian scientific applications.

The paper is used by permission of the author, N. Christian Smoot.

From Polaris to Trident: The Development of US Fleet Ballistic Missile Technology
(Cambridge Studies in International Relations)
Graham Spinardi
Cambridge University Press

The Shaping of Nuclear Weapon System Technology-- US Fleet Ballistic Missile Guidance and Navigation. I-- From Polaris to Poseidon
Donald MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi
Social Studies of Science
Vol. 18, 1988, 419-463

In Special Missions of Military Sea Transportation Service and Military Sealift Command, Salvatore R. Mercogliano writes:

On January 1, 1959, Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke endorsed a long-range program of oceanographic research, known as the Ten-year Ocean Study (TENOC). The impetus for the study, while having scientific merit also masked a definite military objective. The advent of nuclear powered submarines sparked a revolution in naval warfare. No longer would submarines have to surface to recharge batteries and replenish their air supply.

These attributes required a more extensive knowledge of what lay below the oceans surface, such as sub-surface currents and rivers, thermoclines, salinity gradients, gravimetric fluctuations, and the basic contours of the ocean floor, beyond the normal 30-fathom line. In 1959, the USS George Washington, the first nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine entered the fleet. Based at Holy Loch, Scotland, the Navy required accurate charts for that area and the operation of follow-on boats.

In response to this, MSTS converted three Victory-class freighters into the first civilian-manned Hydrographic Survey Ships. Affectionately known as "The Triplets," the USNS Dutton, Bowditch, and Michelson entered service in late 1958, and immediately embarked on a 34-month survey mission to chart the deep-water environs around Europe. Today MSC operates a force of 8 ships designed to incorporate the missions of the "Triplets" and ships like the Chain into a few multi-purpose platforms.

Department of the Navy Strategic Systems Program Office; Program Manager; January-February, 1994; 32-34.


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