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Patricia W. & J. Douglas Perry Library
USS Vulcan (AR-5) Collection
The USS Vulcan (AR-5), a 50-year veteran of naval service, easily ranks as one of the U.S. Navy's most historic repair vessels. The USS Vulcan Collection was established to preserve the long record of repair support logged by the men and women who have served aboard the Atlantic Fleet's oldest active ship (second in the entire Navy) over the years. In addition, the collection also includes some material pertaining to the first and second Vulcans. The Vulcan was based in Norfolk from 1954 until her decommissioning in 1991.
The First Vulcan
The first Vulcan was commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on May 31, 1898. Her commanding officer was Commander Ira Harris. Originally named Chatham, the fourteen year-old steamship was purchased by the Navy Department from the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, a Baltimore firm, on May 2, 1898. Envisioned as a floating, mobile workshop and storeship, the repair vessel was needed to support the American fleet then operating off the southeastern coast of Cuba. Renamed Vulcan, conversion work began at a rapid pace, with completion ending about four weeks later. As recognized by the Naval Historical Center, Vulcan was now, "the fleet's first repair ship."
After a brief stop in Newport News, Virginia, Vulcan arrived in the waters off Santiago de Cuba on July 1, 1898. Following the decisive American victory on July 3, Vulcan was given the task to repair and salvage two captured, badly damaged Spanish vessels, the Maria Teresa and the Cristobal Colon. While towing the Maria Teresa to the United States, a gale forced the Vulcan to cut the Spanish vessel loose and abandon it near Cat Island in the Bahamas. Over the next few months, Vulcan made repairs to over fifty ships and brought badly needed stores to a like number while attached to the American fleet in Cuba.
As hostilities subsided, Vulcan was recalled to the United States, where she underwent a refitting period at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Her services no longer required, Vulcan was decommissioned in January 1899. Her impressive performance prompted the Chief, Bureau of Steam Engineering to recommend the procurement of a similar repair ship for the Pacific fleet.
Click here for a photograph of the First Vulcan (Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center)
The Second Vulcan
The second Vulcan (Collier No. 5), a coal ship, was commissioned at the Norfolk Navy Yard on October 2, 1909. Her initial crew was from another collier, the Lebanon, which was decommissioned at the yard on the same day. Vulcan's first commanding officer was Captain Jere Merrithew, USN. Prior to the First World War, Vulcan operated out of Norfolk and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, delivering coal and stores to the fleet along the East Coast and various Caribbean islands.
During World War I, Vulcan was assigned to the Fleet Train which was made up of service vessels providing coal and supplies to the Allied naval forces. In January 1919, Vulcan was next assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service for six months of duty. Placed out of commission in July 1921, Vulcan was sold to N. Block and Company of Norfolk, a scrap metal firm, in December 1923.
The Third Vulcan
USS Vulcan (AR-5) is the third U.S. Navy vessel to bear the name of the Roman god of fire, metalworking, and craftsmanship. Vulcan was launched on December 14, 1940 just about a year after keel was laid down in mid-December 1939 by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey. Mrs. James Forrestal, wife of the Undersecretary of the Navy, was the ship's sponsor.
Six months later, on June 16, 1941 USS Vulcan was commissioned with Lieutenant Commander P. G. Hale, USN, listed as the ship's first commanding officer. Captain R. W. Mathewson, the guest speaker for the commissioning ceremony designated the new repair ship and her crew to be the "craftsman, forger, and healer of wounded floating warriors of the Navy."
Battle of the Atlantic
After her shakedown cruise, Vulcan served as repair ship in Hvalfjordur, Iceland, arriving there in September 1941. At this time, British and American destroyers were screening merchant convoys, representing a vital sea link between North America and war-ravaged Europe. Weeks before Pearl Harbor and our entry into World War II, American destroyers were attacked by German U-boats while on patrol. On October 17, USS Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed, suffering thirty-three casualties. Returning to the American anchorage under her own power, Kearny was positioned alongside Vulcan for repairs. Two weeks later, on October 31, USS Reuben James (DD-245) was sunk by a Nazi marauder. Eventually, some of the wounded from both of the destroyers were cared for in Vulcan's sickbay.
By Christmas 1941, Kearny was ready to return to the United States for further work. In recognition of the fine job performed by Vulcan's crew, Admiral E. J. King sent a letter saying, "the successful accomplishment of this feat of repairs merits the sincere appreciation of all, and is an inspiration to those in the Naval service ashore who are building and repairing units of the fleet."
Vulcan remained in Iceland until April 1942. She left on the 26th and one of her escorts was Kearny. Arriving in Boston on May 2, Kearny blinked a grateful message to Vulcan: "Thanks for all you did." Vulcan's brief drydock period was interrupted in late May. The destroyer-tender USS Prairie (AD-15), then berthed in Argentia, Newfoundland, had suffered extensive damage when a fire from an alongside ship spread to the tender. As a result, Vulcan was called upon to relieve Prairie. Vulcan served as repair ship in Argentia until November 14. Commissioned in August 1940, Prairie is today based in San Diego and is the only active ship in the Navy older than Vulcan.
In mid-November, Vulcan returned to Hvaljordur and relieved USS Melville (AD-2), from her repair assignment. On April 6, 1943 Vulcan left Iceland for Hampton Roads, but set a course via Londonderry, Northern Ireland, because of the German submarine danger.
North African Duty
Following an outfitting period in Norfolk, Vulcan arrived in French Algeria on June 27, 1943. First based in the capital city of Algiers, Vulcan supported the Sicilian invasion as head of Task Force 87 Train, a collection of twelve auxiliary vessels. On August 4, a Vulcan rescue and assistance team came to the aid of HMS Arrow, a British ammunition ship that had caught fire in the harbor. Three Vulcan sailors received Navy and Marine Corps Medals for their heroic efforts. During one German air raid on the port, Vulcan gunners were credited with downing a Junker-88 divebomber.
In October 1943, Vulcan sailed west for Oran and berthed in nearby Mers-el-Kebir, the principal French naval facility. While there, Vulcan supported the Sardinian,, Corsican, Anzio, and southern France invasions. As Admiral H. D. Hewitt's flagship (Commander, North African Waters), Vulcan hosted Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Clark.
Transfer to the Pacific
Vulcan left Algeria in November 1944. After repairs and outfitting, Vulcan departed Norfolk in mid-January of 1945. Arriving off Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on February 9, Vulcan later shifted to the Florida Island and Tulagi Island area (fifteen miles north of Guadalcanal) for repair duty. After a brief stay in Noumea, New Caledonia, Vulcan transferred to Ulithi Atoll, Service Squadron TEN's famous "Overhaul Center of the Pacific." While at Ulithi, Vulcan workers were dispatched to anchored ships in need of maintenance and received USS Biloxi (CL-80) and USS Hinsdale (APA-120) alongside to repair damage suffered from kamikaze attacks.
In May 1945, Vulcan moved to Leyte Gulf, Philippines, where she received USS Randolph (CV-15), USS New Mexico (BB-40), USS Block Island II (CVE-106), and USS Rocky Mount (AGC-3) for alongside repairs.
Following Japan's-surrender, Vulcan steamed to Buckner Bay, Okinawa. She not only offered her wide array of repair services, but also on 28 September, led seventeen merchant ships from the harbor to avoid damage from an approaching typhoon.
Vulcan served on occupation duty in Japan from October 1945 until March 1946. After spending a few days in Pearl Harbor, Vulcan transited the Panama Canal and returned to the United States.
The Post-War Years
Newport, Rhode Island served as Vulcan's homeport for about eight years until the tender was transferred to Norfolk in February 1954. While in Newport, Vulcan's crew was actively involved with the civilian community and the ship's athletic teams were always among the city's best.
In late 1962, Vulcan participated in the Cuban Quarantine operation by providing repair services to the ships manning the naval blockade (November 3-29).
In October 1963, on her way home following the completion of a training cruise, Vulcan rescued a 41-ft. yawl named " Northern Light, " carrying three crewmen. Standing by the stricken craft through the night, Vulcan towed the yawl to Little Creek the next morning.
Vulcan again performed rescue duties in March 1964 when she came to the aid of USS Antares (AKS-33) and helped extinguish an uncontrolled fire that was raging in the supply ship's No. 3 hold. In late 1964, Vulcan participated in NATO exercise " Teamwork " and then proceeded to take part in " Steel Spike I, " the largest amphibious exercise since the end of World War II.
In May 1965, Vulcan served as flagship for a mobile logistic support group and provided repair support to units of the fleet engaged in the Dominican Republic intervention. President Johnson eventually ordered 30,000 U.S. troops to maintain order in the Caribbean nation.
Among the many ships serviced in 1967 was USS Liberty (AGTR-5), which was later accidentally attacked by Israeli planes and gunboats during the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although Vulcan remained in Norfolk during the Vietnam years, she repaired many vessels that were transferred for duty with the Pacific Fleet.
In late 1975, Vulcan paid a working visit to Cartagena, Colombia, where she tended three ex-U.S. Navy destroyers of that nation's navy. Not only did Vulcan repair the vessels, but her crew also provided valuable training to their Colombian counterparts.
A comprehensive overhaul lasting nine months was completed in 1976. Gone were the ship's four five-inch guns. In 1977, while returning from underway training, Vulcan was called upon to assist a Portuguese destroyer named Coutinho. Alongside, Vulcan provided emergency boiler feedwater to the Coutinho.
By a matter of hours, Vulcan became the first non-hospital ship in the Navy to receive women officers on November 1, 1978. The first contingents of enlisted women arrived in December 1978 and January 1979. Vulcan's first point-to-point cruise with women took place in February 1979, with a trip to Earle, New Jersey. In September 1979, Vulcan left Norfolk for the Navy's first Mediterranean cruise with a mixed crew. A pioneer in the Women in Navy Ships (WINS) program, female sailors now make up one-seventh of the crew.
In September 1980, Vulcan deployed to the North Atlantic to participate in NATO exercise " Teamwork 80 " which included ships from the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and West Germany. Vulcan completed an extensive overhaul of thirteen months in mid-February 1983. Captain J. E. McConville, the ship's thirty-fourth commanding officer, guided Vulcan to a successful completion of the difficult overhaul and subsequent refresher training. In May 1983, while en route to Florida from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Vulcan assisted a Haitian refugee boat, the " Rose Carida, " adrift without power for three days.
Port visits to St. John's New Brunswick and Earle, N.J., were made in the first half of 1984. On October 1, Vulcan left for Diego Garcia, where she is scheduled to relieve USS Yosemite, another World War II-era vessel. Vulcan resumed her Norfolk duties in mid-1985. She was decommissioned in 1991.
Scope and Contents
The papers are divided into nine series:
Series I: Previous USS Vulcans
The bulk of the collection consists of material gathered by Michael A. Southwood, while a crewmember of USS Vulcan, 1982-1983. In October 1982, at the request of Commander Donald J. Farber (executive officer), and Captain J. E. McConville (commanding officer), Petty Officer Southwood began writing a history of USS Vulcan, one of only a few World War II-era vessels still in commission at this time. A completed manuscript was given to Captain McConville in early 1984, and a copy may be found in Series II, Folder 28 (Box 2). Prior to his transfer in mid-1984, Captain McConville suggested the establishment of a USS Vulcan archival collection, with the purpose of preserving and making accessible, the historical record of one of the Navy's most noted ships. Captain McConville felt that nearby Old Dominion University would be appropriate for a site since Norfolk has served as Vulcan's homeport for over three decades. Even with the Vulcan out to sea, Captain McConville recognized that men and women who had traveled many miles to see their old ship would not be disappointed, because the collection would only be a brief drive from the Naval Base.
Donated by Michael Southwood, December 10, 1984
Open to researchers without restrictions. Questions on literary property rights should be directed to the Special Collections Librarian.
Five hollinger document cases
MG - 57
Series I: Previous USS Vulcans
Folder 1 USS Vulcan I, 1898-1899
Series II: Historical material
Folder 3 Annual Command History: 1941-1949
Folder 1 Establishment of Ship's Historian, September 1983
Series III: Crewmember Recollections and Memorabilia
Folder 6 Robert Kenneth Amstutz (1942-1944)
Series IV: Shipboard Publications
Folder 1 "Welcome Aboard " Pamphlets
Series V: Shipboard Offices
Folder 13 Chaplain's Office: 1940s material
Series VI: Newspaper Clippings
Folder 1 Virginian-Pilot/Ledger-Star Index
Series VII: Athletics and Recreation
Folder 1 Boxing: Rusty Fickling
Series VIII Photographs
Folder 9 Official Ship's Photographs
Series IX: Miscellaneous
Folder 19 Command Ombudsman