Amphibious Warfare: First World War

1916 - First dedicated troop transport in U.S. Navy, USS Henderson (AP 1), launched

Until 1916, the Navy moved Marine Corps units using ships such as Prairie and Hancock, two converted commercial vessels that saw action during the U.S. intervention in Vera Cruz. These ships were marginally capable of meeting the demands of individual contingencies, but the sea services nevertheless saw the need for transports specifically designed to carry Marines and their equipment.

The General Board, an advisory body for the Secretary of the Navy, included two transports for the Marine Corps' Advanced Base Force (ABF) in its long-range naval building program proposal of 1908. However, Congress did not appropriate funds for any transports until 1912 (fiscal year 1914). That year, legislators approved the construction of one of two transports the Navy had requested, which allowed the General Board to finally submit its design requirements to the Secretary. Later, the ship was named Henderson (after the fifth Marine Corps Commandant, Colonel Archibald Henderson) and designated Transport Number 1 (AP 1).

Henderson's design was shaped by the demands of the base-defense mission. Initially, the ship required sufficient internal volume to embark and support approximately 1,300 Marines, as well as their supplies, ammunition, and equipment. This equipment included eight artillery pieces and 32 horses that would transport the batteries once they were ashore. In addition, Henderson's crew would be able to provide limited surface fire support with their six 5-inch guns and then dismount them to the beach for use by the Marines. The ship would also carry mines for Marine shore defenses and two 50-foot picket boats to lay these mines and defend the forward base against small-boat attack.

Henderson's other characteristics would reflect Navy and Marine Corps assumptions concerning the ship's employment and the threats she would encounter. To get men and material ashore quickly in the absence of defending forces, Henderson's design featured a shallower draft than that found on other naval auxiliaries, which would allow her to anchor closer to a landing beach. For ship-to-shore movement, the ship could launch embarked small craft that included 11 assorted boats and barges and two to four unpowered lighters, the latter to carry guns, supplies and horses ashore.

Expecting the most serious attacks on the ship to occur during transit to a landing site, Navy designers wanted the transport to have torpedo bulkheads, a double bottom, and a watertight deck for survivability purposes. Driven by steam power generated by either oil or coal, Henderson's maximum speed of 14 knots would allow her to deploy and be protected with the rest of the fleet train.

Comparison of Henderson's characteristics
with those of a World War II attack transport and the modern, forthcoming LPD 17.

 

USS Henderson 
(AP 1)

USS Arthur Middleton
(APA-25) 
WW II Attack Transport

USS San Antonio
(LPD 17) 2003

Displacement 
(full load)

11,277 tons

16,480 tons 24,900 tons
Length

483' 10"

489' 684'
Beam 60'10" 69' 9" 105'
Draft 22' 0" 27' 4" 23'
Power Plant Reciprocating Engine 
Single shaft 4,400 hp
Steam turbine
Single shaft
8,500 hp
4 Turbo-charged diesel engines
Two shafts
41,600 brake hp
Speed 13.5 knots 18.4 knots 22+ knots
Crew 233 528 362
Embarked Troops 1,300 - 2,200 (depending on configuration) 1,304 699
Landing Craft / 
Assault Vehicles
11 boats/barges,
2-4 unpowered lighters,
2 picket boats
4 LCM landing craft,
18 LCVP personnel landing craft,
3 large LCPL landing craft,
2 LCPR Landing craft
2 air cushion landing craft (LCAC) or 1 utility landing craft (LCU),
14 Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAAVs)
Aircraft 0 0 Launch/land up to CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters or 2 MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft
4 CH-46 helicopters
Armament 8 5" gun mounts 1 5"/38 gun mount,
4 single 3"/50 gun mounts,
8 Single 20mm gun mounts,
4 50-cal. machine guns
2Mk 46 AAAV Navalized Guns
2 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) launchers

Comparison of Henderson's characteristics with those of a World War II attack transport and the modern, forthcoming LPD 17.

These general design elements carried through much of Henderson's design process, though there were tensions between General Board requirements, Marine Corps desires, and the realities of the detailed ship design. When commissioned, the ship had less internal volume than planned. She had eight rather than six 5-inch guns, but only four could be moved ashore. Her top sustained speed was slightly below 14 knots. Nevertheless, Henderson was essentially the type of ship the Navy and Marine Corps had envisioned. Built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the ship was launched on 17 June 1916 and commissioned on 24 May 1917.

Photo of USS Henderson (AP 1)

USS Henderson (AP 1), 1917.

Entering service during World War I, the Navy quickly assigned the transport a new role: shuttling troops to the European theater. In this capacity as a "point-to-point" transport - as opposed to an expeditionary transport that would land troops as integrated combat units - Henderson carried between 1,700-2,200 men. All told, Henderson made eight more transits to France carrying men and supplies, including material used to establish two large base hospitals in France. During these voyages, the ship survived at least one U-boat attack on the convoy in which she was travelling, as well as a major fire in a cargo hold.

Henderson's employment as a point-to-point transport continued into 1919, and the ship would be called upon to reprise this role repeatedly throughout its career. By December 1919, the transport returned to the mission of supporting the Marine Corps, but most of its tasking involved the rotation of Marine units and equipment between the United States and Caribbean countries such as Haiti and Cuba where the Corps was engaged in long-running expeditionary operations. In 1927, Henderson carried a Marine garrison to Shanghai, China, and from then until 1941 the ship operated between there, the U.S. west coast, the Philippines, and other Pacific islands.

Nevertheless, Henderson reverted to the expeditionary transport role on occasion, participating in amphibious exercises for the first time in 1920. The ship also took part in Fleet Exercise # 3 in 1924, in which she embarked an armored lighter or "beetle boat" (officially known as "Troop Barge A") for testing during a mock amphibious assault on the Panama Canal Zone. The use of the beetle boat a derivative of the "beetles" the British had used during operations at Gallipoli marked the start of an intensive Marine Corps and Navy search for a true landing craft.

Henderson continued in her dual role until World War II. In the year and a half following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the ship carried people and cargo between California, Hawaii, and the South Pacific. The transport was decommissioned in 1943 and entered an Oakland, California shipyard to be converted to a hospital ship, reentering service as USS Bountiful (AH 9) in March 1944. Bountiful carried casualties from several Pacific amphibious operations - including the Marine assault on the island of Peleliu in 1944 - to rear areas for further treatment and convalescence. The ship also featured one of the few afloat blood banks in the Pacific theater.

After the war, Bountiful served briefly as a hospital ship in Japan, and hosted observers of the 1946 atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. The ship was decommissioned a final time in September of that year.

Sources:

Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth J. Clifford, Progress and Purpose: A Developmental History of the United States Marine Corps, 1900-1970 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1973).

Norman Friedman, U.S. Amphibious Ships and Craft (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002).

United States, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Naval History Division, Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1959).

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