USS Ponchatoula I - AOG-38

(The following article was subitted by Jim Perrin, former principal of Martha Vinyard
Elementary School and local historian. Perrin has published numerous books and articles
about Ponchatoula History)

Published in The Enterprise, 2 April 2003

Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana
Submitted by James Perrin



The crowd cheered loudly that July afternoon as 12-year-old Cynthia Tenety broke a bottle of champagne on the bow of the USS Ponchatoula.

<>The Ponchatoula and her sister ship, the Yehara, slid down the ways at the East CoastShipyard at Bayonne, N. J., making a huge splash that concluded the dual launching ceremony.

Little Cynthia, the daughter of the shipyard superintendent, Vincent Tenety, did a commendable job and was justly proud of her part in the ceremony.

About 1,400 miles southwest of Bayonne, other children were also very proud of the launching of the Ponchatoula. Hundreds of children in the small Louisiana town that was the namesake of this new tanker had done their part to support the war effort.

The Ponchatoula school children, with the active support of their parents, scoured the community looking for scrap iron and aluminum. Old stoves, car parts, bed springs, pots and pans, all went into the enormous pile of metal next to the grammar school during the fall scrap drives.

Ponchatoula principal Will Ed Butler reported that the 1942 drive netted about 475 tons of scrap metal, or 633 pounds of scrap for each of the 1,500 children in the Ponchatoula schools.

In 1944, an additional 95 tons were collected, and it took 50 Army trucks to move the scrap from the school yard to the railroad track for shipment to a steel mill.

Because Ponchatoula far exceeded the total of scrap metal expected of a town it size, the federal government recognized the efforts by naming a pursuit plane and the tanker, USS Ponchatoula, in her honor.

The Navy had a procedure for naming battleships for states, cruisers for larger cities, and tankers for rivers. The fact that Ponchatoula was named for the nearby Ponchatoula River allowed the town to be honored for the achievement of its school children and stay within the Navy naming regulations.

The USS Ponchatoula (AOG-38), a Sequatchie class tanker, had been laid down by the East Coast  Shipyards, Inc, on June 7, 1944. Using mass production techniques such as large prewelded units, and operating on a multi-shift schedule, the tanker was launched in a little more than seven weeks, on July 30, 1944.

After launching, work was continued on the Ponchatoula as another hull was begun on the ways where the Ponchatoula had been assembled.

The Ponchatoula was just over 220 feet in length, 37 feet in beam, and displaced 2,700 tons. It had an armament of one three-inch gun and two 40-millimeter rapid fire anti-aircraft guns.

Although she had these weapons, as a floating gas station the Ponchatoula was an inviting target for enemy submarines and aircraft. Too slow to run away and not designed to fight enemy warships, tankers depended on other vessels such as destroyers and destroyer escorts for protection.

The Navy accepted the ship on Sep. 30, and she was commissioned as the USS Ponchatoula on Oct 6, 1944. After a shakedown voyage in the Atlantic waters off the New Jersey coast, the Ponchatoula steamed from the east coast to begin aiding the U.S. Pacific fleet in the war against Japan.

She docked in the Dutch West Indies, took on her cargo of fuel oil, proceeded through the Panama Canal, and arrived at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. During February, 1945, the Ponchatoula shuttled gasoline from Pearl Harbor to Canton Island, and in March she delivered aviation gasoline and diesel fuel to Ulithi in the Caroline Islands.

In May, 1945, the Ponchatoula steamed in a convoy to the island of Okinawa, where Army and Marine troops were fighting a bitter battle with entrenched Japanese troops. Besides the fighting going on ashore, the supporting ships of the Fifth Fleet had to endure weeks of intensive attacks by Japanese Kamikaze pilots trying to crash their planes into American ships.

The Ponchatoula arrived off the invasion beaches on May 15, and thereafter shuttle oil and gasoline from large fleet tankers to the fleet's smaller vessels in the general area. The Ponchatoula earned a battle star for her operations in the combat area around Okinawa. She continued to shuttle fuel in this area until the end of the war.

On Dec. 14, 1945, the Ponchatoula slowly steamed across the Pacific to the West Coast of the United States in a voyage that must have seemed so much slower for her crew that longed to return to their families. With the end of the war, the Navy began to dispose of the tremendous numbers of naval vessels produced by America's "miracle of production".

The Ponchatoula was decommissioned at Mare Island, Calif., on April 24, 1946, and was stricken from the Navy list on May 31, 1946. She was transferred to the Maritime Commision on Sept. 9, 1946, and later cut up for scrap.

It is ironic that the Ponchatoula, as many vessels do, ended up in a large pile of scrap, as it was the vast pile of scrap collected by Ponchatoula's school children that produced a vessel of this name.

Although the Ponchatoula did not become a famous warship during her brief career, she did her part to bring the world's bloodiest war to a successful conclusion. The same can be said for the citizens of Ponchatoula, both those who bravely fought in the front lines, on the seas, and in the air, as well as those at home who backed the attack with their home front sacrifices.

Ponchatoula has a right to be proud of her "greatest generation".

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