USS Ponchatoula II AO-148

(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, 23 April 2003

In the months following the American victory in World War II, the American military forces were
rapidly and sometimes chaotically demobilized.

The Navy had many hundreds of surplus ships which were decommissioned, and many were sold
for scrap metal. The USS Ponchatoula (AOG-38), a Sequatchie Class tanker, was one of the many
vessels eliminated from Navy inventory.

Although the USS Ponchatoula had provided good service in 1944-45 in the Western Pacific, her slow speed, small capacity, and the surplus of naval shipping rendered the ship expendable.

The years following the end of the war saw reduced naval budgets as the United States had the
world's greatest Navy and no potential foe with a comparable strength. Some American leaders
argued that with a massive air force armed with nuclear bombs, the Navy was not as vital to
American defense as it had been.

The Korean War and the growing power of the nuclear armed forces of the Soviet Union pointed
to a need for strengthened American defense forces. In the 1950s, the Navy began to moderize
its forces with faster and more sophisticated warships.

The moderization of the Navy included the authorization to constuct a new class of fleet tankers
that combined speed and an enlarged capacity to deliver fuel to the fleet. One of the vessels
ordered in this modernization effort was named the USS Ponchatoula, the second Navy vessel
within 10 years to be named for this Southeast Louisiana river.

Perhaps the name USS Ponchatoula was re-adopted because of the relatively short period of
service of the prior World War II tanker, or perhaps because of the continuing respect for the
outstanding contributions made by the citizens of the City of Ponchatoula (named for the nearby
river) during the war. Regardless, the citizens of this community were proud to again have a
naval vessel bear its name.

The USS Ponchatoula (A0-148), the sixth tanker in the Neosho class of fleet oilers, was laid down
in Camden, N.J., by the New York Shipbuilding Corp. on March 1, 1954. The new USS Ponchatoula
dwarfed the World War II tanker, being more than three times as long and twice as fast. The new
vessel displaced 38,000 tons when fully loaded, compared with the older ship's 2,700 tons. The
new USS Ponchatoula had a complement of 324 officers and men compared to the 62 aboard the
World War II version.

Although the USS Ponchatoula was a support vessel rather than a combat warship, she was
armed with two five-inch guns and 12 rapid-fire three-inch anti-aircraft guns mounted in several
gun tubs.

The launching of the USS Ponchatoula into the waters of the Delaware River took place on July 9,
1954, at Camden, N.J. She was moved across the river to Philadelphia and work continued to
complete the vessel. She was commisioned on Jan. 12, 1956, and began her long naval career.

Like her predecessor, the new USS Ponchatoula was assigned to the Pacific Fleet, and after
commision, she made her way to the West Coast. She arrived at Long Beach, Calif., on March 10,
1956, and underwent a shakedown cruise off the California Coast.

In the fall of 1956, the USS Ponchatoula was ordered to the Far East, which would be her home
waters for most of her active career. While enroute to the Western Pacific, she assisted a
disabled Panamanian merchant ship that had been battered by two typhoons.

The USS Ponchatoula soon arrived at Sasebo, Japan, and became part of the Seventh Fleet. Her
home port was at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. She frequently loaded there with fuel for
use by Navy vessels in the Far East.

The USS Ponchatoula accompanied the Seventh Fleet in early 1958 as the Navy sailed into harm's
way in the Formosa Strait off the coast of Communist China. The Communists were again
threatening to invade and occupy several small islands off the coast of China, notably Quemoy
and Matsu. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the Navy to the area to symbolize American
determination to support the Nationalist Chinese forces holding those small islands. Eisenhower's
tough stand, and the presence of the Seventh Fleet off shore, forced the Communist Chinese to
back down and the crisis subsided.

After the confrontation with Communist China, the USS Ponchatoula resumed her duties as a
floating gas station to the fleet. In 1962, the ship was a part of a task force that was engaged in
a series of nuclear tests in the Christmas Islands. In 1963, she began a string of historic
operations assisting in recovery operations for two successful Project Mercury spacecraft, each
carrying a single astronaut that spashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Hostilities began to escalate in Vietnam in the summer and fall of 1964. The USS Ponchatoula
was deployed to the South China Sea in October, 1964, to support fleet operations off the coast
of Vietnam. She refueled numerous warships in those waters in 1964-65 as the bombing
campaign against communist targets in Vietnam began.

The USS Ponchatoula's crew was given a break from combat operations in the summer of 1965
when the ship was assigned to the task force that recoverd the Gemini 4 spacecraft as it
splashed down in the Pacific.

She returned to the combat operations neear Vietnam only to be reassigned to aid in the
recovery of the Gemini 6 and 7 spacecrafts, which each carried two astronauts. During the
spring of 1966, the USS Ponchatoula set a Navy record by refueling hundreds of vessels from
her huge storage tanks. During the period from November, 1967, to June, 1968, she pumped 74
million gallons of fuel into awaiting ships.

In the fall of 1968, she aided in the recovery of the Apollo 7 spacecraft with its three-man crew.
Following this activity, she headed back to the coast of Vietnam and was supplying the fleet's
fuel needs in 1969. In the summer of 1969 and into 1970, the USS Ponchatoula returned to Pearl
Harbor and served the fleet in the Hawaiian area.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the USS Ponchatoula served on various duty stations in the
Western Pacific and near Hawaii. Although she was performing well, newer and more modern
fleet oilers were being added to the Navy's Pacific Fleet. The USS Poncatoula was removed from
the Navy's active duty fleet on Aug. 31, 1992, and on May 1, 1999, she was transferred to the
Maritime Administration's National Defense Reserve Fleet. She is now berthed at Suisun Bay,
Benecia, Calif.

During the 43 years between her launching in 1955 and her transfer to the reserve fleet in 1999,
the USS Ponchatoula rendered meritorious service to her country, helping to stop Chinese
aggression in the Taiwan Strait, assisting the space program, and supporting U.S. troops in
Vietnam. Named to honor this community, she and many hundreds of "blue jackets" who served
aboard her over the decades deserve the accolades of this community for services rendered in
behalf of our nation.
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