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LPH-4 Boxer class

Because the purpose-built Iwo Jima class was taking too long to complete, the US Navy decided to convert a few of its older light carriers into Essex class amphibious assault helicopter carriers (LPH).

While preparation and negotiation had been underway for the transition to an all-turbine powered helicopter fleet, major changes had been made in the Navy shipbuilding program. The disappointing factor in this case was the unavailability of helicopter aircraft carriers (Amphibious Assault Ships-LPHs). Although the Thetis Bay was providing the Marine Corps with a floating helicopter platform for training and evaluation purposes, it was inadequate as a full-fledged assault helicopter carrier. The Marine Corps had been hopeful, however, that by the late 1950s it would have the desired numbers of LPHs but the Navy had placed a priority on other types of ships thus delaying the LPH development.

Originally the amphibious assault ship program called for conversion of CVE-55 and -105 class aircraft carriers. Knowing that converted CVEs could not accommodate fully the larger types of helicopters and that they would have a limited service life expectancy, the Commandant reversed his prior position and recommended that all such ships be built from the keel up as LPHs. In May 1956, after strong urging by the Navy and after considerable compromise on the part of the Marine Corps, General Pate agreed to a program which would provide one new LPH and one converted CVE-105 each year through the period of 1958 through 1962.

With the approved five-year program to commence in 1958 and the LPH conversion and construction periods requiring two and three years respectively, an equal number of years would lapse during which the Marine Corps would be without the services of properly designed shipping from which to conduct an amphibious vertical assault. At the earliest, it would be 1960 before the first converted LPH would be operational, therefore another solution was needed. The relief came in the form of a suggestion from Rear Admiral Frederick N. Kivette, a member of the Navy's Standing Committee, Long Range Shipbuilding and Conversion. The Marine Corps was represented by one officer on this committee after mid-1956. At a meeting of the committee on 29 July 1957, he introduced the subject of utilizing Essex-class CVSs (ASW support aircraft carrier) as interim LPHs since some carriers of this type were scheduled for retirement. Actually this thought had been presented as early as 1954 in a proposed CMC letter to the CNO recommending the use of CVSs or CVAs for helicopter operations. However, it is believed that the letter was never sent.

Colonel James C . Murray, Head, Policy Analysis Division, HQMC, when commenting on the proposed letter, stated to the Chief of Staff on 28 April 1954: "While this letter (the use of CVS and CVA carriers for helicopter operations) was prepared prior to the approval of the New Marine Corps concept (that proposed in LFB-17), it can now be associated with that concept. So far as I can determine, no formal discussion had been held which would provide assurance that this request will be approved. I do not feel that we should risk a formal disapproval on what might be regarded as an element of the new concept until we have attempted to gain Navy acceptance to the concept itself . . . . In summary, in the absence of any informal prior indication that this recommendation will be approved, its submission at this time may result in a disapproval which would tend to crystallize CNO opposition to the concept itself. It is recommended that : (a) the letter be delayed until the new concept has been presented to the Navy or (b) if time is pressing, that the matter be taken up on an informal basis to assure approval prior to the submission of a formal recommendation."

The suggestion emphasized economy since the necessary modifications needed to make the Essex-class carrier into an acceptable LPH were estimated to be minimal. Additionally, the Navy could make the CVSs available to the Marine Corps within a relatively short period of time.

LANTPHIBEX 1-58 took place in early 1958 off the coast of Onslow Beach, North Carolina. In addition to evaluating the feasibility of using the CVS as an interim LPH, it was the largest test up to this time of the vertical envelopment doctrine. Helicopters from Colonel McCutcheon's MAG-26 lifted in the ship-to-shore movement a complete RLT of the 2d Marine Division. Operating from the USS Tarawa (CVS-40), Valley Forge (CVS-45), and the Forrestal (CVA-59), the aircraft group demonstrated the soundness of the portion of the doctrine which envisioned the simultaneous use of more than one LPH.

The outcome of Admiral Kivette's proposal was not known until 2 May 1958 at which time General Pate officially informed the CNO of the Marine Corps decision. In a memorandum to Admiral Burke the Commandant remarked: " . . . on 15 March 1958 I stated that I would advise you of my views concerning the use of the CVS as an interim LPH following a report of their use during LANTPHIBEX 1-58. This report has been very gratifying and indicates that the CVS with limited modification will be a suitable type to meet existing needs until new LPH[sl are available in the fleet. . . . I recommend for your consideration that a least two CVS's which are scheduled to be deactivated in the near future, be modified to meet landing force requirements and made available for deployment with the amphibious forces as soon as possible."

The Essex-class aircraft carrier had characteristics which made it quite compatible for helicopter operations and suitable as a platform from which to launch a ship-to-shore movement, but yet it also had some drawbacks. The shortcomings were mainly in its poor cargo-handling and combat troop-billeting facilities. Another undesirable condition, one imposed by the Navy, was the Marine Corps ' obligation to provide Marine officers and enlisted men to augment the Navy crew. Those features which made the ship appealing, however, were its 889-foot flight deck, three aircraft elevators between the hangar and flight deck, 14 or more HUS launching locations, and a top speed in excess of 30 knots. Additionally, it was figured that a total of 30 HR2Ss or up to 60 HUSs could be transported when utilizing all available space. In wartime situations, an Essex-class ship had a complement of personnel, both ship's company and air group, that often reached as many as 2,800, a far greater capability than that of the Thetis Bay.

Comparing the features of the Essex-class carriers against the newly constructed LPHs, the older CVSs appear, in many respects, superior. The newly constructed LPHs would have a 590-foot flight deck with deck spots for only eight HUS helicopters, two elevators, and a top speed of about 20 knots. The maximum number of transported helicopters would vary from 20 to 40 depending on their type and the method of storage. However, the modern command facilities, latest type cargo and material handling system, plus adequate space for the movement and berthing of combat troops would made the new ships more desirable in these areas. The new LPHs were not intended to compete with the larger aircraft carriers but rather they were designed particularly to combat load, transport, and land a Marine BLT of up to 2,000 personnel with an embarked Marine transport helicopter squadron.

Accordingly, the USS Boxer (CVS-21) was reclassified as the LPH-4 on 30 January 1959 and the USS Princeton (CVS-37) reclassified as LPH 5 on 2 March. A third ship, the USS Valley Forge, (CVS-45) joined the ranks of amphibious assault ships on 1 July 1961 as the LPH-8. The three converted CVSs "filled the gap" as interim LPHs until sufficient number of new construction LPHs were in service, with the plans for converting the five CVEs subsequently being dropped. '

USS Boxer, a 27,100-ton Ticonderoga class aircraft carrier, was built at Newport News, Virginia and commissioned in April 1945. Converted to an anti-submarine warfare aircraft carrier (CVS) in early 1956, she made a final Western Pacific tour in that role during 1956-57. Later in 1957, Boxer operated briefly as an experimental assault helicopter aircraft carrier, an indication of things to come for her, the Navy and the Marine Corps.

Late in 1958, USS Boxer was transferred to the Atlantic Fleet as an "interim amphibious assault ship"and was formally redesignated LPH-4 on 30 January 1959. For the next decade, Boxer and her "main battery"of Marines and transport helicopters were vital components of the United States' amphibious warfare capabilities.

Two other Ticonderogas, [Princeton and Valley Forge] became amphibious assault ships (LPH). The three LPH units had previously undergone CVS configuration, and were otherwise unmodified axial deck ships. Most guns and radars were removed, half the boilers were deactivated, and troop berthing spaces and equipment storage spaces were added. Most ships carried 2 dual and 2 single 5/38 DP.

US Marines and their helicopters now constituted their "main battery". Fast and roomy, though not particularly economical, they offered some capabilities that were not available even in the new LPHs that joined the fleet between 1961 and 1970. During the Vietnam war build-up, these big ships also were employed as aircraft transports for Army and Marine Corps helicopters and small airplanes, which could not use aerial refueling to deploy overseas.

All were of the "Essex" class, the first-line attack aircraft carriers of the Pacific campaign in World War II. Weighing in the 38,000-ton class they were nearly four times as large as the Thetis Bay and their 888-foot length, with a flight deck almost as long, gave the necessary space for a number of helicopters to load and take off simultaneously. Eight boilers generated 150,000 horsepower, as compared to the 11,200 the two on the Thetis Bay could produce, and with this power, gave the carriers a speed well above the rest of the ships in the amphibious fleet.

Each new LPH had accommodations for 171 Marine officers and 1,701 men, including those necessary for the helicopters. Each also officially required over 1,500 sailors to man her, as compared to the 598 on the Thetis Bay. And in time of tight budgets, where every serviceman was carefully scrutinized to insure that his cost was necessary, this became a point of controversy which had far-reaching implications.

By definition, Marines are "soldiers of the sea." Marines have been a part of the crew on capital ships, not only since the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps, but far back into the dim reaches of naval history. Since the 1930s, Marine Corps fighter, bomber, and scout squadrons routinely have operated with, and as part of, U .S. Navy carrier air groups (CAGs). Few Marines have not sailed on a Navy ship, though in most cases they are merely passengers and not members of the regular crew.

The large numbers of sailors required to man the Essex class LPHs created an entirely different, and to date unique breed of sea-going Marines: the soldier mechanics of the sea. If the Marines were going to have large LPHs, they were going to have to provide part of the crews.

On the 183rd anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps, 10 November 1958, the first mechanics reported to the yet to be activated USS Boxer. They were not Marine detachments, they were not part of the Marine squadrons attached to the CAGs, and they were not passengers: they were full-fledged members of the crew of the ship. Only in the engineering, navigation, and medical departments were the Marines not used. They filled billets in supply, as cooks and bakers, and disbursing clerks. The Air Department, with the exception of the men who refueled the helicopters and a few Navy officers, was made up completely of Marines. Marines manned the shops which did the major repairs on the helicopters and, in a more traditional role, even made up the crews for several of the guns.

The initial augmentation on the Boxer had been one officer and 92 enlisted men out of a total of 57 officers and 1,077 men. This was to grow until there were 10 officers and 317 Marines serving in the crew. When the USS Princeton was converted and reclassified as an LPH on 2 April 1959 the scene was the same." These aviation officers and men, unfortunately, were not in addition to those required to operate the squadrons. Instead, under the rules then in force within the Department of Defense, they were included in the overall strength of Marine Corps aviation. On 29 July 1960 with the imminent conversion of the third Essex class LPH (the Valley Forge), Major General Arthur Binney, who at the time was the Director of Aviation, became concerned. He wrote that this practice could not be extended and that the use of Marine aviation officers and men to man Navy ships without any compensating increase in overall strength was extremely difficult due to "an almost impossibly austere manning level" in aviation.

The problem had been recognized . Once again, far-sighted officers in the Navy realized that the Marine Corps vertical assault was a vital part of the overall strength of the United States. It had to be preserved, even if some sacrifices had to be made. Negotiations had been going on as to just where these cut-backs could be made. A month previous to General Binney's letter, the Director of the Policy Analysis Division at Headquarters Marine Corps could circulate the results. The Navy, like the Marine Corps, he pointed out. was under a Department of Defense imposed absolute ceiling of the number of personnel authorized. It was the people to man these large LPHs that was the major stumbling block. The letter declared that the Navy considered the minimum crew for the Valley Forge (or the other candidate for the forthcoming fourth - but later abandoned - conversion, the USS Lake Champlain) to be at least 1,000 men, though they considered 1,250 more near the actual requirements.

Even though the Commandant had been assigning over 300 Marines to the Boxer and the Princeton, provision of sufficient sailors to man the next conversion would require the Navy to mothball other ships. In the Navy's first proposed trade-off it calculated that an attack transport ship (APA) required a crew of about 400 men. If three of them were withdrawn from active service, from the Pacific fleet, sufficient men would be released to man the Valley Forge. After additional negotiations, the Navy agreed it would be more suitable to decommission just one APA and five landing ships tank (LSTs). It was also concluded that the first of a new type of true LPHs then being built would require a crew "about the same (400) as an APA."

While the Valley Forge never would have the same contingent of soldier mechanics of the sea as her two predecessors and the estimates of the number of Navy men required on the true LPHs were to prove conservative, a serious problem once again had been resolved. In the meantime the Boxer and the Princeton continued to have much of their crews made up of Marines. It was not until 1964 that they would depart. On 15 January the Marines left the Boxer and on 31 January, the Princeton. Staying behind would be only three permanent crew members: the assistant air operations officer, the combat cargo officer, and his NCO assistant, who are still assigned to all LPHs as the only remaining vestiges of the soldier mechanics of the sea. Those Marines who served on the two ships have a unique and exclusive claim to fame. Marines supplementing Navy crews, however, really was not the answer to the problem.

The disadvantages of converting World War II aircraft carriers to LPHs were becoming increasingly apparent. General Clifton B. Cates, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps stated on 17 July 1951 that "Studies and past experience indicate that the most desirable type of assault shipping for such a [helicopter-borne] force will be ships which can accommodate the necessary embarked troops, the helicopters to land them and the crews to operate and maintain the helicopters. It is becoming increasingly urgent to commence a ship conversion or building program that will parallel the availability of the . . . 36 man helicopter."

On the outside, all four of the ships converted into LPHs appeared to meet General Cate's requirements. They all had flight decks and, except for the Thetis Bay, were sufficiently large to accommodate all the ground and helicopter elements of the assault team. Inside their gray hulls, however, all the conversions had serious deficiencies.

The original ships had had to provide for just two combat elements: the aircraft and their crews and the sailors to operate the vessels. On a true LPH, a third element had to be accommodated: the assault Marines and their equipment. An LPH had to have large living compartments for the combat troops and storage holds for their gear, and it also had to have elevators for bringing men and material easily and quickly to the flight deck for loading on the helicopters. Efforts to rearrange the interiors of the conversions to accommodate these changes had to contend with the fact that in modern warships most of the bulkheads (walls) are more than partitions ; they comprise a vital part of the vessel's structural strength and ability to withstand battle damage. Thus every removal and repositioning of interior bulkheads had to be weighed carefully against the internal integrity of the ship as a whole, and often desirable changes could not be made. As a result, in the USS Princeton for example, the assault Marines had to be split up among 27 berthing compartments ranging in size from four to 157 men, totally destroying shipboard unit cohesiveness. The situation was similar on the other three conversions.



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