USS Patoka, a 16,800-ton oiler, was built at Newport News, Virginia. Commissioned in October 1919, she transported oil fuel from the United States to European ports during the next few years, as well as performing other support services in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
In 1924 Patoka was modified as a tender for the Navy's rigid airships, receiving a distinctive mooring mast on her stern and facilities for handling seaplanes. A mooring mast some 125 feet above the water was constructed; additional accommodations both for the crew of Shenandoah and for the men who handle and supply the airship were added; facilities for the helium, gasoline, and other supplies necessary for Shenandoah were built; as well as handling and stowage facilities for three seaplanes. This work by the Norfolk Navy Yard was completed shortly after 1 July 1924.
Never redesignated as an airship tender (AZ), she operated instead with her fleet oiler (AO) classification. She was subsequently used as an operational and experimental base by three of the Navy's great dirigibles, USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) in 1924-1925, USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) in 1925-1932, and USS Akron (ZRS-4) in 1932.
Plans for the construction of Shenandoah, the first rigid airship to be built in the United States, were begun in September 1919, and the first materials were delivered to the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia early in 1920. Shenandoah achieved many firsts during her short career. She was the first rigid airship to be inflated with helium; the first to use water recovery apparatus for the continuous recovery of ballast from the exhaust gas of the fuel burned; and she was the first to fly across the United States. During her relatively short life of two years, she made 57 flights, logging 740 hours in the air, which covered about 28,000 miles. Before dawn on the morning of 03 September 1925, the airship encountered a severe storm and broke in two. Twenty-nine of those on board survived the crash, but the commanding officer, Lt. Cdr. Lansdowne and fourteen of his crew were lost.
The most successful of all the rigid airships operated by the Navy was USS Los Angeles (ZR-3),which was received from Germany after WW I. For a brief period in early 1931, by virtue of a special waiver of the proviso prohibiting her use on military missions, Los Angeles participated in fleet exercises, as a military aircraft, testing the defenses of the Panama Canal. Although attacked and theoretically destroyed by planes from the carrier Langley, Los Angeles discovered one of the "enemy" convoys before being taken under attack, and otherwise proved her value as a scout on extended patrols.
Perhaps the most romantic period in the Navy's LTA operations was the era of the rigid airships Akron and Macon. The Akron - Macon design was conceived in the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1924 as a major improvement over the Shenandoah design, based on the experience gained from her operation. During various fleet exercises, the rigid airships were used for scouting. On 3-4 April 1933 Akron left NAS Lakehurst at 1830 on April 3 en route to New England to assist in calibrating radio direction finders. She was caught in a storm off the coast of New Jersey and at 0030 crashed into the sea. Seventy-three people were lost, including RAdm. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.
Decommissioned in August 1933, following the loss of Akron, Patoka remained in reserve for six years. Reclassified as a seaplane tender (AV-6) in October 1939, she was recommissioned a month later and served briefly in that role, primarily in the Atlantic area. This ship saw no service as a seaplane tender while designated AV 6. In June 1940, she returned to her original mission as an oiler, and was again designated AO-9.
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