When I lived in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville, I was amazed at how the early oil field pioneers managed to use primitive equipment, locate the oil, drill the wells, and get the oil to the refinery.
Walking around the old equipment, I could see that it had been used, modified, used again, then modified and used some more. Alex Mentry and his men were very good at "making do" and improving what they had on hand.
I learned from that experience. Since my father’s paycheck from Standard Oil Co. wasn’t as much as we needed to replace worn-out equipment, we, too, had to make do with what was on hand.
Early in my life, my father had me straighten nails pulled from scrap lumber so we could use the nails again. The lumber was often recycled, too.
When we couldn’t buy new, there was always someone in the Santa Clarita Valley who was willing to barter. I became an adept "horse trader." One time we had a water softener and a friend had a hunting rifle. It was an even trade. A couple of calves became a generator to make our electricity.
Taking that experience and knowledge with me when we left Mentryville, it remained embedded in my brain for later use. I really started using it in 1982, the year I became sea trial director at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif.
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When a ship is new or has undergone major repairs and modifications, it must be tested at sea to prove everything works. This is called a "sea trial." If the ship is a submarine, it must be escorted by another ship when it submerges for the first time, in case anything happens.
The escort ship can also be used to help test the various sonar systems on the submarines. Sonar systems are what subs use to "see" what is around them by listening to noises in the water or sending out a noise and having it reflect back to the submarine. Since most submarine losses during peacetime happen during sea trials, an escort is a "must have."
As the new sea trial director, I learned that most trials took 12 to 18 days. Much time and money were wasted waiting for a contracted sonar test boat, or waiting for an available Navy surface ship. We had a test range at Point Reyes that could act as a shallow dive escort down to 200 feet, but we needed a deep-water escort to go to test depth more than 800 feet below the surface.
Navy surface ships used a lot of fuel and time in serving as an escort. It was when I was stuck at sea on the USS Permit for 21 days, waiting for an escort and test ship, that I started to think of a way to replace the existing method of escorts.
I submitted my idea to eliminate our escort and sonar test-vessel problem and save the taxpayers some money. If Mare Island had an escort ship of its own, the Navy could save millions in fuel costs and the shipyard could adhere to the sea trial schedule and shorten their length.
The idea was approved. The project had limited funding and couldn’t interfere with other scheduled shipyard work. Now all I needed was a ship, crew, and the necessary equipment for a submarine escort vessel. Folks at the shipyard tried not to laugh.
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One day I looked down the quay wall. Moored there was a large tugboat-looking craft, apparently of World War II vintage. There was no name on it, but it had a number, LT-535, identifying it as a ship owned and operated by the Army.
The hull was painted black and the deck house was white. It looked like rust, held together by a thick coat of paint. As I got closer, someone started an engine and some lights came on. Were there ghosts aboard?
The commander of the Third Fleet had acquired the little ship to use as a target. The shipyard had been tasked with getting the engines to run. Then they cancelled the target mission. The ship was to be returned to the Army. I made some quick phone calls and filled out one document to accept it into the Navy. I had a ship.
Built in 1943 to 1944 in Orange, Texas, for the invasion of Europe, the LT-535 "LT" is an Army hull designation for "Large Tug" it had served the Army in Europe, Korea and Vietnam. Mothballed in 1972, it sat at an Army depot in Stockton until it was moved to Mare Island in 1983.
We used the ship as a training device for the shipyard apprentice program. The labor was already paid for; all we needed was equipment.
I collected a crew from shipyard workers. They could do just about anything. The shipyard newspaper wrote that my crew "could find a snowball in the Sahara and convince a passing camel caravan to take that snowball to Mare Island, paying the crew for the privilege of doing the job."
Most of the needed equipment was removed from decommissioned ships and submarines radio, radar, navigation gear, generators, heaters, pumps, valves, you name it. We still needed a sonar system. I found one right on Mare Island, but it was too large to fit on the little, 143-foot ship. A few phone calls later, I found a company that would trade our large system for a smaller, recently refurbished one.
We completed our work and went to sea on our own trial. Everything worked fine. The budget to make it ready was originally $950,000. We spent only $585,000.
Our first submarine escort and sonar test operation trial was shortened to seven days. We eventually learned how to do it in five days, 12 hours. We named it Pacific Escort, and it was given a Navy work boat hull number of 143WB8401 143 representing the length, in feet; "WB" for "Work Boat."
It not only escorted ships and submarines for Mare Island but also for Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., and for the fleet in San Diego. The fleet told us it saved over $4 million each year in fuel and operating costs of regular Navy ships, even after they paid our operating costs.
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Built in 1964, the Thomas G. Thompson was recycled as an escort before it was used for target practice, as seen here.
The project was such a success that in 1989, when we saw a newer ship, the ex-Thomas G. Thompson, we were given authority to replace the almost 45-year-old Pacific Escort I with it.
Moving the equipment from the first ship to the second was easy. We made some upgrades while we were at it. I transferred to Norfolk Naval Shipyard before it went to sea. The Thompson was originally to go to a nation in Europe.
I was able to keep the ship in the Navy. It became Pacific Escort II, serving at Mare Island until 1995 when that shipyard was closed. Naval Sea Systems Command had me move the ship from Mare Island to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va.
Once in Norfolk, the Pacific Escort II was renamed "Gosport" that being the original name of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the nation’s oldest. Continuing a record of fine service to submarines and fleet exercises plus a deployment to European waters, the ship, like its predecessor, was becoming a financial liability. We couldn’t get parts anymore. Built in 1964, the technology no longer existed. Just where do you find a vacuum tube these days?
It, too, was replaced by another slightly used ship in need of modification. The Gosport served as a target until late last year. It was sunk at a deep water reef 300 miles east of North Carolina.
What of Pacific Escort I? It was purchased in 1995 by a company in Orange, Texas, for use as an oil platform supply vessel. I heard it is still operating at 61 years of age.
When it returned to its birthplace of Orange, it completed a circumnavigation of the world. It only took from 1944 until 1996 to do it. Modified once again, it continues to serve.
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That is the story of how I added one ship and kept another ship in the Navy without congressional approval. I just hate to throw anything away if it can be modified or repaired and used again.
That attitude works for nails and ships. It was the attitude of my father, and of those early oil field workers in Mentryville.
Who would have thought that learning to straighten used nails and examining old oil field equipment in Pico Canyon could save the taxpayers more than $4 million every year?
Anyone wanting help in making those old oil-drilling engines near the Felton School run again, give me a call. I hate to see them sitting there, doing nothing. We’ll start by pulling and straightening a few nails…
Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.