When thinking of Marine Corps actions that helped shape U.S. history, one usually conjures images of young Marines laying down their lives on a far-off battlefield. Corporal Louis J. Hauge Jr., for example, died while rushing a Japanese machine-gun emplacement on Okinawa. Sergeant Matej Kocak used his bayonet to clear out a German fortification at Soissons, France, in 1918. Then there is Second Lieutenant John P. Bobo, who, when attacked by North Vietnamese soldiers after having his right leg severed below the knee by a mortar round, continued to fight back, jamming his leg into the dirt to prevent blood loss. All three of these men died in combat and received Medals of Honor. In the 1980s their names were affixed to three new classes of vessels that emphasized the forward-deployed mission of the Corps and continued a bond between Marines and the civilian merchant mariners who crewed them during Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Restore Hope, and Iraqi Freedom.
An Ongoing Partnership
The relationship between the Marine Corps and the U.S. Merchant Marine can be traced back to the Corps’ first offensive action in the Bahamas on 3 March 1776. A force of more than 200 Marines led by Captain Samuel Nicholson landed from a hastily converted fleet of merchant vessels, which were crewed by former civilian mariners, including John Paul Jones.1 When the 1st Marine Division landed at Guadalcanal, it did so from transports and cargo ships adapted from the commercial fleet. In the September 1950 landing at Inchon, modified merchant ships supplemented by civilian-manned vessels of the Military Sea Transportation Service supported the same division.2 During the Vietnam War, amphibious vessels provided the primary means of transport for the Marines, but building and sustaining a force in Southeast Asia with only one inadequate seaport emerged as a challenge.3
Two years after the fall of Saigon, President Jimmy Carter promulgated Presidential Directive 18 and Presidential Review Memorandum 10, which called for the creation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force with the capability to quickly build up American forces in the Persian Gulf as opposed to the two years required during the Vietnam War’s early years.4 The initial plans called for prepositioning afloat the gear for a Marine brigade of 12,000 personnel with 15 days of supplies on board U.S. Merchant Marine ships. The Marines themselves would fly in on approximately 250 flights along with their attached fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.
In February 1980 Deputy Secretary of Defense W. Graham Claytor Jr. directed the Military Sealift Command (MSC) to establish the Near Term Prepositioning Force (NTPF).5 A total of seven ships—three roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO), two freighters, and two tankers—loaded out of North Carolina in July.6 The ships arrived on station at Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territories, by 1 August 1980 under the operational control of Military Sea Command Prepositioning Group 1; a staff of ten personnel—five sailors, one Marine, two civilian mariners, and two nurses—ensured the operational readiness of the squadron. All ships were on a 12-hour notice to sail, and they conducted quarterly Rainbow Reef convoy exercises with the Naval Control of Shipping Office.7
Merchant Marines on Deck
By late 1982, the NTPF had matured into a joint fleet of 18 ships, but it was a short-term solution.8 The long-term plan, developed by the Marine Corps and Military Sealift Command, was to construct a force of 15 merchant mariner–manned Security-class maritime prepositioning ships (MPSs).9 They were part RO/RO, container ship, and tanker. Whereas the NTPF required a port to offload, the MPSs possessed their own cargo cranes along with ramps that allowed vehicles to disembark to a discharge platform, as well as an amphibious afloat fuel-distribution system that permitted petroleum to be pumped ashore while at anchor. They included accommodations for preparation parties, along with keeping a permanent maintenance group on board, and watercraft for in-stream discharge.10
The original arrangement underwent numerous changes. Estimates for a Security-class vessel rose from $103.5 million to $174 million. Several commercial ships suitable for conversion appeared on the market.11 By 1982, after many iterations, the final plan called for five modified Security-class MPSs, which were named after John P. Bobo, and the conversion of five Maersk Line Ltd. Hauge-class ships and three Waterman Steamship Kocak-class vessels.12 Even with the price reduction, the program had the potential to be cost-prohibitive, in particular when considering procurement costs for three entire brigade sets of equipment and 30 days of supplies. To offset the expenses, MSC negotiated a unique build-and-charter agreement.13
Because the U.S. Marine Corps had little money to lay out for the ships, which were not commercially viable after their charter due to their unique design, MSC negotiated a five-year contract with four five-year options. The government did not pay up front; instead the owners of the ships assumed all the debt. To offset any possible loss, the contracts included substantial penalties should they be terminated before the end of the 25-year term. In essence, the government leased the ships with no money down and heavily financed the vessels over the life of their contracts. In 1987 MSC refinanced the terms of the loans. As the interest costs accounted for 70 percent of the total contract costs, this resulted in a net saving of approximately $1.5 billion out of $4.3 billion.14
On 7 September 1984 the Motor Vessel (M/V) Cpl Louis J. Hauge Jr. emerged from the Bethlehem Steel Yard at Sparrows Point, Maryland, as the first MPS. She proceeded to Wilmington, North Carolina, to load equipment for evaluation and testing. By April 1985 the four-ship MPS Squadron (MPSRON) 1 became operational for the 6th Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB). (MABs were renamed Marine expeditionary brigades in 1988.) Initial plans envisioned stationing the squadron in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic, but issues with basing rights left the ships on the U.S. East Coast until a rotational procedure could be implemented in 1995. The Hauge and her four sister ships in MPSRON 2 took material from the NTPF for the 7th MAB and arrived in Diego Garcia in 1985. In 1986 MPSRON 3—loaded out of Panama City, Florida, along with four Bobo-class vessels—rotated between anchorages in the Mariana Islands for the 1st MAB.15
General Paul X. Kelly, the first commander of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, reflected on the deployments: “The most important and innovative of our crisis-response enhancements is now a reality. I am a firm believer that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and when you have the ability to quickly move a 16,500-man Marine Brigade to a crisis area, you have a ready-made prescription to prevent that crisis from escalating.”16
While the NTPF and MPSs conducted yearly exercises starting with Agile Sword in 1986, a complete download of an MPS squadron was never accomplished.17 Instead the ships stood by at their anchorages, and every 2.5 years the MPSs rotated to the Blount Island Command Maintenance Depot in Jacksonville, Florida, for equipment maintenance as they underwent mandatory Coast Guard inspections in commercial shipyards.18 For a decade, the vessels awaited the call for action.
Engagements in the Middle East
That changed on 7 August 1990 with the decision to commit American forces to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield.19 When General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. ordered the MPSs to deploy, he did not have control over the vessels, as they fell not under U.S. Central Command but Pacific Command. He therefore needed clearance by the Joint Chiefs, hence the failure to move the ships earlier as a possible deterrent.20 When the ships did sail, they brought the first armored U.S. combat forces to Saudi Arabia—each MPSRON carried 53 M-60 tanks, 30 light armored vehicles, and 109 amphibious-assault vehicles. Squadron 2, under Captain Richard Crooks, was in the midst of its maintenance cycle and the three available MPSs arrived in Al Jubayl on 15 August and joined the 7th MEB. MPSRON-3 stopped in Singapore to embark an offload-preparation party and docked on 27 August.21
Following offload, two of the MPSs remained in the country to provide storage for Marine Corps equipment. M/V 1st Lt Jack Lummus sailed to Okinawa and Pusan and served as a reconstituted MPS. In December 1990, MPSRON 1 offloaded as part of the offensive buildup. Following this, three of its ships, and two from MPSRON 2, loaded assault follow-on equipment for the 4th and 5th MEBs to support an amphibious option. With the liberation of Kuwait, the ships backloaded their equipment, sailed to Blount Island for maintenance, and by 6 October 1991 were back on station.
Amazingly, MPS success did not lead to any expansion, mainly due to the fear that the commercial hulls could threaten Navy amphibs. This was aptly demonstrated the following year when an MPS joined the Tripoli amphibious ready group (ARG). The 15th MEU was slated to deploy on three instead of four Gators. However, to fill the shortfall, MSC provided the M/V Lummus. The commodore for the ARG, Captain John W. Peterson, disliked the addition of a civilian-manned merchant ship and expressed his displeasure to the master, Harry Vanderploeg.22 When the ARG sailed from Singapore on 23 November 1992, the Lummus was left astern. Events changed the destination of the group, as it diverted to Somalia.23 Plans for American intervention called for an entire Marine expeditionary force and therefore would require the MPSs. The Lummus was ideally placed to dock first in the debris-littered port and was followed by the ships of MPSRON 2. By the end of December, four MPSs were offloaded and the Hauge sortied from Blount Island as a replacement for the 15th MEU.24
Operation Restore Hope revealed some issues with the MPS. Whereas in Desert Shield/Storm the ships could offload in a secure and robust port, Mogadishu was the exact opposite. The mission required a selective offload, and pumping fuel and water ashore proved difficult due to the sea state off the east coast of Africa. A lack of experience between commercial merchant ships and Navy amphibious vessels highlighted the need for closer integration.25
Concurrently, the Department of Defense completed a mobility requirements study that called for the construction of 20 large medium-speed RO/ROs (LMSRs), with eight of them earmarked as an Army version of the MPS.26 Meanwhile, the Marine Corps finally sought changes in the structure of its brigades, including an upgrade to handle M1 tanks, the need to embark an expeditionary medical facility, a naval mobile construction battalion, and an expeditionary airfield in each squadron. The easiest solution would have been to build three Bobo-class vessels, but congressional legislation eliminated any possibility of another 25-year build and charter. With approximately $100 million allocated for each of the ships, the only solution was conversion.27 Known as MPS (Enhancement), two vessels, a German ship and a former Soviet auxiliary, were modified, and with funds running short, the decision was made to convert an LMSR.
Prior to the addition of the last MPS(E), whereas the ships had sat for the first decade with little operational experience, the second proved quite different. MPSs were used in multiple humanitarian-assistance operations. They provided excellent mobile bases with their embarked watercraft, flight deck, and containers full of food, engineering supplies, and reverse-osmosis water-purifying units. Learning a lesson from the Persian Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein made overt moves against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1994 and ’95, MPSRON 2 sortied and took station in the Persian Gulf as part of Operations Vigilant Warrior and Vigilant Sentinel.
Lessons from Iraq
At the end of their second decade, the Marines and MSC initiated several revisions brought to light from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In October 2001 two Marine expeditionary units had been grouped together into a provisional Marine Brigade and established Camp Rhino outside of Kandahar.28 The MPS was unable to perform this mission due to the landlocked nature of Afghanistan and the ships’ inability to project their forces beyond a coastline or protected port. In 2003 during Iraqi Freedom (unlike Desert Shield, where allied nations had the use of the massive terminals in Saudi Arabia), the MPSs were constrained by the use of a single port of debarkation. Half of the Marine ground forces went by Navy amphibious vessels and the remainder fell in on 11 of the 15 MPSs.29
Coming from the Mediterranean, MPSRON 1 discharged in Ash Shubayia, Kuwait, following the offload of MPSRON 2. The Diego Garcia–based ships found themselves, for the third time, in the midst of a maintenance cycle, nevertheless MPSs were able to maintain a forward-deployment rate of 86 percent.30 With the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime, the ships returned to Kuwait and reconstituted their cargo.
The squadrons were reorganized to provide a more balanced mix of vessels. Next, plans were initiated for a new generation of MPS, referred to as MPS (Future). They were to be 100,000-ton vessels and would allow Marines, beyond the offload-preparation party, to marry up with the ships at sea; provide for the selective offloading of equipment; and finally, reconstitute following the operation. Replacing the fleet could cost up to $30 billion.31
Before plans could be finalized for the Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future) (MPF[F]), MPSRON 2 returned to Kuwait in 2004 to support the redeployment of the Marines to Iraq through 2007.32 In 2005 the six ships of MPSRON 3 deployed to Southeast Asia to support tsunami relief in Operation Unified Assistance.33 One of the ships in MPSRON 2, the USNS GySgt Fred W Stockham (T-AK-3017), was tasked per a request from the Pacific Fleet for conversion into an afloat forward staging base to support Operation Enduring Freedom–Philippines.34 From July 2004 to July 2009, the Stockham served as the prototype for vessels such as the USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15), USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB 3), HSV Swift, M/V C-Commando, and Cragside.
A New Concept
These experiences were incorporated in the August 2005 Joint Chiefs of Staff proposal “Joint Integrating Concept for Sea Basing.” Instead of building a new generation of MPSs, an entirely new concept was developed. MPSRON 1 and 3 would remain, with MSC initiating the paperwork to buy the ships from their commercial owners, but Squadron 2 was earmarked for transformation.35 A new 14-ship flotilla costing up to $14.5 billion would be created and include enhanced survivability, serve as an afloat logistic base, and possess the ability to quickly reconstitute and redeploy. The 14 ships included eight new construction vessels: two America-class helicopter carriers, three Lewis and Clark ammunition/dry cargo ships, and three mobile landing platforms (originally a commercial version of Navy LSDs). In addition, one Wasp-class LHD, two “legacy” MPS, and three modified LMSRs were slated to join the MPF(F) squadron.36
This new flotilla would serve as a sea base for not only itself, but the other two squadrons and follow-on echelons. Supporting a smaller, 12,000-person Marine brigade that could be embarked aboard, 48 MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys and 20 CH-53K heavy-lift Sea Stallions would be available to land Marines and equipment. Each mobile landing platform was envisioned to carry six landing craft air cushions (LCACs). Due to the higher ship speeds, the MPF(F) could arrive on site earlier and assemble forces within 24 to 72 hours. One of the three embarked battalions could employ vertically as soon as 8 to 10 hours after assuming station from up to 110 nautical miles, with the other two battalions being deployed by LCACs and the new Integrated Naval Landing System in conditions up to and including Sea State 3 from a range of 25 nautical miles.
Obviously, the option to place newly built amphibious vessels into a prepositioning role was not well received; one only needs to go back to the deployment of the Lummus with the Tripoli ARG. As discussions on the MPF(F) were under way, MSC initiated some of the proposed modifications to the MPS fleet. In January 2006, the first three of eight Kocak- and Bobo-class MPSs were purchased and redesignated USNSs. As the ships were procured, contracts for the five foreign-built and less capable Maersk Hauge-class vessels were terminated. To replace them, three LMSRs were transferred and their flight decks upgraded, habitability expanded, stern ramps modified, and exteriors painted black and white to match the MPSs, along with the acquisition of the tanker USNS Lawrence H. Gianella and container ship M/V Maj Bernard F Fisher.
By 2011 opposition and costs for the MPF(F) program led to its cancellation.37 In its place the MPS fleet was consolidated into two squadrons, with the elimination of MPSRON 1 on 28 September 2012 and the addition of a sea-basing module to the two remaining groups.38 A fourth LMSR underwent modifications and two Lewis and Clark-dry cargo/ammunition ships entered the program to provide a selected offload capability. Two diminished Mobile Landing Platforms were constructed and provided spaces for half of the planned LCACs and a platform suitable for the ramps from the MPS and LMSRs.39 Once completed, the two squadrons will carry approximately 69 percent of the required supplies for a Marine expeditionary brigade.40 Yet these two new squadrons possess an ability to project ashore and serve as a conduit for any future Marine formations in a way that the NTPF or first-generation MPF never could.
The evolution of the MPS fleet has come a long way from the seven ships hurriedly brought together in 1980. It has demonstrated its utility in nearly every major Marine Corps operation and exercise since then. This marriage of Marines and Merchant Marines began in 1776 and has continued throughout the history of the Corps. Symbolized by the arrival of a maritime prepositioning squadron, with its embarked equipment for a Marine brigade, crewed by civilian merchant mariners, and directed by the Military Sealift Command, it is perhaps one of the most powerful, yet underappreciated power-projection forces in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.
1. Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (New York: Penguin, 2014), 52–7. Jon Hoffman, “Fighting Far From Home,” Naval History, vol. 27, no. 1 (February 2013), 17–19.
2. Malcolm W. Cagle and Frank A. Manson, The Sea War in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957), 104–6, 503–8.
3. Lane Kendall, “U.S. Merchant Shipping and Vietnam,” Vietnam: The Naval Story (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 482–500. John Prados, “The Marines’ Vietnam Commitment,” Naval History, vol. 29, no. 2 (April 2015), 16–25.
4. www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/documents/pddirectives/pd18.pdf. www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/documents/prmemorandums/prm10.pdf.
5. Military Sealift Command (MSC), NTPF Brief (Commander MSC N3 files, undated), 2, and JCS Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, “Service Recommendations for Prepositioned Sealift Package in the Persian Gulf,” JCSM-47-80, 8 February 1980.
6. MSC, NTPF Brief, 1-3.
7. Ibid., 3.
8. Ibid., 3–4.
9. Norman Polmar, The U.S. Naval Institute Guide to Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 12th ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981), 2, 203. Polmar, The U.S. Naval Institute Guide to Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 13th Ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 22–25, 267–69. “U.S. Yards Invited to Bid on First Maritime Prepositioning Ships,” Maritime Reporter and Engineering News (15 September 1980), 51.
10. John F. Nance Jr. and William A. D. Wallace, MPF Exercise Summary (Center for Naval Analyses CRM 89-339, February 1990), 40–41.
11. Norman Friedman, U.S. Amphibious Ships and Craft (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 472–76.
13. Lars E. Anderson, “Build and Charter,” Sealift (November 1974), 16.
14. “18 Ships Refinanced in Landmark Negotiations,” Sealift (March 1987), 2.
15. “Final MPS Squadron Completed,” Sealift (November 1986), 1 and 4.
16. CNO/CMC Memorandum for JCS (CNOM 31-83/CMCM 07-83), 29 July 1983. JCS Message 211702Z November 83, “Maritime Pre-Positioning Ships.”
17. “MSC Participates in Agile Sword ’86,” Sealift (March 1986), 1–2.
18. Timothy Gibbons, “Marines to pay $160M for Blount Property,” Florida Times Union, 16 November 2005.
19. Department of Defense, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War (1992), 34–39.
20. Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E, Trainor, The Generals’ War (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1995), 17, 28–30, and 49–51. Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998), 50, 63–66.
21. U.S. Marine Corps, Warfighting Requirements Branch, Analysis of MPF Operations During Operation Desert Shield (Washington, August 1991), 3-1 – 3-9.
22. Conversation with CAPT H. Vanderploeg, USN, and representatives from the American Overseas Marine Corporation at the time of the operation.
23. MSC, Chronology of APF in Operation Restore Hope (1994), 1.
24. Ibid., 25, 29.
25. CAPT J. L. Flood, USN, “Lessons Learned Operation Restore Hope” (MSC N3, 30 March 1993). Ralph D. Peterson, “Operation Restore Hope Lessons Learned” (Maersk Lines Ltd., 6 May 1993). Thomas Merrell, “Restore Hope” (American Overseas Marine Corporation, 26 February 1993).
26. MSC, 1993 in Review, 40–1.
27. Office of the Inspector General, The U.S. Marine Corps Maritime Prepositioning Force Enhancement Program (17 October 1995), 14–15. MSC, 1995 in Review (1995), 24. MSC, 1997 in Review, 31. MSC, 2001 in Review, 30.
28. Nathan S. Lowrey, U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001–2002: From the Sea (Washington, DC, 2011), 75–105.
29. Michael S. Groen, With the 1st Marine Division in Iraq, 2003: No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy (Washington, DC, 2006), 19–20, 64–68.
30. CNO/CMC Memorandum for JCS (CNOM 31-83/CMCM 07-83), 29 July 1983. JCS Message 211702Z November 83, “Maritime Pre-Positioning Ships.”
31. Congressional Budget Office, The Future of the Navy’s Amphibious and Maritime Prepositioning Forces (Washington, DC, November 2004), 23–24.
32. Kenneth W. Estes, U.S. Marine Corps Operations in Iraq, 2003–2006 (Quantico, VA, 2009), 19–24.
33. MSC, 2007 in Review, 31–32.
34. ADM Vern Clark, USN, “Sea Power 21,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 128, no. 1 (October 2002), 36–37. Congressional Budget Office, Sea Basing and Alternatives for Deploying and Sustaining Ground Combat Forces (Washington, DC, July 2007), vii–ix.
35. Congressional Research Service, Navy-Marine Corps Amphibious and Maritime Prepositioning Ship Programs: Background and Oversight Issues for Congress (2 August 2005), 10–15. Tyler Rogoway, “USS America: The Navy’s Newest Flattop Can’t Decide What the Hell It Is,” Foxtrot Alpha (12 October 2014). Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Navy Newest LHA-6, A Dead End for Amphibious Ships?” Breaking Defense (3 October 2012).
36. Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2011 Shipbuilding Plan (Washington, DC, May 2010), 1.
37. Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2011 Shipbuilding Plan (Washington, DC, May 2010), 1.
38. MSC, MSC’s Maritime Prepositioning Squadron One, 28 September 2012.