In the mid-1950s, the Navy acquired five Mariner-class merchant ship hulls to arm them with liquid-fueled ballistic missiles. In the meantime, the solid-fuel Polaris missile enabled the Navy to launch its nuclear missiles from submarines, and the Mariners were converted to other uses. The Diamond Mariner became the USS Paul Revere (APA-248), an attack transport. Then-Captain Robert Erly was her first skipper, as related in this edited excerpt from a Naval Institute oral history interview with Paul Stillwell on 27 September 1990.
In speaking to my detailer in the Bureau of Naval Personnel, I zeroed in on that ship because it was a new prototype. It was to be the first 20-knot APA. It was converted at the Todd Shipyard in San Pedro, California. I knew it was going to have a helo platform on it, and it was going to have all the latest boats. I think the biggest challenge is taking a new ship and getting it started right. You know damn well when you finish that tour, either you’ve done a good job or you haven’t. It’s obvious. You’ve got a lot of visitors, and you are under the magnifying glass.
Working with the shipyard during the conversion, my people and I had a lot to do. We were down there watching what was going on and trying to get change orders through that we thought were going to increase our efficiency over that which the ship’s plans called for. Things were going on that I didn’t like, even the stowage of the Mike boat landing craft, because I ended up even early on starting to call and say, “This design is not going to work. You’ve got a battering ram there. You’re going to smash your bridge to pieces in any type of a seaway trying to get a boat back on board and stowed—or even off; you’re going to have problems.”
You could go on and on, even to the mundane things. As I was eagle-eyeing what was going on, I saw a shipyard civilian worker laying linoleum. He and his men hadn’t even bothered to clean the deck before they started to do this, with all the crud and stuff under it. I had my people prepped. I said, “As soon as we see something wrong, tell us.” Then I’d go right to the Todd Shipyard manager. The finished product eventually turned out pretty much to our satisfaction, though we still had to get the Mike boat stowage modified because it was too close to the superstructure.
We commissioned the ship on 9 October 1958. Well, you do little things with flair. I rehearsed this business to set the watch, and what we did at that moment was have the chief boatswain’s mate pipe the call. It was not on the PA system, but I had boatswain’s mates stationed all down the ship, and you could hear it picked up, passed along, see, all throughout the ship. Then the sound would come back, and it was really impressive.
Once we went out and operated, she was the queen of the seas. It was just great having that 20-knot APA. I would think one of the things that I can’t help but chuckle about, with coming in and out of port in San Diego, and here the destroyers would be coming up. As you were starting to head in, you’d see these destroyers would be coming along and say, “Hey, there’s an APA. We’ll just zoom right past them.” About this time, see, I was making 20, and they didn’t know what to make of all this. So they never did pass us coming in. It was great having that speed. Her seakeeping capabilities were just great. Her final boat-handling inspection was great. She was a great sea boat, stable.
Her accommodations for Marines and for the crew were, I think, outstanding in comparison with any other APA. The only thing that I didn’t like—and I rebelled at from the word go—was the arrangement for the troop messing compartments. The design called for the Marines to eat standing up. I arranged for changes to be made so they would be able to sit.
We decided to compete for the Ney Award, which is based on food service excellence on board ship. Number one, the quality of our chow was to be the same with our crew as it was when we took on 1,200 Marines. I preached to my people: “The mission of this ship is to transport troops, and unless we have troops on board, we’re not carrying out our mission. We’re hand in hand with them.” I said, “If it takes us feeding 24 hours a day, I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to have them stand up to eat.” Then we give the Marines a questionnaire asking for their comments and recommendations on the chow. I had stacks of these.
With that approach and hard work by the crew, we won the award. There was a comical aspect—and I’ve still got a clipping in one of my scrapbooks—we made The New Yorker. They wrote a little squib that said, “USS Paul Revere has been declared the best general mess in the United States Navy.” There was a little teasing about that, because “mess” could also mean we screwed up.
To learn more about the U.S. Naval Institute Oral History Program, visit the program’s webpage at usni.org/archives/oral-histories.