From The Desk of the Old Timer

by Bob Cary

It is a Navy tradition that battleships be named for states, cruisers for cities, and submarines for fish. It will probably be a long time before we get a cruiser named “The Ely,’ but we had a navy ship that came close. Oilers, those craft that haul fuel around for the Navy’s fighting ships, are named after rivers with Indian names. Oiler No. 146 was named the USS Kawishiwi, after the river in our backyard. <BR><BR>Nobody ever heard of any spectacular battle mission starring an oiler, but they are very necessary to the success of every task force that goes into combat. They are also somewhat of a hazardous craft on which to serve in that they are simply a huge, motorized tank of flammable material. If they take a hit in the hold, it is one big Fourth of July explosion and goodbye!<BR><BR>For the record, the Kawishiwi was 655 feet long, 86 feet across the beam and drew 35 feet of water when fully loaded. Her cargo capacity was over seven million gallons of fuel including aviation fuel, diesel and naval fuel oil. Just in case an enemy came after her, she carried two five-inch guns and six 3-inchers on twin mounts. There were between 254 and 324 sailors on board when at sea.<BR><BR>The Kawishiwi was built in Camden, New Jersey, by the New York Ship Building Corp., starting in 1953 and was completed in 1954. At the commissioning ceremonies at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey was the principal speaker, Captain Joseph Swain, in command.<BR><BR>The Kawishiwi first put out to sea, November, 1955, sailing down the Delaware River in a snowstorm, somewhat fitting for a ship named for a northern Minnesota river. From then through the Vietnam War, it traveled all over the Pacific much of the time with the U.S. 7th Fleet. Those were the hectic days of the Cold War with Russian submarines stalking our line ships. The Kawishiwi was in and out of ports in Japan, Philippines, Hawaii, Hong Kong and California.<BR><BR>During this period, the most excitement occurred when the oiler sank a ship. This was not a combat mission, but an accident. While attempting to dock at Long Beach, California: the Kawishiwi rammed into a tug and sent it to the bottom. One of the few instances in history when an oilier sank another ship. Perhaps the only time an oiler sank one of our own.<BR><BR>For a period of time, the ship had a mascot on board, a dog named Tangora which had gained a measure of fame at one point by sailing on a raft from California to Hawaii. <BR><BR>During the Vietnam War, the oiler spent considerable time in the Pacific fueling naval ships patrolling the waters off Southeast Asia. Fortunately, the Vietnamese did not have much of a navy so the craft was never particularly threatened. The crew won a whole series of awards, however, including five Meritorious Conduct Ashore Awards for not getting into any serious trouble in ports across the Pacific. <BR><BR>Sailors on shore leave are notorious for getting into scrapes, but the crew of the Kawishiwi showed exemplary conduct. Also, the ship won a number of awards for gunnery and battle readiness. Of note was the winning of the Ney Award which is given to the ship serving the best food in the fleet. It may be that one reason the Kawishiwi’s crew were so well behaved was because they were well-fed.<BR><BR>The Kawishiwi was decommissioned on October 10, 1979. Not many folks around Ely know we had a ship of that name and we are indebted to one of Ely’s Navy veterans, Dick Zahn, for this information.