Archivist’s Attic: The Walking Barge

Faster than a speeding Rhino barge, more powerful than an outboard motor, able to leap longer and further than a frog, look on the ground and in the sea; it’s a jeep, it’s a tractor, it’s…The Walking Barge!?

In 1948, the Navy sought a new means to haul men and materials through surf, soft mud, sand and quagmires to reach shore dry and ready to go. The task of developing this was handed to the men at the Advanced Base Depot Proving Ground in Port Hueneme, Calif. They came up with an ingenious idea of using pontoons and an outboard motor to drive the barge through the water until it reached a point where a specially designed leapfrog mechanism could be operated.

The walking barge, as it was called, was capable of carrying 60 tons of men and materiel. The frog-like gadget was made of all-welded construction and consisted of three pontoons placed side by side. The two outer pontoons were each slightly more than 9-feet high, 60-feet long and 6-feet wide. Fitted between the two outer hulls, the inner pontoon was 16-feet wide, 44-feet long and 6-feet wide.

walking barge 1

The barge moved using these pontoons in a halting leapfrog motion. The inboard pontoons were first lifted 17 inches off the ground then moved forward 10 feet at this level and then were lowered to the ground. That action would be followed by the outboard pontoons which were decked over and carried the payload. “Leapfrogging” upward and forward in the same manner as the inboard pontoon, they would come to a rest in their original position over the inboard pontoon.

Just like a frog though, this amphibious adaptation was just at home in mud and water as well as on dry ground. In mud traction was obtained through vertical fins installed in the bow of the inner portion and in the forward sections of the outboard pontoons. The fins were automatically raised into the hull as the barge made its way forward and were lowered into the mud when it touched down. In water, the barge jumped out as far as possible before the propeller took over.

Walking barge 2

This basic design prompted engineers to recommend it for various other jobs including a carrier for road mats and vehicles. Additionally, it could act as a stable platform for use in construction of causeways, bridges, docks and piers. Not all of these ideas were put into place but the simple design of the walking barge lent itself so well to various operations that it was used from the islands all the way down to Antarctica.

Throughout the years various improvements and redesigns leapt the walking barge into the future including various uses for tourists around the world; all due to a little inspiration from our long legged friends!

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150225-N-JU810-001Meet the Archivist: Ingi House
Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from K.U. and M.L.S. from E.S.U. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast.  In D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Admiration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history lead her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison

Curator’s Corner: Ship-to-Shore Part 3 – Landing Ship, Tank

LST’s unloading from a beach landing. 1943 [U.S. Navy Seabee Museum]

LST’s unloading from a beach landing. 1943 [U.S. Navy Seabee Museum]

To conclude our ship-to-shore series this week, it’s important to discuss the ships that made these amphibious operations possible. One ship in particular is truly an “amphibious” ship, the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) which could be maneuvered onto a beach. If the water was too shallow for a landing of this type, pontoon causeways were launched from the LST to form a temporary pier from which its vehicles, troops, and cargo were directly unloaded. This unique feature enabled the LST to be offloaded swiftly and efficiently by the Seabees.

Seabee’s have “married” a pontoon causeway to an LST to offload the ship’s cargo to shore. 1944 [U.S. Navy Seabee Musem]

Seabee’s have “married” a pontoon causeway to an LST to offload the ship’s cargo to shore. 1944 [U.S. Navy Seabee Musem]

It was made clear by the British in 1940 that the Allies needed relatively large, ocean-going ships capable of ship-to-shore delivery of tanks and other vehicles in amphibious assaults in Europe. The first concept was to transform ships with shallow drafts (vessels whose keel is not far below the waterline) and add bow doors and ramps to create the first LSTs. Although they proved their worth, their design made them inadequately slow and an all-new design needed to be incorporated into a sleeker hull.

After a discussion with President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in 1941 confirmed the need for these kinds of ships, the British and United States Navy worked together at the Navy’s Bureau of Ships to develop ideas for this ship.

John Niedermair of the Bureau of Ships sketched out an awkward looking ship that became the basic design model for the more than 1,000 LST’s that were built during WWII.

To meet both the conflicting requirements of deep draft for ocean travel and shallow draft for beaching, the ship was designed with a large ballast system, which allowed the ships to adjust their buoyancy in the water by filling a ship’s compartment with water during ocean passage and pumped out for beaching operations.

In the final plans, the LST stretched to 328 feet in length which would distribute the ships weight over a greater area enabling it to ride higher in the water when landing on beaches. It was capable of carrying a load of 2,100 tons and included a crew of 160, carrying 600 troops, and 500 tons of battle cargo. The bow door opening and ramp measured 14 feet wide to accommodate most Allied vehicles and an elevator (which was later changed to a ramp) was provided to lower vehicles from the main deck to the tank deck for disembarking.

Seabees waiting to offload cargo from the top deck of the LST. 1943 [U.S. Navy Seabee Museum]

Seabees waiting to offload cargo from the top deck of the LST. 1943 [U.S. Navy Seabee Museum]

Once the design was completed, a high priority was assigned to the construction of LSTs. The need for them was urgent and the LST program stayed a high priority thought out the war.

The LSTs combat debut was in the Solomon Islands in 1943 and stayed in use until the end of the war in 1945. They participated in many invasions in the European Theater and were an essential element in the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific which included the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Not only were LSTs remarkably versatile ships, they could also be repurposed. Some LSTs became landing craft repair ships, small hospital ships, or fitted with flight decks for small planes and helicopters.

Throughout the war, the LSTs demonstrated a remarkable capacity to withstand enemy fire. With the nickname, “Large Slow Target” given by crew members, they suffered few losses in proportion to their number and their operation. Their ingenious structural arrangement provided unusual strength and buoyancy. Although the LST was considered a valuable target by the enemy, only 26 of the 1,051 LST’s constructed were lost due to enemy action and a mere 13 actually sunk.

Although most of the LSTs were scrapped or sunk after the war ended, the LSTs performed an integral service in WWII and played a vital role for the ingenious ship-to-shore concept.

LST model on display at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum.

LST model on display at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum.

Be sure to visit the museum and check out the WWII Atlantic Theater presentation to view a model of the LST as well as the other items discussed in this ship-to-shore series.

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150225-N-JU810-010Meet the Curator: Robyn King
Robyn King earned her Bachelors in History and Anthropology from the State University of New York at Oneonta. She has experience working at State Museums, Historic Sites, the National Parks Service, and most recently the Navy. She’s an expert in collection management, and has worked closely with both natural and cultural collections. Robyn loves all museums and sharing her love of history. When’s she not working, she’s volunteering her time with the National Peace Corps Association, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from West Africa.

On This Day: CBMUs 627, 628, 629 aid military units in crossing Rhine River in 1945

Seabees help Patton and Army cross the Rhine River.

Crossing the Rhine at Boppard, Germany. The boat crews are Seabees wearing Army uniforms at the request of General Patton.

March 11, 1945

Many times in the Second World War the Seabees were called on to do odd jobs of an urgent and extemporaneous nature. These jobs were dictated by the demands of combat operations. When the German lines in France were breached, the United States Army asked the Seabees to operate landing craft, pontoon causeways, and rhino ferries to help breach the Rhine River Barrier.

The Naval Construction Force accepted the challenge on March 11, 1945. The task was assigned to detachments from Construction Battalion Maintenance Units 627, 628, and 629. At ports in Normandy, the Seabees loaded their landing craft and pontoons on mammoth trucks and hauled them across France and the German borderlands to the Rhine River.

The Rhine’s swift and tricky currents had baffled armies since the time of Julius Caesar. However, the Seabees made the crossing with comparative ease. They first crossed the Rhine at Bad Neuenahr near Remagen. On March 22, General George Patton put his armored forces across the Rhine at Oppenheim in a frontal assault which swept away the Germans.

The Seabees participated in the operation. In addition, the Seabees built pontoon ferries similar to their famous Rhino ferries to move tanks across the river in pairs. In all, the Seabees operated more than 300 craft as ferry service which shuttled thousands of troops into the heart of Germany.

Whales over water.

Smaller boats pull sections of a bridge.

Seabees assist Patton cross the Rhine.

A portion of an Army bridge is being pushed into place by LCVP on the Rhine River near the Remagen bridgehead.

View more images on our Flickr page and visit the museum to learn more about the Seabees Atlantic Theater contributions in WWII.

Curator’s Corner: Ship-to-Shore Part 1, The Magic Box

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U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Curator Robyn King stands next to a pontoon, currently on display in the Atlantic Theater presentation in the museum, to demonstrate the size.

Not only as a museum professional, but on a personal level, I am fascinated in any history that has incredible stories and holds interest in which I would like to gain knowledge so I may share it with others. I am a museum curator; I want to show you the amazing history behind the Seabees!

Over the next couple of weeks, we will share the incredible ingenuity and construction behind the concept “Ship-to-Shore.” Moving men, trucks, and all of their equipment off Landing Ship, Tanks (LSTs) onto land in the most efficient way possible – it’s quite ingenious.

This week we’ll discuss the “secret weapon” of the Navy: pontoons. They came to be called “magic boxes” and were nothing short of a miracle. A simple steel box which helped lead the way to victory during WWII.

By 1943 the U.S. was immerged in war on two fronts; the Atlantic and the Pacific. Thousands of men, trucks, armament, and equipment needed a fast and efficient way to offload from ships, most often under enemy fire.

A frequent challenge surrounded the LST’s, which were vessels that could drive their ramps clear to a beach and offload machines with no time lost. Unfortunately, many of the LST’s were getting stuck in the water hundreds of feet before reaching the beaches causing equipment to drive off the ships and become submerged.

Photo 2 Pontoons

Capt John N. Layock demonstrates his miracle box for Admiral Ben Moreell, chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. [1943]

The task of finding a solution to this dilemma was given to Capt. John M. Laycock, Naval Civil Engineer Corps, pictured above with Adm. Ben Moreell. He derived the idea of the “magic box.” He had discovered a way to string the 5 x 7 x 5 foot pontoon boxes together and keep them strung rigid and capable of sustaining great weight in a heavy sea. Placing two pontoons side by side and thirty deep, they strung together to create causeways which could attach to the LST’s ramp and offload thousands of men, trucks, and all their equipment to shore within minutes of landing.

Seabees, whose jobs mostly consisted of land construction of airstrips, roads, and oil tanks, were then able to engage in sea operations. The Seabees were responsible for the operation of the pontoons and the transport of men and equipment from LSTs.

Photo 3

A rhino ferry of assembled pontoons married to an LST during the Normandy invasion. [1944]

What is fascinating about the concept behind pontoons is not only could they create causeways, but when fastened together in different capacities, they took numerous other forms! To name a few, pontoons could assemble into self-propelled barges also known as “rhino ferries,” floating dry docks, seaplane ramps, floating cranes, and pontoon bridges.

Photo 4

Crane on top of a pontoon being used to dredge a lagoon. [1943]

New useful combinations were constantly being discovered and each combination contributing to the victory of the war.

The creation of the pontoon was a large contributor to the success of D-Day on the beach of Normandy. Under fire from the Nazis, Seabees assembled sections of the pontoons to become piers which turned into floating roads for the fighting men and armored vehicles leading the beach attack.

Photo 6

Troops coming ashore from the landing craft over the pontoon causeways. Normandy France. [1944]

With the advantage of the Navy’s “secret weapon,” mobile bases could pop up and disassemble all over the pacific. In a war fought on islands from naval bases over long distances, pontoon structures like the floating dry docks could be assembled to assist the nearby raids. Troops could be readily supplied with food, Seabees would have their equipment, damaged planes and boats could be repaired, and oil rigs could be available.

There was no end to the possibilities of these pontoons!

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Desk model of a floating dry dock currently in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s collection.

It is intriguing to discover the Navy’s creativity designing and using these “magic boxes” as well as learning the role they played in the road to victory for WWII. Knowing something as simple as a steel box could be assembled into more intricate designs is one of the many characteristics of the Seabee culture we are passionate about sharing.

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150225-N-JU810-010Meet the Curator: Robyn King
Robyn King earned her Bachelors in History and Anthropology from the State University of New York at Oneonta. She has experience working at State Museums, Historic Sites, the National Parks Service, and most recently the Navy. She’s an expert in collection management, and has worked closely with both natural and cultural collections. Robyn loves all museums and sharing her love of history. When’s she not working, she’s volunteering her time with the National Peace Corps Association, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from West Africa.