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FreightWaves Classics: Ship honors Chambers, a Naval aviation pioneer

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On September 11, 2010, the dry cargo vessel USNS (United States Naval Ship) Washington Chambers was christened and launched. The activities took place at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) shipyard in San Diego. NASSCO, which is a division of General Dynamics, has three shipyards that are located in San Diego, Norfolk, Virginia, and Mayport, Florida. The San Diego shipyard specializes in constructing commercial cargo ships and auxiliary vessels for the U.S. Navy and Military Sealift Command; it is the only new-construction shipyard on the U.S. West Coast. 

The launch of the USNS Washington Chambers. (Photo: U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command/
The launch of the USNS Washington Chambers.
(Photo: U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command/

Nearly 1,000 people attended the USNS Washington Chambers ceremonies. Loretta Penn, the wife of former Assistant Navy Secretary and Acting Navy Secretary B.J. Penn, christened the ship by smashing a bottle of champagne against its bow.

Captain Michael Flannigan was the civil service master for USNS Washington Chambers. During the ceremony, Flannigan highlighted the day’s somber anniversary (the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States). “This is a monumental day,” he said to those in attendance. “We remember the 9/11 attacks and this great ship.”

The program for the christening ceremony. (Photo:
The program for the christening ceremony. (Photo:

“Just as Washington Chambers saw the need for modernization in the field of naval aviation, so too does our team embrace the need for change in our endeavors if we are to be successful when confronted with future challenges,” said Fred Harris, who was president of NASSCO at that time. “This morning’s ceremony is the culmination of thousands of individual efforts by the more than 6,000 men and women of the General Dynamics NASSCO-Navy shipbuilding team who are working hard on improvements to meet present and emerging threats to our national security.“

The USNS Washington Chambers was constructed for use by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. The original crew for the ship included 129 civil service mariners and 11 Navy sailors. (Non-commissioned, primarily civilian-manned vessels under the Military Sealift Command, which oversees the Navy’s transport ships, have names that begin with USNS.)

U.S. Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers. (Photo:
U.S. Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers.

Captain Washington Irving Chambers 

The new ship was named after U.S. Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers (1856-1934), who was instrumental in the development of the Navy’s aviation program.

Chambers served in the U.S. Navy for 43 years. Near the end of his Naval career Chambers served as the first officer to lead the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation, where he had oversight of the service branch’s fledgling aviation program. From 1910 to 1913 Chambers consulted and worked with “early aviation pioneers Orville Wright and Glenn Curtiss; organized the first airplane landing (1910) and take off (1911) from a ship in collaboration with pioneer aviator Eugene Ely; recruited the first naval aviators; established aviator training; oversaw the first budget appropriation of $25,000 from which he purchased the first aircraft for the Navy; designed a catapult to launch aircraft from warships; and led a Board that recommended establishment of the first naval air station at Pensacola, Florida.” Chambers is considered by many to be “the Father of Naval Aviation.”

Preparing for launching of A-1 Triad Hydroaeroplane. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
Preparing for the launch of A-1 Triad Hydroaeroplane. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

Rear Admiral Richard J. Hanlon, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, was also a speaker at the ship’s launch. He said, “Washington Chambers gave us a legacy of hard work and perseverance. Today, we honor him with a namesake that was not only built with his example at its forefront but a ship that will serve the Navy with the same example by which he served.”

A C-2 flying boat on the catapult launch from a barge in Pensacola. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
A C-2 flying boat on the catapult, to be launched from a barge in Pensacola. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

The ship and the MSC

After a series of tests and sea trials, USNS Washington Chambers was formally delivered to the Military Sealift Command on February 23, 2011. USNS Washington Chambers (T-AKE-11) is one of the MSC’s Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ships.

Since joining the fleet, the USNS Washington Chambers has delivered ammunition, food, mail, dry provisions, limited quantities of fuel, repair parts, and expendable supplies to ships at sea. Re-provisioning at sea by Lewis and Clark-class vessels like the USNS Washington Chambers allows U.S. Navy ships to remain underway and combat-ready for extended periods of time.

The seal of the United States Navy Military Sealift Command. (Image: MSC Public Affairs Office)
The seal of the United States Navy Military Sealift Command. (Image: MSC Public Affairs Office)

The Military Sealift Command controls the replenishment and military transport ships of the United States Navy. It has the responsibility to provide sealift and ocean transportation for all U.S. military services as well as for other government agencies. 

Originally named the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), it was founded on July 9, 1949, and charged with the Department of Defense’s ocean transport needs. The MSTS was renamed the Military Sealift Command in 1970.

The MSC’s ships include a core fleet of ships owned by the United States Navy and others under long-term-charter augmented by short-term or voyage-chartered ships. The Navy-owned ships have hull numbers as an equivalent commissioned ship would have with the prefix T- and are primarily crewed by either civil service mariners or contract crews. Some ships may also have Navy or Marine Corps personnel on board for communication and special mission functions, or for force protection.

The seal of the USNS Washington Chambers. (Image: Public Domain)
The seal of the USNS Washington Chambers. (Image: Public Domain)

FreightWaves Classics thanks General Dynamics, the Military Sealift Command, NASSCO, the Naval History & Heritage Command, and the U.S. Navy for information and photos that contributed significantly to this article.

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Old Dominion Freight Line (No. 9).

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.