How did a U.S. Navy ship, built at the peak of World War II, come to be named after a small river in Western Maine? At the time, it was the custom for the Navy to name “oilers” (oil tanker) after American rivers. With shipbuilding approaching its apex in 1943, many of the names of our country’s major river were already in service. Whoever came up with the bright idea of using the name Kennebago is unknown, but chances are more than good that they enjoyed fly-fishing, in Rangeley.

When World War II began in Europe in 1939, the United States was practicing isolationism and “protected” by two vast oceans. Our nation was politically determined not to get involved in another World War. The U.S. Navy consisted of just 394 total ships to defend the sea lanes for commerce on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In fact, prior to Pearl Harbor just two years later, the United States Military was ranked #17 in the entire world… behind Romania!

When Japanese Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, learned that the Pearl Harbor surprise attack had not sunk any of the U.S. Pacific Fleets 4 aircraft carriers, he was forlorn and exclaimed, “All we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve”. Yamamoto had been educated at Harvard and knew that America’s industrial might would indeed awaken, and that arms production would skyrocket, especially ship building. He knew that having lost the ability to sink our carriers and then sue for peace with a critically disabled enemy, his country had no hope for winning a protracted war against the enraged industrial powerhouse America would become. Of course, he was right, and our fleets grew from 394 fighting ships in 1939 to… 3699 by the end of 1943! That figure does NOT include our vast merchant fleet, which was even larger! Therefore, it is safe to say the Navy was beginning to run out of names for ships by the time a keel was laid down in Sausalito, Ca. for a 523 ft. armed “Oiler” to be named after a trout stream in western Maine.

Construction of the Kennebago took just 5 months and she was slipped down the ways on May 9, 1943 after Mrs. W. E. Waste smashed a bottle of bubbly on her bow. The ship was commissioned by the US Navy on December 4, 1943. After an initial shakedown cruise off the west coast, Kennebago departed San Diego in late January 1944 for various bases in the Aleutian Islands carrying fuel oil and aviation gasoline. She returned to San Diego on 28 February, reloaded with fuel, and departed for the Marshall Islands, a key target in the U.S. “island hopping” campaign to defeat Japan.

She arrived on April 15, 1944 and continued to make fueling runs from Pearl Harbor to the Marshalls. After the United States invasion of the Marianas, Kennebago departed the Marshalls on 19 June. Loaded as she was, Kennebago was a prime target for enemy submarines and aircraft, because you can’t win a war without fuel. However, as she would do many times during the war, she made it through the gauntlet to Saipan to refuel the fighting ships and aircraft of the vaunted 5th Fleet. It makes one think how could anyone get a decent night’s sleep aboard a ship that would instantly become a ball of fire, if torpedoed while sailing through such waters?

On October 9, 19944, USS Kennebago again headed into harm’s way to rendezvous with Vice Admiral Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force, Task Force 38, conducting operations in the Philippine Sea. She successfully helped refuel these important carriers with aviation fuel to allow her planes to take the fight to the enemy. She would then depart the fleet to refill her 140,000 barrel capacity at the U.S. resupply base at Ulithi and return again to help keep Mitscher’s fleet and air wings carry the fight. She would later go on to support Gen. Douglas Macarthur’s return to the Philippines during landing operations in Lingayen Gulf. Kennebago and her brave crew continued with their refueling operations in the Pacific theater until  April 1945, when she would sail for Los Angeles, California. After a brief overhaul, Kennebago was again ready for operations in the Western Pacific, departing on June 12, 1945 after brief stops in San Francisco, California, and Pearl Harbor.

After the Japanese surrender, Kennebago operated out of Okinawa until October 1945, when she would steam to Taku, China to support the United States 7th Fleet in support of the Nationalist Chinese troops fighting the Communist Chinese for control of China. After returning to Pearl Harbor in December, she once again sailed across the vast Pacific to Hong Kong in 1946 and then back again to San Francisco. Once returning stateside, Kennebago sailed for a spot closer to the river she was named after, Boston.

After over a year in Boston, Kennebago was transferred to the Maritime Commission in May 1947 as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. After her valiant service to our country, it looked as though her days were numbered, but she was reacquired by the United States in October 1949 and was placed in service with the Military Sea Transportation Service.  After serving in the Korean War and supporting American naval power during the early Cold War, she was again released to the Maritime Administration “to be mothballed” in November 1957 in Beaumont, Texas.

Then for a 3rd time she was given new life and was reacquired by the Navy in May 1958 for logistical supply in the Pacific. During 1959, the globe-trotting Kennebago, was transferred to the 6th Fleet operating in the Mediterranean Sea. After returning to New York City in May 1959 she was once again be mothballed to the James River, Va. However, they couldn’t keep the “old girl” down for long! The Kennebago was activated for a 4th time and refitted to serve in her final mission. This time, oddly enough, for the United States Army. She sailed from Virginia for Vietnam in 1966 and was operated as a floating power station at anchor near Nha Trang, until May 1971.  At the close of that same year after 28 years of service to our country, she was sold in Taiwan for scrap iron.

The USS Kennebago left a proud history, earning seven different awards throughout the course of her career. She earned the China Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, six Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medals, the World War II Victory Medal, the Navy Occupation Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Philippine Liberation Medal.

Just as her namesake river has cascaded from its headwaters in the Boundary Mountains to eventually replenish the waters of Cupsuptic and Mooselookmeguntic, the proud ship USS Kennebago, helped to keep the Navy’s vital Carrier fleets replenished with the fuel necessary for their long and valiant voyage to eventual victory.


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