Related Photos and Information
 
During the Cold War Soviet spy vessels were often on the prowl.  Many of these vessels were disguised as part of the Soviet fishing fleet.  Soviet Trawlers sailed about the Pacific close to the coast, especially around Alaska, in order to glean whatever intelligence they could.  Often Navy vessels followed the Trawlers keeping watch on them.  The USS Tracer and other AGR’s would monitor the spy vessels whenever they approached a specific station, keeping track of the Trawlers while they were relatively close to the coast.  The photo above is of one of those Soviet Fishing Trawlers.  Is the ship pictured above a spy vessel?  Only the Soviets would have known for sure.

 
USS Oklahoma (Los Angeles Class Nuclear Submarine) coming into port.

Note:  The Navy of the USS Tracer (1960’s Navy) was the Navy of the post World War II era and nothing like the all-volunteer Navy of today.  When the author entered the Navy after high school, to avoid being drafted into the Army, he received one hundred and eighty dollars per month.  In 1961 a Seaman Apprentice received ninety dollars each payday, a far cry from the pay scale of the all-volunteer Navy of today.  Today, there is no draft and there is no Viet Nam War hanging over anyone’s head.  Today, an entry-level sailor is paid wages comparable to civilian pay.

Today's Navy
 
 
The USS Nimitz (CVN 68) is an Attack Carrier that has been in service since 1975.  A few years ago the Nimitz was transferred from San Diego, California to Everret, Washington, which is now the ship’s homeport.  There is a great television program entitled Carrier being shown on the Discovery Channel from time to time.  The program follows the Nimitz on a six month cruise mostly in the area of the Arabian Peninsula.  The program is usually shown in eight parts, that is, eight, one hour segments.  This program unintentionally highlights the differences between today’s Navy and the Navy of Radar Picket Ships. 


 Yesterday’s Navy
The USS Constitution famous from the War of 1812 where she gained the nickname Old Ironsides.  One of the Navy’s original three masted frigates, she was named by George Washington when launched in 1797.  Today the Constitution is berthed in the Old Navy Yard in Boston, Mass.     

THE MISSION:

During the period between 1955 and 1965 the United States Navy employed radar picket ships converted from WWII liberty ships to extend the Defense Early Warning Line (the DEW line) seaward.  Sixteen liberty ships were converted into radar picket ships and eventually stationed on the East and West Coasts.  The home  port for eight of the ships was Treasure Island Naval Base in California and the home port of the remaining eight was Davisville, Rhode Island.  The eight ships stationed at Treasure Island were named:  Investigator, Protector, Vigil, Interdictor, Interpreter, Tracer and Watchman.  The designation of the new ships was Guardian Class.  That is, all the Ships carried the designation AGR on their bow meaning, Auxiliary Guardian-Class Radar and all were numbered 1 through 16 (example:  AGR 1, AGR 2… AGR 16).

Radar picket stations were spotted about 400-500 miles out and provided an overlapping radar barrier against approaching aircraft. The assignment was to fill in gaps in the early warning system of the post WWII era.  The job of the AGR’s was to give the nation early warning of incoming hostile aircraft and to identify incoming ships; sometimes keeping track of Soviet Fishing Trawlers (spy ships) active in the area.  While on station, the AGR’s would shift operational control from the Navy to the Air Force; each ship staying within a specific (approximately fifty mile) radius in an assigned station.  The ships carried qualified Air Controllers to direct American aircraft sent out to intercept and engage suspicious contacts.  While on station, duties such as:  Search and Rescue, weather reporting, and other tasks were part of the assignment.  The National Marine Fisheries Service even provided fishing gear so that the crew could fish for Tuna and Dorado during season. The ships would send in daily reports of fish caught to help the NMFS with their research.


The standard crew of a Radar Picket Ship consisted of 13 Officers, eight Chief Petty Officers, and 125 enlisted. Typical station duty was about 30-45 days out and 15 days in port.  Because these ships spent so much time at sea, usually 60 to 70 percent each year (220 to 250 days), the Navy realized that habitability would be a prime concern.  So living conditions were nothing like the typical conditions on other Navy ships.  Officers had private staterooms and CPO's shared a stateroom with one other CPO.  On some ships berthing compartments were even air-conditioned (not the Tracer) which was unheard of at the time in the Navy.  The mess decks were not unlike a civilian restaurant, and the food rivaled shore base galleys.  There was an attempt to decorate mess decks in cheerful colors and on many ships the mess decks served as an unofficial crew's lounge, even though there was a small space designated as a crew's lounge in another part of the ship.

To help avoid boredom during long periods at sea each ship came up with ingenious ways to entertain the crew, such as:  fishing, shooting practice, swim call and sun bathing on southern stations.  As they were converted freighters there was plenty of space aboard ship.  Therefore, all the ships had a small movie theater set up in one of the cargo holds and other cargo holds might be used as half-sized basketball courts, small libraries, small volley ball courts or anything else the crews could come up with.
 
There were approximately six Picket Stations.   The stations corresponded roughly to the US and Canadian Border in the north and to the US and Mexican Border in the south.  They fanned out along the Pacific, 500 miles off the coast, corresponding very roughly to the cities of Seattle WA, Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA and Los Angeles, CA..


 
               
 
The crude map above shows the relative positions of the six stations off the West Coast of the United States.  Roughly speaking, the six stations (patrolled by radar picket ships) fanned out from the cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The farther the fan went out, the wider the area AGR’s patrolled.  Station one was the station farthest north, off the coast of Alaska, and station six (the farthest south) was on a line fanning out from the Mexican border.  The map also shows the range of American aircraft off the West Coast.  Aircraft patrolled areas closer to the coast with AGR’s filling in the gap farther out to sea.  In those days a system was employed called:  Information, Friend or Foe.  IFF worked thusly: the tracking ship or aircraft sent out a signal that was received by the incoming aircraft.  Upon which, transponders on the incoming aircraft would respond with information indicating the aircraft was friendly. 

And this was the early warning system of the 1960’s.  
 
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Even though today---in the era of the War on Terror---some Navy ships spend longer periods at sea then the Radar Picket Ships did---it’s not the same.  Consider!  The Picket Ships didn’t have telephone service to home, nor did they have television, or the Internet.  Essentially they were cut off from all but basic information about what was happening in the world.  For example, the Tracer had a crew member named Jones on one of our pickets whose wife died while we were at sea.  Seaman Jones didn’t find out for several days that his wife had died and then had to wait weeks before we could transfer him to another ship heading into port.  He was, of course, quite concerned about his children.  We transferred Jones at sea by coming along side another vessel and shooting a line over.  Then, we set up rigging and sent him across to the other ship in a Boatswain’s chair.  I can still see that chair sagging to the surface of the broiling sea and Jones hastily pulling his feet up to avoid getting wet (he went in up to his ankles).
 
These days, Aircraft carriers (one example), are gone from home for around six months at a time… however, quite often they stop at foreign ports.  Today, sailors aboard an aircraft carrier at sea have television, the Internet, and emails.  They are able to watch cable news everyday and are aware of what is going on in the world, and they are paid at a civilian rate of pay.  Sailors today are truly volunteers… there is no draft!
 

The two photos below were taken on board the USS Tracer while on Picket.  The photo on the left shows a young sailor hoisting a signal flag.  The reason for the signal flag is unknown; perhaps the Tracer was about to toss a line over to another vessel and the flag was used to signal vessels that might be in the area that tandem operations were underway.  The photo on the right shows a young sailor actually on the helm of the USS Tracer while the ship was on station.  The helm station is on the Flying Bridge, which means the weather the day the photo was taken was exceptional and the Captain had transferred the watch up to the Flying Bridge from the Pilothouse.

 

          

 



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