As a rule, the Navy’s ships are built in American shipyards. Well actually not all of them. The official Twitter account of U.S. Transport Command recently showcased a Soviet ship now serving the U.S. Navy.
Specifically, the 15,804 ton Maritime Prepositioning Force Ship USNS Lance Cpl. Roy M. Wheat. The tweet is part of a ‘meet the fleet’ effort which is raising awareness of the less well known ships in the U.S. Navy. And the transport ships like Wheat do deserve more attention. But this ship has a unique back story because it was built at a time and place which put it on the other side during the Cold War. She was literally built in the U.S.S.R.
The U.S. Naval Service are among the many unsung heroes of overseas operations. Yet the role their Surge Sealift fleet plays, getting the troops and tanks to the fighting, is critically important. USNS Lance Cpl. Roy M.Wheat is one of 17 heavy lift ships in Military Sealift Command’s Maritime fleet.
The ship was laid down in 1987 at the Chernomorski yard in Nikolaiev in Ukraine, which was at the time part of the Soviet Union. She was as the forth and last of the Project 1609 “Captain Smirnov” class cargo ships. In soviet parlance these were ‘Atlantic’ type ships, pointing to their ability to travel long distances in harsh seas.
She was launched in August 1989 as the “Vladimir Vaslyaev” (ВЛАДИМИР ВАСЛЯЕВ in Russian) and operated by the Black Sea Shipping Company (BLASCO). During the 1980s, BLASCO was the largest shipping company in the world.
It was several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the U.S. Navy acquired her on the commercial market in 1997. After a refit she joined the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in 2003 as part of their Surge Sealift fleet. Several other MSC ships are also originally built overseas and then purchased, but as far as I can find out she is the only one built in the U.S.S.R.
In U.S. service she is named in recognition of Lance Cpl. Roy Wheat who won the Medal Of Honor in Vietnam. On August 11, 1967 Wheat and two other marines were providing security for a U.S. Navy construction crew in Dien Ban District, Quảng Nam Province. Wheat accidentally triggered a bounding mine. This is a type of booby trap which fires a grenade-like mine into the air before it explodes, showering a large area with deadly shrapnel. Wheat realized what had happened and shouted a warning to his fellow marines before throwing himself on the mine. He smothered it so that his body would absorb the explosion. For sacrificing his own life to save the life of others he was awarded the Medal Of Honor.
USNS Lance Cpl. Roy M. Wheat, and the ships like her in MSC, will continue to play a largely unseen role supporting U.S. forces around the world. In many respects the country of her construction is irrelevant. But it adds to the richness of the history and shows that many ships outlive the politics of their birth.