USS Oxford AG-159/AGTR-1 (USS Oxford II)
US Navy 1961-1969

The second USS Oxford was a ship in the service of the United States Navy between the years 1960 and 1969. It was originally designated AG-159; in 1964 it was redesignated AGTR-1. It was acquired from the National Defense Reserve Fleet, as it had originally been built and launched in 1945 as a Liberty Ship, running cargo to Europe at the close of World War II. What was the Oxford, though? Er, um, well.

She was a spy ship.

Nowadays, they call them 'trawlers', which is a dry bit of humor. However, the Oxford wasn't; she was what you'd probably call a tramp freighter. Liberty Ship MC hull 3127, she was built at New England Shipbuilding Corp, South Portland, ME (which is either identical to or very close to what is now Bath Iron Works, which builds Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers, among other things). The USN dusted off her mothballs in October, 1960 and sent her off to Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she was made shipshape again and given a nice thick layer of regulation Navy Gray paint. They also stuck an ungodly number of electronic toys in her and enough antenna yardage on top to air-dry the lingerie of all the cathouses in Paris. Why? Those were for her new job.

In the early 1960s, the heady days of the Cold War, it was becoming rapidly clear to everyone involved that communications were going to be the name of the game. Not only people talking to people, but machines talking to people, people talking to machines, and - perhaps most important - machines talking to machines. As a result, platforms were needed to not only receive these signals, but to puzzle out where they might be found, what frequencies they lived on, what they sounded like, and who made them and when.

Aircraft were one way of doing this, of course. However, the problem with aircraft is that they have limited endurance. So unless you know roughly when the Other Guys are going to be chattering on the air, you may miss them. Also, aircraft are fragile, have limited on-board space and power and people, and have an awful tendency to come down on someone else's territory when things go wrong.

Enter the ship.

The notion of using ships to watch things going on in the ether wasn't new - the 'radar picket ship' had been used before, to great effect. But really, they had been performing a fixed task - one for which their equipment had been designed, and their personnel pre-trained. They were, in essence, mobile collection points for data whose nature was known. In this new world, with newer and shinier toys being unveiled every few weeks it seemed, that wasn't good enough. You needed to know what was being blithered about and how, and you needed to know now. The simplest way seemed to be to take the boffins who could tell you that and stick them on a ship and put the ship itself close enough to the action that they could sit there with headphones glued to their ears and pipes in their hands. Then they could wait, emitting clouds of tobacco smoke and probably making all manner of Navy-approved gay jokes as they cracked codes, discovered new signaling protocols and generally had a merry old time.

The Oxford was to be such a ship.

Sure, the Navy will tell you she was a 'communications research vessel' designed to explore 'electromagnetic propagation phenomena.' They'll point proudly to the fact that she was involved in the first shore-to-ship radio communication that was bounced off the Moon. This, however, does seem a bit odd when you consider that the ship took part in no less than ten campaigns of the Vietnam War, and is remembered with fondness by an organization known as the "U.S. Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association."

Make of it what you will.

That 'shore to ship off the Moon' thing wasn't a fluke, either. The Oxford (and her four sister ships of the AGTR class) had a system called TRSSCOM, or Technical Research Ship Special Communications. It consisted of a gyrostabilized 16-foot dish antenna, roughly amidships. This antenna could be used to bounce radio signals off the Moon's surface - so when the Moon was visible both to the ship and to the receiving station (the Navy's communications station in Washington) data could be sent back from the ship for further analysis or for the NCA and military command to utilize. Think of it - a 441-foot satellite phone!

It wasn't all tea and crumpets. After the USS Pueblo incident, one crewman recalls 'ship scuttling devices' being installed in the ship to avoid her being captured by the enemy. Following Israel's attack on the USS Liberty, a large U.S. flag was painted atop her wheelhouse to be visible from the air. The Oxford, however, managed to make it through the wars, and perform the nautical equivalent of dying peacefully in bed. She was decommissioned December 19, 1969 in Yokusuka, Japan and struck from Naval rolls. She was scrapped the following year.

Update: If you're curious about the Ox or life aboard her, you're in luck. Here at E2 we happen to have a veteran of this ship prowling the ways; head on over and check out the early nodes of turboeye in which he describes his experiences.

Specs

Length: 441 ft. 6 in.
Beam: 59 ft.
Draft: 22 ft. (I presume that's operating, i.e. loaded to sail)
Displacement: 11,365 t (fluid)
Speed: 11 knots
Crew: 254 Officers and Men
Armament: 2 .50-caliber machine guns, three twin 20mm cannon for some period, various small arms.

Sources:

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