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Kankakee (AO-39)


Named for the Kankakee River, a 133-mile-long tributary of the Illinois River in the central plains of northwestern Indiana and northeastern Illinois. It joins the Des Plaines River approximately 50 miles southwest of Chicago to form the Illinois.

(AO-39: displacement 6,013; length 501'8"; beam 68'0"; draft 30'9"; speed 17.0 knots; complement 261; armament 1 5-inch, 4 3-inch, 8 20 millimeter; class Kennebec, type T2-A)

Colina was laid down on 31 July 1941 at Sparrows Point, Md., by the Bethlehem Steel Company under a Maritime Commission contract (M. C. Hull 146); launched on 24 January 1942, sponsored by Mrs. D. A. Little; and acquired by the Navy on 31 March 1942 through the Maritime Commission from Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, N.Y.

Caption: Colina, 31 March 1942, prior to acquisition by the Navy; note lack of armament at this point. (Maritime Administration Photograph, Colina_7439_003.jpg)

Renamed Kankakee (AO-39), the oiler was commissioned at Norfolk, Va. on 4 May 1942, Capt. William H. Mayes in command. Kankakee departed Norfolk on 1 June 1942 and carried a load of fuel oil from Baton Rouge, La., to Coco Solo, Canal Zone. She arrived at San Francisco, Calif., on 14 July for additional conversion work that lasted until 23 August 1942.

Kankakee sailed for Nouméa, New Caledonia, on 27 August 1942 and arrived on 18 September. As a unit of Service Squadron 8, for seven months she operated between New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, the Fijis, and Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, refueling ships during the Solomon Islands campaign. On 18 April 1943, she departed Nouméa and arrived at San Pedro, Calif. on 3 May for a six-week overhaul. She steamed for the South Pacific on 19 June, arriving on 8 July 1943.

Kankakee continued refueling, cargo, and passenger runs for the Third Fleet between the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands. From 3 to 4 November 1943, south of Guadalcanal, she refueled carrier Saratoga (CV-3) and small carrier Princeton (CVL-23) for a strike on Japanese shipping at Rabaul, New Britain on the 5th. From 21 February to 2 March 1944, Kankakee replenished destroyers for assaults on Kavieng, New Ireland, and again on Rabaul.

Capt. Arleigh A. Burke, commanding Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 23, the “Little Beavers,” and later Chief of Naval Operations, commended Kankakee as “the most efficient tanker we have met.” Between 22 and 30 March, she refueled carriers set to launch airstrikes on Palau, Yap, and Woleai in the Western Carolines. Kankakee then refueled ships bound for the Saipan landings. On 14 July 1944, she steamed for San Diego for a short upkeep period.

Kankakee departed the West Coast on 24 August 1944, arriving at Kossol Roads north of Palau on 10 October. She served as a station tanker until 1 November, when she shifted station to Ulithi in the Western Carolines. From there, she provided logistic support for ships ranging from the Philippines to the Japanese home islands. From November 1944 to January 1945, Kankakee replenished Task Force 38 during its attacks on Luzon, Formosa, the Chinese coast, and French Indochina. She steamed north from Ulithi on 8 February to refuel the fleet assaulting Iwo Jima and Japan.

Refilling her tanks at Ulithi, Kankakee returned on 13 March 1945 to refuel Franklin (CV-13) and Langley (CVL-27) for air strikes on Kyushu, the Inland Sea, and the Ryukyus. From 1 April through 14 June, she provided logistic support to the Fifth Fleet during the battle for Okinawa. On 3 July, she resumed support to the Third Fleet as it continued the devastating aerial and naval bombardment of Japan from Hokkaido to the Inland Sea. Kankakee, southeast of Japan when hostilities ceased on 15 August 1945 (VJ-Day), continued her support work until her return to Ulithi on 5 September.  Calling at Tokyo Bay on 20 September, she proceeded to San Pedro, Calif., arriving on 18 November.

Following an overhaul, Kankakee was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transport Service (NOTS) on 28 February 1946, and departed San Pedro on 13 March to serve as a station tanker in China and Japan. She served in Alaska and the Philippines for most of the next five years. During 1946 and 1947, she carried fuel oil from Bahrain Island in the Persian Gulf to Japan and the Philippines.

Reassigned to the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), Kankakee, designated as T-AO-39, overhauled at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. She departed Seattle on 2 February 1951 for duty with the Sixth Fleet. Loading aviation gasoline at Marcus Hook, Pa., she sailed on 13 March to join the large carrier Coral Sea (CVB-43) in the Mediterranean, arriving on 2 April. She returned to San Pedro on 7 September. Loading a cargo of gasoline, she departed Wilmington, Calif., on 23 December and arrived in Pusan, South Korea, on 10 January 1952. She returned to San Francisco via Sasebo, Japan, on 2 February.

Kankakee sailed again on 1 April 1952, departing San Francisco for Houston, Texas, to load fuel oil. On 19 April, she joined the Sixth Fleet at Oran, Algeria. She returned to the United States on 21 November, loaded aviation gasoline at Saint Rose, La., and sailed to Wilmington, Calif., arriving on 20 December 1952. She conducted fueling operations along the Pacific coast and sailed from San Pedro on 26 August 1953 for deployment again with the Sixth Fleet. From Kankakee’s departure from Beaumont, Texas, on 12 September 1953 to her arrival at New York on 31 May 1955, she conducted two seven-month deployments to the Mediterranean. She was placed in reserve at Norfolk on 17 August 1955, was towed to Baltimore, Md., on 14 October, and then to Philadelphia, Pa., on 29 November. She was decommissioned on 30 November 1955 and entered the Atlantic Reserve Fleet.

Recommissioned on 20 December 1956 under Cmdr. George R. Wells and assigned to MSTS, Kankakee departed Philadelphia on 26 December for eight months of Atlantic shuttle duty. She steamed from the eastern seaboard to Venezuela, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Western Europe. At Portland, England, from 14 to 21 September 1957, she supported Exercise Strikeback, a series of exercises simulating an all-out attack on NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) by the Soviet Union. She returned to Norfolk on 1 October, then sailed via New York for Port Arthur, Texas, arriving on 4 November. She was decommissioned the next day and was berthed in the Beaumont Maritime Defense Fleet Reserve at 1520 on 21 November 1957.

Placed in reserve on 1 February 1959, Kankakee was reinstated, withdrawn from the Beaumont Reserve Fleet on 6 August 1961 and permanently transferred to the Navy in response to the Berlin Emergency, and recommissioned on 29 November at New Orleans, Capt. Mervin O. Slater in command. Assigned to Service Squadron 4, she departed for Newport, R.I., arriving on 15 December. She operated in the Caribbean from 8 January to 8 March 1962 and then served along the East Coast. On 24 October, two days after President John F. Kennedy declared a naval quarantine against the shipment of Soviet offensive missiles to Cuba, Kankakee sailed from Newport to support the U.S Navy ships operating off that island. She refueled 89 ships at sea before returning to Newport on 5 December 1962.

With Newport as her base, Kankakee carried out various missions between 25 February 1963 and 5 June 1964. In June 1963, she participated in joint U.S.-French Atlantic convoy exercises and, in August, supported Atlantic ASW exercises. Kankakee deployed to the Mediterranean on 3 July. During her stay, she delivered more than 29 million gallons of fuel oil and aviation gasoline to 269 Sixth Fleet ships. In August, she supported the Sixth Fleet’s Cyprus Patrol peace-keeping effort in the Eastern Mediterranean. She returned to Newport on 22 December 1963.

In March 1965, Kankakee was a recovery unit for NASA’s Gemini 4 space flight. She also refueled the ships in the recovery team. She continued to operate along the East Coast and in the Caribbean into 1968. She was decommissioned in reserve at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on 27 June 1968. Kankakee was decommissioned on 29 July 1968 and placed in the custody of the Maritime Administration in the James River Reserve Fleet at 1250 on 27 November 1968. Her title was transferred to the Maritime Administration at noon on 30 June 1969. She was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 June 1973. Kankakee was sold for scrap on 16 March 1976 to Luria Brothers & Company, Inc., and was removed at 1100 on 20 April 1976.

Kankakee earned six battle stars during her WW II service in the Pacific and one star for her Korean Service.

Gary J. Candelaria

4 June 2024

Published: Thu Jun 06 09:12:23 EDT 2024