“It was a great ship; there was just something about it. Everybody loved it. The crew loved it, and the troops and passengers seemed to love it too. It was the kind of ship you could say that you were glad you were aboard that one. That’s the kind of ship it was.” John Daniel, Carpenter’s Mate
THE S.S.AMERICA GOES TO WAR.
On May 28, 1942, the SS America received her “draft notice.” and was ordered to the shipyard at Newport News for conversion to a troopship. There was no time to gently remove the interior furnishing. Barges were brought alongside and the fine furnishings were tossed overboard. The color scheme was changed to Navy gray which quickly led to a new nickname, “The Grey Ghost.”
The luxury liner designed for 1,049 passengers would at times sail with over 8,000 GIs. Comfortable suites for 2 now slept 36. The ballroom was fitted with bunks for 545 men. It was a tight fit. Narrow canvas-covered pipe-framed bunks stacked up to five high provided a bare sixteen inches from the bunk above. Horizontally, they were so close there was hardly room to walk between them. From 1941 to 1946 the West Point completed 151 sailings totaling 436,144 nautical miles. During the fifty-six months of war service, she transported 505,020 passengers, never losing one, a record for an American transport ship.
HISTORY OF USS WEST POINT (AP 23)
The America was originally built for the North Atlantic trade and put into commission in August 1940. Due to the war in Europe, the liner did not enter this trade. Her career embraced only two trips to California and several cruises to the West Indies.
On 1 June 1941, the Navy, prompted by the enveloping nature of the European conflict, requested that the huge vessel be converted ‘ into a Troop Transport. Two weeks later, the Navy commissioned her USS WEST POINT and drafted her into the service of her country.
On 21 June 1941, the Secretary of the Navy announced that Captain H.H. Kelley, USN, had been assigned to WEST POINT as commanding officer.
USS WEST POINT, frequently referred to as one of the “monsters” because of the character of her duties, was the queen of the transports operated by the Naval Transportation Service. Although stripped of her peacetime dress and her lush lounge and smoking room accommodations altered to assimilate large numbers, the ex-liner still bore visible trappings of her pre-war regalia. It was not uncommon for crew members to find themselves berthed in suites, which were previously listed at $100 a day. Also, many of the original murals remained to evoke “Ohs” and “Ahs’ from war time passengers.
After a brief shakedown cruise along the Atlantic seaboard, USS WEST POINT began her Navy career during the “unofficial” phase of the war in the Atlantic. As a result of President Roosevelt’s closure of all Axis consulates in June 1941, WEST POINT was sent to Portugal to deliver the ousted Axis diplomatic corps and in return to bring back to New York our consulates, dismissed by the Axis.
The ship’s career was almost cut short during the early months of the Pacific War. She and her sister ship, USS WAKEFIELD, the former SS MANHATTAN, were dispatched to Singapore in early 1942 to aid in the evacuation of refugees from the Malayan Peninsula, arriving at the height of Japanese pressure on the beleaguered city. For two days, while loading operations were frantically carried on, the ship’s crews watched the enemy bombers roar over the dock area on their way to Singapore proper. Some strange protective force seemed to divert the attention of the Japanese pilots from the docked transports. However, on the third day, “Lady Luck” deserted her trust. Instead of heading toward the city, the planes flew over the harbor installations. It was seconds before crews and passengers fully comprehended the helplessness of their plight. Minutes later the harbor and dock area were turned into a roaring inferno. Bombs burst within 50 yards of WEST POINT’s giant hull, scattering shrapnel on her weather decks and WAKEFIELD was set ablaze by a direct hit. As soon as possible, Captain Kelley gave the ardor to cast off, and the ship escaped the harbor without further damage.
In June 1943 Captain Robert A Dyer, USN, became WEST POINT’s second commanding officer, relieving Captain Kelley.
Since Singapore, WEST POINT‘s escapes have been numerous. Off Rio De Janeiro in 1942, a Nazi torpedo streaked across her bow. In Milne Bay crew members stood at battle stations for hours against Jap air raiders. In the Red Sea and at Suez her guns were alerted and barrage balloons were lifted against surprise Nazi torpedo planes. Submarines had, an occasion, been sunk not far from her track. In May 1944, Captain Dyer was relieved as commanding officer by Captain Webb C. Haves, USNR, grandson of President Rutherford H. Haves.
Probably the ship’s most enjoyable assignment was her participation in the “Magic Carpet” Operation. In this role, she made ‘ numerous voyages ferrying men and material from both theaters of operations.
Besides, soldiers, WEST POINT has carried sailors arid marines and every kind of war-tame seafarer, allied forces, Red Cross workers, United Nations officials, and USO, officials, high, government officials, civilians caught in war zones, prisoners of war, refugees and children, service nurses, WAC’s and war brides. One baby was born aboard in the Indian Ocean, gaining the distinction of becoming a shellback at birth.
In continuous service since the outbreak of the war, WEST POINT has carried more than 350,000 passengers, a good share of the more than 450,000 soldiers, sailors, and marines sent overseas during the war. She has covered more than 436,144 miles, equal to 16 trips around the globe. The ship has made as many as 24 crossings of the Atlantic in a single year. Her ports include Bombay, Marseilles, Capetown, Guadalcanal, Canal Zone, Naples, Liverpool:, Noumea, and Mers-el-Kebir. She had filled many emergencies, having been a hospital evacuation ship as well as a prison ship.
For the most part, her wartime voyages were made without the protection of convoying warships. On speed alone has her safety depended, and never once has she lost a passenger.
By Directive dated February 196, USS WEST POINT (AP 23) was transferred to the War Shipping Administration preliminary to her return to the United States Lines for private operation in the North Atlantic Trade.
On 4 December 1946, the ship, recommissioned as the flagship of the United States Lines, received her final tribute from the U.S. Navy, SS AMERICA became the first merchant vessel to receive a warrant to fly the Naval Reserve Pennant. In a ceremony on the bridge of the vessel, Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, USN, then commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier, presented the flag to Commodore Harry Manning, the ship’s Captain.
Office of Naval Records and history
Ship’s Histories Section