Picture postcard of the America.

History of the America/West Point/Australis/American Star, Pt. 1

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The birth of the America.
View of the gleaming new engine room.The "America" as she was first named, was designed by Messrs. Gibbs & Cox of New York and built by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company. "While storm clouds gathered far across the sea..." -Irving Berlin's introduction to "God Bless America" never rang truer than on 31st August, 1939. In Europe, German divisions massed along the Polish border. In the United States, amid growing prosperity, a crowd of 30,000 gathered along the James River at Newport News on a beautiful summers day to witness the first Lady of the land christen the Nation's first lady of the seas. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt did the christening honours on the last day of August in that otherwise politically tense summer of 1939. A day later, Hitler had ordered his forces to invade Poland. World War II had started. America left the yard for the first time under Captain Joseph Kemp and a shipyard crew of 500 at 4:00a.m. on June 3rd., 1940, for her builder's trials off the Virginia Capes, and returned 24 hours later. On the 9th, she sailed for drydocking at Boston Navy Yard for cleaning and painting of her underwater hull, and arrived there on the 11th. After standardization trials on the navy measured-mile course off Rockland, Maine, were held on the 13th-14th, followed by an eight hour endurance run on which she averaged 24.68 knots and reached 25.3 knots at 42,850 s.h.p. the 33,500-Ton America, returned to Newport News for final fitting-out, minor adjustments, and one major one.
The America with her smaller size funnels.
The larger stacks were raised up by fifteen feet.
Those highly touted squat "Sampan" funnels proved an enbarrassing flop on trials, and with nary a public word were quietly and quickly raised fifteen feet. The alterations made for a much better looking and more efficient ship. With a notable absence of ceremony, on July 2, 1940. America was signed over to the Maritime Commission's Captain Granville Conway and four hours later to United States Lines President John M. Franklin. The vessels final cost was $17, 586, 478, with the line resposible for two-thirds, or $11,724,769, having already paid $4, 396,629, in cash. The balance was payable in twenty yearly installments at 3.5 per cent interest. America departed New York on 10th. August on her maiden voyage, a 12 day cruise through the West Indies. Originally intended for North Atlantic passenger service, because of the escalating war in Europe, America would not take any passengers abroad for the foreseeable future and initially her commercial life was of short duration. On the 21st. May 1941, President Roosevelt declared an "Unlimited National Emergency" and the Maritime Commission immediately started requisitioning merchant ships for military service. America arrived at New York on 2nd. June, the passengers were given 50% refunds, they disembarked and she sailed immediately back to her birth place, the Newport News Shipyard, she had been called to duty.
At the shipyard, America was to be converted into a Convoy Unit Loaded Transport. In just eleven days, the same workmen who had fitted the luxurious appointments just a year previously, replaced them with the dreary necessities of a Naval Transport. Some of the work completed during those eleven days included providing barracking, messing and sanitary facilities for an additional 5,400 persons, installing life rafts for the entire crew and troops, installing a degaussing system, installing twelve anti-aircraft guns complete with ammunition storage facilities and providing splinter protection and sky lookout stations. The blackhull, white upper decks and red, white and blue funnels had been painted with the familiar combination of blue-grey camouflage. On 15th, June 1941, the navy commissioned her the USS West Point. and placed her under the control of the Naval Transport Service. The "America" was the largest merchant ship built at this time-"The Queen of the luxury liners"-in just 11 days she was stripped of her finery and converted into the U.S. Navy's largest troop carrier.


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The America in her camouflage gear.

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"The Grey Ghost"-USS West Point.

After five days working-up exercises off the Virginia Capes, West Point returned to Norfolk on June 20th 1941, for additional refitting. Taken in July, 1941 at NNS as she was being repainted for war duties.Appropriately, her first assignment proved to be the ship's first Atlantic crossing. She embarked 137 Italian and 327 German consular officials off Staten Island on 16th July and landed them at Lisbon on the 23rd. With 321 American and 67 Chinese consular staff and their families, West Point sailed three days later for New York and arrived on August 1st. To join the unprecedented American convoy WS-12 carrying British troops a month before Pearl Harbor, West Point sailed from Portsmouth, Virginia, on November 3rd. 1941, to Halifax to embark 5,443 personnel of the British 55th. Brigade, 18th. Division and 100 U.S. Army personnel for Basrah. Escorted by the Aircraft Carrier Ranger, cruisers Quincy and Vincennes, and eight destroyers. America was at war by the time Cape Town was reached on December 9th. Thence, West Point and Wakefield proceeded directly to Bombay escorted by H.M.S. Dorsetshire and arrived on the 27th.With the rapidly deteriorating situation in Malaya, the British ordered both transports to Singapore with their troops. After the 30-foot draft West Point jettisoned some ballast, she and Wakefield, Duchess of Bedford, Empress of Japan and Empire Star sailed on January 19, 1942. Escorted by H.M.S. Exeter through Java's shallow Sundra Strait to avoid Japanes subs, Troops waving goodbye to their loved ones .West Point docked at Keppel Harbour, Singapore, with 5,272 troops and vital supplies on the 29th. A Japanese air raid early the next morning hit Wakefield, straddled West Point and showered her with shrapnel. The transport rendered medical assistance to her fleetmate and both hastily completed their refuelling. After taking on 1,946 military and civilian evacuees, West Point, together with Wakefield, sailed at 6:00pm. on January 30th, 1942, and called at Batavia the next day. In perhaps the "first" for a U.S. Navy vessel, a baby boy was born aboard on February 4th. on the Equator, Christened Westpoint Leslie Sheldrake, and the crew, "initiated the juvenile pollywog into a heavenly shellback, certainly the youngest in the history of the navy"
Now alone, West Point sailed from Bombay on February 16th 1942, for Suez to Embark 5,333 men of the Australian 7th. division for Adelaide via Freemantle. On April 1st. she proceeded to Melbourne, Wellington and across the Pacific to arrive in San Fransisco on the 24th With 5,526 GIs aboard, she returned "down under" to Wellington on May 31st. From Melbourne on June 9th, the ship sailed for New York via Panama and arrived July 2nd. The West Point continued her worldwide trooping runs throughout 1943. She sailed on February 15th. for Wellington and Melbourne with 7,961GIs. From Melbourne on March 6th. she proceeded to Bombay and Suez. There, she embarked 2,167 POW's of the defeated Afrika Corps and sailed to Massawa where 500 ANZAC troops boarded. New orders were received to proceed without delay to New York. After dropping her ANZACs at Aden on April 6th, she raced nonstop round the Cape and across the South Atlantic to Rio De Janiero to reach New York on May 4th. after one of her longest and fastest voyages. The New Year 1944 found West Point continuing on the U.S.-Noumea-Milne Bay-Guadalcanal "ferry". She left San Fransisco on January 11th for Noumea and Guadalcanal, and from San Pedro on February 22nd. for First Class Smoking Room.Noumea and Milne Bay. Effective April 8th she was commanded by Captain Webb. C. Hayes, USNR, the Grandson of President Rutherford B. Hayes. From San Fransisco West Point set out on April 27th for Sydney and Milne Bay, but on the 30th. was ordered to the East Coast after this voyage. She had carried a total of 47,000 troops to the South Pacific and returned with 11,000 wounded and other passengers. Leaving Milne Bay's beautiful anchorage for the last time on May 20th 1944, West Point steamed via Panama and docked at Boston on June 12th. Reassigned to the european Theatre of Operations, West Point entered the most demanding and valuable phase of her wartime career. Instead of the varied ports, often placid days steaming at 18 knots beneath the Southern Cross and time for rest and refit upon returning home, West Point and her men soon adapted themselves to the rigors of the North Atlantic run-hard steaming through fog and filthy weather on a zig-zag pattern at 22-24 knots with no escort and time between crossings measured in hours. Now, her defense-oriented design proved invaluable. The huge bunker capacity enabled her to steam at full speed across the Atlantic and back without refuelling, keeping her U.K. turnaround time to 36 hours or less. Her capability to steam full speed on just five boilers permitted rotating maintenance underway on the sixth. Between June 27 1944 and June 24 1945, West Point crossed the Atlantic 27 times and carried 140,000 passengers to British ports, Oran, Casablanca, Marseilles and Le Havre. On her Boston-Liverpool crossing of August 9-14, 1944, with part of the 95th Division she had 9,305 people aboard, the most carried on a single U.S. vessel during the war. On westbound crossings she carried wounded or POWs-on October 21st she arrived at Boston from Liverpool with 4,346 prisoners. In a zero-zero fog, she cleared Liverpool on November 11th at 15 knots using only radar bearings on the Mersey buoys to find her way out to sea. As a well-deserved respite, West Point was re-assigned to the Mediterranean for a few voyages, the first leaving The Main Lounge was turned into a Theater during the war.Boston on December 6, 1944, for Marseilles and thence to Mers-el-Kebir. Her crew even got to spend Christmas at home, returning to Newport News on the 19th. The new year 1945 was only four days old when she got her new assignment: Newport News to Naples with 7,741 men of the crack 10th Mountain Infantry Division destined to drive out the Germans from their Alpine strongholds. A U-boat sank a British tanker off the Straits of Gibraltar hours before West Point reached the area. She returned to Boston with 6,470 passengers and then made two round voyages to Gourock which proved to be her most arduous wartime trips.
With 7,690 troops aboard, West Point left Boston on February 10, 1945, and picked up her Royal Navy escort, H.M.S. Cavendish and H.M.S. Huron, six days later for the passage through the Irish sea. At dusk the next day, 100 miles from Clyde, a submarine was detected ten miles ahead and West Point went immediately to General Quarters. Within minutes, one of the escorts dropped a pattern of depth charges just 200 yards off the transport's starboard beam while aircraft dropped markers. The West Point rang up to full revolutions and pulled away from danger, leaving the destroyers to continue hunting the U-boat. The passage home from Gourock to Boston February 20-27, 1945 was marked by one of the most ferocious storms encountered in the vessel's history. One day out of the Clyde with 1,325 passengers aboard, she ran into hurricane-force winds and mountainous seas. Reports of U-boats nearby required the vessel to maintain full speed. Suddenly and without warning, an enormous wave hit her bow-on, engulfing the foc`sle with such force as to demolish the forward gun plarform, sheer off stanchions and bend ladders. Although the gun crew had earlier sought shelter, the remaining look-out was tragically killed on impact, West Point's only casualty. Her storm-battered escorts, H.M.S. Cavendish and H. M. S. Cambrian, were forced back to port. Battered and bruised, West Point plowed her way across the Atlantic and reached Boston safely.
After V-E Day, Aerial view of the West Point.West Point was assigned Operation Magic Carpet, returning American GIs and wounded from Europe, effective with her June 24, 1945 sailing from Norfolk to Le Havre where she arrived July 1st. The West Point received her second great New York reception on the 11th when together with the Queen Mary she bought home a full compliment of GIs to a heroes welcome. In brilliant weather, the returning troops were greeted with aerial and sea escort, banners, flags and a din of whistles and sirens. The West Point carried a huge sign on her Sun Deck reading "On to Tokyo". Captain Hayes said it was a proud moment for "the greatest transport in the world" and added "she can turn on a dime and is the sweetest handling ship I ever saw" (New York Times). Among the 7,607 passengers were 6,000 men of the 87th Division and 33 Japenese diplomats from Axis and occupied countries to whom "Hundreds of GIs who lined the transport's rail hurled candid Anglo-Saxon invectives" (New York Times) as they disembarked.
The West Point was reassigned to the Pacific on December 5, 1945, and sailed from Boston five days later for Manila via Pearl Harbour. With 7,737 aboard, including the last 247 enlisted WACs in the Pacific, she left Manila on January 15, 1946, and docked at Pier 88, New York on February 7th. This ended her "hitch" in the Navy and she proceeded to Portsmouth, Virginia, arriving on the 11th and was released from duty on the 22nd. Her final voyage as West Point was a short one: Seventeen miles to her birthplace of Newport News where she was decommissioned on February 28th and officially stricken from the Navy Register on March 12th. In all, West Point had accomplished 145 missions, made fifteen Pacific crossings and 41 on the Atlantic, steamed 436,144 nautical miles and carried 505,020 passengers-American GIs, British Tommies, ANZACs, 4,000 WACs and WAVES, 16,000 wounded, civilians, diplomats, officials, USO stars(including Red Skelton, Barbara Stanwyck and Heddy Lamarr), Red Cross workers, evacuees and 14,000 POWs. On a normal trooping run, 20 tons of food were consumed daily and more bottles of Coca Cola sold than in any single land establishment and, it was said, more card and crap games played than on any other vessel! Exemplfying Navy "Can Do" spirit, she largely operated without escort, experienced numerous close calls, was reported sunk seven times by Axis Sally, never suffered a mechanical breakdown and never failed to carry out an assignment. "The Grey Ghost" had earned her place in Naval Annals and in the hearts of her officers, crew and wartime passengers.


"America" Reborn.
"Spick and span, polished to her last porthole, the made-over America glided majestically into her home port yesterday to prepare for her maiden voyage as The door to the Cabin Class Lounge.passenger queen of our merchant fleet. None of the thousands who watched her pass... could doubt that the great ship was a symbol of achievement in which the country can take pride. She bears the right name" -New York Times, November 12th, 1946. Glistening in fresh paint, America left Newport News on November 9, 1946 to reclaim her proud place as the nation's flagship to the salutes of the new aircraft carrier Coral Sea and another Gibbs-designed ship, Santa Rosa. Aboard for the 770-mile delivery and trials trip to New York were 483 invited guests and reporters, including George Horne of the New York Times who enthused: "No ship in the world is better built than this 26,459-ton liner. No ship can boast more passenger comfort or surpass her in tasteful, beautiful decoration". True enough, W & J Sloane Company had done a miraculous job recreating the original 1940 furnishings. And America performed brilliantly as Commodore Harry Manning put her through her paces with sharp turns, zig-zags and sustained speeds up to 24.3 knots: "She has been tried and tested in the war, and she is better than ever" he was later quoted. Exciting war service and glamorous maiden arrivals behind her, America settled down to the routine yet rigorous role of an Atlantic intermediate. The late `40s and `50s were good times for a young, proud and efficient liner like her. Unfortunately, like Leviathan she replaced, America proved to be a "lone wolf" with the former Manhattan permanently converted to a troopship and Washington never fully restored. Annually, America made 15-18 round trip voyages, a demanding schedule that kept her on the North Atlantic year-round.
"She had some very attractive public rooms, such as her double-deck lounge and her main Ballroom. She also had some very nice Staterooms, many of which were so much larger than some of the rather cramped quarters offered in today's mega-cruiseships". C. M. Squarey, the noted British connoisseur of passenger ships, cast his expert eye over the America for the first time in March 1950. In his extensive journals he wrote: "most people board a ship with certain expectations in mind. I expected this ship would conform to what I might call the American pattern; in my view, however, to call her a typical American ship would be wrong, yet there is quite enough about her to remind you that she is, at heart, a 'Yankee' ship-and that, indeed, is how she would be. Two women were entirely responsible for her furnishing. I pay this liner the compliment, by my code, of saying that she is not glamorous; rather she has the greatest asset of irresistible attraction based on sophisticated charm. She blends very nicely restraint with progress; she incorporates a modern approach to problems with just the right touch of respect for the old school."
First Class Cabin Deluxe on Main deck.
Shot of the sitting room in one of the four main deck suites
After the spectacular arrival of the United States in July 1952, and with her instant and enormous popularity ("Everyone wanted to sail on her, especially in those days" recalled noted historian Frank O. Braynard), the smaller, America managed to hold her own for some years, but like most big Atlantic liners, the America was affected in the late 1950's, by the sudden and very dramatic appearance of the first commercial jets. First, her winter crossings were hit, there being less and less passengers. United States Lines management wanted to resume winter crossings to the Caribbean, her first in nearly a decade and certainly the ideal economic alternative. Unfortunately, the US Government in the form of the all-powerful Maritime Administration, which controlled the vital subsidies given not only to America, but to the United States as well, refused to permit cruising. Such tropic trips, so those Washington Bureaucrats insisted, were in violation of the subsidy rules. American passenger ships could not deviate from their prescribed services. It seemed that such rules were carved in stone. Finally, in 1961, the Maritime Administration relented and altered the rules. The America would be allowed to make her first off-season cruise. It was a five-day trip over the long thanksgiving holiday weekend in November. Minimum fares started at $145. More cruises followed and, soon after, for the An advert for one of the Bermuda cruises.United States as well, but the general picture was not very bright. Operating costs were steadily rising-and at an alarming rate-and this against diminishing profits. It was all complicated further by increasingly frequent strikes and labour problems. The biggest blow, and perhaps the most significant turning point, not only for the America, but for the United States as well, occurred in September 1963 just before a noon sailing for Europe, when a nasty labour problem erupted onboard. This six-month-long catharsis began when a member of the crew (among the 550 non-licensed staff belonging to the National Maritime Union) filed a complaint against First assistant Engineer Louis Neurohr charging racial bias against Negroes and Hispanics who made up 45 per cent of the crew. Some of the crew suddenly refused to sail unless it was properly resolved. On behalf of the complaint, the NMU asked U.S. Lines to remove Mr. Neurohr. in turn, Mr. Neurohr's union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association(a longtime rival of the NMU) sprang to his defence. The 550 NMU crew walked off the ship two hours before sailing. U. S. Lines eventually cancelled the departure and later that of October 4th. The line offered to re-assign Mr. Neurohr to one of its freighters if the Union cleared him of the charges.
A settlement was finally reached on September 19, 1963. The NMU agreed to man the vessel and Mr. Neurohr was cleared of the charges and stayed at his post. A happy Alexander Purdon, U. S. Lines Executive Vice-President, announced America would return to service on February 7th, 1964, and called her " a great old lady". The America left Hoboken under tow on January 22nd. to Pier 86 for fuel and ballast before sailing the next day with a skeleton crew of 250 for Newport News and a seven-day overhaul. In a classic encounter on February 1st, the liner America passed the aircraft carrier America due to be launched the next day. It was like old times as Flashing lighthouse .America sailed from New York on February 7th, 1964, with 772 passengers, including Queen Frederika of Greece, and typically, amidst another strike; this time by tugboats, but Captain Fender pulled America out smartly from Pier 86 unaided at 12:40p.m. despite 25mph wind gusts. "It's been a long, frustrating vacation. I am certainly glad to be back at sea after such a long lay up" he said. In 1964 America completed twelve round voyages and two cruises: a ten-day trip on February 28th to St. Thomas, San Juan and Nassau and an eight-day Bermuda voyage on March 11th.
America never really recovered from her long lay-up and if stories about a sale to Greek interests were "utter nonesense" in 1963, they assumed considerably more credibility a year later. Even with operational subsidies, America was no longer a paying proposition for the owners or the Government. Her potential sale was first reported by the Herald-Tribune on 13th August 1964, which said U.S. Lines was "non-committal" on plans for the ship past December 31st when her subsidy waiver expired, and a further extension was not requested.
It was not until November 4th, 1964, that United States Lines formerly requested Maritime Administration permission to cancel it's subsidy for America and sell her to Okeania S.A., a subsidary of Chandris, for use as a passenger and emigrant vessel. U.S. Lines cited "substantial net losses for several years" and that "no prospects exist for improving such results" Maritime approval came the next day, when it was revealed she had been sold for $4,250,000 with the understanding she not compete with U.S. flag liners from American ports for five years and be made available for war emergency use under the U.S. flag or that of Greece as part of Nato. After workmen removed her bridge nameboards (one of which is now at the Mariners Museum), painted out all but the "A" of her name on the bows and lowered the stars and stripes, America was handed over to Okeania S.A. on November 16th, 1964. The nautical colours of her funnels disappeared under a coat of Chandris blue and black. Two days later, under a new name and foreign flag, the former S.S. America left Newport News forever with only union pickets and a few other people there to bid her farewell, two hours after U.S.S. America left the yards for the first time amid celebration.

During her almost a quarter of a century under the Stars and Stripes, S.S. America\U.S.S. West Point posted a record of service and success that surpassed strikes and subsidy squabbles. She had steamed 2,800,000 miles, completed 288 Atlantic voyages while carrying 476,462 passengers, some 20,000 more on cruises and 505,020 in wartime. Whether dodging Japenese bombs or German torpedoes, plowing through winter North Atlantic seas or serenely cruising the troops, America always did her name and nation proud.

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