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S.S. America – 1939 – 1994

The S.S. America has a great story to tell and the following pages will be enjoyed by those who sailed on her – and those who wish they had.

August 31, 1939, Newport News Va… Over 30,000 spectators showed up at the Newport News shipyard for the launch of the S.S. America. Americans were proud of their new ocean liner. A sailing ambassador the new ship represented the best of the nation’s technology, art, style, and way of life at a time when ocean liners were objects of national pride.

Above the crowd newsreel cameras jostled for position and, across the country, radio listeners tuned in the live broadcast offered by three national radio networks. At 11:50 AM the tide crested in the James River and with the words ‘ I Christen Thee America”, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt smashed a bottle of Ohio Champagne against the bow and sent the new ocean liner sliding down the way.

This auspicious beginning was immediately overshadowed by world events. The day after the S.S. America was launched; Nazi Germany invaded Poland and engulfed the world in war. After a brief cruising career, the new ship was converted to the troopship USS West Point. Her speed was her most valuable asset and she spent the war years delivering thousands of troops around the globe.

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Pre-WWII sailing with ‘neutral’ markings Photo Mariners Museum
FIRST LADY ELEANOR ROOSEVELT CHRISTENS THE AMERICA
“My first trip inside the yard was when my father brought me to the launching of America. I still remember him setting me on his shoulders so I could see over the crowd to view the ship sliding down the ways”

W.A. Raines

“My wife carried our 8 month-old daughter in her arms. So she was walking in the Yard, she found a ticket on the ground and picked it up. People around told her it was for a seat on the platform for the dignitaries and since she had a baby in her arms she should use it… She was seated beside Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a very exciting day.”

Arthur Volheim

S.S. America interiors

.The first all-women design team to decorate an ocean liner Dorothy Marckwald and Anne Urquhart look out at us with a confident knowing smile. They created a ship that was uniquely American in style and spirit.

When the Marckwald/Urquhart team designed the S.S America interiors they stayed clear of the opulent ArtDeco style found on the Normandie. They also avoided the confusing mixture of French provincial, Elizabethan, Georgian, and pseudo-hunting lodge – Wild West interiors found on the Manhattan and Washington.

“For the S.S. America interiors ”, said Marckwald, “it was decided that this latest of our passenger ships should distinctly and completely represent our own personality; therefore, a simple, comfortable American style was determined upon.” “Simple” meant comfortable yet elegant. For “American style”, she chose contemporary art and “Hollywood Modern” interiors. The cream-colored walls, recessed lighting, and black linoleum floors with white inlaid swirls shared a similarity with the slick stage sets of a Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire film. The ship was a hit with the traveling public and continued to have a loyal following well into the 1970s.

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The great lady decorators, Anne Urquhart, left, and Dorothy Marckwald Right. Photograph by Wilbur Pippin

FROM AMERICA TO WEST POINT – 1941 – 1946

The stated mission of the USS WEST POINT was simple and to the point, “The safe transportation of troops and equipment to their destination”. In its 53-month life as a naval transport (designated AP-23) she and her dedicated crew, carried more than half a million military and civilian passengers, all the while maintaining a perfect record of never losing a passenger. By practicing and living the mission, the members of the crew provided reassurance to many a GI who had never been to sea. As one GI put it “from the moment you stepped on board… you had an overwhelming sense of security. You felt certain that this ship would take you to your destination, come hell or high water”. Passengers and crew together ran into their share of hell and high water, including close calls with U-boat torpedoes, Japanese bombers, and North Atlantic storms. Her outstanding record, in the face of man-made and natural adversity was a combination of the dedication of the crew, sailing on one of the safest ships ever designed, and – perhaps – a little Old-fashioned American luck.
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SS America conversion to the USS West Point June 2, 1941, Ken Johnson Collection
“The first time I saw her in Le Havre I was a twenty-five-year-old soldier and thought she was the most beautiful ship I had ever seen; she was there to take me home. After four days at sea, we ran into a terrible storm. I remember waves washing up on deck. It looked like the ocean was going to tear her apart., but she moved steadily onward. After the waves subsided, I went on the fantail and looked at her stacks and upper deck rolling back and forth. I was lucky because I didn’t get sick. I remember steam kettles filled with frozen milk; being a farm boy, I drank plenty of it, having not had any in four years.”

Vernon Wall

“I was first on evaporators for six months and then in engines. The forward smokestack was false. At the base of the stack was a big diesel engine that was an emergency generator (Ships electric was generated in the engine room from a turbine).

Every Friday I had to start that big engine and test the generator. That was right over the captain’s cabin. I guess it made a lot of racket. He would send a messenger to tell me to hurry the test. Every Friday I would make up stories about how this or that was not quite right. I loved running that big beast. I was all of 19 then.”

Henry T Wildman
Motor Mechanic 2nd Class

THE QUEEN OF THE MERCHANT MARINE – 1946 – 1964

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From the L Driscoll Collection

A meticulous, multi-million dollar restoration commenced immediately after the war, one benefiting her peacetime role as “Queen of the American Merchant Marine.” After sailing proudly and majestically into New York harbor on November 10, 1946, SS America finally began her long-delayed transatlantic career.

For the first time, her true personality emerged. Her clean uncluttered superstructure topped off by those big wing-tipped teardrop-shaped smoke stacks gave her a modern contemporary appearance. She was well proportioned (except for a short bow which gave her a sturdy powerful look that projected confidence without pretension. Her interior combined warmth and sophistication without being stuffy. The ship possessed beauty and grace without the glitz and glitter found on European liners. It was a winning combination of good looks and comfort that would bring back loyal customers year after year. They enjoyed the warm friendly ship, pleasant atmosphere, good food, good service, and comfortable accommodations.

Ship Historian Peter Kholer captured the spirit of the ship in the summer 1990 issue of Steamboat Bill. The America seemed always to be a happy ship without faults or annoying quirks. the sort of unpretentious vessel that the glitter people may not have patronized, but regular travelers were devoted to.

Her 18 of peacetime service with United States Lines ended in November 1964. In peacetime, she transported over 500,000 passengers safely, and elegantly while steaming over 2.8 million nautical miles in the process.

” To those who like dignity rather than pretentiousness comfort rather than display, all of this will seem no drawback. Having traveled on the French and English superliners, I can testify that the slower smaller American competitor is easily the most attractive both in decorations and that indefinable element of personality that every ship possesses.”

Felix Morely
Washinton Post Editor
Sailing on the delivery voyage from Newport News to New York, July 1940

” Cross the Atlantic on the beautiful America just once and you’re sure to be partial towards this beautiful ship as I am. Crew and ship will give you a command performance.

To my mind, there is no finer way to Europe than the America provides”.

Spencer Tracy
Actor and winner of two-consecutive Academy awards for best actor.

THE AUSTRALIAN MAIDEN – SS AUSTRALIS – 1964 -1978

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The Australian maiden – SS Australis 1964 -1978
In 1964 the ship’s future as a transatlantic liner looked dismal due to her high operating cost, a loss of passengers to the airlines, and recurring labor disputes. John Franklin the president of United States Lines made the painful decision to sell the America.

Sold to the Greek Chandris Lines for use in emigrant service from England to Australia and New Zealand. Renamed Australis, her superstructure was extended and passenger capacity doubled. For comfort sailing through the tropics, a large outdoor swimming pool and air-conditioning were added. The “Australian Maiden” completed 62 global voyages (1965-1977) transporting over 300,000 hopeful passengers to a new life in Australia and New Zealand.

” There were many modern ships on the seas but none did it better. It wasn’t always the quality of the cabin or the carpet that counted. I visited other famous ships such as the France and the QE 2, none had the magic of the America/Australis.”

Steve Mullis

1978 VENTURE CRUISES & THE CRUISE FROM HELL

In 1978. Chandris sold the Australis to a group of travel agents. Renamed America, she sailed on cruises to ‘nowhere’ out of New York. Nowhere is where the business venture went. After two disastrous sailings, the inexperienced owners abandoned the ship. Chandris Lines bought the ship back at a bankruptcy auction. Renamed Italis she sailed with her badly corroded forward funnel removed, giving the ship a stunted look.
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THE SS ITALIS: AN UPTOWN GIRL DOWN ON HER LUCK – 1978-1980

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Chandris certainly knew how to squeeze last Drachma out of a ship, After the Venture cruise fiasco, the company took out the rusting forward stack and renamed the ship Italis and sent out on Mediterranean cruises. At 40 years of age, the old girl had a hard time keeping up with the newer ships. Although the public rooms were still grand, other areas were not at all up to current cruise ship standards. Many of the cabins were in a deteriorated state, and a bent propeller sent pulsating vibration through the lower decks. It was a short gig. In 1979, after 40 years of carrying passengers, the ex America, ex West Point, ex Australis sailed into retirement.

In between cruises, Chandris rented the Italis out. One of the last Americans to board the ship under interesting circumstances was a former passenger Frank Day.

“Hello! I sailed on the America four times while she was still in service with USL, but went aboard yet again under very surprising circumstances. In July of 1979, I was in Monrovia, Liberia to cover a summit of the Organization of African Unity for the U.S. State Department. One afternoon shortly before the OAU event began I was standing on the terrace of the Intercontinental Hotel high on a hill overlooking Monrovia harbor. Just before sunset, a beautiful liner from a bygone era sailed into the harbor. It took me all of two seconds to recognize her, though she was missing a funnel and had been renamed the Italis.”

“It was a little unsettling seeing this lovely, elegant queen of the North Atlantic in such reduced circumstances in a squalid West African port.”

See “More Information”

American Diplomat Frank Day

THE RETIREMENT YEARS – 1980 – 1994

In the fall of 1979 Chandris put the Italis up for sale. For the next fourteen years the Ex America, West Point, Australis, America 2, and Italis languished with the other rusting hulks in the “Graveyard of Abandonment” at Elefsina Greece. Twice she was purchased by entrepreneurs with plans to convert it into a floating hotel. The plans never materialized.

Hope arrived on August 31, 1992, in the form of two Thai businessmen, who held hotel interests in the Far East. They purchased the ship for $2 million with plans to tow her to the growing seaside resort of Phuket, Thailand for conversion to a luxury hotel. A Ukrainian flag tug, the Neftegaz 67, was hired for $ 920,000. Renamed the American Star the ship left Pireas Roads Greece on December 25 1993 for her new home.

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When ship historian Peter Knego boarded the ship in 1992 he noticed severe deterioration.

“Her only passengers were pigeons and seagulls who left their droppings. Seeping water from broken pipes and windows had stained carpets, rusted decks, and warped bulkheads. Weeds sprouted from the exterior wood decks.”

THE FINAL VOYAGE – 1994

Rather than using the quicker Suez Canal route, the buyers chose The slow more arduous route out of the Mediterranean, down the West coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope then 5,225 miles across the Indian Ocean to Phuket; an arduous 100-day journey in good weather a perilous one in the stormy winter months. Stamous Ioannou who prepped the ship for the voyage watched the American Star pull out of Pireous Roads Greece on December 25, 1993. “The day was very nice and the weather good. The only one who had bad feelings was me. I was very much afraid of the area and the seas around the Cape of Good Hope.”

He had good reason to be apprehensive. As soon as the ship left the straits of Gibraltar and headed down the coast of Morocco heavy weather hit.

S.S. America The Many Lives of a Great Ship.

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Name Years Owners
S.S. America 1939-1941 United States Lines
USS West Point 1941 Naval Transport Service
USS West Point 1942-1946 United States Navy
S.S. America 1946-1964 United States Lines
S.S. Australis 1964-1978 Okeania, S.A. a subsidiary of Chandris Lines
S.S. America 1978 America Cruise Lines, later Venture Cruise
S.S. Italis 1978-1980 Chandris Lines
S.S. Noga 1980-1984 Inter Commerce Corporation
S.S. Alferdoss 1984-1993 Silver Moon Ferries
S.S. American Star 1993-1994 Chaophraya Development and Transportation LTD.

S.S. AMERICA AT A GLANCE

S.S. AMERICA
Built for
UNITED STATES LINES
By
NEWPORT NEWS SHIPBUILDING AND DRY DOCK CO.
GIBBS AND COX, INC. NAVAL ARCHITECTS
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.

Length……………………………………………….723 feet
Beam, molded, maximum……………………………93 feet 3 inches
Number of decks…………………………………….11
Load draft to bottom of keel…………………………32 feet 8 7/8 inches
Displacement full load………………………………35,440 tons
Gross tonnage……………………………………… 33,532 (British) 26,454 tons (USA)
Block coefficient at full draft load………………………0.58559
Prismatic coefficient at full draft……………………. 0.5996
Cargo, general bale………………………………….259, 982 cubic feet
Capacity galleys meals per day……………………. 6,000
Shaft horse power, normal………………………… 34,000
Propulsion…………………………………………. Two sets of triple expansion turbines
Shaft horse power maximum guarantee…………… 37,400
Design speed……………………………………….. in excess of. 22 knots
Maximum speed…………………………………… Over 25 knots.
Total number of rooms and spaces………………… 950 of which 23 were public spaces
Cruising radius, at 22 knots at load draft…………. .11,000 miles
Fuel capacity, 97% full……………………………. 4,938
Fresh water………………………………………… 4,733 tons
Compartmentation, flooded……………………….. 3 compartments
Keel laid…………………………………………… August 22, 1938
Launched…………………………………………… August 31, 1939
Maiden Voyage…………………………………… August 10, 1940
Interior Architects…………………………………. Eggers & Higgins
Interior Decorators………………………………… Smyth, Urquart & Marckwald
Total passengers.
• America. 543 Cabin Class, 418 Tourist Class, and 241 Third Class. Total 1202
• West Point. 8000
• America. (Post war). 519 First Class, Cabin Class 414, Tourist 116. Total 1049
• America. 1960. 516 First Class, Tourist Class 532. Total 1048
• Australis. 2,258 one class
Officers and crew. Pre war 643, War 785, post war 677, Australis 586
(Source Marine Progress August, 1940. Newport News Shipyard bulletin September 1946, US Lines and Chandris Lines brochures)
Names and Owners/Operators.

America………………….1939 – 1941. United States Lines
West Point……………….1941 Naval Transportation service.
West Point………………..1942 – 1946 United States Navy
America…………………..1946 – 1964 United States Lines
Australis…………………1964 – 1978 Okeania, S.A. a subsidiary of Chandris Lines
America………………….1978 – 1978 America Cruise Lines, later Venture Cruise Lines
Italis………………………1978 – 1980 Chandris Lines
Noga……………………..1980 – 1984 Inter Commerce Corporation
Alferdoss…………………1984 – 1993 Silver Moon Ferries
American Star……………1993 – 1994 Chaophraya Development and Transportation Ltd.

SERVICE.

Miles Passengers carried
America cruises 112,917 20,000
West Point 436,144 505,020
America transatlantic 2,800,000 476,462
Australis 1,682,000 300,000
Total 4,971,061 1,301,482
Sources: Log of cruises USS West Point Reunion Association, America by Peter C Kohler, Bill Miller the Chandris Liners.

S.S. America on Wikipedia 

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