U.S.S WEST POINT
In 1975, thirty members of the West Point crew met in Kansas City for their Triennial meeting. Needing material for the West Point Chapter I booked a flight to KC . Reunion President Ken Johnson welcomed me, “Boy are we glad to see you”. Their accomplishments, and adventures, long negleted, came to life in pictures and words. For the next three days they eagerly shared their stories many beginning with “Now you can’t print this.”
They made history sailing America’s largest troop ship. For me, they they made the West Point Chapter one of the most interesting and rewarding to write. Larry Driscoll, author of S.S. America U.S.S. West Point S.S. Australis, The Many Lives of a Great Ship
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.
USS West Point From the Ken Johnson collection
Henry T. Wildman, Motor Machinist 2nd Class
I came aboard the USS West Point in September. 1943, just out of boot camp. There were about seven of us that were brought from Treasure Island (off the coast of San Francisco) in a Navy launch. When I caught sight of the West Point I could not believe the size of her. I was born and raised in Cheyenne Wyo. My boot camp training was in Idaho.
I was assigned to A Division. The ship’s crew was made up of divisions and you did your job in four-hour watches. Four on, eight hours off, and every Monday you would change. If you had four to eight you would go eight to four. The divisions were named F for the fire room (boilers for making steam). M for machinery (turbines that turned the propellers). First and Second and so on for deck crew who maintained the painting of the ship, which was a constant job, because of rust from the saltwater. They also manned the guns. A division was auxiliary. They handled ice machines ( for refrigeration) evaporators ( for making freshwater from seawater for the boilers for making steam, and other uses of fresh water), and auxiliary engines. Included were boats, fire, generators, and we also carried two Ford cars ( Captain and officers). I didn’t work in four-hour watches in that job.
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.
Milne Bay New Guinea: (Photo provided by Harry T Wildman)
The picture of the ship at Milne Bay New Guinea has in the background the Owen Stanly Mountains. The Japanese would send bombers from Rebaul over the mountains to bomb us. The American P 38’s would wait for them in the mist, and then come up and shoot them down. The bombs came close, but no hits.
On a voyage to Gourock Scotland, we were slowing down to enter the firth of Clyde, ( we had no escort at sea, sailing at 22 knots. We would pick up an escort when we slowed down to go into a port). This time we had air cover by a Navy P.B.Y, and they said there was a German sub under us trying to go through the Submarine net with us into the river Clyde. They dropped a depth charge and it went off next to the engine room and did a lot of damage to the engine condenser. We were anchored near Gourock for over a week while repairs were made. When we left it and got out in the Atlantic the Waves were so high the water was coming over the top of the ship and we were taking water into the tip ventilators. Water was coming through the air vents.
We lost the bow gun tub and gun crew that morning. It was unbelievable! The big steel beams holding that gun tub, how twisted they were. Every morning I had to report to the bridge with a boat report, that every motor was OK. I looked at the ( I called it the Leanomeater) and the red hand showed a roll of 42 degrees. That picture of the life boat is from the storm. I believe that in early 1944 I saw a picture of an aircraft carrier with its ramp turned up from that storm.
I was discharged in Feb 1946. My rank was motor machinist mate 2nd class.
WRITTEN BY HARRY T WILDMAN: SEPT 1999
Ken Johnson...Remembering the West Point
I remember going aboard for the first time, she was so big it was kind of frightening for a kid just out of high school.
One of my first duties was swabbing the deck on Promenade Deck. Pop Kelly was our Division BMIc, twice broken down from C.B.M. He had served on the old battle wagon USS. TEXAS. Pop drank a little therefore he was prone to trouble on liberty. I think Captain Kelly liked Pop and helped him stay out of the brig.
One time an announcement came over the PA system: “B.M. Kelly, report to the Captain’s Office.” When Pop left the compartment he told me. “The skipper wants me there just to compare medals.” Pop Kelley left the ship about a year later.
I remember Red Ludwick, BM 1 c in charge of the 4th Division. He would always get up before wake-up call. He had an old beat-up bugle he would use for B Deck Aft. Those sailors were up and dressed when the official wake-up call sounded.
I remember the saltwater showers when we were allowed only one bucket of fresh water daily. That bucket was meant for bathing, washing clothes, etc. To get extra freshwater you would have to go through an act of congress.
I remember the football games in the corridors of the living quarters, with an imaginary football, no less.
I remember one dark night, standing BM of the Watch on the bridge, a couple of QM were playing around. When another Quartermaster or messenger stepped out on the Starboard Wing, he was tackled, only it was the Captain who was tackled. Everyone on the bridge, including the Officer of the Deck got their buts chewed out.
One night “Oakie” Ellis was the watch messenger. He made a bow tie out of one of the instruments marked, a phosphorous tube. While running around on the bridge with this bow tie, he showed up real nice. He came face to face with the Captain. Needless to say, another butt chewing.
I remember, after leaving Noumea, New Caledonia, in the middle of the China Sea, we had a destroyer as an escort. I was on the sun deck with Joe Everett BM2c, 4th Div. I was approached by one of the troops from the Section Eight quarters on the Prom Deck. This passenger was A1 Heath, my future brother‑in‑law. While visiting with Al, another patient approached me and asked for a light. I told this GI he could not smoke during abandon ship drills. About that time the abandoned ship bells rang out. The GI who had asked me for a light dove over the side. It was about 75 feet down to the water. Another GI on the fantail threw over an inflated Mae West life preserver. The vest had a sea marker, which exploded. I turned in the “man overboard” alarm. We could see the simmer riding the giant swells. The Captain decided to lower a lifeboat to rescue the diver. This was accomplished while the destroyer circled our ship, now dead in the water. The entire boat crew pretty well beat up trying to re‑board and get the captain’s gig back in its davits. With the high ground swells, it was impossible to get both ends of the rescue boat fastened. The destroyer asked that we cut the boat free. The skipper said, “No way in hell will I cut my boat free so those guys could sink it.” Finally, we got the boat back aboard and secured it. The boat crew went to sickbay to be patched up. The only one who wasn’t hurt was Sullivan, the GI who dove over the side. He explained that he saw his brother’s face on the water and thought he would go down to check it out.
I remember the day during gunnery practice. I was on #1‑20mm. My buddy Charlie Ryan was the first loader on #2‑20mm. He put on the magazine the first round exploded in his face. The barrel flew right over the lifeboats into the drink. Charlie spent six hours in sickbay, while the corpsmen removed particles of gun powder from Charlie’s face.
I remember the night coming into Boston when the ship stopped dead in the water, with black smoke pouring from the stack. The troops were just about to settle down to a movie. Needless to say, “all hell broke loose.” Rumors were: the engine room was on fire. GI’s were running in the dark like scared rabbits. When everything cleared up with our emergency generators on and power back in the engines, I passed sickbay. The corridors near there were littered with beat‑up GIs from running into things in the dark.
I remember hitting a whale in the Indian Ocean. I was on lookout watch in the forward stack.
The fire control and lookout station were at the top of the forward or dummy stack. From the Bill Lee collection
With my eyes near the binoculars, fastened to a chair that swiveled, the impact caused my eyes to come in direct contact with the binoculars. I thought I’d wind up with two black eyes, but I just had bruised eyes that healed fast. Everything seemed to heal faster back in our younger days.
I remember those North Atlantic storms. One time during one of these, a few of us were in the swimming pool. Seaman Blanchard, 4th Div., dove in only to find the water had shifted to the opposite side of the pool. He wound up with a nasty cut in his head. Sickbay took care of him.
I remember when we came into San Francisco after repairs, to Pier 28. The pier was loaded with cases of Atlas beer to be shipped overseas. Our crew decided some of that should come aboard, which it did. I don’t remember if we came away clean on that caper or not.
I remember the bad meat we picked up in Bombay. I think more than half the crew who ate the stuffed peppers got sick from it. I wouldn’t touch stuffed peppers for many years following that incident. I guess a few guys never did recover 100%.
So many lasting memories. Some enjoyable, some not so.
Where Are They Now?
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.