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.
John Daniel, Carpenter’s Mate
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 USS WEST POINT’s second commanding officer, relieving Captain Kelley.
Since Singapore, USS WEST POINT‘s brushes with danger were 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, USS 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.
From the collection of Bill Lee.
USS West Point From the Ken Johnson collection
In continuous service since the outbreak of the war, USS 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
Navy Department,Washington, D.C.
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 USS 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 crew of the USS West Point (AP_23) has met every two years since 1971. More than 300 showed up for the first reunion in Boston in 1971. “It was an emotional time, almost sad,” explained one of the wives. “They had not seen each other in twenty-five years. Some were crying at the joy of seeing their shipmates again.” Ever since, from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, they have gathered to remember the West Point, share memories and stories, and remember lost comrades.
Over thirty attended the reunion in Kansas City plus wives, and children. They were some of the youngest members of the crew, having joined the Navy out of high school. The West Point took them all over the world and returned them safely at the end of the war with a rich store of friendships and adventures. As one said, «a millionaire could never buy the experiences we had.” They shared their memories and pictures freely, but with many conversations beginning with “Now, you can’t print this story.”
I left with an admiration for these men and what they accomplished; safely delivering over half a million GI’s to their destination, never losing a passenger. They worked hard to run a safe friendly ship. This was done under the most difficult circumstances, including stormy seas, enemy submarines, and aircraft. While they faced danger, they never gave it much thought. Each man had a job to do and little time to worry about danger. As one member put it, “We had to do what we had to do.” They helped make history.”
Today the crew reunions are a thing of the past; however the memories live on with those of us who were fortunate to know this great group of Navy Veterans.
Larry Driscoll, author S.S. America, U.S.S. West Point, S.S. Australis. The many lives of a great ship.
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.
Sailing- Prisoner Class
The WEST POINT brought over 14,000 war prisoners back to the United States. They traveled ‘Prisoner Class’, isolated on the lower decks, and forbidden any contact with the other passengers. Class distinction was maintained by a simple enclosure of fence wire attached to 2×4 lumber with hinges and a lock. A lone guard kept watch, with backup provided by the ship’s Marine Detachment. The arrangement was basic but effective. “Where are they going to go?” was the reply of one Captain to a request to build a more secure enclosure. “If they try to escape, use them for target practice”.
The other passengers were told to keep clear of the prisoners, which meant not even looking at them, much less conversing or trading. However, exchanges with the crew sometimes took place. Crew member Ken Johnson remembers the following conversation with a German prisoner. “I was coming through the section on the Promenade Deck where we had prisoners when I heard one of the German prisoners call out in perfect English “Hey sailor”. I went over to him and he said, “Could you get me some ice cream?” I told him I could probably finagle some and asked why he sounded so American. The guy replied “I am! I live in Sacramento. In 1939 I went to visit my brother in Germany, and they threw me in the German Army.” He was finally coming back to the States, but as a prisoner of war!”
Shipboard life for a prisoner on the USS WEST POINT was agreeable. They were given 40 minutes a day for exercise on a barbed-wire enclosed deck. They received the same food as the GI’s, which they ate with only a spoon (knives and forks were considered potential weapons). Everyone on board was expected to share in the workload, including the prisoners. Some of the prisoners, when asked to work would reply “Go to hell, we’re prisoners, we don’t have to work”. Cooperation soon improved after they were told: “no work – no food”. They worked in small groups under the supervision of a sailor, cooking, moving supplies, helping in the mess lines, serving food, and cleaning up. Many were eager to work as it meant American cigarettes. One group of Germans was particularly adept at chipping and painting. When the supervising German officer was asked how he learned to be so handy around a ship he replied “I was a U-boat commander for 18 years”.
Prisoners transported to North America included Italians captured during the Italian campaign and Germans from the Africa Corps. To the crew the Germans could at times be arrogant, complaining about quarters or refusing work detail.
Excerpt from SS America USS West Point SS Australis… The many lives of a great ship by Lawrence Driscoll
John C. Scruggs Jr. retired NNS&DDco shipyard
In WWII the USS WEST POINT carried more than 350,000 passengers. She has covered more than 350,000 miles, equal to 14 trips around the globe. T ship has made as many as 24 Atlantic crossings in a single year. Her ports include: Bombay, Marseilles, Capetown, Guadalcanal, Canal Zone, Naples, Liverpool and Mers-el-Kehbir. On December 4, 1946, the ship was recommissioned as the flagship of the United States Lines.
Actor and winner of two-consecutive Academy awards for best actor.
Ken Johnsom remembers
Ken Johnson remembers THE USS WEST POINT AND SUBMARINES • About ten hours from San Francisco we hit something that knocked me right out of my bunk on B deck. Getting into dry dock at Hunters point revealed a deep gash about 150 feet long on the bottom of the ship. Later it was determined we had rammed a Jap sub accidentally. The sub crew perhaps trying to get a line on us, but out zig zag pattern wasn’t figured out right so the sub got in our way. I remember reports that a Jap sub had been sunk in the vicinity. It’s a whole lot better than the other way around. • ‘Frenchy’ Levesque and I were on lookout on the bridge while leaving Rio de Janerio. We watched two streaks, turned out to be torpedoes from a German U –boat. By the grace of God both missiles failed to find their mark.
Actor and winner of two-consecutive Academy awards for best actor.
Your co More on the USS West Point