SS America was an ocean liner built in 1940 for the United States Lines and designed by the noted naval architect William Francis Gibbs. She carried many names in the 54 years between her construction and her 1994 wrecking, as she served as the SS America (carrying this name three different times during her career), the USS West Point, the SS Australis, the SS Italis, the SS Noga, the SS Alferdoss, and the SS American Star. She served most notably in passenger service as the SS America, and as the Greek-flagged SS Australis for Chandris. In 1941, she carried two Nazi spies from the Duquesne Spy Ring in her crew: Erwin Wilhelm Siegler and Franz Joseph Stigler. Both men were charged by the FBI with espionage and sentenced to 10 years’ and 16 years’ imprisonment, respectively.
Construction (1936–1939) America was laid down under the first Maritime Commission contract on August 22, 1938, at Newport News, Virginia, by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. She was one of the few ocean liners, American or otherwise, that had her interiors designed by women – the New York firm Smyth Urquhart & Marckwald. The stodginess and overwrought decor from liners of the past was jettisoned to create a comfortable and friendly ship. Interior design and furniture were installed to provide an atmosphere of cheerfulness and sophisticated charm. America was launched on August 31, 1939 and was sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President of the United States. America entered service as the flagship of the United States Lines on August 10, 1940, when she commenced her maiden voyage.
Early career (1939–1941) As originally designed, SS America could carry 543 in cabin class, 418 in tourist class, 241 in third class, and 643 crew. The interior accommodations were designed by architects Eggers & Higgins to be the utmost in contemporary American design, making use of stainless steel, ceramics, and synthetics.
Due to the European progress of World War II, in which the United States was still neutral, the ship’s name, “United States Lines”, and two American flags were painted in large size on both sides of her hull. At night, she sailed while fully illuminated. In addition, she did not immediately take to her intended North Atlantic service, instead sailing in safer waters. She was, however, quietly fitted with a degaussing cable for protection against naval mines on January 3, 1941.
On May 28, 1941, America was called up to service by the United States Navy, while the ship was at Saint Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. She was ordered to return to Newport News to be handed over to the Navy.
Duquesne Spy Ring
Two Nazi spies, Franz Joseph Stigler and Erwin Wilheim Siegler, were members of her crew in 1941. While on the SS America, they obtained information about the movement of ships and military defense preparations at the Panama Canal, observed and reported defense preparations in the Canal Zone, and met with other German agents to advise them in their espionage pursuits. They operated as couriers transmitting information between the United States and German agents aboard. Stigler worked undercover as chief butcher. Both remained on the SS America until the U.S. Navy converted that ship into the USS West Point.
Stigler and Siegler, along with the 31 other German agents of the Duquesne Spy Ring, were later uncovered by the FBI in the largest espionage conviction in U.S. history. Upon conviction, Stigler was sentenced to serve 16 years in prison on espionage charges with two concurrent years for registration violations; Siegler was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on espionage charges and a concurrent two-year term for violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
World War II (1941–1946)[edit source | editbeta]
SS America was moored at Norfolk, Virginia, and acquired by the Navy on June 1, 1941 to be used as a troop transport. The ship was renamed the USS West Point (AP-23), the second U.S. Navy ship of the name. She entered the Norfolk Ship Yards on June 6, 1941 for conversion and on June 15, 1941, she was commissioned for service under the command of Captain Frank H. Kelley, Jr. By the time the conversion was completed, life-rafts covered the promenade deck windows, “standee” bunks could be found everywhere, several anti-aircraft weapons were installed, all of her windows were covered, she was painted in a camouflage gray color, and her troop-carrying capacity was increased to 7,678.
The USS West Point soon proceeded to New York City and, while anchored off the Staten Island quarantine station on July 16, took on board 137 Italian citizens and 327 German citizens from the consulates of those nations in the United States which had been closed. West Point got underway at 1455 on that afternoon, bound for Portugal, and arrived at Lisbon on July 23. While there, the ship was visited by Portuguese naval and diplomatic dignitaries; and she transferred supplies to the Coast Guard cutter Ingham, the “station ship” at Lisbon, Portugal. After her final Italian passenger had been disembarked on 23 July and the last German on July 24, West Point commenced taking on 321 American citizens and 67 Chinese—consular staffs and their families — on July 26.
Returning to New York on August 1, West Point discharged her passengers and headed south for an overhaul at Portsmouth, Virginia. She then participated in tactical exercises off the Virginia Capes from August 26 to August 29 in company with Wakefield and Mount Vernon.
On November 3, she sailed from Carolina waters and arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on November 5. There, on November 8 and November 9, she embarked 241 officers and 5,202 men of the 55th Brigade, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, and 100 men of a US Army Field Service company. On November 10, West Point — in company with five other transports: Wakefield, Mount Vernon, Orizaba, Leonard Wood, and Joseph T. Dickman — got underway for India as Convoy HS-124. En route, they were joined by Ranger, Vincennes, Quincy, and a division of destroyers.
Reaching Cape Town, South Africa, on December 9, West Point and Wakefield were detached on December 23 to form Task Group (TG) 14.1, while Leonard Wood and Joseph T. Dickman formed TG 14.2. Escorted by the British heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, the convoy proceeded uneventfully toward India until 0700 on the 27th, when TG 14.1 was detached to speed up and arrive at Bombay ahead of the other ships.
Wakefield commenced discharging her embarked troops at 1900 at the Ballard Piers, completed her unloading, and shifted berths the next morning. West Point took Wakefield’s former berth while Joseph T. Dickman moored to unload her equipment and troops.
1942[edit source | editbeta]
Having completed her discharge by December 31, 1941, West Point anchored in the stream on the morning of January 2, 1942 and awaited further orders until January 4, when British authorities asked Captain Kelley, of West Point, if his ship and Wakefield could be brought under 30-foot (9.1 m) draught to make passage for Singapore. Kelley responded that it could be done, but this would entail discharging ballast and expelling some of the ship’s fresh water supply—thus endangering the ship’s stability.
Due to prevailing low-water conditions at Bombay at this point, neither West Point nor Wakefield could go alongside piers in the harbor to either load equipment or troops. Thus, the embarkation and loading procedures had to be carried out by the tedious process of embarking troops and loading supplies from smaller ships and lighters brought alongside. Wakefield embarked — almost to a man — the troops which she had brought from Halifax, a total of 4,506, while West Point embarked two-thirds of the troops which she had transported, in addition to some which had come out in other ships. All told, she carried some 5,272 men.
USS West Point arriving at New York with troops from Europe, July 1945.
West Point sailed for Singapore on January 9, in a “15-knot” convoy, with Captain Kelley as the Convoy Commodore. In addition to the two American ships, three British transports — Duchess of Bedford, Empress of Japan, and Empire Star — made up the remainder of the van. Escorted by British light cruiser HMS Caledon until this ship was relieved by light cruiser HMS Glasgow at 1630 on January 22, the convoy’s escort soon swelled to three cruisers and four destroyers as the convoy neared Java. Japanese submarine activities near the Indonesian archipelago prompted concern for the safe arrival of the valuable ships, hence a 200-mile (320 km) detour through the shallow, coral-studded Sunda Strait.
Led by British cruiser HMS Exeter, the ships slowed to 10 knots (19 km/h), and streaming paravane gear, began the passage. An escorting destroyer steamed between each transport, as they steamed in single-column order. It was a dangerous passing, a small divergence from the charted course could mean a disastrous grounding.
The screen’s commander, Captain Oliver L. Gordon, R.N., commanding Exeter, desired to arrive at Singapore with as many ships as possible by dawn on January 29, and thus split the convoy up, sending the faster vessels—West Point, Wakefield, and Empress of Japan—ahead at increased speed under escort of cruisers HMS Exeter, HMS Durban, HMS Dragon, and destroyers HMS Express and HMS Electra. Proceeding to Singapore via Berhala Strait, Durian Strait, and Philips Channel, the group steamed through these bodies of water in bright moonlight which made navigational aids unnecessary. Upon their arrival off Singapore, the ships lay to in an exposed position, beyond the range of shore-based antiaircraft guns, until pilots could be obtained to bring the ships in. Since the naval base came under daily heavy air raids, the transports proceeded to Keppel Harbor, the commercial basin at Singapore, where they could discharge their troops and cargo.
Securing abreast godowns (warehouses) 52, 53, and 54, West Point commenced off-loading equipment and disembarking her troops. All but 670 engineer troops, who had been ordered retained on board, were ashore before nightfall. Air raids, meanwhile, continued until midnight as the Japanese steadily pounded Singapore from the air. At each alert, the local workers working dockside would vanish, taking to the shelters and leaving the vital cargo still unloaded. As a result, the unloading was carried out by the crew of West Point, her embarked troops, and 22 local workers who were brought aboard to assist.
On January 30, seven Japanese bombers appeared over the city and were engaged by British Brewster Buffalo fighters. As the alert continued, 30 more Japanese planes appeared overhead, on course over Keppel Harbor. Several bombs fell on shore, eastward of West Point’s moorings, while another stick fell in the water to the southward. In the interim, bombs hit other targets. A small tanker moored near Wakefield was sunk at dockside; bombs fell abreast Empress of Japan; and Wakefield took a direct hit forward which destroyed her sick bay, killed five men, and wounded nine. The last bombs in this stick straddled West Point and showered her with shrapnel. As the raid lifted, West Point sent two medical officers and 11 corpsmen on board Wakefield, at the latter’s request, to render medical assistance.
Later that morning, Captain Kelley attended a conference with British authorities, who informed him that his ship was to be used to carry a contingent of Australian troops from Suez to Singapore and to transport refugees and evacuees to Ceylon. With the emergency “acute”, Kelley agreed to take on board up to one thousand women and children and such additional men as the British desired to send. With the abandonment of the naval dockyard, untenable in the face of increasingly heavier Japanese bombardments from artillery and aircraft, several dockyard naval and civilian personnel and their families were assigned to West Point for evacuation. Most carried only hand baggage; had little, if any, money; but were all fortunate enough to escape the doomed city before its fall to the onrushing Japanese troops of General Yamashita. All told, some 1,276 naval officers, their families, dockyard civilians, civilian evacuees, a 16-man Royal Air Force (RAF) contingent, and 225 naval ratings made up the 1,276 people embarked by 1800 on 30 January.
Clearing Singapore, West Point and Wakefield headed due west, escorted by HMS Durban. Overcast and squally weather covered their departure and permitted them to transit the Banka Strait unmolested by the seemingly omnipresent Japanese aircraft. Routed to Batavia, Java, to embark more refugees, West Point led Wakefield and Durban through the minefields and anchored in Batavia Roads at 0305 on January 31. HMS Electra—which would be lost in the Battle of the Java Sea at the end of the month—came alongside eight hours later and transferred 20 naval dockyard personnel, three women, five naval officers’ wives, one Free French officer, and an RAF officer to West Point for passage to Ceylon.
At 1240 on February 1, West Point—in company with Wakefield and under escort of Exeter, HMS Encounter, and HMAS Vampire—got underway. The destroyers eventually went off to perform other duties, and Exeter as well soon dropped away to escort another convoy, leaving the two big troopships on their own. While they were en route, disconcerting news came over the radio. Japanese I-boats (identified after the war as I-162 and I-153) had been active in the vicinity, sinking six ships between them. West Point acquired an extra passenger while en route; for, on February 4, a baby boy was born on board.
Colombo Harbor, Ceylon, where they arrived on January 6, was so crowded that British authorities could not permit Wakefield to repair her damage there. The passengers, in turn, experienced much difficulty in arranging for suitable transportation ashore. In addition, neither transport could fully provision.
British authorities requested the American ships to evacuate personnel to Bombay. Accordingly, West Point took on board eight men, 55 women, and 53 children, as well as 670 troops, for passage to India. Wakefield, despite her weakened condition caused by the direct hit on January 29, embarked two naval ratings, six RAF personnel, and 25 men and one officer of a British Bofors gun detachment. The two ships departed Colombo on February 8 and, escorted by the Greek destroyer Queen Olga, proceeded at 20 knots (37 km/h). Captain Kelley later highly praised the operations of this sole escort. Although heavy weather was encountered en route, the elderly Greek destroyer acquitted herself well, continuing to patrol her station “at all times at high speed ahead of our zig-zag.”
After discharging her evacuees at Bombay, West Point parted company with Wakefield and proceeded to Suez where she picked up Australian troops who were being withdrawn from the North African Campaign to fight the Japanese in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, one disaster after another had plagued the Allied forces. Singapore fell on February 15; Java on March 4. West Point carried her embarked troops to Australia and disembarked them at Adelaide and Melbourne before heading across the Pacific toward San Francisco.
As the Allies built up for the long road back, West Point participated in the effort to aid America’s allies in the southwest Pacific with massive contingents of troops. Accordingly, the transport carried men to Wellington, New Zealand, and arrived on May 30. There, she received orders to return to New York; and she got underway from Melbourne on June 8, bound for the Panama Canal. She entered the Atlantic on June 26 and arrived at New York on July 2.
After two voyages to the United Kingdom, West Point sailed for India, via the South Atlantic route, and arrived at Bombay on November 29, before pushing on for Auckland, New Zealand, the following month.
1943[edit source | editbeta]
The transport returned via Nouméa, New Caledonia, to San Francisco on January 31, 1943. She remained on the West Coast until February 16, when she got underway for the South Pacific and retraced her route to Wellington, New Zealand, and Australian ports. She then continued west—calling at Bombay, Massawa, Aden, and Suez—and stopped briefly at Cape Town en route to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Eventually arriving at New York on 4 May, the ship subsequently made two voyages to Casablanca, French Morocco before sailing for Bombay via the southern Atlantic route. Calling at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town en route, the big transport continued, via Bombay and Melbourne, on for the West Coast of the United States.
Soon thereafter, West Point began transporting troops to Australia and continued making voyages there and to Allied bases in the Central and South Pacific through the end of 1943.
1944[edit source | editbeta]
In 1944, the transport continued her vital workhorse duties, departing San Francisco on 12 January, bound for Nouméa and Guadalcanal; and from San Pedro, California on February 22, bound for Nouméa and Milne Bay. She sailed from the latter port and steamed via the Panama Canal to Boston, Massachusetts, where she arrived on June 12. She conducted five successive voyages to the United Kingdom before departing Boston on December 6, 1944 for Oran, Algeria; Casablanca, French Morocco; and Marseille, France. The transport left the Mediterranean on December 26 and proceeded to Norfolk, Virginia.
1945-1946[edit source | editbeta]
In 1945, West Point voyaged to Italian and French ports, via Oran or Gibraltar, staging from Hampton Roads, Virginia, Boston, or New York. After Germany surrendered, she took part in some of the initial “Magic Carpet” voyages, bringing home American troops from the European battlefronts. Following her last European voyage—to Le Havre, France—West Point was transferred to the Pacific Fleet. She departed Boston on December 10, 1945, transited the Panama Canal, and proceeded to Manila, Philippines via Pearl Harbor. Retracing the same route, she docked at pier 88 in New York on February 7, 1946 and soon got underway for Hampton Roads, where she was released from troop-carrying service on February 22. Her last voyage under the name West Point was a short trip from Portsmouth to Newport News for re-conversion to a passenger liner. There, six days later, she was officially decommissioned, and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on March 12 and transferred to the Maritime Commission’s War Shipping Administration.
During her naval service she carried a total of over 350,000 troops which was the largest total of any Navy troopship in service during World War II. On one voyage in 1944 she was able to transport 9,305 people. Additionally the troop transport carried Red Cross workers, United Nations officials, children, civilians, prisoners of war, and U.S.O. entertainers.
Postwar career (1946–1964)[edit source | editbeta]
SS America (foreground) and SS United States (background) in New York.
America’s postwar career was successful, if uneventful. Finally, she was able to sail her New York-Le Havre-Bremerhaven-Cobh route that had been delayed by World War II. To many ship lovers, she was the most beautifully decorated liner to fly the American flag, less rigid and not as menacing-looking as her soon-to-debut fleetmate, the SS United States. Many American tourists preferred to travel on an American-built and owned ship, as some considered them safer and cleaner.
With the introduction of the larger and faster United States in 1952, America’s reign as queen of the US merchant marine was taken away from her. Their disparity in size and speed prevented them from becoming true running mates like the RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard Line. But she still was a favorite of many.
Chandris career (1964–1978)[edit source | editbeta]
America was sold to the Greek-owned Chandris Group in 1964. At twenty-four, she was getting older and facing competition from newer, faster ships as well as the airplane. The postwar emigrant run from Europe to Australia had become a lucrative market for passenger ships in spite of the growing popularity of air travel.
America, now renamed Australis (from the old Latin name for Australia, Terra Australis ‘Southern Land’), was refitted extensively. This increased her passenger capacity from fewer than 1,200 to 2,258. Some 350 additional cabins were installed and many existing cabins were given extra berths. Her maiden voyage was from Piraeus on August 21, 1965 to Australia and New Zealand via Suez, returning to Southampton via the Pacific and Panama and Miami. Thereafter she sailed regularly from Southampton, occasionally Rotterdam, on this round-the-world route. On the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967, Piraeus was dropped as a port-of-call and she sailed southbound via Cape Town.
On July 11, 1974, Australis was involved in a minor collision with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne while in Sydney Harbour. Both ships were slightly damaged, but there were no casualties.
She was the last liner providing a regular service to Australia and New Zealand from Southampton until her final voyage which left on November 18, 1977. After arriving at Auckland, she was laid up at Timaru on December 23, 1977.
Australis was also popular as a cruise ship in Europe and out of Australia and New Zealand, although her primary purpose was the transfer of immigrants. She continued this trade for fourteen years. But rising fuel costs, aging infrastructure, and the creation of long-range jetliners caused Chandris to pull Australis off the Australian run in 1978.
Venture Cruises career (June 1978 – August 1978)[edit source | editbeta]
Following a period of layup in Timaru, New Zealand, Australis was sold to Venture Cruises of New York. Under Venture Cruises ownership, the ship was renamed America once again in an attempt to capitalize on the ship’s heritage, despite her Greek flag. The ship was repainted in a blue and white color scheme.
America set sail on her first cruise on June 30, 1978. Her refit, however, had not been completed by the time of the sailing. The ship was filthy, with piles of soiled linens and worn mattresses, scattered piles of trash, and a scent of kitchen odors, engine oil, and plumbing backups. In addition, water in overhead pipes leaked. Along with maintenance issues, attempts to spruce the ship up led to other problems, with too many layers of paint visible on the outer bulkheads, as well as the lifeboat davits and lifeboat gear. Additionally, the public rooms were carelessly repainted, with the America’s stainless steel trims now scarred with brush strokes.
Due to overbooking and her state of incompletion, a number of passengers “mutinied”, forcing the captain to return to New York, having only barely passed the Statue of Liberty. 960 passengers were offloaded upon the ship’s arrival. On a second sailing that day, an additional 200 passengers left via tender at Staten Island.
America left for a five-day cruise to Nova Scotia on July 3, 1978. Upon arrival, she was met with $2.5 million in claims from passengers. Further issues saw the cancellation of all further sailings, and America was impounded on July 18, 1978 for non-payment of debts. America also received an inspection score of 6 out of a possible 100 points by the US Public Health Service.
On August 28, 1978, America was ordered to be sold at auction by the United States district court.
Second Chandris career (1978–1980)[edit source | editbeta]
Chandris Lines repurchased America for $1,000,000 and renamed her Italis. Her forward funnel that had become severely corroded due to years of neglect was removed as part of an ambitious plan to modernize her silhouette by adding streamlined superstructure above the bridge, but this ‘new look’ was never completed. She retained the dark blue hull adopted by Venture Cruises.
Italis first operated under Chandris as a hotel ship from June 23 to July 20, 1979 when she was chartered for the OAU Conference held in Monrovia, Liberia. She then carried out three 14-night cruises from Genoa and Barcelona to Egypt, Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean beginning on July 28, 1979. At the end of this series of cruises she was finally laid up in Elefsina Bay, Piraeus on September 12, 1979.
Uncertain future at Piraeus (1980–1994)[edit source | editbeta]
The ship was then sold to Intercommerce Corporation in 1980, and was renamed SS Noga. Intercommerce’s intention was to convert the ship to a prison ship, to be anchored in Beirut. This would never happen.
In September 1984, the ship was sold to Silver Moon Ferries, and she was once again renamed, now carrying the name Alferdoss, which means “paradise” in Arabic. However, only the name on the port bow was changed. The name on the stern and starboard bow was not changed, and continued to show Noga.
While under the ownership of Silver Moon Ferries, a bilge pipe burst, which caused flooding in the engine room and some crew quarters. Due to the quickly-occurring list, her starboard anchor was raised and her port anchor was cut away, and she was quickly beached to prevent her from sinking. After being pumped out and repaired, she was returned to her original location.
In the late 1980s, the ship was sold for $2 million for scrapping. The scrap merchant made an initial deposit of $1 million, and began work. Following the demolition of the lifeboats and lifeboat davits, the scrappers defaulted on payments, and pulled out.
Alferdoss would continue in this state until 1993.
Wrecked at Fuerteventura (1994–2012)[edit source | editbeta]
The wreck of the American Star (SS America) seen in July 2004 from land side, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands.
In February 1993, the ship was sold yet again, with the intention of being refitted to become a five-star hotel ship off Phuket, in Thailand. Drydocking at that time revealed that despite the years of neglect, her hull was still in remarkably good condition. In August she was renamed American Star, her propellers were removed and placed on the deck, the funnel and bridge were painted red, and ladders were welded to starboard. She left Greece on December 22, 1993 under tow, but the tow proved impossible due to the weather. She then returned to Greece for a few days until the weather calmed down. On New Year’s Eve 1993, American Star left Greece for the last time, towed by Ukrainian tugboat Neftegaz-67.
The one hundred day tow began; American Star and Neftegaz 67 entered a thunderstorm in the Atlantic. The tow lines broke and six or more men were sent aboard American Star to reattach the emergency tow lines. This proved unsuccessful. Two other towboats were called to assist Neftegaz 67. On January 17, the crew aboard American Star was rescued by helicopter. The ship was left adrift. On January 18, the ship ran aground off the west coast of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.
The deterioration of the remains of American Star between 2005 and 2007. The stern broke off and sank in 1996, leaving only the bow section on the sandbar. Since that time, the ship has developed a greater list to port, and the funnel has detached and sunk.
While discussions among the ship’s owners, the towing firm, and the companies insuring the ship were going on, the ship was left to nature, with the forward part of the ship running aground on a sandbar. Within the first 48 hours of pounding surf of the Atlantic, the ship broke in two just past the second funnel. The ship was declared a total loss on July 6, 1994. The stern section collapsed completely to port and sank in 1996, while the bow continued to remain intact.
In November 2005, the port side of the bow section collapsed, which caused the liner’s remains to assume a much sharper list and the remaining funnel to detach and fall into the ocean. The collapse of the port side also caused the hull to begin to break up and by October 2006, the wreck had almost completely collapsed onto its port side.
In April 2007 the starboard side finally collapsed causing the wreck to break in half and fall into the sea. Since then, what little remained has been slowly disappearing beneath the waves. As of March 2013, the wreck is only visible during low tide.