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Uss westpoint weighing anchor courtesy of Bill Lee
"The Grey Ghost"
SS AMERICA was requistioned to assist in troop carrying during WWII and was officially numbered AP23. Initally she was given the number P23 (personnel carrier) however upon fitting of her anti aircraft guns she became AP23 (Armoured personnel carrier)
Upon arrival at dry docking and within 17 hours the SS Americas hull had been completely repainted to a grey colour - giving her the war time name as the grey ghost.
A row of life rafts covered her Promenade Deck windows, and four- tier standee bunks were installed eve rywhere, giving her an initial capacity of 5,400 men. The Smoking Room and Cock- tail Lounge became the officers' ward- room and mess, the Library became a latrine, the Lounge was a movie theater, the Ball Room had bunks for 545 men, the Dining Room was the enlisted men's mess and the adjoining foyer used to wash mess kits. Two desalinization units, paravanes, mast look-out platforms and 1,500 tons of ballast were added.
AMERICA was commissioned as the ''Convoy Unit Loaded Transport'' U.S.S. WEST POINT and was commanded by Captain Frank H. Kelley, Jn, USN, with Captain Stedman as ('exec'' during the shakedown period, after which he became Commandant of the Merchant Academy, Kings Point, New York. Most of the crew came from New England Naval Reserve units.
After five days of working up exercises off the Virginia Capes, WEST POINT returned to Norfolk on June 20, 1941, for additional refitting. 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 July 16 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.
Refitting at Norfolk Navy Yard, September l5 October 1, included installing five inch 51-cal. guns, four 3-inch 50-cal. guns, four 1.1- inch quad mounts and 16-20 nun Oerlikons. America was still at peace, but her largest liner was armed and stripped for action and her once divergent and green officers and crew were now a Cohesive, trained unit.
SS AMERICA been repainted to the grey USS WESTPOINT
WESTPOINT photographed by a Royal New Zealand Hudson Bomber
credits : America undergoing repainting US NAVY Archives. Aerial photograph
courtesy of Steve Mullis via VH YOUNG & LA SAWYER - ship photographers
In perhaps a ''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''. The transports reached Colombo, Ceylon, on February 6th, but owing to port congestion there, left two days later for Bombay with WEST POINT carrying 116 civil ians and 670 troops, escorted by the Greek destroyer VASILISSA OLGA.
Now alone, WEST POlNT'sailed from Bombay on February 16, 1942, for Suez to embark 5,353 men of the Australian 7th Division forAdelaide via Fremantle. On April 1st she proceeded to Melboume, Wellington and across the Pacific to arrive at San Francisco on the 24th. With 5,526 GIS aboard, she returned "downunder'' to Wellington on May 31st.
Upon her return and after a short refit to increase her capacity, WEST POINT sailed from New York on August 6, 1942, for Halifax and to Liverpool with 7,441 troops. On the return crossing from the Clyde, she was in the same convoy as WAKEFIELD which caught fire on September 3rd. As a result of this incident, and to improve fire safety and increase troop capacity, the Navy had the WESTPOINT enter Todd's Brooklyn yards to be stripped of unnecessary bulkheads and fittings and the four-tier standee bunks became five-tier (providing barely 16 inches of space in betweenl) to give a new capacity of 8,000 men.
Reassigned to the European Theatre of Operations in 1944, 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 top speed across the Atlantic and back without refuelling, keeping her U.K. tum- around time to 36 hours or less. Her capability to steam full speed on just five boilers permitted rotating maintenance underway on the sixth.
The new routine was hard on crew and passengers. There was alternating monotony and tension, (calm weather one day that brought increased risk of U- boat attack, and foul the next that could break green water over the bows and reduce 8,000 fit fighting men into miserable seasick wretches. The safe arrival of WEST POINT and her precious 8,000 passengers on schedule was an absolute priority, requiring steaming at full speed regardless of weather or traffic conditions. The most tense part of the crossing was the approach through the Irish Sea to Liverpool and Gourock when radiomen, radar operators and range finders stood double watches on constant alert for U-boat warnings and course change orders. On one trip, 25 submarine reports were received within 24 hours.
|Note rear anti aircraft guns, forward funnel crows nest and NO gun platform to front - this photo may have been taken prior to fitting or after the tragic accident||
This photo shows the twin guns mounted to the extended bow platform
Photograph credits : Both photos courtesy of national archives through the US NAVY
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 Bostonlwith 4,346 prisoners. In a zero visability 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.
The new year 1945 was only four days old when she got her next assignment: Newport News to Naples with 7, ,741 men of the crack 10th Mountain Infantry Division destined to drive out the Germans from their A1- pine strongholds. A U-boat sank a British tanker off the Straits of Gibraltar hours before WEST POINT reached the area. She returned to Boston on January 16th with 6,470 passengers and then made two round voyages to Gourock which proved to be her most arduous wartime trips.
troops aboard. WEST POINT left Boston on February 10, 1945, and picked up
her Royal Navy escorts, 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 the danger leaving the destroyers
to hunt the U boat
The passage home, was marked as the most ferocious weather experienced in the ships history. One clay out of the Clyde with 1,325 passengers aboard, she ran into hurricane-force winds and mountaineous seas. Reports of t U-boats nearby required the vessel to maintain full speed. Suddenly and without warning, an enourmous wave hit her bow-on, engulfing the foc'sle with such force as to demolish the ships forward gun platform, sheets off staunchions and bend launders. Although the gun crew had earlier sort shelter, the remaining lookout was tragically killed on impact - the only casulty.l. Her escorts could not handle the weather and returned to port however WEST POINT plowed her way across and reached Boston safely.
There seemed no end to vicious North Atlantic winter weather. During her Boston to Gourock crossing of March 9-16, 1945, with 7,705 soldiers aboard, WESTPOINT was pummeled by 6o-foot seas and loo-mph winds and forced to reduce speed to 10 knots to prevent damage. Once again, a redeployment to the Mediterranean proved a welcome change as WEST POINT left Newport News on April 5th and reached Naples on the 14th.
The WEST POINT was reassigned to the Pacific on December 5, 1945, and sailed from Boston five days later for Manila via Pearl Harbor. With 7,757 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 1945.
In all, WEST POINT had accomplished l45 missions, made 15 Pacific crossings and 41 on theAtlantic, steamed 456,144 nautical miles and carried 505,020 passengers - American Gls, British Tommies, ANZACS, 4,000 WACS and WAVES, 16,000 wounded, civilians, diplomats, officials, USO stars (including Red Skelton, Barbara Stanwyck and Hedylltnzarr), 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 7 times byAxis Sally, never suffered a mechanical breakdown and never failed to carry out an assignment.