Queen of the American
By Bill Lee
INTRODUCTION: This is the life story of a famous ocean liner; a classic steam ship that enjoyed three separate, quite distinctive and highly productive careers that spanned almost four decades. Designed and built in the mid-20th century to ply the North Atlantic passenger trade, her original name was AMERICA. During World War II, she served her namesake nation as the USS WEST POINT. When jet travel displaced ocean liners as the primary mode of crossing the Atlantic, she found a new career and a new name - AUSTRALIS.
In the twilight of her productive years, she was less successful, and later languished for years at anchor in Greece under a succession of forgettable names. Optimistically renamed AMERICAN STAR, she was headed for a new career as a hotel ship in Thailand when she went aground in the Canary Islands in 1994.
SS AMERICA (1940-1941): When first placed in service, the AMERICA was a renaissance celebration of emergence from the depths of the Great Depression for her namesake nation. This vessel was America's first foray into the realm of the great ocean liners. Not the biggest or fastest liner, she also was not decorated in the European-inspired grandiose style of that time. Instead, her interiors represented a modern contemporary American design, resulting in a grace, charm and warmth that kept passengers coming back to her again and again.
Designed and stoutly built to weather the North Atlantic, her entry into that maritime market was delayed for several years. Significantly, her gala launching on August 31, 1939 - a christening at the hand of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and witnessed by over 30,000 - was overshadowed the very next day when World War II started. But AMERICA was already prepared for such possibilities; for the United States Maritime Commission had subsidized her construction and certain military measures had been inconspicuously incorporated into her design.
Contractually, they were called 'defense features' and consisted mainly of reinforced decking in locations where antiaircraft guns were to be mounted, in time of war. Some of her safety-related features (e.g., extensive compartmentation, elaborate fire protective systems, redundant mechanical and electric systems, etc.) were other items that proved to be beneficial when she became a troop transport.
Completed in the summer of 1940, this star-spangled ship of state undertook a series of Caribbean cruises with her neutrality boldly proclaimed by huge American flags and her name - and the name of her owners painted on either side of her glistening black hull. Above her hull were several decks of brilliant white, topped by two tall, streamlined and uniquely finned smokestacks of red, white and blue. Called sampan funnels - these crowning creations had been hastily raised fifteen feet after her sea trials (with nary a word publicly) to alleviate soot deposit problems on her open passenger decks. To many, that change only further complimented her appearance - and bespoke of a powerful vessel of great promise.
Less obvious was the intriguing fact that AMERICA's forward funnel was a fake. In the mid-twentieth century, multiple funnels were considered to be symbolic of a powerful ship. Other ships of that era also had 'fake' funnels. AMERICA was originally designed with two funnels - one active, the other one intended to convey the 'power' message and add balance to her overall appearance. While not functional as a smokestack, AMERICA's forward funnel did provide a useful place to locate the ship's emergency generator and back-up batteries.
Designed by Americans... constructed by skilled American labor from
materials provided by virtually every State in the Union... decorated and
furnished by leading American artists and craftsmen - the AMERICA could
scarcely be a more 'all-American ship, or more completely equipped to
assure you at sea the same high American standards of luxurious comfort
and efficiency which you enjoy ashore. And once you are aboard, regardless of how high your enthusiasm may have soared, this magnificent liner will not disappoint you. She's the finest example of modern shipbuilding art."
(United States Lines' brochure, circa 1940)
USS WEST POINT (1941-1946): In less than a year, AMERICA was drafted for military service. She returned to her builders' yard in June of 1941 and just eleven days later she was commissioned as a United States naval vessel. Renamed the USS WEST POINT, in honor of the nation's military academy and appropriate to her purpose as a military transport, she ultimately was fitted to carry over 8,000 troops at a time. In 1942 a coat of 'dazzle' camouflage replaced her all-grey paint job, and her original antiaircraft armament was greatly expanded.
The top of her forward 'fake' funnel served admirably - albeit unexpectedly by her designers - as a fire control and lookout station. In essence a steel-lined 'foxhole', it was higher than the crow's nest and provided an excellent place to control the aim of her guns, and to give lookouts an unrestricted view completely around the ship.
Affectionately known as The Grey Ghost by her 785-man navy crew, she steamed 436,144 nautical miles and ferried over half a million souls to and from battlefronts around the world - and without the loss of a single soldier to enemy action! WEST POINT most often made her crossings unescorted, zigzagging too fast for enemy submarines to hit her, or even for friendly escorts to keep up.
She narrowly missed being hit by bombs at Singapore in early 1942. WEST POINT hurriedly left that port with over a thousand British civilians onboard and shortly thereafter celebrated the birth of a boy on the high seas - and right at the equator.
Moving into and out of harbors around the world, mostly at night, The Grey Ghost carried troops of many allied nations, United Service Organization (USO) and Red Cross civilian personnel, army nurses and members of the Women's Army Corps (WACs). Her return trips to the United States often included both allied wounded and enemy prisoners of wars on her passenger manifests.
And victorious soldiers - and quite a few war brides - at the end of hostilities.
During the war, the enemy announced seven times that they had sunk her. But the closest call she had was when a torpedo crossed her bow as she was leaving Rio de Janeiro, missing by only a few yards (a distance that gets closer with each retelling at WEST POINT crew reunions). While making 15 Pacific crossings and 41 on the Atlantic, the crew of AP 23 often performed heavy maintenance and major repairs, tasks normally only accomplished in port. A tribute to her crew - and her builders - she never suffered a breakdown during this entire period of strenuous duty.
SS AMERICA (1946-1964): In February of 1946, WEST POINT returned to her birthplace and was decommissioned. Craftsmen at Newport News Shipbuilding performed a multi-million dollar restoration befitting her dual peacetime role as Queen of the American Merchant Marine and flagship of United States Lines. In November of 1946, she emerged from the shipyard. A few improvements had been made - such as adding radar to her navigation equipment and improving her water purification capacity. However, any pre-war passenger would have been hard-pressed to discover anything much different in her public spaces or staterooms.
United States Lines spared no expense in replacing furniture, carpets and decorations in strict conformance with her original specifications. The shipbuilders of Newport News miraculously recreated her pre-war beauty. Pierre Bourdelle meticulously restored her First Class Dining Room murals to their original condition. The 26 lacquered Linoleum panels that defined this majestic space were his crowning achievement as an artist.
The only thing noticeably different externally in 1946 was the deletion of her 'neutrality' markings, no longer needed in peacetime, and the addition of two small radar antennae to her foremast. Following another set of sea trials, her captain declared: She has been tried and tested in war, and she is better than ever.
After sailing majestically into her homeport of New York harbor in late 1946, AMERICA - at long last - made her maiden voyage to Europe. And thus, her glory years commenced.
After the excitement of her maiden voyage was over, AMERICA settled into a routine of transatlantic crossings, making 15-18 round trip voyages a year. Her European port calls often included Bremerhaven. She was a favorite of many voyagers who ascribed to the old adage - getting there is half the fun - especially in the comfort and style that was the SS AMERICA.
By the time her service with United States Lines ended in 1964, she had completed 288 Atlantic crossings, steamed 2.8 million nautical miles and carried over 500,000 peacetime passengers to their destinations. She also served as the birthplace for two more children. A girl in 1951 and a boy in 1954 were both born, appropriately enough, in mid-ocean.
Annually, she returned to her birthplace for what were called 'voyage repairs'. Her every arrival and departure was witnessed by hundreds gathered on a nearby riverbank to watch her sail past - spouting great clouds of steam from her baritone voice - her twin steam whistles mounted high and inside each of her signature red, white and blue stacks.
Between 1946 and 1964, things changed significantly. In 1952 she got a running mate - the famous SS UNITED STATES. For a time they both prospered, providing weekly service between the United States and Europe. But the late fifties/early sixties brought two disturbing changes - increasing, costly and disruptive demands from the maritime unions and the advent of transatlantic jet passenger service.
Getting there became but an expedient, and AMERICA became expendable.
In time, her yearly losses were counted in the millions of dollars. The number of passengers declined and United States Lines resumed cruises to the Caribbean in an attempt to keep her profitable. In 1960, her three classes of passenger service were reduced to two; eliminating Third Class entirely.
Finally, in 1964, she was sold to the Chandris Lines which held contracts with the British Government to provide emigrant service from England to Australia and New Zealand. Ironically, when sold, AMERICA was moored at her Virginia birthplace - there for annual voyage repairs. She shared a pier with an almost completed, giant aircraft carrier... the USS AMERICA.
RHMS AUSTRALIS (1964-1977): On a particularly bleak day in November of 1964, the Stars and Stripes were lowered from her main mast, replaced by the Greek national flag. The only change readily visible to the faithful few who watched her leave Newport News - for what proved to be the very last time - was a sad sight, indeed. Her famous, familiar, red, white and blue funnels were drably covered over by dark blue paint with black caps.
And thus, the newly named AUSTRALIS - The Australian Maiden - sailed away. When purchased by Chandris, she became the largest liner in their fleet - in fact, in any Greek-flagged fleet. Before being placed back in service, she received major modifications at Chandris' Piraeus yards. Her passenger capacity was more than doubled; increased to 2,300. Her superstructure was extended aft, an external swimming pool was fitted further aft and she became completely air-conditioned.
But her original 'all-American' décor was largely left intact. She became the largest one-class liner in the world. As the aptly-named Australian Maiden commenced the first of what was to prove to be 62 round the world cruises between 1965 and 1977, the spirit of the immigrant influenced nation of her origin was mirrored by thousands of people seeking a new life in their new world down under.
Typically, every three months, AUSTRALIS would sail from Southampton to ports in Australia and New Zealand. Under a prized and heavily subsidized migrant transportation contract, her passengers could pay as little as ten Pounds each for their adventure - essentially a carefree cruise more than halfway around the world. At such attractive rates, she sailed at full capacity more often than not, with whole families sharing four and six-berth staterooms on the lower decks.
In times of tranquility, outbound trips included numerous stops in the Mediterranean, capped by passage through the Suez Canal. In times of international turmoil, AUSTRALIS would sail around the Cape of Good Hope from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean, often calling in exotic ports along the way.
Over time, her mainmast was removed and replaced by an ungainly-looking stub mast affixed to her aft funnel. Sometime later still, a 'stovepipe' extension was added atop the ship's after funnel to divert oily particles entrained in boiler exhaust gases from being deposited in her outdoor pool.
Her hull, at first painted white, was later changed to dove grey; to help obscure her original black paint that kept stubbornly bleeding through.
After disembarking her excited passengers in various ports of their 'brave new world', the ship would carry passengers of opportunity (and sometimes homesick people returning to England) across the Pacific - retracing her wartime tracks. Return passages included exciting transits of the Panama Canal and occasional visits to Port Everglades. It was here that her wartime crew held a memorable reunion onboard 'their' ship in 1975, and happily showed families where they once bunked, ate and stood watch.
But below decks, time seemingly stood still, frozen by what was then probably the greatest collection of pre-WW II 'American Moderne' art and décor to be found anywhere in the world.
The décor of the cocktail lounge ceiling remained untouched - decorated with animated cartoons seemingly right out of New Yorker magazine - depicting life at sea in the 1930's.
The ship's original grand ballroom was enlarged but still retained its original atmosphere; described in pre-war promotional literature as being the vessel's most dramatic, gayest and sparkling space of all. A magnificent 'circus scene' mural dominated the room's forward bulkhead, behind the bandstand, adding just the right touch of festivity and a bit of frivolity.
In 1970, AUSTRALIS suffered a major fire that started in the passenger galley area while the ship was in transit between Auckland and Nuva. After the fire was surpressed, she limped into Fiji for temporary repairs and discharged her passengers. Although completely repaired, a couple of years later the Australian Maiden lost her coveted contract as passenger jet service triumphed over travel by sea again. She sailed from Southampton for Australia the last time in November of 1977, thirteen years to the day from when her service with Chandris was began. With hundreds of thousands more nautical miles in her steaming log, and after carrying over 300,000 passengers; AUSTRALIS was laid up in New Zealand.
SS AMERICA (1978): In early 1978, an American venture group that envisioned profiting from the then-booming cruise-to-nowhere fad acquired her. Returning to New York via the Panama Canal, she underwent hull and machinery inspection in Bayonne, where marine surveyors were amazed at the excellent condition of this 38 year-old ship.
Her new owners/promoters opted to rename her AMERICA, in hopes of capitalizing on her former fame. But they came up woefully short with cruise preparations, and after two disgraceful attempts at cruising, her reputation as a cruise ship was badly damaged. Her owners declared bankruptcy and in August of 1978, she suffered the indignity of being arrested and auctioned off to the highest bidder.
ITALIS - AMERICAN STAR (1978 - 1994): Incredibly, Chandris became her next owner, paying several million dollars less to reacquire her than they had received just a year before. Sailed back to Greece, refurbished and renamed ITALIS, her forward 'dummy' funnel was removed, in part, to make her appear more like contemporary cruise ships that only sported one funnel.
As 'The Italian Lady', she made a few charter cruises in the Mediterranean, but apparently was not profitable. In the Fall of 1979 Chandris rang up 'Finished with Engines' on her engine-order telegraph for the last time. For 15 years, she languished at anchor in the harbor of Piraeus, surrounded by other former liners whose useful years had also ended.
Her ownership changed three more times during that period of extended anchorage. ITALIA was first renamed NOGA, then ALFERDOSS. But she never sailed under any of those names. For years, rumors of various possible new careers or scrapping went unrealized.
Then, suddenly, in late 1992, the future for the ship once again appeared bright. She was acquired by a Thai company, with ambitious plans to extensively renovate her as a floating, five star hotel. They admired her original all-American décor and planned to retain it. Renamed AMERICAN STAR and placed in a dry dock, a through inspection of her hull indicated that she was fit for an open-ocean move to Thailand. On Christmas Eve, 1993, she left Piraeus on what was planned to be a 100-day tow.
But off the Canary Islands, the weather deteriorated and the towline snapped. After several fruitless attempts to recover control of the drifting, wind-driven and lifeless hulk, her life ended on January 18, 1994 when she was driven hard aground on the west coast of Fuerteventura Island.
Pinned on a remote, rocky shore, and exposed to storm winds and raging seas, her back was broken within 48 hours, almost dead amidships. Declared a total loss, islanders haphazardly removed valuable fittings, teakwood railings and decking, and her irreplaceable art and furniture. Eventually her stern half rolled over and sank in deeper waters.
After almost fourteen twelve years of neglect and exposure, a few shattered fragments of the bow of this once-proud Queen of the American Marine are all that remain still visible. Eventually, what little is left will be totally claimed by the relentless sea. The Queen is dead.
AMERICA REMEMBERED: She had three distinct periods of service: as a luxury liner, as a troop transport and as a combination immigrant/cruise ship. During a period of time that exceeded 38 years, this sturdy and versatile vessel steamed over 4.9 million nautical miles, and safely transported over 1.3 million passengers to their destinations all over the world.
Long after her physical being is but a distant and dimming image - precious memories will endure. Within a few miles of her birthplace, a huge and wonderfully detailed model of AMERICA is on display at the Mariners' Museum, which also has one of her name boards, removed in 1964 when she sailed away from Newport News for what proved to be the very last time.
Additional artifacts can be found in other maritime museums and in private collections; but most of all her memory remains in the hearts and minds of many of the hundreds of shipbuilders, thousands of crewmembers in war and peace, and well over a million passengers that knew her in happier days.
It was they who made her come alive, and, in so many ways it was as the AMERICA - or the WEST POINT - or the AUSTRALIS - that she, in turn, changed their lives forever.
About the Author: Born within sight of AMERICA's shipbuilding cradle, Bill Lee attended her 1939 launching ceremonies at the age of three. That inspiration, coupled with a childhood of frequent visual and audible memories of her - both as AMERICA and WEST POINT - created his life-long affection for this ship.
Bill entered her builder's Apprentice School in 1954, just in time to work briefly on the AMERICA a year later when she came to the shipyard for repairs. On a number of occasions, he was present on a riverfront bluff as the AMERICA came or went. And he was there in 1964 when she sailed away - forever - to begin a new career as AUSTRALIS.
After a career in shipbuilding and other industrial enterprises, Bill retired in 1998. Now living in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, he likes to research and write about ships in general; and the AMERICA in particular. In June 2005, a two-year effort that he instigated and supported culminated in the dedication of the SS AMERICA Library onboard a cruise ship named the Pride of America.
He continues to communicate with a growing number of people, worldwide, of similar interests. These fellow enthusiasts, or 'Amerifans', as Bill likes to collectively refer to them often call him AMERICA's Unofficial Historian. Their numbers include a unique group, The USS WEST POINT Reunion Association; composed of members of the ship's wartime crew.
In 2006, in appreciation of the numerous articles he has written for their newsletter and other publications, Bill was named the association's Official Historian. At their annual reunion in 2007, the Men of WEST POINT further recognized Bill's efforts to keep the memory of their ship alive by declaring him to be an honorary WEST POINT crew member. There can be no higher honor for an Amerifan...