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America - A Great Luxury Liner

S.S. America


By James Donahue


At 723 feet, the American luxury liner S.S. America wasn’t the largest of her kind when she went into service in 1939, but this vessel was not only going to be a popular ship, she broke all the rules and was rated in her day as among the faster ships afloat on the high seas.


She was so fast, at 24.9 knots, that when converted for service as a troop ship during World War II, the vessel never had an escort. She could outrun any naval vessel in service, including the German U-Boats that ran in Wolf Packs on the North Atlantic. Her biggest threat came from the air so the ship was equipped with a full range of anti-aircraft weaponry. Thus she had some teeth.


When we say the America broke the rules, we meant that she was a modern ship from stem to stern. Her tilted funnels and graceful lines gave her the appearance of running at full speed even while anchored in a harbor. She was made of welded steel, aluminum and other materials never before been used in shipbuilding. Parts of her were prefabricated before delivered to the shipyard.


First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt broke the traditional bottle of champagne against the hull as the America was launched on Aug. 31, 1939. She was bedecked for 1,202 passengers, but her role as a luxury liner was placed on hold for the first few years. Hitler invaded Poland on the very next day and the world was at war. Sailing as a luxury liner to Europe was no longer an option.


The Navy seized the America as well as the nation’s other passenger liners in service for service mostly as troop ships and hospital ships. Her brightly colored hull and stacks were redone in the drab camouflage gray colors of wartime. The ship’s luxury staterooms were removed and she was converted to carry up to 8000 troops at a time. Extra decks were added to her bow and stern and 28 antiaircraft guns were mounted. Even her name was changed. Her first duty at sea was under the name U.S.S. Westpoint.


Because of her speed and dull gray colors that blended in with the sea and the sky, the crew fondly referred to the ship as the “gray ghost.”


The Westpoint was a lucky ship throughout the war, even though she saw heavy duty in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of war. She traveled from New York to Australia, from Bombay to New Zealand and back to South Africa. One attempted torpedo just missed her bow on one occasion, and she was nearly destroyed in a Japanese air bombing while moored in Singapore. During the bombing the captain ordered the crew to get her underway. She steamed up to full steam ahead as the crew cut her mooring lines with fire axes then made her get-away.


On one trip from New Zealand to Noumea, South Africa, she ship was struck by a storm that came close to capsizing it. The engine crew said one massive wave caused the vessel to tip on her beam ends to 43 degrees before it righted again. The ship’s capsize-angel was 45 degrees.


By the end of the war the WestPoint had carried 483,000 troops and logged 350,000 nautical miles.


After the war the ship was returned to the United States Line and converted back to be the SS America, the role she was built to play. She served the line faithfully, along with her sister ship, the S.S. United States, carrying passengers on the North Atlantic between New York and Europe. The America remained on the job until 1964, when competition by the airlines forced the company to withdraw her from service.


That was not the end of the ship’s great career, however. She was sold to the Chandris Lines, a Greek shipping company, renamed the Australis, and put in service carrying passengers from Europe through the Suez Canal into the South Pacific to Australia. She also ferried paying passengers on round the world trips.


A fire nearly destroyed the Australis on Oct. 22, 1970, while on route from Auckland, New Zealand, to Fiji. While passengers huddled at muster stations on the deck, the crew battled the flames for nearly 10 hours before getting the blaze under control. The blaze which began in the galley burned through seven decks. The ship limped into Fiji under its own power for temporary repair before going home for a complete refitting.


One passenger on that trip, Peter Van de Ven, who was only ten years old, later wrote about the experience: “We only had cheese, biscuits and bully beef plus pineapple juice. The first time we sat down for a proper meal was 40 hours later and the whole meal was meat and vegetable soup. We were all sunburned, hot and hungry. The toilet situation was rather desperate as well with only three toilets opened up and the whole day-one person at a time.”


Chandris retired the Australis in November, 1977, after 13 more years of impressive service. During those years the ship sailed around the world 62 times and carried over 300,000 passengers.


The ship was next sold to Venture Cruises and plans were to sail her under a Panamanian flag. She was returned to New York, named America once again, and painted. But the company was experiencing financial troubles that forced them to put the ship in service before the vessel was in proper shape. On her first cruise she hadn’t reached the Statue of Liberty before the 960 passengers forced the captain to turn around so they could get off.


Venture Cruises got in one five-day cruise to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the ship now had a reputation as a disgraced vessel. Overbooking, plumbing problems, poor accommodations and poor management were common complaints. The U.S. Public Health Service give the America an inspection score of 6 out of 100 points, probably the lowest of any vessel afloat.


Things got so bad the U.S. District Court ordered the vessel to be auctioned to pay the company’s debts. Thus the Chandris Lines purchased the vessel again for about the price of scrap. But she was not scrapped. The company refitted the ship and planned to put it in service. Things did not work out and the ship never sailed again under her own power with a paying passenger aboard.


In 1994 she was sold again to a company that planned to tow the vessel to Thailand. But on route there was a storm off the Canary Islands, the tow lines to the two tugs broke, and the ship went hard aground off the island of Fuerenventura. The wreck still remains there today, a broken rusted hulk. Storms have broken the wreck in two and the bow lies nearby in deep water.


It was a sad ending for such a gallant ship.




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