SS America / USS West Point shipwreck

SS America NHHC L45-304.03.02

SS America before the US entry into the War. L45-304.03.02. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The SS America, completed in 1939 for the United States Lines, was a beautiful ocean liner. Graceful sweeping curves and two flared funnels with small winged caps gave her an art-deco styling, like other great liners of the era. Until the construction of the SS United States, in the early 1950s, she was the biggest and best of US domestically-built liners, at 723-feet long and 35,400 tons displacement.

SS America NHHC 19-N-24561

SS America undergoing conversion to a troopship-USS West Point AP-23- in June 1941. The United States Lines livery and neutrality markings are being painted over by wartime grey. 19-N-24561 Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Center.

Requisitioned as a troop ship from 1941-1946, named USS West Point AP-23, she was reconfigured to take as many as 7,600 troops at a time. Over the course of her military service, she transported 350,000 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and other passengers to and from service overseas.*

USS Westpoint - SS America NHHC detail 80-G-K-5783-A

USS Westpoint with returning soldiers, New York City July 1945 [Detail of]. 80-G-K-5783-A Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

In 1946, she was refitted for transatlantic passenger crossings and ran a glamorous service. Her long career followed the ebbs and flows of the last great age of the liners. The transatlantic crossings became uneconomical as travelers opted for air travel, and she was sold in 1964 to Chandris Group, renamed Australis and moved to the Southampton – Australia route. There were numerous attempts to modernize or convert the ship to some other use, including cruising, as a floating hotel, and even a plan to convert her to a prison ship.

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A scheme to convert her to a hotel in Thailand led to an attempt to tow the old ship, now named American Star, from Greece, during late 1993. In January 1994, the ship broke free of the tow in heavy weather, and eventually grounded on the coast of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands. Days later the vessel’s keel broke amidships and she was declared a total loss. She became a popular and much photographed shipwreck. The separated stern section quickly fell away and sank out of view by the mid 1990s. As for the bow section, from 1994 to 2007, the 380 foot section from bows to remaining aft funnel only gradually deteriorated. Views of the wreck from the nearby shores show the sublime and spectacular quality to the American Star’s end.

1280px-Shipwreck_of_the_SS_American_Star_on_the_shore_of_Fuerteventura

The wreck of the American Star as it looked in 2004. The stern quickly sank away in the mid-1990s. The missing section near the waterline hints at the deterioration of the whole bow structure, after many years of relative stability. The forward funnel had been removed years before, and replaced by a lower cap. Wollex / CC BY-SA

Although the America is now mostly gone, the SS United States, which is still in existence, shares many similarities with America. Both were designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs. The significantly larger United States, designed more than a decade later, repeated the clean lines, twin funnels with caps, king posts for lifting cargo to the hold in the bows, and general massing of the superstructure of the America. USS West Point and other wartime transports can be found at the page for US Navy Retired Auxiliaries and Other Ships.SS United States Philidephia 2019

*For additional history of the ship during military and civilian careers, see http://united-states-lines.org/u-s-s-west-point/

 

The Chinese Militarization of the Spratly Islands

In a word, what is going on in the South China Sea is shocking. At the same time that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building modern aircraft carriers, China is creating bases to project military power far from the mainland. Satellite imagery offers a startling record of this transformation from submerged reef to island military base.

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Shipsearcher staff came to this realization in roundabout way – we were looking for PLAN frigates and heard one had been hanging around some place called Mischief Reef. This isolated spot in the Spratly Islands disputed territories went from being a reef to an island fortress in a few years of feverish construction:

Mischief Reef 2004 DISPUTEMischief Reef 2018 DISPUTE.jpgHere and at several other sites, dredging and dumping fill radically transformed mostly submerged chains of reefs into new territory, which was quickly militarized – complete with port facilities, substantial airstrips, and missile defences. A new shipsearcher page explores the history of PRC island building, and compares it with Vietnamese, Philippine, Taiwanese, and Malaysian efforts to stake claims on this same patch of disputed ocean real estate. We hope it will encourage readers to further investigate island development and overlapping claims to territory!