SS America / USS West Point shipwreck

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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.*

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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.

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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/

 

Navies Down Under!

Two new pages explore the past and present surface warships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN). For shipsearcher staff, it was particularly challenging to locate imagery of these vessels, as they were all loaded upside down (we hope you enjoyed that truly elevated piece of imagery-related humour)!

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HMAS Vampire D-11 ca. 1959 © Australian War Memorial 301609 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/au/

Some of the more interesting features of these pages include the RNZN 1963 views of Devonport Naval Base, Auckland’s major naval facility. The aerial views make identification of early Cold War and long-service Second World War-built warships possible. As for the RAN, the range of ship classes depicted speaks to a diversified, potent force capable of undertaking a range of missions. As always, we have taken pains to track down long out of service or preserved warships.

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Loch Class frigate and Bathurst Class corvettes, 1963 view of Devonport near Auckland, NZ

These posts complement pages on some of the other Commonwealth navies: Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy

Royal Navy Shipsearcher page now up!

“Heart of Oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men, we are always ready; Steady, boys, steady, We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again”…so goes the chorus of Heart of Oak, the official march of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, and several Commonwealth navies [Youtube rendition here]. The oldest ship on this new shipsearcher page – Royal Navy Surface Units – Current and Retired – is the HMS Victory.

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HMS Victory, raising the yards in August 1945 © IWM (A 30810)

This first-rate line of battle ship was being built when Heart of Oak first appeared on the London scene to commemorate the victories of 1759. Our Royal Navy page starts with Victory and spans 260 years to the newly commissioned and largest-ever British carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

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HMS Queen Elizabeth R-08 in Halifax NS, Sep. 2019

Another unique feature of this page is the use of the Kent County Council Archives historical aerial mosaic photos (provided to Google Earth), which allow for Second World War-era captures of ships in Chatham Royal Dockyard. These views make ship identification of famous RN ship classes, such as County Class Cruisers, and aircraft carriers possible. For the first time, we also have a category for monitors, which during the first half of the twentieth century were tubby, short vessels that mounted a few battleship-sized guns! As always, we hope you appreciate the listing, and would be happy to hear about issues with any identification: help us identify our views of unknown ships!HM Monitor Chatham Kent SWW

The Strangest Wreck on Sable Island?

Sable Island is frequently called “the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” because of centuries of shipwrecks that have piled up on its shoals. This island, a remote sliver of dunes and scrub far off the Nova Scotian coast, is Canada’s newest national park. Recently I became aware of a curious relic on the island, close to the West Light.

Sable Island UC from AT2

“Lifesaving” Universal Carrier, Sable Island. (courtesy of A. Taylor) note inventive “barrel” some wag has stuck in the front armoured plate where the Bren Light Machine Gun would have been fitted!

Familiar with Second World War vehicles, the photo, sent to me by a relative currently on the Island, clearly showed the low silhouette of a Universal Carrier, a light tracked-vehicle used for many roles by the Canadian Army from the early years of the War until the mid-1960s. My first reaction was astonishment, but there was an image or two online of the wreck, and a “Motor Museum” enthusiastic online article about building a miniature of this vehicle which explains: “Our model represents a Universal carrier which was used to tow lifeboats, a job previously been done by horses, up and down the coast to launching positions suitable for the crisis at hand. Little is known about it but it is our tribute to the brave souls who saved countless lives and to a weapon of war that ended it’s days saving lives not taking them.”

A fan of Sable Island lore, I decided to see what I could find out at Library and Archives Canada. At least some of the story comes out in 1946-1952 Department of Transportation reports about the equipment on the Island.  Shortly after the War, the DOT, then responsible for the facilities on the Island, was evaluating new lifeboats for the Humane Establishment, the lifesaving and shore patrol facilities.  Up to this point, horses or oxen had been used to help haul the boats (on a wheeled cradle) out from the station boathouses to launching sites. The file details tests of US Coast Guard designs for modern lifeboats. An idea was put forward that mechanical transport would be preferable to animals, and using surplus carriers seemed an inexpensive solution.

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One of the Canadian War Museum’s carriers, painted with markings for the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, Royal Canadian Armoured Corps  (author’s photo)

There were mixed opinions of the suitability of a carrier, with some parties (including the Chief of Aids to Navigation) thinking it would soon be immobilized in the sandy dunes. Attempts at procuring a test vehicle were frustrated when a vehicle offered up from War Assets stocks in Debert, N.S., was found to have over 2,000 miles on it (DND ordnance personnel had advised the transportation officials this was too much to guarantee reliability). The eventual 1942 Ford carrier was shipped all the way from Longue Pointe Ordnance Depot, near Montreal, to Dartmouth, N.S., and sent out to the island in the usual steamer resupply on Canadian Government Ship LADY LAURIER, accompanied by a Willys MB Jeep (I have no idea what happened to this). After a lot of casting about online, I located this tweet and image:

Using the carrier to tow a trailer and boat-crew, early 1950s. You’d think pneumatic tires may have helped! (photo credit: Ernest O’Hara, permission graciously granted by Our Sable Island Home)

Whatever the trials and tribulations of this carrier on the Island, the era of modern navigation made shipwrecks (mostly) a thing of the past, and the stations were all abandoned in 1958. The carrier, like much else, became derelict. Today, it is a conspicuous wreck from the last phase of the Humane Establishment’s Century-and-a-half of life-preserving efforts.