THE SAGA OF THE U.S.S WEST POINT 


Launched August 21, 1939 - Final voyage January 8, 1994

The sad saga of a ship that was once the pride of the United States maritime industry


 

Click any image to see a larger view.

PREFACE TO THIS SAGA

June of 1943 I was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Early in July we received orders that we would be shipping out. That's all we were told at the time. July 7th we boarded a train in full field  uniform, back packs, rifle, barracks bags and personal belongings. In about 48 hours  we found ourselves at the embarkation station at Staten Island, New York. The trip was one of those typical military "hurry up and wait" situations. We waited around at the embarkation station, still in full field regalia. We were served a meal dockside in a military field kitchen. Later in the day the Red Cross came around and passed out coffee and donuts. 

Finally, the evening of July 9, 1943 it was time to board. We walked up the ship's gangway with our barracks bags on our shoulders, carrying our other gear and were directed by a crew member to our below decks compartment on the U.S.S West Point.  We were guests of the United States government. I was probably designated in the ships manifest (If there was such a thing on a warship) as Pvt. Louis J. Bagnato, U. S. Army, 1086th Signal Company, 54th Air Service Group, APO 433.  The public address system was periodically announcing, "The smoking lamp is out throughout the ship".  When the S S America, a cruise ship was converted for military use as the U.S.S West Point, in the rush to refit her as a troopship, many of her luxurious appointments and fixtures were left  in place. 

We were directed to an entrance that still had one of the original fancy room signs over the entrance that indicated we ere entering the "Men's Lounge". Now the lounge was a congested living compartment.  Pipe type racks were fastened to the beautiful wood paneled walls left over from the S S America cruise ship. The pipe framework also fitted to the deck and ceiling supporting the five-tier "standee" bunks that provided barely 16 inches of vertical space between the bunks. The bunks could pivot up out of the way when not being used. Adding to the congestion of the compartment, there were no provision to stow our barracks bags and personal items so they normally were stowed on the bunks. Troops laid in their bunks or sat on the deck playing cards, chess or reading books. It was like an obstacle coarse navigating around the compartment.  Officers and non-commission rates had their own compartment separate from the enlisted ranks. Even with the congestion of the living quarters there was little complaining. Having been in the service for a few months we accepted the discomforts of a military life and knew that complaints would not be appreciated or do any good. This would be our home during the voyage. We didn't know how long the voyage was or where we were bound.

July 10, 1943 the PA announced we were restricted to quarters. Scuttlebutt was the ship's crew were preparing to weigh anchor and get underway. Sometime during the night we shoved off and about daybreak we were free to leave our quarters. There was a mad dash for the promenade decks. I didn't think I could become any more excited than I was at that time.  There were a few surprises in store for me. After being on deck for a short time there was tidal wave of movement as troops moved to the port side rail. The reason, looking out over the calm waters we could see the Statue of Liberty.  This was the first time reality sunk in for me. I was leaving U. S. shores, not knowing where I was going, for how long, or even if I ever would see Miss Liberty again. When the ship steamed out of New York harbor and our view of the Statue of Liberty faded in the distance I had time to reflect.  Blessed with the innocence and optimism of the young I looked forward to my new adventure with little fear not knowing where we were headed or if we would ever again return home. At that moment in time I had no thought of what might happen to the U. S. S. West Point or had a premonition that she may come to an ignoble end. In spite of her camouflage paint scheme and military refitting or appearance it was obvious we were onboard a magnificent ship that in other circumstances would have been a wonderful and enjoyable experience. Ignoring the discomforts of over crowding and the unknowns of our future we enjoyed our cruise and grew to love the old girl. 

Our voyage took us to Rio de Janeiro, South America, Cape Town, South Africa, the island of Madagascar and debarked at Bombay, India August 12,  1943, 31 days and 14,202 miles later. 

From this point we will skip the next couple years of my tour of duty in the U. S. Army. This story is not about me! It's about the ship U. S. S. West Point, the heroic service by her crew to country and the disastrous end of this great ship that was to follow.

Crossing record - U S S West Point - Click the crossing image below to visit "Toopship Crossings Records for 1943"


THE SAGA OF THE WEST POINT FOLLOWS

The S S  America's keel was laid August 22, 1938 under a Maritime Commission contract.

She was launched August 31, 1939. Her christening by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and witnessed by over 30,000 - was overshadowed the very next day when World War II started.

She entered service as the flagship of the United States Lines August 22, 1940 when she commenced her maiden voyage. Due to the war going on in Europe, in which the United States was still neutral, the ship's owners name, "United Sates Lines", and two large American flags were painted on both sides of her hull. 

She did not immediately take her intended North Atlantic service, instead sailing in safer waters. 

She was however, quietly fitted with a cable for protection against naval mines on January 3, 1941. On May 28, 1941 The S S America was called up to service by the United States Navy, while the ship was at Saint Thomas, in the United States Virgin Islands. She was ordered to return to Newport News to be handed over to the Navy. The S S America moored at Norfolk, Virginia was acquired by the Navy on June 1, 1941 for conversion to a troop transport. 

 

 

 

Renamed West Point and designated AP-23, the erstwhile cruise ship which had once been the "last word" in luxurious ocean travel, entered her builder's yards on June 6, 1941for conversion. By the time the conversion was completed life-rafts covered the promenade deck windows, "standee" bunks could be found everywhere, several anti--aircraft weapons were installed, all of her windows were covered, and she was painted in a camouflage gray color. Her troop-carrying capacity was 7,678 souls. On June 15, 1941 in a brief and simple ceremony on the after sun deck, U S S West Point was commissioned at Newport News, Captain Frank H. Kelley, Jr., in command.

The West Point was 723 feet long and had a 93.1 foot beam. Standing 10 decks tall she had a fully loaded displacement of 35,400 tons. During her service as a troopship she transported 450,000 troops covering 436,126 nautical miles, sailing 149 missions, traveling alone through enemy waters depending on her speed of 22 knots as her sole defense. She was decommissioned as a troopship in 1946 being "on station" from May 1941 to August 1945. 

After her decommissioning The S S America (Now The West Point) was sold to the Chandris Lines out of Australia. She made her first trip as the S S Australis, a cruise ship in August 1945.  This photo shows the Australis after she was converted from  the S S America in 1978.  Click here to view a video of the S S Australis. In time the Australis was sold and sequentially renamed as The Italis, The Nog, The Alfeduss and finally The S S American Star. 

 

 

Continuing with the story, the great ship now named the S S American Star was at the "beginning of the end" the final days for the once stately U. S. S. West Point. Just before her final voyage in 1994, the S S  American Star, a ship that was once the pride of the United States maritime industry, was sold to the Chaophraya Development Transport Company who planned to tow the vessel to Thailand to be converted into a floating hotel. Their chosen route was via Gibraltar, along the west coast of Africa and around the southern tip of the African continent. Sadly the S. S. American Star came to an end at Playa De Garcey, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands as a wind-driven and lifeless hulk, driven hard aground where she later broke in two where she was still beached. Gallantly resisting the ravaging sea she was photographed as late as December 20, 2006. After 12 years she was observed heeling hard over to port, still fighting off the sea.


There have been numerous rumors insinuating that the last chapter in the life of the SS American Star was nothing more than an attempt to gain profit from disaster, as it would have been far easier and quicker to take the shorter route via the Suez Canal. While this is true, it is in fact illegal to tow ships along the Suez.

At the end of 1993 the ship's propellers were removed and stored on the deck to prevent drag and the Ukrainian tug the 'Neftegaz 67It' began towing the American Star on what was to be its final journey.

During January 1994 while passing within a hundred miles of the Moroccan coast the convoy encountered a violent storm that began to put the towing operation in jeopardy. On several occasions during the storm, the American Star broke free of the tow-lines and eventually it was decided that it would be safer for the towing vessel if the ocean liner was to float free until the storm subsided. Four crewmen stayed on board. On January 17th the storm finally calmed down and the four crewmen were winched by helicopter to safety from the ship. From then on the vessel was simply left to drift alone.

Though it was known she was heading for the Canary Islands through major shipping lanes, no successful attempt was made to take the hulk under tow again. After drifting for two days the ship finally beached at  Playa de Garcey, on the west coast of Fuerteventura. No effort was made to re-float the ship (some say because of arguments between insurance, ownership and salvage companies) and after 48 hours the ship split in two.

Profit was still to be made and on the first few days after the ship ran aground locals salvaged as much as they could, such as brass fittings and furniture (there is even a Cafeteria in the capital Puerto del Rosario 'Cafeteria el Naufragio', which is completely fitted out with windows, doors, paneling and furniture from the ship)

Two years later after a constant battering from the ocean the stern section finally gave in and rolled into the ocean.

Click Here to see a video of the destruction of the S S American Star, keeping in mind you are viewing the rotting hulk of what is left of the Luxurious S S America, (A.K.A.  U. S. S. West Point).

 

American Star photo gallery
 
(No enlargements available for the gallery images)

The site of the final resting place of the U. S. S, West Point  (military designation AP 23)




The U. S. S. West Point is gone now, below the surface of the sea off the Canary islands. Under the sea she so proudly sailed shepherding troops to far destinations.  She still  lives in the memories of  those that built her and sailed on her, and probably more so to the crews that manned her.

She also lives in my memory as I look back to my youthful days and remember the 31 days spent aboard her when she carried me safely on one of the great adventures of my life. 

Luigi Bagnato September 4, 2007




The following links offer a great gallery of over 100 photos of the  SS America, U.S.S  West Point, SS Australis, and SS American Star spanning from the maiden voyage of the S S America 1939 to the final breaking up of the SS American Star in 2006.

Links:

S. S. America - Queen of the Merchant Martine
Search for the wreck of the American Star
American Star - An Autopsy at  Sea
Towing the American Star to Thailand

History of S S Australis
America Star - The Myth is Alive 

Credits: For above links and some of the material of this article.

Bill Lee, Charlotte, NC
Daren Byrne, Captain S S Australis
The Explorer Team

Stamos C. Loannou,  GM Restoration Project
Sigurd Brauer, Montage of American Star

L. Driscol

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