GHOST SHIPS – THE UNKNOWN PRE-WAR US NAVY GLOBE-CIRCLING VOYAGE

From mid to late January 1942, as Singapore lay under siege, the U.S. Navy landed 20, 000 British troops from America’s three most important former ocean liners.  A globe-circling voyage – the longest of the war – but unknown for decades.  How it happened, and why it remains unknown today.   The July 2002 PROCEEDINGS (U.S. Naval Institute) history feature.

SS Washington
SS Washington, 1941, in San Francisco before conversion. Large American flags warned U-boats of U.S. neutrality
First Class dining room on SS Washington
First Class dining room SS Washington before hasty conversion into USS Mount Vernon (AP-22)

An August 1941 meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill yielded more than the Atlantic Charter.  The leaders set plans to move British troops to the Middle East in three former U.S. ocean liners.  But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the orders changed, and the mighty liners became “the ghost ships of Task Force 14.”

PROLOGUE

A VOICE IN THE CROWD
In June 1999, a World War Two oriented tour program included the University of Chicago campus.  The tour group paused at the Stagg Field site where, on 2 December 1942, scientists made one of history’s most important discoveries – the first self-sustaining nuclear chain-reaction.  The event heralded the dawn of the Atomic Age.  Along with top-secret Ultra (the unraveling of the German Enigma cipher), the Manhattan Project, as it was known, became the war’s biggest and best-kept secret.

“Fair enough,” said someone in the group, “but there was another secret before, during and after the war.  The Manhattan Project was disclosed in 1945, and Ultra was made public in the 1970s.  What I know and where I went is still unknown.  In November 1941, my ship and two other American troop transports, took 20,000 British troops of the 18th Division from Halifax to Cape Town to Bombay and, eventually, to Singapore.  We arrived only days before it fell to the Japanese.”  He finished the brief account almost apologetically before a now highly interested audience: “Most of the people I’ve told don’t even believe me.”

The voice in the crowd came from John H. Horrigan, who had been in November 1941 a seventeen-year-old Navy bluejacket on the USS Mount Vernon (AP 22), the former SS Washington.   She and two other ships previously had worn the characteristic red, white, and blue livery of United States Lines.  Wakefield (AP- 21), the identical twin to Mount Vernon, had been Manhattan.  The largest of the three transports, the West Point, (AP-23), began commercial service in 1940 as the SS America.  As the country most luxurious ocean liner, she had been the U.S. merchant fleet flagship.

Why did the United States send its three most important passenger liners into potential harm’s way one month before its entry into World War II ?

ATTENTION IS INVITED TO THE HIGHLY SECRET NATURE OF THE EXPEDITION’ 

The secret orders authorizing the U.S. Navy to initiate war with Germany months before Pearl Harbor  (Courtesy of the National Archives)

Operation Plan 14.3-A
Dated 26 September 1941, OPERATION PLAN 14.3-A and annexes A/B/C/ D set the U.S. Navy on a collision course with Germany 3 months before Pearl Harbor. OPPLAN 14.3 began the formation of TF 14 and the naval escort for 20,800 British troops to Singapore in January 1942. (Declassified by National Archives)

On 20 October 1941, the captains of 18 U.S. Navy warships and transports moored at four East Coast naval bases received a six page, single-spaced OPNAV message stamped SECRET.  Sent by Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral H. R. Stark, the orders read: Pursuant to a revised agreement with the British government, Task Force Fourteen will proceed on or about 3 November, 1941 from the United States for the Middle East via Halifax, Trinidad, and Capetown, South Africa, and return to the United States.  From Halifax to the Middle East Task Force Fourteen will transport one division of British troops consisting of approximately 20,000 officers and men.  While no commitment has yet been made, it is possible that a second trip from Halifax to the Middle East may be authorized.”

The CNO ordered capacity loads of fresh and refrigerated stores and enough dry provisions for 90 days at sea.  Expense allocations were designated:  Lend Lease funds would pay for the soldier’s fresh water and meals, but their transit went into an unusual special category.  “The troops are to be carried as supernumeraries and records of rations so indicate.” All ships were instructed to “obtain full allowances of ammunition for five and three inch batteries.”  The orders referenced “OPNAV secret letter serial 077338 of 26 September 1941 to Comtransportdiv 19.” Copied to CINCLANT (Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet) and to four other navy commands, the Admiral’s unusual order ended with a blunt caution: “Attention is invited to the highly secret nature of the movements and plans of this expedition. Information pertaining thereto is not to be disclosed to other than those immediately concerned with its accomplishment.” 

Perhaps the least known in U.S. Navy annals, TF 14 was anything but a minor movement.  Admiral Stark had good reason to call for strict secrecy about the task force and its intentions.  A series of neutrality acts shackled President Franklin D. Roosevelt from aiding  friendly nations fighting the Nazi’s.  Even on the eve of war, a revision to the Neutrality Act allowing the arming of U.S. merchant ships barely passed in Congress.  But neither the original Neutrality Act nor its revision allowed the peacetime transport of a warring nation’s troops in ships of the United States Navy.  That is exactly what would take place.  The Neutrality Act had to be circumvented.   After America entered World War Two on 7 December 1941, the eighteen ships in the task force had sailed well beyond rescue or reinforcement.  With new OPNAV orders, the remaining warships returned home, but three of the six transports – the convoy’s largest troopships – had new orders.  The same British troops boarded in Halifax were given a new, unexpected destination, one for which they had neither training nor equipment.  The Tommies and the three transports were going to Singapore.

Except for the CNO’s “highly secret” designation, Task Force 14’s mission appeared similar to other joint maneuvers between the American and British navies in 1940-41.  But there was nothing routine about TF14; it became one of the war’s most daring operations.  And when it was formed, the United States was months from war.

TF 14s remnants – three vulnerable former ocean liners and their troops – overcame near-impossible odds.  They avoided a wolf-pack, then floating mines, and somehow eluded the Japanese fleet during its most dominant phase.  As the Japanese 25th Army prepared to break down Singapore’s flimsy back door, the fragile transports, dodging bombs and bullets, entered port through the heavily fortified front door.  Completing an almost 18,000 mile cruise, they passed under the silent gaze of the useless 15 inch and 9.2 inch naval guns at Fort Connaught.

“A MOST IMPRESSIVE SIGHT” 
At 0700 on 30 October 1941, 39 officers and 915 “other ranks” in the First Cambridgeshire Regiment of the 18th Division left Liverpool’s Princess Jetty on the Orient Line’s weary, plodding,SS Orcades.   Seven other vintage transports in convoy William Sail 12X (WS12X) held other 18th Division regiments, totaling 20,800 officers and men.  All were going, or so they thought, to the Middle East via Halifax.

At a Mid-ocean Meeting Point (MOMP) on 2 November, the First Cambridgeshire’s adjutant recorded an “historic event” in the regiment’s war diary.  “At 0830 the masts of a fleet were seen over the horizon on the starboard side.  The first sight of the Americans came when two planes flew low over the convoy.  It is the first time a British troop convoy has been escorted by the U.S. Navy.  A most impressive sight.”

The masts were those of Task Group 14.3, split from TF 14 to escort the convoy from the MOMP to Halifax and transfer to U.S. Navy transports.  Consisting of battleship New Mexico, carrierYorktown, a fleet oiler, light cruisers Savannah and Philadelphia, and screened by Destroyer Squadron Two, TG 14.3 had come prepared to take on the German navy, if that was needed to get WS12X safely to Halifax.

Designated OPPLAN 14.3–A, there was no ambiguity in the lengthy orders issued by Rear Admiral H.K. Hewitt, TG 14.3’s commander: “Destroy, repel or cripple threatening surface raiders.”  Tirpitz, Prinz Eugen, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Admiral Scheer and Zepplin were designated as possible adversaries.  The orders continued: “This would be a ‘captains battle,’ where the task of each captain is to get (the) maximum numbers of shells and torpedoes into the enemy as quickly as possible.”

Because it needed only German targets, America’s entry into World War Two could well have been in the Atlantic instead of at Pearl Harbor seven weeks later.

cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnost
left: Battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnost. right: Heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. The U.S. Navy secretly hunted these Nazi ships in the fall of 1941.

No one in convoy WS12X or TF 14.3 could have imagined it, but the cruise would take almost three months to complete.  It would cover the entire world, and its outcome would claim the lives of one in three men in the unlucky 18th  Division.

The mission, which began in peacetime and nearly ended in the chaos of Singapore, originated during the August 9-12 1941 meetings in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Held aboard the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and heavy cruiser USS Augusta, the conference become famous for its issuance of the Atlantic Charter – the moral underpinning for the United Nations.  The world didn’t know it, but the meeting was, in fact, a war council.  Churchill put it to Roosevelt that Rommel might move toward the Suez Canal by Christmas1941.  Great Britain, being desperately short of troopships, urgently needed to send troops to the Middle East on larger and faster American transports.  To avoid prying eyes and probing questions in New York or Boston, Halifax became the departure port.  Neither leader could have foreseen however, that TF-14s mission would change drastically after Pearl Harbor.

ON THAT SAME DAY THEY BEGAN TRAINING FOR THE PEARL HARBOR ATTACK
On 6 November convoy WS12X crept into the foggy Halifax harbor, mooring opposite the six waiting American transports.  On board Mount Vernon, the crew took notice.  “They had winter wool uniforms, wore helmets, carried their rifles, and many even boarded with bicycles, but that’s all they had,” according to Seaman George Ramos, of Imperial Beach, California. Consisting of part-time Territorials, the British equivalent of the National Guard, the 18th Division had trained two years expecting a desert fight.  Neither they nor the American sailors knew that on the same day half a world away in Kagoshima Bay, Japanese pilots began training for the Pearl Harbor attack.

Crossing to the decks of the Halifax transports in their greatcoats and battle dress, the troops saw a startling contrast between their austere quarters and the streamlined American transports.  Wakefield and Mount Vernon, among the few U.S. passenger ships built in decades, were launched in 1931 and 1932 at the New York Shipbuilding Co, Camden, N.J.  In commercial service, the liners had black hulls, white upper works, and distinctive red white and blue stacks.  Seven hundred five feet long, with broad 86-ft beams, in peacetime the twin 24,289 gross ton “cabin liners” accommodated 1,130 passengers in three classes.  Steam turbines geared to twin screws pushed them to a respectable 20-knot service speed.  A new “cabin class” layout (similar to a nautical Business Class) contributed to unheard of profitability on the trans-Atlantic run, surpassing in earnings even the legendary Queen Mary andNormandie.

The third former ocean-liner, USS West Point, ranked as a true luxury vessel in any of the world’s passenger fleets.  The 33,961 gross ton former SS America, the reigning queen in the United States Lines small but distinguished fleet, featured clipper bows, 22.5-knot service speed, 1,046-passenger capacity, magnificent public areas, and two enormous flared stacks. Built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., the 723 ft. long, 94 ft wide America competed on the lucrative New York/Southampton/Le Havre/Bremerhaven circuit.

Snowdon Fiskin recalled his first view of West Point in Halifax.  “I never saw a bigger or more beautiful ship.”  A butchers apprentice from Watford, near London, “Snowy,” a nineteen-year-old private, served in the ‘Beds and Harts’ (Bedfordshire and Hartfordshire) regiment.  “We were a crack division and only a madman would have predicted that we would end up in Singapore with little more than our uniform kit, or that over 7,000 would die as prisoners.”

Until requisitioned by the U.S. Navy in June 1941, the three liners maintained a sensitive commercial service evacuating refugees to New York from Lisbon, Bremerhaven, Hamburg and the Channel ports.  Giant American flags painted on the starboard and port sides, on hatch covers and lighted at night, warned U-boats and the Luftwaffe of the ships’ neutrality.

Cabins meant for four held eight passengers.  Lounges, cinemas and gyms became berthing spaces, the cots separated by clothes hanging from lines.  Even the large inside swimming pools were drained and converted into crude but effective dormitories.  Aboard SS Washington, conductor Arturo Toscanini shared a cabin with the ship’s surgeon.  Helena Rubenstein didn’t rate a cabin; she occupied a sofa in the smoking room.   All prayed for first sight of the Statue of Liberty.

Converting the liners into troop transports produced impressive results.  At the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Mount Vernon’s installation included four-five inch, and four-three inch fifty cal. mounts, plus a variety of smaller caliber weapons.  The British installed 4 Bofors 40mm antiaircraft guns.  A Marine detachment guarded each ship.  Coast Guardsmen manned Wakefield,Dickman and Leonard Wood.  The U.S Navy crewed the other transports. Mount Vernon’s commanding officer, Capt. Donald B. Beary, a 1906 Naval Academy graduate, became convoy commander.  TF 14s commodore, RADM Arthur B. Cook, Commander Air Force Atlantic Fleet, flew his flag from Ranger.

FAR FROM THE SHORE

USS Wakefield
USS Wakefield (AP21) ex SS Manhattan, as a troop transport 1941-1945

Led by Ranger, Quincy and Vincennes, TF 14 sailed on the tide at 0800 on 10 November 1941.The big-bellied transports followed in column like roasters on the spit.  A Canadian destroyer,HMCS Annapolis briefly shielded the convoy then passed astern, her crew manning the rails and cheering.   Destroyers from DESRON 8,16 and 17 scoured the flanks at 2,000 yards, sonars nervously pinging in search of U-boats they knew were somewhere ahead.  Near Cape Race the previous week, Convoy SC-52 lost four merchant ships to U boats.  In September, only evasive action saved the American destroyer Greer from U-boat torpedoes.  The new $5 million destroyer USS Kearney took a torpedo near Greenland in mid-October.  Only two weeks before TF 14 sailed, a U-boat sank U.S. destroyer Reuben James.  One hundred fifteen crewmen and all the officers died.

John H. Horrigan, a 17-year-old navy seaman from Weymouth MA, assigned to the Mount Vernon’s gun crew, recalled the departure.  “When we left Halifax, the weather and the ship’s crew were in the same fog about our destination.  We got along well with the British boys, and had over 5,000 officers and men just on the Mount Vernon.  We were so overcrowded the soldiers had to leave their winter uniforms, helmets and rifles on their bunks during the day and on deck at night.  When I look back I wonder what happened to them after the fall of Singapore, and could never have imagined that our cruise would take us literally to the ends of the earth”

Refueling at Trinidad and joined by fleet oiler Cimarron, the convoy, minus Ranger and two destroyers that returned home, began the 6,000 mile South Atlantic crossing to Cape Town, the voyage’s longest section.  During the day the ships zigzagged, averaging 14 knots, and at night darkened lights and secured doors and hatches.  The soldiers exercised, attended lectures, had two hot meals daily, and organized boxing matches, soccer games and skits on the teak decks.    The U.S. crews and Marines trained on the guns, and all hands drilled in abandon ship procedures.  At 1200, Sunday 23 November the convoy crossed the Equator, and in the ancient ritual of mariners everywhere, Davy Jones boarded, the Jolly Roger flew, and all paid homage to King Neptune and his royal court.  The Pollywogs became Shellbacks.  Then it all changed.

Alerted by ULTRA intercepts, the British Admiralty warned that four tracking U boats were planning a coordinated attack on the convoy near the island of St. Helena.  Given the exact grid coordinates, the escorting heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire* evaded two torpedoes, failed to sink any of the U-boats, but then found and sank their supply ship, Python.  She reported: “One enemy supply ship or raider sunk.  Six boat loads of survivors.  Strongly suspect U-boat present.” 

(footnote)* Dorsetshire led a short, eventful life.  She lay in wait for the Graf Spee off the Plate River in December 1939, shadowed the French fleet off Dakar in June 1940, searched without result for the heavy cruiser, Admiral Scheer in December 1940, then sent 3 torpedoes – the coup de grace – into the battleship Bismarck in May 1941.  Along with cruiser Cornwall, she was sunk in the Indian Ocean by Japanese air attacks Easter Sunday 5 April 1942. 

On 7 December, news of the Pearl Harbor attack pulsed through the convoy.  The four-page Mount Vernon News gathered thirty-two reports through the radio room, ending the EXTRA issue with a plea for all hands to “remain away from the Radio Room except on business.” Rumors were rampant.  Scuttlebutt had the convoy either remaining on course for Suez, heading for Burma, or relieving Hong Kong.  But those who followed radio reports learned that Japanese forces had landed in Malaya, correctly concluding that Singapore would be their final destination.  The eager 18th Division troops were untroubled.  Many preferred fighting the Japanese, for whom they had little regard as soldiers, to battling Rommel and his dedicated forces.  And was Singapore not an “impregnable fortress” as assured by Churchill and confidently portrayed in film and the press?

With new OPNAV orders, the warships either returned to the United States, or went to other convoy escort duties.  The six transports went to Bombay, where the smaller ships, Orizaba, Leonard Wood, and Dickman, landed their troops and returned home unescorted.  Washington and Wakefield awaited a second convoy.  On 29 December, this left only Mount Vernon, a mixed nationality escort, and three British transports ordered to take their troops from Mombasa to Singapore.

THE “IMPREGNABLE FORTRESS” HAD ONLY DAYS TO LIVE

A Japanese painting
A painting by a Japanese artist as battleship Prince of Wales and battle-cruiser Repulse are attacked and sunk near Singapore 10 December 1941. Failing to draw a lesson from the loss of the ships and 840 men, Churchill decided that “fortress” Singapore could be saved.

In January 1942, few places on earth were more perilous than Singapore’s steamy cauldron.  Under relentless Japanese siege from an unanticipated and undefended place – the Malayan peninsula – Singapore’s fragile underside lay open like a dying man on the operating table.  The “impregnable fortress,” Britain’s greatest naval base in the Far East, had only days to live

Much has been written about Singapore’s undefended landside, but little about its water defenses.  The six Royal Navy small craft used for harbor and offshore defense – they were only sixty feet long – were mechanically unsound, had a maximum speed of only 4.5 knots and a minimum turning circle of 150 yards.  Each boat had a coxswain and two mechanics, none of whom it was later learned, had seen a boat engine prior to assignment.  Worse still, the boats were unarmed, although two had mountings for twin Lewis guns – but not the guns themselves.  And the Royal Navy liaison officer to 18th Division headquarters was an army ordnance officer.  He was unable to read navy charts.

The Royal Air Force, so splendid at home, was hors de combat from the outset in Singapore.  Enemy artillery almost immediately made unusable three of the four airfields.  Fighting courageously but futilely, the RAF had been equipped with a ragbag remnant of twenty-two obsolete Hudsons, Blenheims, Buffaloes, open-cockpit Wildbeests, and three lumbering Catalinas.  They were no match for 530 first line Japanese warplanes.  “I never saw a single British plane the entire time I was there,” recalled “Snowy” Fiskin 60 years later.  And only one British tank stood between Johore and Singapore.

On Sunday 11 January 1942, Mount Vernon passed Krakatoa Island and transited the narrow Sunda Straits.  Eighty-five thousand British, Australian, Indian and locally enlisted Asians were being funneled by the Japanese like water down a spout toward the narrow causeway leading to the island.  That same Sunday at Divine Service on Mount Vernon, the sound drifting astern over the foaming green sea, American sailors and British soldiers shared the spiritual bonds of the old comforting hymns; “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Two days later, numerous Japanese bombers overhead awaited a break in my butt cover as  Mount Vernon disembarked her troops.  From Mount Vernon’s log:  “1214: slowed to one-third speed approaching Singapore dock yard.  1303: landed on pier.  1315: moored port side to dock at Navy Yard, Singapore, Malay Peninsula, with lines 1-8 singled.  1342: secured main engines on 12 hours notice.”

George Ramos watched an air raid from Mount Vernon’s  bridge.  “We counted 40 Japanese planes; the leader dropped his bombs and the others followed.  Six bombs exploded only 100 yards away in a pattern the exact length of the ship.”  The 155th Field Regiment’s historian made an entry in the official war diary.  “1400, disembarked USS Mount Vernon in tropical deluge which lasted until the small hours of the following morning.  Weather conditions fortunate for us as 90 Japanese planes overhead at time of disembarkation.” With little more than the shirts on their backs, soft from months at sea, the troops went almost immediately into combat.

Without firing a single shot at the enemy, Mount Vernon remained unharmed.  Replenished with 362,970 gallons of bunker oil, 350 tons of fresh water, and carrying a fortunate few refugees and officials, at 1511 she cleared the Changi buoy and escaped.  Two weeks later in the middle of an air raid, West Point and Wakefield disembarked the 18th Division’s last regiments.

BRITAIN’S LAST PROUD SYMBOL OF PACIFIC DOMINANCE
On 30 January, as West Point and Wakefield cleared their troops, across the island the last 30,000 British defenders crossed from the mainland to Singapore.  The decimated Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the best-trained and led unit in the 400-mile retreat, had fought well in the steady retreat from the Siamese border almost to the causeway.  The Argyll’s commanding officer and regimental pipers were the last to cross.  As the final sad skirl of the bagpipes drifted into the jungle murk, dynamite blew sky-high the causeway’s railroad tracks, water mains and lock gates.  British imperialism also vanished into the smoke and flame that day.  The new $100 million naval base, with its twenty-two square miles of deep-sea anchorage, million gallon oil storage tanks, pristine graving docks, massive floating dry-dock, machine shops and vast ammo dumps, became as impotent as the mythical “fortress.”  It was Britain’s last, proud symbol of Pacific dominance.

Another casualty made it impossible for the 18th Division to mount a rear-guard fight.  The tired Empress of Asia, the ship carrying almost all of the 18th Division’s artillery, ammunition, trucks, automatic weapons, rations and heavy equipment, went down in the channel.  Unable to keep up with Mount Vernon and the other ships, she was caught by Japanese dive-bombers, the only ship lost from all the convoys sent to Singapore.

At 0935, also on 30 January, as European and Asian women and children boarded, a bomb from an air raid hit abreast Wakefield’s No.2 hatch, penetrating to “B” deck and killing five men in sick bay.  Now only twenty-five miles away, the propaganda value of two superb American transports and crews was almost within the enemy’s grasp.  But as 30,000 Japanese swarmed onto the island the next morning, Wakefield, able to jury-rig repairs, and the undamaged West Point let go all lines and cleared the submarine net, disappearing into the haze and smoke.

Holding a white flag in one hand and the Union Jack in the other, General Percival, the British commander, surrendered sixteen days later, to General Yamashita, the 85,000 man garrison, the naval base and the fictitious fortress.  Japanese casualties were only 3,500 for the seventy-day campaign.  It was the single greatest victory of the war for Japan, and the most ignominious defeat ever for British arms.

EPILOGUE

SS Washington
SS Washington from a 1933 postcard. Along with Manhattan and America, the 3 ships were the most important liners in U.S. merchant service.
SS Manhattan
From a 1935 postcard, SS Manhattan, twin to Washington, in New York harbor. Before conversion, the three ships were owned by United States Lines.
SS America
The great SS America in 1940. At the time, the largest and finest American liner ever built. She survived the fall of Singapore by only 16 days.

The luckless 18th Division, thrust into jungle conditions after training for a desert war they would never fight, perished by the thousands in Changi, and in building the Rangoon Railroad and the fabled bridge over the river Kwai.  They died from torture and cholera epidemics, cardiac beri-beri, recurrent malaria, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, lack of medical supplies, inadequate diets, and from utter exhaustion.

“Snowy” Fiskin, who sailed from Halifax to Singapore on Mount Vernon, survived forty-two months in captivity.  Sent from Changi to the railway camps, the Kwai River bridge, then to a death ship and forced labor in a coal mine on the Japanese mainland, he was finally freed by American troops in August 1945.  He weighed seventy-seven pounds.  “We are still a forgotten army,” he said.  “We never had a chance in Singapore, and had only 3 or 4 Bofors guns.  Many of us who married before the war returned to England as strangers to our wives or they to us, and most prisoners were unable to father children.”  Five other Watford men who joined with Snowy and survived captivity, died within five years of their release.  Snowy fathered two healthy boys.  Japanese visitors he guided on tours in the Sir Christopher Wren designed chapel at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, never knew in 2001 what he endured in wartime.   During his wife’s final illness, she was looked after by a Japanese nurse.  “She was my wife’s best nurse, but I never told her what happened to me in the war.  The Japanese were different then, and I hold no grudges.” Jack Horrigan and George Ramos served 49 months on Mount Vernon.  Neither they nor the ship got so much as a scratch.  On what became a round the world cruise after Singapore, Mount Vernon took aboard survivors from USS Langley, after she was sunk by Japanese aircraft south of Java.  Wakefield  burned for eight days following a September 1942 fire, and didn’t sail again until April 1944. Beginning in peacetime and almost ending with the enemy at the gates, the three U.S. Navy transports inadvertently began America’s Pacific offensive, but it would be almost four years until another American flag flew from a ship in Singapore harbor.The three ships concluded the war without firing a single shot.  Mount Vernonmade eighteen more unescorted voyages to the South Pacific and seventeen trips to Europe, the Mediterranean, India and Egypt.  Over 429,000 nautical miles were logged with 354,750 GI’s taken to distant combat.  Thousands of American and British casualties and POW’s were repatriated home after the war. Returned to United States Lines in 1946, the liners regained their previous names and resumed their original trans-Atlantic routes.  In the mid 1950s, the forces of progress finally accomplished what the gods of war never achieved.  Defeated by the speed and convenience of jet planes, Washington and Manhattan were used for corn storage, and then sold for scrap.FDR’s high-risk poker succeeded.  A wary Congress and an unknowing nation never knew that an American task force sailed for hostile shores a month before America’s entry into the war. And what happened to America, the most luxurious American passenger ship of the era?  In September 1964, the author and his wife sailed on the great ship from Le Havre to New York, and saw an affecting reminder of her previous life.  It was her last trans-Atlantic sailing. Carefully preserved on handrails along a section of the boat deck, hundreds of initials carved by troops, refugees, repatriated prisoners, and other wartime passengers, offered silent witness to sacrifice and valor, and to the undervalued role played by American troop transports in the war.

In 2001, the author, a U.S. Navy destroyer veteran (USS Robert L. Wilson (DD/DDE 847) received the U.S. Naval Institute Naval History magazine “Author of the Year” award for “Into the Gray Wolves Den,” (Naval History, June 2000.)  “Secret Mission to Singapore” appeared in the July 2002 PROCEEDINGS magazine.OTHER HISTORY ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR “In the Lair of the Wolf Pack” appeared in the July 2002 issue of World War Two magazine. “The Secret War “and “Alan Turing – Enigma” were featured in a special World War Two issue of British Heritage magazine, September 2000. “Why Save Bletchley Park” appeared in Naval History magazine, December 1997.  “Unveiling the Churchill War Rooms” appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, October 22, 1978.  The article, the first to reveal Churchill’s war headquarters, contributed to their opening as a museum, now one of London’s most visited.  Other features have appeared in PROCEEDINGS, (US Naval Institute), FINEST HOUR, TIN CAN SAILOR, BRITISH HERITAGE, WORLD WAR TWO, CHICAGO SUNDAY TRIBUNE MAGAZINE, NAVAL HISTORY, and other publications.  Later in 2009, a major feature to appear in an international magazine, will be the first to reveal the unknown, forgotten, but fully intact 50,000 Sq. ft, 100 room, 3 floor, concrete underground headquarters of the Commander-inChief, Western Approaches, in Liverpool.



About Jerome O'Connor

Jerome M. O’Connor, a Chicago area journalist, historian and educator, produces and lectures about the little-known, overlooked, or under-reported people, places and great events of modern history. To qualify, all locations must exist and can be entered. Deeply researched and dynamically presented programs result in numerous return invitations. New in 2015 are personally conducted tours to view and enter facilities depicted in his most recent Chicago Tribune features, ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY and MOTOR ROW MEMORIES. Also new in 2015 is the photographic result of a return visit to Bletchley Park in England, where 12,000 code-breakers revealed the 'secret of the century,' the breaking of the Nazi Enigma cypher machine. O'Connor was the first journalist to reveal its existence in a widely viewed 1997 cover feature in Naval History magazine and in British Heritage magazine in 1998.

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