USSWest Point AP-23 ex SS America leaves Halifax, calls at Bombay, Singapore, Batavia, Ceylon, Basra:Japan exacts price
Ships and Aircraft of World War II
The First War Cruise of the USS West Point AP23 former SS America continued:
Beginning with page, picwar12, and continuing in picwar13, and picwar14, we turn to storytelling, with transport ships and escorting warships, moving both military personnel and near helpless humans caught in the throes of World War II.
The first leg of the first war cruise of the transport, USS West Point (AP-23), from Halifax NS to Capetown SA, was covered in picwar12.htm West Point AP-23 (SS America) in convoy WS-12X; HMS Dorsetshire takes convoy duty at Capetown is its title.
The final legs of West Point's first war cruise are covered here in picwar13.htm USS West Point AP-23 (SS America) sails WW II seas; Halifax, Bombay, Singapore, Batavia, Ceylon, Basra
A human drama that began while West Point and other transports were under Japanese air attacks at Keppel Harbor, Singapore, is told in picwar14.htm Prince of Wales and Repulse sunk off Malaya; widow leaves Singapore on USS West Point (AP-23) ex SS America This story, is titled "Joan's Journey." Its author is Henry Reid.
Background: The WS series of convoys were known as "Winston Specials." Over 20 in number in 1941, and organized during the U.S. prewar 'neutrality period,' with Britain already fully engaged in war against Germany, these mostly Atlantic originating convoys were Britain's lifeline to her colonies, many of which would normally have been served by ships transiting the Suez Canal. With that avenue blocked by German/Italian dominance of the Mediterranean, routings took the long southern route, to Capetown, then north again in the Indian ocean to reach countries like India and Egypt. WS-12X involved a heavy troop component, and did not originate in England (though its troop component did) but at Halifax NS. Entering the Indian Ocean, in a redesignated convoy, U.S. transports West Point and Wakefield, carrying British Territorial troops, were redirected by the Admiralty from Basra, as their destination, to Singapore, via Bombay. Those British Territorials aboard West Point and Wakefield, numbering over 10,000, disembarked at Singapore, just as the peak of the Japanese thrust to take the island was being mounted. The change in original troop destination orders, was a reaction to the Japanese thrust south, coterminous with their successful attacks on Pearl Harbor and landings in the Philippines. Singapore is revealed to be so large in Britsh thinking that the leadership (Churchill, Gen. Wavell) was unable to consider cutting its losses, but in fact was compounding them.
(part 2 - British Admiralty assumes escort duty; shortcut back to part 1)
West Point (pictured above) and Wakefield's destination had originally been Basra in Iraq, at the head of the Persian Gulf, to supply reinforcements for British troops defending Egypt against General Rommel's forces in North Africa. The direct Mediterranean sea route from Britain to Suez via Gibraltar was under German siege. Only heavily armed British warships were making that passage and they were paying a price.
It was planned that the British Admiralty take over escort and routing responsibility for the U.S. troopships at Capetown. The United States' destroyers that had escorted this 20,000-man troop convoy in its Atlantic passage from Halifax to Capetown were now needed elsewhere as the United States faced up to its losses at Pearl Harbor. For the passage into the Indian Ocean, the British cruiser HMS Dorsetshire became the convoy's sole escort.
The six transports and Dorsetshire, now designated convoy HS-124, left Capetown on December 13, 1941, first adjusting their degaussing equipment (minimizes the magnetic 'signature' of a vessel in order to lower the chance of triggering a magnetic mine), while the last six U.S. destroyers and their tanker gave them brief coverage. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, the convoy turned northward.
The British Admiralty now rerouted several of the troopships. West Point, Wakefield, Leonard Wood and Joseph T. Dickman received orders to head for Bombay, India. On December 14, 1941, the U.S. destroyers, with a "Goodbye and Good Luck," turned around and passed down the side of the convoy on the reverse of its course. The convoy headed toward the Equator. Lying off the southeast coast of Africa, the island of Madagascar would be a checkpoint. Transports Orizaba on the 21st ,and Mt. Vernon on the 23rd, were detached to head for Mombasa, Kenya.
The four remaining transports reached Bombay (this great city has been renamed Mumbai) on December 27; Wakefield and West Point were sent ahead to debark troops first and clear the Ballard Piers so that Joseph T. Dickman and Leonard Wood could follow. Quartermaster John Dion aboard West Point noted four hospital ships, a Greek battleship and the usual bumboats (small boats used to peddle provisions and small wares to ships anchored offshore) in the port as Wakefield disembarked her troops first and then made way to give the dock space to West Point. Dion learned that the troops were being sent to Poona, 75 miles southeast of Bombay, for further training. Wakefield and West Point then anchored out to clear the piers for the other two transports.
Shore liberty at Bombay commenced with a motor launch ride from the anchored West Point to stone steps at the seawall leading up to street level, followed directly by the thrill of walking through the famous "Gateway of India" arch. That arch had been built in 1924 as a memorial of the visit of King George V of England. Fanning out from the Gateway arch, liberty parties, sailors from West Point and Coast Guardsmen from Wakefield, discovered and experienced the sights, sounds and smells of the city.
The British troops returned to the ships on January 17. Meanwhile, Captain Kelley had been asked if West Point and Wakefield could be brought under 30-foot draft (measured from her waterline to her keel) for a new destination, Singapore! Kelley replied that it would involve discharging ballast and relocating the fresh water supply, and that his ships would have less sea stability. Coincidentally, by this time neither West Point nor Wakefield could get back to Bombay's Ballard pier to re-embark troops because of low water conditions there. Making use of small vessels and lighters, Wakefield took aboard 4500-men and West Point 5300-men.
In company now with British transports Duchess of Bedford, Empress of Japan, and Empire Star, West Point and Wakefield were southbound once again on January 19, heading for Singapore, an island off the Malaysian Peninsula. Speed of advance was 15-knots. HMS Caledon was their escort. Most aboard had been informed of the loss of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse, both sunk in December by Japanese aircraft off Singapore.
The new readiness condition would be General Quarters. The routing took the convoy toward Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java. On the 22nd, HMS Glasgow, with more guns and an observation plane, replaced Caledon. The convoy was to meet HMS Exeter (she had fought the Graf Spee at Montevideo), adding one other cruiser and four destroyers along the way. After being joined at sea by Exeter, two destroyers, HMS Durban and HMS Dragon, were next to join. On the 27th, Sumatra was passed to port and Java to starboard.
Sunda Strait is only 20-miles wide! Jungle shows right down to its beach line. The convoy executed a turn to port and soon entered Banka Strait, another shallow channel, this one just 10-miles wide. Exeter went to General Quarters to fire at a Japanese aircraft. The convoy reached Keppel Harbor at the south end of the island of Singapore early in the morning of Thursday, January 29th, 1942. It had negotiated a 25-mile final passage in a channel fifteen miles wide, under the persistent eye of Japanese reconnaissance planes from Indo-China, now completely in Japanese hands. Disembarking the 10,000 British Territorials from West Point and Wakefield commenced immediately. The single Johore causeway bridge, connecting the north shore of Singapore to the mainland, lay to the northwest, 14-miles away. General Yamashita's Japanese armies were poised to cross the causeway and attack Singapore.
Air attacks by flights of 30 or more Japanese planes were now being intercepted over the Singapore dockyards by British Brewster fighters. During that evening (January 29, 1942), the city, two miles away, and the naval base were subjected to four air raids. By Friday, January 30, 10 a.m. local time, Japanese heavy bomber formations were overhead the dock area to drop their bomb loads on the line of tied-up ships. The Wakefield was hit and her hospital destroyed with the loss of five men and nine wounded. West Point and Wakefield, accompanied by escort HMS Durban, slipped out at 6 p.m. on January 30, 1942. West Point had taken aboard 1,946 persons. The two transports had sailing orders to Ceylon, including a stopover at Batavia, Java. A typical entry in one ship's log follows:
January 31, 1942. USS West Point. Steaming as before.
Among those newly embarked on West Point from Singapore, were a large British contingent, including naval officers and families, civilians, dockyard workers and a small RAF group. No more orderly repatriations. Those who were friendly to the British Empire were jumping at any option to get out of harm's way. Squally weather held off the Japanese bombers in the passage back through Banka Strait. Early in the morning of February 1, 1942, at 0100, Wakefield and West Point with their escort, HMS Durban, made it through mined waters and anchored in Batavia Roads. HMS Electra came alongside West Point and sent over 20 more naval dockside personnel, three female workers, five naval officer wives, a Free French officer and an RAF officer, all for passage to Ceylon.
For the gripping story, "Joan's Journey," by Henry Reid, go to Prince of Wales and Repulse sunk off Malaya; widow leaves Singapore on USS West Point (AP-23) ex SS America
A link there will return you to West Point's First War Cruise to continue that ship's epic journey. The Joan in Reid's story came aboard West Point at Singapore, one of many of the British civilians embarking January 30, 1942.
At noon on February 1st, the two U.S. transports left Java in company with HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter and HMAS (His Majesty's Australian Ship) Vampire. All escorts were then withdrawn to other convoy duties and the two big transports were left to make the most of their speed as their primary defense. Squally weather lessened the Japanese I-boat submarine threat. In the darkness, the Greek destroyer, Queen Olga, unannounced, joined the two transports, bringing West Point's skipper hurriedly to the wing of the bridge, pondering, friend or foe? With relief, it was the former.
In addition to the Queen Olga, West Point gained another arrival. Baby Leslie West Point Shelldrake, a U.S. citizen of British parents, arrived on February 4, 1942. The crew that day held a "Neptune" equator crossing party for the many children on board.
The two transports made it to Colombo Harbor, Ceylon, on the 6th of February, 1942. The harbor was crowded with ships. Refugee passengers were moving on any available transport to keep their distance from the oncoming Japanese. British Admiralty routing authorities then decided to direct the American ships to take their human cargo to Bombay, India. More humans in flight came aboard West Point. Eight men, 55 women, 53 children, along with 670 troops, embarked from various vessels in the harbor and from shore facilities. Wakefield, still not repaired, added to her human manifest. The two transports departed on February 8.
Discharging evacuees at Bombay, West Point finally parted company from Wakefield and went directly to Aden in Yemen, thence to Suez, streaming a barrage balloon as a defense against the Luftwaffe. She then embarked Australian troops for Adelaide and Melbourne. Australia was under direct threat of Japanese invasion and needed every man for its defense.
The original intent of the Admiralty had been for West Point and Wakefield to land British troops at Basra in Iraq to be used in General Montgomery's North African campaign. With the Germans temporarily stalemated there, the priority for the Australian troops engaged there became defense of their own homeland against the Japanese.
The Japanese now controlled sea and air for a major portion of this next leg. Japan would win two major sea battles during West Point's Australia-bound trip. Speed was West Point's primary defense. After discharging the Australian troops safely home, West Point used the last calendar days of April 1942 to cross the Pacific to San Francisco.
West Point's first war cruise had ended and she would shortly begin her second war career in troop movement duties. She would now be in direct service for her native country, but with no break in the ocean expanse of her sea travels or global variety in her ports of call. She traversed the Panama Canal twice, returned to Australia again, and voyaged to Casablanca, New Guinea, and Rio de Janeiro. Beginning with V-E Day, she made countless trips to England and Europe to return U.S. combat veterans to their native land. At the end of the war, West Point returned to Newport News Shipbuilding to be rebuilt into the United States' Lines SS America once again.
Events in which West Point had played her part but for which West Point was not present:
On February 15, 1942, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese Army. The 5500 Territorials debarked from West Point, and the 4300 from Wakefield, fought for 14 days on the island of Singapore; those not killed were captured and became POWs for 43 months.
On February 6, 2006, at Carlisle, England, Henry Thomas West Point Ward was born, the third member of the Shelldrake clan to make the ship's name part of his name. (Grandfather Leslie West Point Shelldrake had been born aboard the USS West Point on February 4, 1942, in passage to Colombo, Ceylon.)
West Point's first war cruise had ended in April 1942 in San Francisco. She would shortly begin her second war career. Now in direct service of her native country, there would be little change in the multi-ocean reach of her sea travels or the global variety in her ports of call. She traversed the Panama Canal twice, returned to Australia again, and voyaged to Casablanca, New Guinea, and Rio de Janeiro. Beginning with V-E Day, she made countless trips to England and Europe to return over 60,000 U.S. combat veterans to their native land. At the end of the war, West Point returned to Newport News Shipbuilding to be rebuilt once again into the United States' Lines SS America.
West Point had steamed 436,000 miles in her war duty and John Dion had been aboard for 244,000 of those miles.
(Navy Quartermaster, and longtime East Longmeadow Massachusetts' resident, John Dion is the source for the saga of the first war cruise of the SS America, renamed USS West Point. Writer Frank Dailey conducted three interviews at the home of John Dion and his wife, Agnes, in East Longmeadow, MA in April and May of 2002. Agnes Dion had been a Navy Parachute Rigger in World War II.)
Franklyn E. Dailey Jr. Capt. USNR (Ret) Revised March 17, 2010.
You have just finished reading Franklyn E. Dailey Jr.'s report on John Dion's story of the First War Cruise of the USS West Point. A version of this story ran in two parts in the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican in November 2006, in recognition of Veteran's Day that year.
Cynthia Simison, the editor of the Springfield Republican challenged the author, before she would run the story, to explain his interest in the West Point cruise. His interest had been piqued by Quartermaster Dion's report of the ships in company with his West Point at various segments of her first war cruise. Here is how Dailey answered Editor Simison's challenge (she ran this part in the newspaper, too):
November 6, 2006
An old salt learns something new: U.S. World War II veterans their and families are aware that thousands of U.S. soldiers went east to an Atlantic or Gulf coast port for passage to Europe or North Africa. Thousands more went to the U.S. west coast for ocean passage to Hawaii, and, ultimately, to war duty in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
Soldiers spent days at sea and crossed many great circles of longitude. Some soldiers, and the sailors who manned the ships on which they embarked, perished in transit. Mostly, these travels were east and west.
East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, resident John Dion, a Navy quartermaster in World War II, introduced me to convoys that moved soldiers north and south.
From my own wartime service on a Navy destroyer in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, I felt I knew all about east and west convoys. John Dion told of convoys that crossed many parallels of latitude. Their routes were "up-and-down" more than "over-and-back," or "east and west." One ship, the West Point, AP-23, was not only unique in its north and south sailings, but also in the changing makeup of its convoy companions. Except for its first leg south, Halifax to Capetown, in company with U.S. Navy escorts, its long and perilous first war cruise was under the continuous routing control of the British Admiralty.
I had known from my own war experience that early war supply cargo was routed to the British defenders of Egypt over the long ship route around the Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean and north to the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. From Sept. 1, 1939, through mid-1943, the German war machine blocked direct east-west Mediterranean traffic to all but the strongest British warship task forces.
Allied cargo ship convoys departed with any escorts available. But troop ships drew stronger escort forces. Departures would be delayed until such escorts were available. At the center of one fated, November 1941, troop-ship convoy leaving Halifax, Nova Scotia, headed south, was the USS West Point.
The USS West Point first served our nation in 1941 on war repatriation duty. She then delivered thousands of troops to war fronts, while scooping up more than 1,000 refugees from ports in the immediate path of war. West Point's own remarkable story is matched by the number and variety of famed vessels that sailed with her on that first war cruise.
In that cruise, the destiny of some ships would find them departing from, or joining, the routing of West Point, to and from other war zones and other dangers. The mix of ships in company with West Point at any one time would influence the speed of her convoy.
When no escorts were available, West Point could select the speed of advance for herself and accompanying troop ships. This occurred in some very dangerous passages. For any ship, anywhere on the high seas or in restricted waters, higher speed added to likelihood for survival. In some of the restricted passages leading to and from Singapore, for example, where evasive course changes were not an option, speed was the only defense.
There were two exceptions to the strong escort rule for troop ships. These were the famed Cunard liners, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. These vessels were escorted from departure port to sea buoy, and from sea buoy to arrival port. In between sea buoys, each would travel without escort, singly, always at speeds above 20 knots. The majority of U.S. combat troops for Europe made their first Atlantic crossing, 20,000 per passage per ship, without escort.
The USS West Point was capable of that speed, but in her first war cruise she was able to make her peacetime Atlantic crossings speed in just a few segments. She was in 15-knot convoys because many of the ships in company with her could not maintain greater speeds.
An early ship companion was the attack transport, USS Joseph T. Dickman, which began its war journey with West Point in Halifax. The cruise began in 1941 before our country was at war.
Just a year later, in November ,1942, my destroyer, the USS Edison , escorted the Dickman and 15 other Navy transports, from Norfolk, Va., across the Atlantic to the fateful transport anchorage at Fedhala Roads, next to Casablanca. U-boats torpedoed six of those ships during the twilights of Nov. 11 and 12; four sank quickly.
Dickman, right next to two that went down, lived a charmed life. She then participated in every major amphibious landing in World War II. I learned from a 1995 Springfield Union-News' story on Coast Guardsman Raymond Pasek of Holyoke, that Dickman was at Okinawa in 1945 successfully putting troops ashore once again. Other ships in company with West Point on that first war cruise had shortened war service lives.
West Point's first British escort, HMS Dorsetshire, was lost to the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. While West Point was carrying refugees to Bombay, India, and then taking Aussie soldiers back home on the next to last leg of her first war cruise, the Japanese were triumphant in the battles of the Java Sea, and Sunda Strait. These Allied defeats took place in February and March, 1942, in waters that West Point managed to slip through, unescorted.
HMS Exeter, first known to the world in connection with her battle with the Graf Spee, was among the last to go in the Java Sea engagements in which surviving British, Dutch, Australian and U.S. Asiatic naval forces were being annihilated by the Japanese. Exeter was being escorted by destroyer HMS Encounter and the ancient U.S. four-piper, the Pope. Encounter went down first, Exeter next, and Pope went down last when the Japanese could turn the full fury of their air and sea assault against her.
U.S. cruisers Vincennes and Quincy were lost in the famous, or infamous, night sea battle for Guadalcanal off Savo Island in August 1942. Mayrant, with President Roosevelt's son Franklin Jr. as her executive officer, was hit by a bomb at Palermo in 1943.
I watched from my gun station aboard the USS Edison, just 200 yards away, as the U.S. destroyer Rowan blew up and sank from a mine or torpedo at Salerno on Sept. 11, 1943, with heavy loss of life.
West Point's longest route companion, Wakefield, took that one hit at Singapore that forced the U.S. Navy to find a time and place to get her into a port that had repair facilities. Her final routing was to a U.S. east coast port. After separation from West Point, her path took a dark turn. The bomb hit at Singapore eventually took Wakefield on sailing orders that led to her agony of fire at sea.
West Point spent few days out of a war zone. After leaving Halifax, she sailed 44,000 miles before reaching San Francisco. In between she was exposed to Hitler's U-boats, Japanese I-boat and air attacks, and then Hitler's air power at Suez.
She made perilous trip after perilous trip in helping to execute a strategy that changed by the day. She performed great works of mercy by moving some of the survivor residue of the failed war strategies to safer areas. She was at risk from all major enemies of the U.S. in three oceans covering every war zone of World War II. She sailed from New York to San Francisco without transiting the Panama Canal or rounding Cape Horn.
War, and the West Point, traveled on the same cruise.