Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 4, 2018: Remembering the Independence most often forgotten
Here we see the “444-type” freighter USS Independence (SP-3676) in striking dazzle camouflage, probably in San Francisco Bay, California, soon after her completion in late 1918. While the U.S. and Massachusetts State Navy operated no less than seven “Independences” going all the way back to 1776, and today is July 4th, I figured it would be fitting to cover #4 of these, which had a great service history and was sandwiched between a 90-gun ship of line that gave 98-years of service and two much better-known aircraft carriers of the same name.
Appropriately enough, the story of this Independence started off with the British.
In late 1916 the shipping-strapped British Admiralty contracted with Union Iron Works (UIW) shipyard, located at Potrero Point, San Francisco, for a series of 7,700-dwt, 444-foot oal, single-screw, steel-hulled freighters to a design approved by the U.S. Shipping Board’s construction program, an emergency agency authorized by the Shipping Act of 1916 that eventually morphed into the MARAD of today. The first of these, War Knight (UIW’s hull #132A), was laid down in early 1917, followed by War Monarch, War Sword, War Harbour, War Haven, War Ocean, War Rock, War Sea, War Cape, War Surf and War Wave (seeing a trend here?). Of these, just the first three, completed by Sept. 1917, were delivered to the British. By that point, the U.S. needed ships of her own and stepped in. Soon, each of the vessels under construction was renamed and taken over by the Navy of their birthplace.
War Harbour, hull 162A, became SS Independence while under construction while others lost their intended names and became, respectively, Victorious, Defiance, Invincible, Courageous, Eclipse, Triumph, and Archer. A 12th ship, Steadfast, was contracted by the USSB directly without London being involved.
War Harbour, then SS Independence, photographed on 24 October 1918 at the yard of her builder, Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., Union Plant, Potrero Works, San Francisco. Behind her is a later sister, SS War Surf/Eclipse, that during World War II became USS William P. Biddle (AP-15). Source: U.S. National Archives, RG-32-S via Ship Scribe.
Taken into federal service as 18 November 1918 as USS Independence, her first skipper was LCDR O. P. Rankin and she was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service, completing one voyage to France with a load of foodstuffs. With the Great War at an end, she was decommissioned, 20 March 1919, after just four months of service, and handed over to the USSB who promptly converted her and several of her sisters to a turbo-electric powerplant capable of a speed of a very fast (for a merchant ship) speed of 16 knots, then placed the essentially new vessels in storage.
Then came 1930 and the Roosevelt Steamship Company’s award of a mail contract for a weekly run from Baltimore and Norfolk to Hamburg, Germany and Le Havre, France– a contract that resulted in the group forming the Baltimore Mail Steamship Company. Headquartered in the now-iconic but then brand-new Baltimore Trust Building (now the Bank of America Building), the Baltimore Mail Line picked up five of the old 444’s from USSB storage– Steadfast, War Surf/Eclipse, War Haven/Victorious, War Wave/Archer, and War Harbour/Independence. Reconstructed under a Gibbs & Cox design to accommodate 80 passengers, modified to hit 18-knots, and lengthened to 507 feet, the now-8,424t ships started a regular trade within a year renamed (again) as the City of Baltimore, City of Hamburg, City of Havre, City of Newport News and, our hero, as City of Norfolk, after the five hubs serviced by the line.
The launching of the SS City of Norfolk on August 14th, 1931 at the Norfolk Army Base piers (former War Harbour, ex-USS Independence) of the Baltimore Mail Line.
As reported by the GG Archives, “The single class liners offered staterooms with outside exposure, hot running water, and Simmons beds. In 1935, the Baltimore Mail Line offered fares to London or Hamburg for $90 one way or $171 round trip.” The ships had a saloon, barber shop, a surgeon’s office, an oak-paneled smoking room, a sports deck with tennis courts, and other amenities. A brochure from the period cautions that “professional gamblers are reported as frequently traveling on passenger steamers and are warned to take precautions accordingly.”
In 1937 the bottom fell out of the U.S. shipping industry after Congress withdrew all maritime mail subsidies and the Baltimore Mail Line folded. War Harbour/Independence/City of Norfolk was transferred briefly to the struggling Panama Pacific Line, carrying freight and passengers from New York to California and back again via the Canal, but that soon ended as that shipper too folded due to mounting costs.
By November 1940, the five converted former Baltimore Mail Line ships, now 20-years old and surplus once more were re-acquired by the U.S. Navy for the second time. Dubbed transports, they were taken to Willamette Steel in Portland, camouflaged, fitted to accommodate 1100~ troops, armed with a smattering of deck guns (a single 5″/51 and two 3″/50 guns as well as some .50 cals to ward off low-flying curious planes), given two light davits on each side to accommodate eight landing craft, and (wait for it) renamed yet again.
War Harbour/Independence/City of Norfolk became USS Neville (AP-16) and by June reported for duty with the Atlantic Fleet, spending six months transporting troops and naval personnel from the East Coast to new bases in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Shortly after the U.S. entered the war, she joined a transatlantic convoy to Ireland with British personnel and Lend-Lease equipment aboard.
View of a convoy out of Brooklyn, New York (USA), February 1942: USS Neville (AP-16) is in the foreground. Other ships present include at least six other transports, a light cruiser, and a battleship. This is probably the convoy that left the east coast on 19 February 1942, bound across the Atlantic to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Note the extensive use of Measure 12 (Modified) camouflage on these ships. U.S. Navy photo 80-G-2408
Then came the Pacific war and, armed with more AAA guns (20mm’s in place of her original .50 cals) was soon carrying Army troops and Navy Seabees to New Zealand, then Marines to a place called Guadalcanal, where she helped conduct landings on Blue Beach 7 August 1942, sending Marine Combat Team 2 ashore on Tulagi.
U.S. Marines come ashore on Tulagi Island, probably during the landings there on 7-8 August 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-16485
Landing at Guadalcanal. The latest shipment of reinforcements for Guadalcanal prepare to leave a landing boat, from USS Neville (APA-9) on the shores of the island. NARA photograph. Photographed through Mylar sleeve.
It was a dangerous place to be for a lightly armed transport. Class sister War Haven/Victorious/City of Havre/George F. Elliott was lost just a few miles away after she was clobbered by Japanese planes.
The U.S. Navy troop transport USS George F. Elliott (AP-13) burning between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, after she was hit by a crashing Japanese aircraft during an air attack on 8 August 1942. Date 8 August 1942 Source Official U.S. Navy photo NH 69118
Redesignated an amphibious assault transport (APA-9), Neville was then rushed to the Med for the invasion of Sicily, this time to put men of the Army’s 45th Infantry (Thunderbird) Division on Red Beach.
Shipping off the Scoglitti beaches on the first day of the invasion, 10 July 1943. Among the ships present are: USS Calvert (APA-32), second from left; USS Neville (APA-9), left center; USS Frederick Funston (APA-89), far right. An LST is in the right center, with a light cruiser in the distance beyond. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-215086
USS Neville (APA-9) off the Norfolk Navy Yard on 17 April 1943 after receiving changes to her armament and other modifications. Her 5″/51 gun aft has been removed and two twin 40mm anti-aircraft guns have been added, one forward in the tall structure over the two 3″/50 guns and one aft. She also received a radar mast over the bridge. Photo No. 19-N-45752 Source: U.S. National Archives, RG-19-LCM via Ship Scribe
Chopping back to the Pac after gaining more AAA (40mms this time), Neville landed troops at Tarawa in the Gilberts in November 1943, Kwajalein and Majuro three months later, Eniwetok in March 1944, and helped capture Saipan that June after landing her Marines on beach Green Two. In all, she was awarded five battle stars for her WWII service.
After taking Japanese POWs– a rare treasure– back to Pearl Harbor, Neville spent the rest of the war in San Diego training APA crews. The end of the conflict saw her performing Magic Carpet duty, bringing home salty combat vets from overseas and replacing them with fresh green troops for occupation duty. Arriving at Boston 5 February 1946, she was struck from the Navy List 15 August 1946, then towed to the James River National Defense Reserve Fleet. Ten years later the old girl was sold to a New Jersey company for scrap.
Her three remaining APA sisters who survived the war– War Wave/Archer/City of Newport News/Fuller, War Surf/Eclipse/City of Hamburg/William Biddle, and Steadfast/City of Baltimore/Heywood, all were likewise scrapped in 1956.
The unmodified freighter sisters were less lucky. War Cape/Triumph was sunk as SS Pan-Massachusetts by a German torpedo in 1942. War Sea/Courageous was sunk as breakwater off Normandy in 1944. In all, they were a hard luck and unsung class of ships, but they got it done, which is all you can really ask.
Displacement 7,475 t.(lt) 14,450 t.
Length 507′ (post-conversion, 1931) 444 as built
Draft 24′ (mean)
Propulsion: four Babcock and Wilcox header-type boilers
one De Laval steam turbine, geared turbine drive
single propeller, 9,500shp
Speed 16 kts as built
Troop Accommodations: 60-75 officers, 818-1,203 enlisted
Cargo: 145,000-150,000 cu ft, 1,800-2,900 tons
one single 5″/51 mount
two single 3″/50 cal dual purpose gun mounts
eight 0.5 in (12.7 mm) machine guns
four single 3″/50 cal dual purpose gun mounts
two twin 40mm AA gun mounts
sixteen single 20mm AA gun mounts
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