A military post in New York state, located on the west bank of the Hudson River below Poughkeepsie. West Point is the site of the United States Military Academy.
(AP-23: displacement 35,400; length 723'; beam 93'3"; draft 32'9"; speed 17.5 knots; complement 969; troop capacity 7,678; armament 4 5-inch, 4 3-inch, 8 .50-caliber machine guns; class West Point)
America was laid down under a Maritime Commission contract (M. C. Hull 1) on 22 August 1938, at Newport News, Va., by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co.; launched on 31 August 1939; sponsored by Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wife of the President of the United States; and entered service as the flagship of the United States Lines on 22 August 1940, when she commenced her maiden voyage.
Although initially slated for the North Atlantic trade, America was deployed instead on the New York to West Indies cruise routes, because the war in Europe had resulted in the invocation of the Neutrality Act banning American ships from trade in the war zones. She made several voyages to the West Indies and two to California into the spring of 1941. Hurriedly recalled from a pleasure cruise in late May 1941, America moored at Norfolk and was acquired by the Navy on 1 June 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 6 June for conversion. On 15 June 1941, "in a brief and simple ceremony on the after sun deck," West Point was commissioned at Newport News, Capt. Frank H. Kelley, Jr., in command.
West Point soon proceeded to New York City and, while anchored off the Staten Island quarantine station on 16 July 1941, took on board 137 Italian citizens and 327 Germans from the consulates of those nations in the United States which had been closed. West Point got underway at 1455 on the 16th, bound for Portugal, and arrived at Lisbon on the 23rd. While there, the ship was visited by Portuguese naval and diplomatic dignitaries; and she transferred supplies to the Coast Guard cutter Ingham, the station ship at Lisbon. After her final Italian passenger had been debarked on the 23rd and the last German on the 24th, West Point commenced embarking 321 Americans and 67 Chinese -- consular staffs and their families -- on the 26th.
Returning to New York on 1 August 1941, West Point discharged her passengers and headed south for an overhaul at Portsmouth, Va. She then participated in tactical exercises off the Virginia capes from 26 to 29 August in company with Wakefield (AP-21) and Mount Vernon (AP-22).
On 3 November 1941, she sailed from Carolina waters and arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 5th. There, on 8 and 9 November, she embarked 241 officers and 5,202 men of the 55th Brigade, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Battalions, and 100 men of an American Army Field Service company. On the 10th, West Point-in company with five other transports: Wakefield, Mount Vernon, Orizaba (AP-24), Leonard Wood (AP-25), and Joseph T. Dickman (AP-25) got underway for India as Convoy HS-124. En route, they were joined by Ranger (CV-4), the heavy cruisers Vincennes (CA-44) and Quincy (CA-39), and a division of destroyers.
Reaching Capetown on 9 December 1941, West Point and Wakefield were detached on 23 December to form Task Group (TG) 14.1, while Leonard Wood and Joseph T. Dickman formed TG 14.2. Escorted by the British heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, the convoy proceeded uneventfully toward India until 0700 on the 27th, when TG 14.1 was detached to speed up and arrive at Bombay ahead of the other ships.
Wakefield commenced discharging her embarked troops at 1900 at the Ballard Piers, completed her unloading, and shifted berths the next morning. West Point took Wakefield's former berth while Joseph T. Dickman moored to unload her equipment and troops. Having completed her discharge by 31 December 1941, West Point anchored in the stream on the morning of 2 January 1942 and awaited further orders until 4 January, when British authorities asked Capt. Kelley, of West Point, if his ship and Wakefield could be brought under 30-foot draught to make passage for Singapore. Kelley responded that it could be done, but this would entail discharging ballast and expanding some of the ship's fresh water supply, thus endangering the ship's stability.
Due to prevailing low-water conditions at Bombay at that point, neither West Point nor Wakefield could go alongside piers in the harbor to either load equipment or troops. Thus, the embarkation and loading procedures had to be carried out by the tedious process of embarking troops and loading supplies from smaller ships and lighters brought alongside. Wakefield embarked -- almost to a man ---the troops which she had brought from Halifax, a total of 4,506, while West Point embarked two-thirds of the troops which she had transported, in addition to some which had come out in other ships. All told, she carried some 5,272 men.
West Point sailed for Singapore at 1300 on 9 January 1942, in a "15-knot" convoy, with Capt. Kelley as the convoy's commodore. In addition to the two American ships, three British transports -- Duchess of Bedford, Empress of Japan, and Empire Star -- made up the remainder of the van. Escorted by British light cruiser HMS Caledon until that ship was relieved by light cruiser HMS Glasgow at 1630 on the 22nd, the convoy's escort soon swelled to three cruisers and four destroyers as the convoy neared Java. Japanese submarine activities near the Indonesian archipelago prompted concern for the safe arrival of the valuable ships, hence a 200-mile detour through the shallow, coral-studded Sunda Strait.
Led by British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, the ships slowed to 10 knots, and, streaming paravane gear, began the passage. An escorting destroyer steamed between each transport, as they steamed in single-column order. It was a ticklish business, for the least divergence from the charted course could mean a disastrous grounding.
During the passage, Dutch Consolidated PBY Catalinas patrolled overhead. No enemy aircraft were spotted until 1152, when a lone Japanese plane passed over at six to eight thousand feet. It dropped a stick of bombs which straddled the ships at the rear of the column. Although the ships opened fire, the range had soon opened enough to make this return fire ineffective.
The screen's commander, Capt. Oliver L. Gordon, R.N., commanding Exeter, desired to arrive at Singapore with as many ships as possible by dawn on 29 January, and thus split the convoy up, sending the faster vessels-West Point, Wakefield, and Empress of Japan-ahead at increased speed under escort of cruisers HMS Exeter, Durban, Dragon, and destroyers Express and Electra. Proceeding to Singapore via Berhala Strait, Durian Strait, and Philips Channel, the group steamed through these bodies of water in bright moonlight which made navigational aids unnecessary. Upon their arrival off Singapore, the ships lay to in an exposed position, beyond the range of shore-based antiaircraft guns, until pilots could be obtained to bring the ships in. Since the naval base came under daily heavy air raids, the transports thence proceeded to Keppel Harbor-the commercial basin-where they could discharge their troops and cargo.
Securing abreast godowns [warehouses] 52, 53, and 54, West Point commenced off-loading equipment and disembarking her troops. All but 670 engineer troops- who had been ordered retained on board-were ashore before nightfall. Air raids, meanwhile, continued until midnight as the Japanese steadily pounded Singapore from the air. At each alert, the coolies working dockside would vanish, taking to the shelters and leaving the vital cargo still unloaded. As a result, the unloading was carried out by the crew of West Point, her embarked troops, and 22 coolies who were brought on board to assist.
At about 0940 on 30 January 1942, seven Japanese bombers appeared over the city and were engaged by British Brewster Buffalo fighters. As the alert continued, 30 more Japanese planes appeared overhead, on course over Keppel Harbor. Several bombs fell on shore, eastward of West Point's moorings, while another stick fell in the water to the southward. In the interim, bombs hit other targets. A small tanker moored near Wake-field was sunk at dockside; bombs fell abreast Empress of Japan; and Wakefield took a direct hit forward which destroyed her sick bay, killed five men, and wounded nine. The last bombs in this stick straddled West Point and showered her with shrapnel. As the raid lifted, West Point sent two medical officers and 11 corpsmen on board Wakefield, at the latter's request, to render medical assistance.
Later that morning, Capt. Kelley attended a conference with British authorities, who informed him that his ship was to be used to carry a contingent of Australian troops from Suez to Singapore and to transport refugees and evacuees to Ceylon. With the emergency "acute," Kelley agreed to take on board up to one thousand women and children and such additional men as the British desired to send. With the abandonment of the naval dockyard, untenable in the face of increasingly heavier Japanese bombardments from artillery and aircraft, several dockyard naval and civilian personnel and their families were assigned to West Point for evacuation. Most carried only hand baggage; had little, if any, money; but were all fortunate enough to escape the doomed city before its fall to the onrushing Japanese troops of General Yamashita. All told, some 1,276 naval officers, their families, dockyard civilians, civilian evacuees, a 16-man Royal Air Force (RAF) contingent, and 225 naval ratings made up the 1,276 people embarked by 1800 on the 30th.
Clearing Singapore, West Point and Wakefield headed due west, escorted by HMS Durban. Overcast and squally weather covered their departure and permitted them to transit the Banka Strait unmolested by the seemingly omnipresent Japanese aircraft. Routed to Batavia, Java, to embark more refugees, West Point led Wakefield and Durban through the minefields and anchored in Batavia Roads at 0305 on 31 January. HMS Electra-which would be lost in the Battle of the Java Sea at the end of the month-came alongside eight hours later and transferred 20 naval dockyard personnel, three women, five naval officers' wives, one Free French officer, and an RAF officer to West Point for passage to Ceylon.
At 1240 on 1 February 1942, West Point-in company with Wakefield and under escort of Exeter, Encounter, and HMAS Vampire-got underway. The destroyers eventually went off to perform other duties, and Exeter as well soon dropped away to escort another convoy, leaving the two big troopships on their own. While they were en route, disconcerting news came over the radio. Japanese I-boats (identified after the war as I-162 and I-153) had been active in the vicinity, sinking six ships between them.
On the other hand, heavy seas and rain squalls aided the ships. West Point acquired an extra passenger while en route; for, at 1325 on 4 February 1942, a baby boy was born on board.
Colombo Harbor, Ceylon-where they arrived on the 6th-proved so crowded that British authorities could not permit Wakefield to repair her damage there. The passengers, in turn, experienced much difficulty in arranging for suitable transportation ashore. In addition, neither transport could fully provision.
British authorities requested the U.S. ships to evacuate people to Bombay. Accordingly, West Point took on board eight men, 55 women, and 53 children, as well as 670 troops, for passage to India. Wakefield, despite her weakened condition caused by the direct hit on 29 January, embarked two naval ratings, six RAF personnel, and 25 men and one officer of a British Bofors gun detachment. The two ships departed Colombo on 8 February and, escorted by the Greek destroyer Queen Olga, proceeded at 20 knots. Capt. Kelley later highly praised the operations of this sole escort. Although heavy weather was encountered en route, the elderly Greek destroyer acquitted herself well, continuing to patrol her station "at all times at high speed ahead of our zig-zag."
After discharging her evacuees at Bombay, West Point parted company with Wakefield and proceeded to Suez where she picked up Australian troops who were being withdrawn from the North African front to fight the Japanese in southeast Asia. Meanwhile, one disaster after another had plagued the Allied forces. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942; Java on 4 March. West Point carried her embarked troops to Australia and disembarked them at Adelaide and Melbourne before heading across the Pacific toward San Francisco.
As the Allies built up for the long road back, West Point participated in the effort to aid America's allies in the southwest Pacific with massive contingents of troops. Accordingly, the transport carried men to Wellington, New Zealand, and arrived on 30 May 1942. There, she received orders to return to New York; and she got underway from Melbourne on 8 June, bound for the Panama Canal. She entered the Atlantic on 26 June and arrived at New York on 2 July.
After two voyages to the United Kingdom, West Point sailed for India, via the South Atlantic route, and arrived at Bombay on 29 November 1942, before pushing on for Auckland, New Zealand, the following month. The transport returned via Noumea, New Caledonia, to San Francisco on 31 January 1943. She remained on the west coast until 16 February, when she got underway for the South Pacific and retraced her route to Wellington, New Zealand, and Australian ports. She then continued west-calling at Bombay, Massawa, Aden, and Suez-and stopped briefly at Capetown en route to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Eventually arriving at New York on 4 May, the ship subsequently made two voyages to Casablanca, French Morocco, before sailing for Bombay via the southern Atlantic route. Calling at Rio de Janeiro and Capetown en route, the big transport continued, via Bombay and Melbourne, on for the west coast of the United States.
Soon thereafter, West Point began transporting troops to Australia and continued making voyages there and to Allied bases in the Central and South Pacific through the end of 1943.
In 1944, the transport continued her vital workhorse duties, departing San Francisco on 12 January, bound for Noumea and Guadalcanal; and from San Pedro, Calif., on 22 February, bound for Noumea and Milne Bay. She sailed from the latter port and steamed via the Panama Canal to Boston, Mass., where she arrived on 12 June. She conducted five successive voyages to the United Kingdom before departing Boston on 6 December 1944 for Oran, Algeria; Casablanca, French Morocco; and Marseille, France. The transport left the Mediterranean one day after Christmas and proceeded to Norfolk, Va.
In 1945, West Point voyaged to Italian and French ports, via Oran or Gibraltar, staging from Hampton Roads, Va., Boston, or New York. After Germany surrendered, she took part in some of the initial Magic Carpet voyages, bringing home u.S. troops from the European battlefronts. Following her last European voyage-to Le Havre, France-West Point was transferred to the Pacific Fleet. She departed Boston on 10 December 1945, transited the Panama Canal, and proceeded to Manila, Philippines, via Pearl Harbor. Retracing the same route, she returned to New York on 7 February 1946 and soon got underway for Hampton Roads, where she was released from troop-carrying service on 22 February, Washington's Birthday. Six days later, the ship was decommissioned and transferred to the Maritime Commission's War Shipping Administration. West Point was strIcken from the Navy Register on 12 March 1946.
Carrying a total of over 350,000 troops during her naval service, West Point had the largest capacity of any Navy troopship in service during World War II. On one voyage in August 1944, she carried, including ship's company, a total of 9,305 people. In addition to troops, she had carried Red Cross workers; United Nations officials; children; civilians; prisoners of war; and U.S.O. entertainers.
Returning to her builder's yard at Newport News, West Point reacquired her old name-America-and immediately began conversion back to her original passenger-carrying configuration. She was returned to the United States Lines on 31 October 1946 and departed New York on 10 November to begin her maiden postwar crossing of the Atlantic. The liner continued to carry passengers between New York and Southhampton, England, into 1964.
With the advent of stiffer international competition in the transoceanic shipping business and the launching of the new United States Lines' flagship--the larger, more luxurious United States--America was sold to the Chandris Shipping Line, a Greek firm, in October 1964. Renamed Australis, the erstwhile transport and flagship of the United States Lines operated as a passenger liner into 1977 on cruises to the Far East and South Pacific. Acquired by an American cruise ship firm in early 1978, the ship's maiden voyage for her new owners proved financially unsuccessful, and the ship began a major refit soon thereafter.
Robert J. Cressman
Updated, 21 April 2022