American Legion, a steel-hulled, twin-screw passenger and cargo steamship, was laid down on 10 January 1919 under a U.S. Shipping Board (USSB) contract at Camden, N.J., by the New York Shipbuilding Corp. and launched on 11 October 1919. She was delivered to the USSB upon completion on 15 July 1921.
For over four years, American Legion remained in the hands of the Federal Government, under the auspices of the USSB. However, on 18 December 1925, as part of a "package deal" that involved the sale of the liners American Legion, Southern Cross, Pan America, and Western World, the government sold those ships to the Munson Line for operation on the New York-to-South America run. For the next fourteen years, American Legion and her running-mates were familiar sights on that particular passenger-and-cargo route, until financial difficulties forced foreclosure of the Munson Line on 13 March 1939. American Legion was then laid up in the Patuxent River.
Her enforced idleness did not last long. A little under three months after Hitler's legions had marched into Poland, triggering World War II in Europe, the Maritime Commission (the successor to the USSB) transferred American Legion to the War Department on 28 November 1939 for use as a troop transport. On 19 December 1939, the ship was formally transferred, and taken to New York for rehabilitation and conversion by the Atlantic Basin Iron Works of Brooklyn, N.Y.
American Legion departed New York City early in February 1940, on her maiden voyage, bound for Panama. Over the next few months, the ship made five round-trip voyages to the Canal Zone, with stops at Charleston, S.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, carrying civilian and military passengers. The worsening situation in Europe, though, soon resulted in the ship's receiving a special mission.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed that American Legion leave New York immediately and proceed to Petsamo, Finland. There, she was to embark the Crown Princess Martha of Norway, and her party, to bring them to the United States, their homeland having fallen to the Germans the previous spring. Further, as Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles reported to the United States Minister in Sweden, the President also desired that Mrs. J. Borden Harriman, the former U.S. Minister to Norway, return in the same vessel. The transport would "likewise bring back to this country such Americans in Scandinavian countries as can be accommodated and as may not be able to return safely in any other way."
American Legion, her neutrality shown clearly by the U.S. flags painted prominently on her sides, sailed for Finland on 25 July 1940, and reached Petsamo on 6 August, as scheduled. On the 15th, she embarked Crown Princess Martha of Norway, and her three children, the Princesses Ragnild and Astrid, and Prince Harald. The Army troopship also embarked a host of American nationals and refugees from a variety of countries: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, the total number of people being 897. Among the passengers was a young Danish comedian and musician, Victor Borge. The American Legation in Stockholm, Sweden, also consented to the embarkation of 15 "prominent nationals of American republics . . . including the Mexican minister . . . ."
Unbeknownst to probably all but a handful of individuals, American Legion also took on board an important cargo during her brief stay at Petsamo. Before she sailed on the 16th, after an almost Herculean effort involving taking this special cargo by truck the entire length of Sweden, the transport loaded a twin-mount 40-millimeter Bofors antiaircraft gun, "equipped with standard sights, and accompanied by spare parts and 3,000 rounds of ammunition." The State Department had obtained the cooperation of no less than three governments to make possible the shipment of the Bofors gun: British, Swedish, and Finnish. The move had been made none too soon for American Legion was the last neutral ship permitted to leave Petsamo.
American Legion sailed for the U.S. on 16 August 1940, and reached New York 12 days later, escorted the final leg of the voyage of several American destroyers. The transport unloaded the Bofors brought from Petsamo, whence it was shipped to Dahlgren, Va., where it would be tested, and ultimately adopted by the Navy and produced domestically. Its installation in American warships from late 1942 proved a significant upgrading in the antiaircraft capability of the ships of the U.S. Navy.
American Legion, soon returned to the more prosaic calling she had pursued since earlier in the year, that of an Army transport, and resumed the regularly-scheduled service between New York and the Panama Canal Zone. Ultimately, as the United States expanded her defense perimeter, American Legion, supported this movement, transporting men and cargo to such ports as Hamilton, Bermuda, and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, as well as to Cristobal, in the Canal Zone.
As the U.S. began assuming a greater share of the Battle of the Atlantic, to aid the hard-pressed British, the Sixth Marine Regiment was taken to Iceland, where it relieved a British garrison of defense duties. Soon thereafter, a second troop and supply movement followed. American Legion sailed from New York on 27 July 1941, as part of a convoy that included within its escort the aircraft carrier Wasp (CV-7).
American Legion, whose cargo included Army Air Force gear earmarked for use by the 33rd Pursuit Squadron (whose P-40 fighters were flown off from Wasp), reached Reykjavik, Iceland, on 6 August 1941. Unable to enter the inner harbor because of her deep draft, American Legion discharged her cargo and disembarked her passengers into tank lighters and motor launches over the days that followed, the cargo movement facilitated by marines and sailors from the ships.
Having delivered the men and goods to Reykjavik, the convoy sailed on the 12th with its heavy escort and reached New York on 21 August 1941. The next day, American Legion was acquired by the Navy and classified as a transport, AP-35. She was placed in commission on the afternoon of 26 August 1941, Cmdr. Thomas. D. Warner in command.
American Legion, having shed her white Army transport livery for a more businesslike and somber dark gray, was towed to Pier 3, Army Transport Service Pier of Embarkation, Brooklyn, by four tugs, on 12 September 1941, and commenced taking on cargo that afternoon. Shortly before noon the following day, she began embarking civilian passengers for her maiden voyage as a Navy transport.
Underway for the Gravesend Bay Explosive Anchorage soon thereafter, American Legion loaded a cargo of ammunition, under the supervision of a detail of Coast Guardsmen from USCGC Arundel, early that afternoon, and, after loading the balance of the cargo the following day, weighed anchor for Charleston, S.C., at 1412. She reached her destination on the afternoon of 18 September 1941.
There, she embarked contingents of troops slated for garrison duties, and sailed for Bermuda on the morning of the 19th. On the afternoon of the 22d, as she neared her destination, her local escort, two Army planes, arrived overhead and accompanied the ship on the last leg of her voyage. Ultimately, at 1945 on 22 September 1941, she moored in Hamilton harbor. She disembarked troops the following morning, and, the following afternoon, sailed for Puerto Rico.
American Legion reached San Juan three days later, mooring at Pier 7, Puerto Rico Dock Co., shortly after noon. There, she debarked civilian passengers as well as 33 Army officers and 176 men, and embarked passengers for the rest of the voyage. Underway on the afternoon of 29 September 1941, the transport reached Ceriseport, the code name for Saint John, Antigua, the next morning. The ship there discharged more cargo and took on board another group of passengers on 2 October before she sailed on the morning of 4 October for Puerto Rico.
American Legion returned once more to San Juan on 8 October 1941, mooring at 0956 and disembarking naval enlisted passengers brought from Trinidad. Once more, her turnaround was comparatively swift, for she was underway again on the morning of 10 October, bound for Hamilton. Late that afternoon, though, the ship's port main engine and steering engine proved troublesome. As American Legion limped back to San Juan, two Navy tugs came out to assist, as did the lighthouse tender USCGC Acacia. Ultimately, though, it was the small seaplane tender Thrush (AVP-3) that came to the rescue, passing a line to the crippled transport at 1650 and taking her in tow back to San Juan.
Following repairs, American Legion sailed for Hamilton on the morning of 18 October 1941. Anchoring in Murray's Anchorage on the morning of the 21st, she embarked New York-bound passengers and took departure the same day. Ultimately, on 23 October, American Legion reached Pier 2, Army Base, Brooklyn, and disembarked her passengers -- civilian workers and naval dependents evacuated from Puerto Rico. Underway soon thereafter, the transport anchored off Staten Island that same afternoon.
American Legion weighed anchor on the morning of the 24th and moored at the New York Navy Yard. Initially slated for repair work at the Morse Drydock Co., Brooklyn, the transport was taken, instead, to the Bethlehem Steel Co. yard in Brooklyn, for completion of an overhaul. She remained there into January 1942.
Assigned to the Naval Transportation Service (NTS) on 6 February 1942, American Legion embarked men slated for duty at the destroyer base being established at Londonberry, Northern Ireland, and sailed, in convoy, on the first leg of her voyage, bound for Halifax. Engineering difficulties, however, soon came to the fore again, and "engineering unreliability" caused her to be sent to the Boston Navy Yard for repairs. Accordingly, escorted by the destroyers Nicholson (DD-442) and Lea (DD-118), American Legion reached Boston on 4 March after a two-day passage from Nova Scotia. Ultimately deemed ready for service once more, American Legion reported for duty with the NTS on 28 March 1942.
On 9 April 1942, American Legion sailed from New York for the Panama Canal Zone, bound, ultimately for Tongatabu, in the Tonga, or Friendly, Islands, which she reached on 8 May 1942. There she disembarked her passengers, Army officiers, nurses, and enlisted men who were to establish a field hospital on Tongatabu, and proceeded on to Wellington, New Zealand, arriving there on 20 May. American Legion remained at Wellington through mid-July, earmarked for participation in the United States' first offensive landing operation in the Pacific War, the invasion of Guadalcanal, in the Solomons.
Three days before she was to sail from Wellington, she received an augmentation of her antiaircraft battery, a dozen 20 millimeter Oerlikon machine guns. Under the direction of the ship's executive officer, Cmdr. Ratcliffe C. Welles, and the gunnery officer, Lt. Cmdr. Elmore S. Pettyjohn, USNR, American Legion's ship's force installed the battery on the ship's former sun deck in 48 hours, laboring continuously in inclement weather and having the battery in firing order by the time the ship upped-anchor and sailed on 18 July. Rendezvousing with TF-4 on the following day, the transport, with elements of the Fifth Marines embarked, proceeded to Koro, in the Fiji Islands, for rehearsals for Operation Watchtower. During that training and practice evolution, the ship embarked war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, whose experiences would later be chronicled in the book Guadalcanal Diary.
Assigned to Task Group "X-ray," ten attack transports and five attack cargo ships, American Legion proceeded thence to the Solomon Islands. On the morning of 7 August 1942, she went to general quarters at 0545 and manned "ship to shore" stations fifteen minutes later. At 0614, attending cruisers and destroyers opened fire on the beachheads, softening up the beaches for the impending landing. American Legion and Fuller (AP-14) soon landed the first troops to go ashore on Guadalcanal.
That afternoon, while the landings proceeded apace, American Legion joined in the antiaircraft barrage that repelled the initial Japanese air attacks on the invasion fleet, as she did the next day. Discharging cargo at "Red" Beach on the morning of 8 August 1942, the transport got underway as a wave of Japanese twin-engined bombers came after the shipping off Guadalcanal. At noon, American Legion sighted the incoming planes, which dropped their bombs near the supporting cruisers and destroyers before heading toward the amphibious ships.
During the action, one Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 97 land attack plane (Betty) passed from starboard to port directly over American Legion's stern, at 100 feet. The after 20-millimeter guns and .50-caliber machine guns, as well as the larger 3-inch guns, all opened up, while men on board the transport could see the Japanese aircrew manning their own machine guns to sweep the decks with gunfire. Some of that return fire fatally wounded Sea1c Charles Kaplan. Riddled from practically all quarters, the bomber crashed into the water close aboard on the port quarter.
American Legion still lay off "Red" Beach in the predawn hours of the 9th, too, and began observing heavy gunfire commencing at 0148 to the northwestward. Lookouts also saw flares and tracers, with parachute flares brilliantly lighting up the area to the northeastward. With this, Transport Group "X-ray" ceased discharging cargo and darkened ship, remaining shut down for the rest of the night, crews at general quarters. American Legion's men did not know it at the time, but they were witnessing the disastrous Battle of Savo Island, in which three American heavy cruisers were sunk, one American heavy cruiser damaged and an Australian heavy cruiser sunk.
The next morning, the transport began embarking survivors from the sunken heavy crusier Quincy (CA-39) from the destroyer Ellet (DD-398), completing the transfer by 1400. Within a half hour, American Legion got underway, the majority of her cargo having been unloaded by her busy boat crews who had labored almost continously since the 7th with almost no sleep and subsisting only on sandwiches and coffee. She left behind one officer and 19 enlisted men as part of the burgeoning naval base at Guadalcanal, having transferred them on the evening of the 8th.
American Legion, with the rest of the amphibious ships of TF 62, then proceeded to Noumea, New Caledonia, which she reached on 13 August 1942. Soon thereafter, she transferred theQuincy survivors to Argonne (AG-31) and the transport Wharton (AP-7).
Over the next several months, American Legion carried out a series of supply runs, including as ports of call Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Auckland, New Zealand; Noumea; Brisbane, Australia; and Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides. Arriving at Brisbane on New Year's Day 1943, she sailed soon thereafter for Melbourne, Australia; thence she proceeded to Tongatabu, Pago Pago, Espiritu Santo, and Guadalcanal. Early in this period, on 1 February 1943, the ship was reclassified to an attack transport, APA-17. She then carried out a series of training landings at Upolu, American Samoa, between 9 April and 10 May 1943, and then later at New Zealand, at Paikaiariki, between 13 and 16 June. While there, a landing accident claimed the lives of one officer and nine enlisted men when one of American Legion's landing boats capsized in a heavy surf.
Troop and cargo runs then followed, between Auckland, New Zealand, Noumea, New Caledonia, and Guadalcanal, before she put into Efate, in the New Hebrides, on 22 October 1943, in preparation for the invasion of Bougainville, Solomon Islands.
Arriving off Cape Torokina, Bougainville, on the morning of 1 November 1943, American Legion proceeded into the earmarked transport area in Empress Augusta Bay and anchored at 0646. Japanese planes arriving in the vicinity prompted the ships to get underway, the transport's men observing Aichi D3A Type 99 carrier bombers (Vals) attacking nearby destroyers and losing two or three of their number in the process. Zekes (Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 carrier fighters) then strafed the beach area; sinking an LCPL from American Legion.
Securing from general quarters at 0937, American Legion anchored in the transport area a few moments later, observers on board noting beaches Red 2 and 3 littered with broached landing craft, 2 LCMs and four LCVPs from American Legion among them. Ordered to cease unloading off Beach Red 2 and to proceed to Beach Blue 3, the transport got underway and proceeded thence, soon noting the presence of shoal water. At 1246, the ship's war diary recounts "several slight shocks to hull" as American Legion grounded. Ten minutes later, enemy planes were reported approaching, as the ship began using her engines in an attempt to work herself free of her predicament. While the other ships in the task unit got underway and stood out, American Legion remained fast aground. The ship, assisted in the effort by the tugs Sioux (AT-75) and Apache (AT-67), fired on Vals attacking the beachhead, and eventually worked free by 1506. After standing out to sea during the night, the transport returned to the transport area the following morning and completed discharging cargo.
Following the landings at Cape Torokina, American Legion returned to the U.S. via Pago Pago, Samoa, and reached San Francisco, on 8 December 1943, having traveled 83,140 miles since leaving New York the previous spring. She then underwent repairs at San Francisco into the spring of 1944.
Departing San Francisco on 12 April 1944, American Legion proceeded to San Diego where she became part of the Transport Training Division, Amphibious Training, Pacific. Based at the Amphibious Training Base at Coronado, Calif., American Legion operated in the training capacity for the duration of World War II, exercising off Coronado, off Aliso Canyon, near Oceanside, Calif., and the Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, and at Pyramid Cove, near San Clemente Island.
Departing San Diego on 7 September 1945, American Legion proceeded to San Francisco, stopping there only briefly before sailing on 11 September for Pearl Harbor and Guam. Returning to San Pedro on 24 October 1945, American Legion sailed for her second Pacific voyage on 8 November, bound for the Philippines. After calling at Manila and Tacloban, the veteran transport returned to the United States, reaching San Francisco on 12 December 1945.
Clearing that port for the last time on 6 March 1946, she reached Olympia, Wash., on the 9th. She was decommissioned there on 28 March 1946 and turned over to the War Shipping Administration for disposal. Her name was stricken from the Navy Register the same day [28 March 1946].
American Legion entered the Reserve Fleet at 6:00 p.m. on 23 April 1947. Records indicate that what stripping was being done to the ship was stopped on 10 September 1947, and the veteran of service at Guadalcanal and Bougainville was ultimately sold for scrap on 5 February 1948 to Zidell Ship Dismantling Co., of Portland, Oregon.
American Legion was awarded two battle stars for her World War II service.
Robert J. Cressman
1 September 2016