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Bellatrix I (AK-20)


A bright white helium star, with a magnitude of 1.7, in the northern constellation Orion. It is Latin for "female warrior."


(AK-20: displacement 14,225 (limiting); length 459'1"; beam 63'0"; draft 26'5"; speed 16.5 knots; complement 267; armament 1 5-inch, 4 3-inch, 8 .50-caliber machine guns; class Arcturus; type C-2)

The C-2 freighter Raven was laid down under a Maritime Commission contract (M.C. Hull 126) on 20 November 1940 at Tampa, Fla., by the Tampa Shipbuilding Co., Inc., acquired by the Navy on 16 April 1941; renamed Bellatrix and designated as a cargo ship, AK-20, on 25 April 1941; launched on 15 August 1941; sponsored by Miss Sally Taliafero; and commissioned on 17 February 1942, Cmdr. William F. Dietrich in command.

Bellatrix got underway on 5 March 1942 for shakedown in the Gulf of Mexico. Four days later, she shaped a course for the Charleston (S.C.) Navy Yard, to finish fitting out. On 10 March, while standing toward the harbor approaching the harbor, the cargo ship’s crew got their first taste of war when a torpedo fired by a German submarine possibly U-155 or U-158 passed close aboard on the port side. Following a short fitting-out period, Bellatrix departed Charleston on the 25th and steamed to Norfolk, Va., arriving there on 27 March. After loading combat stores and 207 men of the 2nd Naval Construction Battalion destined for the Pacific, the cargo ship set sail with a large convoy on 10 April. Zigzagging south, the convoy transited the Panama Canal on the 18th.

Assigned to Transport Division (TransDiv) 10, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet, she continued on in a smaller convoy to Samoa. Bellatrix reached Pago Pago, Tutuila Island, on 8 May 1942 and began discharging her cargo of lumber and supplies that same day. Late on the 9th, she steamed to nearby Apia, Upolu Island, where she disembarked the “Seabees” and unloaded their equipment. The cargo ship departed Samoa on 23 May, arriving at Nukualofa harbor, Tongatabu, two days later. There, she fueled from oiler Kanawha (AO-1) and loaded landing boats as cargo. On the 26th, the ship used her guns in anger for the first time firing three 3 inch rounds at an unidentified observation plane over the island.

Underway on 30 May 1942, Bellatrix reached Wellington, New Zealand, on 3 June. The cargo ship spent the next six weeks preparing for the United States’ first offensive landing operation in the Pacific war the invasion of the Solomons at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. On 17 July, she received an addition to her armament of eight 20 millimeter Oerlikon machine guns while alongside the floating dry dock at Aroa quay. She also embarked elements of the 7th Marines, their equipment, and supplies earmarked for the invasion.

On 22 July 1942, Bellatrix, in company with heavy cruisers Chicago (CA-29), Salt Lake City (CA-25), HMAS Australia, HMAS Canberra, light cruiser HMAS Hobart, nine destroyers, and 11 other cargo and troopships, sailed to Koro, in the Fiji Islands, to conduct landing rehearsals for Operation Watchtower. Assigned to Task Group (TG) 62.1, Bellatrix proceeded to the Solomon Islands, arriving in the transport area off Guadalcanal’s Lunga Point in the early morning of 7 August. At 0652, after accompanying cruisers and destroyers had shelled the landing zones on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, the cargo ship began landing troops and equipment from all holds. Although the 102 marines went ashore very quickly, small Japanese air raids twice interrupted the unloading of supplies and equipment that afternoon and delayed her departure.

Around noon on the following day, 8 August 1942, a wave of 23 Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 land attack planes [Betty] from the Fourth and Misawa Kokutais bore in at low level toward the transports and cargo ships off Lunga Point. Two of the Mitsubishis approached Bellatrix, but her crew opened fire with all guns that would bear. One passed close astern, visibly damaged from repeated 20 millimeter hits, while a second passed ahead. Under intense Oerlikon and machine gun fire from several ships in the task group, the second bomber splashed shortly thereafter. The crew then witnessed a third Mitsubishi crash the transport George F. Elliott (AP-13), starting numerous gasoline fires that eventually compelled the ship to be abandoned. Destroyer Hull (DD-350) ultimately scuttled the irreparably damaged auxiliary.

After that attack, and a false alarm later that afternoon, Bellatrix returned to Red Beach and continued unloading operations into the night. Almost half-way through the mid watch, at 0150 on 9 August 1942, the cargo ship’s crew observed flares and heard the rumble of gunfire to the northwest. Bellatrix, joined by the other ships of Transport Group “X Ray,” ceased discharging cargo and got underway in case they needed to clear the area. The night combat seen to the north, the disastrous Battle of Savo Island, resulted in the loss of three American heavy cruisers and one Australian. In the morning, Bellatrix returned to Red Beach to finish unloading her cargo of supplies and fuel for Cactus, the code name for Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. Leaving some boats behind to help with future unloading operations, she departed Guadalcanal late on the 9th and reached Noumea, New Caledonia, on 13 August.

Over the next five months, Bellatrix supported American and Australian forces, ferrying men and supplies from Efate, Espiritu Santo, and Noumea, to Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The cargo ship’s first mission began on 1 September 1942, when she transported 178 pilots and ground crew of Scouting Squadron (VS) 3 and Torpedo Squadron (VT) 8 from Noumea to the base at Espiritu Santo (code named Button), arriving on the 4th. Two days later, the cargo ship joined a convoy bound for Guadalcanal.

While unloading cargo off that island in the early evening on 8 September 1942, two Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 carrier fighters closed the transport area during a Japanese raid aimed at Henderson Field. Heavy antiaircraft fire, however, apparently spoiled their aim because the bombs that the two Zeroes dropped landed harmlessly between Bellatrix and the transport Fuller (AP-14). The following morning, during another bombing raid by 18 Bettys, a large pattern of bombs landed ahead of the cargo ship, wounding two crewmen. Bellatrix's 3-inch gunners claimed one Betty splashed. The ship left for the New Hebrides that night, arriving at Espiritu Santo on the 11th.

She returned to Guadalcanal on 14 September 1942, in the midst of the first serious Japanese ground assault on the American perimeter, the ferocious Battle of "Bloody Ridge." During this attack, which almost broke through the marine defensive positions, Bellatrix shuttled 247 marines from Tulagi to Guadalcanal. By the 18th, the Japanese offensive had been beaten back, and the cargo ship could unload the aviation gasoline, ammunition, and other supplies needed ashore.

After returning to Noumea on 21 September 1942, Bellatrix loaded pontoons, accessories, and equipment for Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (MTBRon) 3. Then, along with Alchiba (AK-23) and gunboat [motor torpedo boat tender] Jamestown (PG-55) in Task Unit (TU) 62.4.5, she towed four PT-boats to Espiritu Santo. Underway on 6 October, the convoy ran into rough seas that parted tow lines, slowing their advance to a crawl. After four days, they finally arrived at Espiritu Santo. Then, on the 12th, joined by tug Vireo (AT-144), and destroyers Meredith (DD-434) and Nicholas (DD-449), the task unit attempted to tow barge loads of gasoline and bombs from Button to Guadalcanal.

Unfortunately, American forces temporarily lost air superiority over the Solomons during the next two days when a combination of Japanese air raids, artillery barrages, and night naval bombardments heavily damaged Henderson Field. As a result, Japanese air power briefly operated in the area with near impunity, circumstances that boded ill for Bellatrix’s task unit. On 15 September, a Japanese reconnaissance plane spotted the task unit east of San Cristobal. Although Meredith and Vireo continued onward--with the destroyer later sunk and the old tug abandoned (but reboarded) after attacks by Japanese carrier planes--the rest of the convoy attempted to retire.

At 1634 that afternoon, five Aichi Type 99 Val carrier bombers from Zuikaku closed the four ships, with two diving on Bellatrix. The cargo ship opened up with six 20-millimeter and four machine guns, disrupting the enemy attack. Two bombs from the first plane near missed along the starboard side while the second dropped her bombs short. The near misses sprung a 3-inch mount, buckled her hull plating, tripped circuit breakers throughout the ship, and blew out dozens of bolts and rivets. Although Alchiba and Nicholas also endured attacks, neither suffered any serious damage.

After arriving back at Espiritu Santo on the 17th, Bellatrix then tried to deliver a cargo of fuel independently of the barge convoy and sailed for Guadalcanal on 23 September 1942. Two days later, however, after a Japanese destroyer force sank the fleet tug Seminole (AT-65) and the district patrol vessel YP-284 off Lunga Point, the ship reversed course because of the “rapid deterioration in tactical situation in the sea area about Guadalcanal.” To make matters worse, engine troubles slowed Bellatrix to 11 knots. It was not until 2 November that the cargo ship could unload her pontoons and PT-boat equipment at Tulagi. She retired toward Noumea on the 4th, arriving there three days later.

After temporary repairs alongside Vestal (AR-4), Bellatrix sailed to Wellington, N.Z., on 12 November 1942. Upon arrival on the 17th, the battered ship received three weeks of engine and hull repairs. Underway on 18 December, she loaded cargo at Auckland, and then at Noumea, for delivery to Guadalcanal, anchoring off Lunga Point on 8 January 1943. Unfortunately, the cargo ship had suffered another engine breakdown en route and thus limped back to Espiritu Santo for repairs on the 14th.

With the Guadalcanal campaign essentially over at this time and because of the dire need for cargo shipping in the planned invasion of Sicily, Bellatrix sailed east on 16 January 1943 and arrived at San Diego on 4 February. Near the end of that voyage, on 1 February 1943, Bellatrix was reclassified an attack cargo ship and was redesignated AKA-3.

After cleaning ship and receiving more engine repairs, she got underway for the east coast on the 19th, transited the Panama Canal on 1 March 1943, and moored at the Charleston Navy Yard on the 8th. Following four weeks of inspections, engine repairs, and alterations to her interior spaces, Bellatrix departed Charleston on 13 April, anchoring in Hampton Roads two days later. From there, she loaded tank lighters and equipment for amphibious exercises in Chesapeake Bay. The cargo ship spent the next six weeks engaged in training, particularly drills in launching LCMs and LCVPs and sending cargo to the beach.

Assigned to TransDiv 1, Bellatrix got underway for Operation Husky, the planned landings on Sicily, on 8 June 1943. The cargo ship zigzagged in convoy across the Atlantic, passing Gibraltar on 21 June and mooring at Mers el Kebir, Algeria, on the 22nd. Sailing with TG 85.1, in company with Ancon (AGC-4), seven destroyers, and 10 other amphibious ships, Bellatrix arrived off Scoglitti, Sicily, early in the morning on 10 July. While disembarking Army troops, her crew observed flares, searchlights, and shell bursts light up the beach during the assault. At 0426, enemy planes appeared overhead, dropping flares that lit up the anchorage. Minutes later, the cargo ship's crew saw a stick of bombs straddle the light cruiser Philadelphia (CL-41).

At 0716, Bellatrix shifted to the inshore anchorage and began unloading bulk cargo. Over the next 13 hours, five of her LCVPs either were swamped by heavy waves or ran aground during these operations. The following morning, she returned to the inshore anchorage to salvage her boats and to continue unloading cargo. During the day, however, enemy attacks delayed and disrupted these operations, starting with a raid by 10 Heinkel He. 111 twin-engine bombers at 0645. The cargo ship finally departed the area on the night of 13 July and arrived at Mers-el-Kebir three days later.

Underway on the 22d, Bellatrix sailed for Norfolk with 15 other cargo ships, arriving there on 3 August. Ordered back to the Pacific, she then departed Norfolk on the 24th, transited the Panama Canal on 1 September, and arrived at San Francisco on the 10th. Assigned to 5th Amphibious Force, she sailed for New Zealand, via Honolulu, on 24 September and arrived in Wellington on 20 October. After loading combat supplies, the cargo ship set out for Efate on 1 November and anchored there a week later. Joining TG 53.1, including Monrovia (APA-31) and 15 other cargo ships and troop transports, she embarked Company H, 18th Marines, and got underway on 13 November for Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands.

Bound for Tarawa, the task group arrived in the transport area on the morning of 20 November. At 0510, Bellatrix' crew witnessed Colorado (BB-45), Tennessee (BB-43), and Maryland (BB-46) bombarding the beach. An hour later, the bombardment intensified when cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft joined in the assault. Bellatrix closed the atoll and began unloading cargo at 1258 that afternoon. Constant enemy air raids, mixed in with false alarms, disrupted these operations over the next two days. Between 22 and 24 November, she cruised in the transport area awaiting orders until finally disembarking her Marines at Helen Atoll on 25 November. Suffering from an engine breakdown that reduced her speed to 8 knots, she sailed to the Ellice Islands for repairs, arriving at Funafuti on the 30th.

Although Bellatrix made temporary repairs alongside Cascade (AD-16), the attack cargo ship received orders to proceed to California for a more complete overhaul. Departing Funafuti on 7 December, she arrived at Bethlehem Shipbuilding Co. in San Francisco on the 31st. With her repairs complete on 16 March 1945, she steamed for Pearl Harbor the following day. After arriving there on the 23d, she joined TransDiv 32 and began four weeks of landing exercises. Then, in company with the other amphibious ships of TF 52.9, Bellatrix got underway on 29 May for Operation "Forager," the invasion of the Mariana Islands.

Before dawn on 15 June, as the main invasion force assembled off the southeastern coast of Saipan opposite Charan Kanoa, Bellatrix helped stage a diversion farther north off Mutcho Point near Garapan. She hoisted out eight LCVPs, loaded them with troops, and sent them off with other landing craft toward Tanapag harbor. Bellatrix and her landing craft then shifted to the transport area off "Yellow Beach." Despite continuous air-raid warnings, and the loss of an LCVP in a collision, the attack cargo ship managed to unload about a third of her cargo by 17 June. After spending the next day at sea, she moved into Tanapag harbor on the 19th and completed unloading by 21 June.

Bellatrix set sail for San Diego that same day and, after stops at Eniwetok, Kwajalein, and San Francisco, arrived there on 21 July. With her cranes and cargo holds made obsolete by the new types of amphibious ships, she began a new career as a training vessel. Assigned to TransDiv 1, Amphibious Training Command, Bellatrix spent the rest of the war conducting landing exercises out of San Diego. These operations, centered around crane and boat operations, primarily took place in the Aliso Canyon area, at Coronado Strand, or off San Clemente Island.

After completing her last exercise on 9 August 1945, Bellatrix made a cargo run to Seattle before returning to San Pedro on the 27th for conversion to a general cargo ship. Departing San Pedro on 13 September, she carried cargo between San Diego, Pearl Harbor, and San Francisco until mooring at the latter port on 8 November. Bellatrix remained there until decommissioned on 1 April 1946. Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 May 1946, and she was transferred to the Maritime Commission which laid her up in its National Defense Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay, Calif., on 30 June 1946.

Following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the Navy’s need for shipping increased, and Bellatrix' name was restored to the Naval Vessel Register on 17 July 1951. She was taken into custody on 27 August and, following minor repairs and equipment modifications at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, was recommissioned on 15 March 1952, Capt. Stanley W. Carr, USNR, in command.

Assigned to the 12th Naval District at Long Beach, she first conducted five months of cargo and transport duties along the California coast. On 28 August 1952, Bellatrix departed San Diego for Yokosuka, Japan, arriving there on 8 September. She spent the next 11 weeks carrying troops and cargo in Japanese waters before returning to Long Beach for local operations on 16 December. Aside from a brief cargo mission to Alaska’s Pribilof Islands in August 1953, the cargo ship spent the next two years conducting cargo and training operations off the California coast.

On 3 January 1955, Bellatrix reported to the San Francisco Naval Shipyard for inactivation and was decommissioned there on 3 June 1955. Eventually assigned to the Bremerton Group of the Pacific Reserve Fleet, she remained there until 6 June 1960 when her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register and she was transferred to the Maritime Administration. Reinstated on the Naval Vessel Register on 15 March 1963, she was leased to the Peruvian Navy as Independencia under the auspices of the Military Assistance Program. Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register for the third and final time on 14 November 1963, and she was then sold outright to Peru on 20 March 1964. She served in the Peruvian Navy as a cadet training and revenue cargo ship until scrapped in October 1991.

Bellatrix (AKA-3) received five battle stars for her World War II service.

Timothy L. Francis
23 February 2006

Published: Fri Apr 12 22:32:10 EDT 2024