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J. Franklin Bell (AP-34)


The Navy retained the name carried by this vessel when operated as a U.S. Army transport.

(AP-34: displacement 13,529; length 535'2"; beam 72'; draft 31'6"; speed 17.0 knots; complement 683; troops 1,843; armament 4 3-inch, 6 40-millimeter, 8 20-millimeter)

J. Franklin Bell (AP-34) was laid down in 1918 as an Army transport by the New York Shipbuilding Corp. of Camden, N. J.; completed 1 March 1921 as a passenger and cargo ship named Keystone State; turned over to Pacific Steamship Co. 28 May and renamed President McKinley 9 June 1922; and transferred to Admiral Oriental Line 21 December to operate in the Pacific until laid up in Seattle in 1938. The Army purchased her 26 October 1940, renamed her J. Franklin Bell, and converted her into a troop transport. She was transferred to the Navy 26 December 1941; and commissioned in ordinary before commissioning in full at San Francisco 2 April 1942, Capt. Herbert J. Grassie in command.

After shakedown, a round-trip voyage to Pearl Harbor, and over two months of amphibious training along the California coast, J. Franklin Bell, carrying some 1,500 troops and a full load of cargo, sailed from San Francisco 13 August and headed via Kodiak, Alaska, for Adak to strengthen American defenses in the Aleutians, then threatened with invasion.

Upon returning San Diego 29 September, J. Franklin Bell resumed coastal operations and amphibious training in preparation for taking the offensive in the Aleutians by recapturing Attu Island. Reclassified as an attack transport, APA-16, 1 February 1943, she continued rehearsals until sailing to San Francisco 16 April to embark troops and their war gear. She got under way 24 April for Cold Bay, Alaska. Though hampered by heavy seas, her task force arrived off Attu 11 May in a dense fog. J. Franklin Bell, now under Cmdr. J. B. McGovern, began landing operations. Submerged rocks, pea soup weather, and narrow, rocky beaches permitted only two or three boats to be unloaded at a time. Two days later she started unloading around the clock, enabling her to finish the task, embark casualties, and head for home by 16 May.

After training throughout June, she embarked some 1,750 soldiers and, following two weeks of landing rehearsals, departed San Francisco 29 July for Adak. At the end of a week of weather and terrain conditioning there, she steamed for Kiska 13 August. She sent her landing boats ashore through rough surf only to find the enemy had fled. Unloading operations completed in two days, she embarked 600 troops and sailed for San Francisco the 20th.

At San Francisco she discharged the troops and embarked naval passengers for Wellington, New Zealand, where she arrived 30 September. During the ensuing month of amphibious assault training, Captain O. H. Ritchie took command 22 October. After embarking 1,800 Marines, she sailed 1 November for final landing rehearsals before departing 13 November to invade Tarawa.

The first step in an amphibious offensive through Micronesia, the conquest of the Gilbert Islands proved a major milestone on the road to Japan. During midwatch 20 November, J. Franklin Bell took her assigned place off Betio, the most formidable Japanese garrison on Tarawa Atoll. Heavy naval bombardment began at 0515; and the enemy responded with scattered fire at the transports. Straddled, J. Franklin Bell retired out of range and, while the deadly battle raged on ashore, awaited orders to land her troops. The next day she sailed to Bairiki Island and landed her Marines. Finding dead enemies only, they boarded landing boats and moved from island to island along the atoll. Meanwhile, after the Bairiki landings, J. Franklin Bell began sending cargo ashore. The Marines secured Betio on the 23rd and the entire atoll on 27 November, and J. Franklin Bell departed with Marines embarked for Pearl Harbor.

After a month of training in Hawaii, the transport embarked more than 1,500 soldiers and sailed for Kwajalein Atoll. Upon arriving 31 January, she found fire support ships pounding enemy shore installations in preparation for landings the following day. J. Franklin Bell entered the lagoon 2 February to unload supplies and to receive casualties. On the 5th, her landing boats assaulted Gugegwe Island. Two days later the atoll was secured; and the transport departed 8 February for Pearl Harbor carrying over 2,000 soldiers.

Putting into Pearl 15 February, she made two round trips to the United States mainland before embarking soldiers and setting course for the Marianas. J. Franklin Bell arrived off Saipan 16 June, the day after the initial landings; and debarked her troops on the 17th. After unloading needed supplies, she retired some 100 miles northeast of Saipan to await the outcome of the Battle of the Philippine Sea 19 to 21 June. Upon learning of the outcome of the battle, she returned to Saipan 25 June; completed unloading; embarked casualties; sailed for Eniwetok to load more cargo; and then headed, via Saipan, to embark Marines, for the assault on nearby Tinian.

Departing 24 July, J. Franklin Bell joined in a diversionary demonstration at the southern end of Tinian. Under cover of a fierce bombardment, the transport feigned two landings to divert enemy attention while the real landings were made at the northern end of the island. Following this successful subterfuge, she sailed to the actual beachheads; landed her troops; embarked casualties the next afternoon; and returned to Saipan the 27th. The next day, carrying 438 Japanese prisoners, she sailed for Pearl Harbor and arrived 10 August.

J. Franklin Bell returned to the Western Pacific, putting into Manus, Admiralties, 3 October to embark 1,600 assault troops for the invasion of the Philippines. She headed for Leyte Gulf 14 October and arrived off Dulag, Leyte, 20 October. After quickly debarking her troops, she began unloading supplies and receiving casualties. Defying repeated air attacks, she unloaded supplies into LCTs throughout the day and night completing the task shortly after noon the next day. Then she got under way for Manus, Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Roger Keyes, RN, on board, and arrived the 27th.

Following a voyage to New Guinea, J. Franklin Bell departed Manus for San Francisco and arrived 27 November. Heading back to the war zone 28 February 1945, the veteran transport arrived Noumea, New Caledonia, 18 April. After landing exercises and embarking Seabees and their equipment, she headed for Okinawa via Eniwetok and Ulithi. She dropped anchor at Hagushi 17 June to debark her Seabees. Subjected to frequent air alerts, she completed her unloading under cover of a smoke screen late the following afternoon.

The transport then departed on the 22nd, carrying 862 casualties to Saipan before proceeding to Espiritu Santo and Noumea to embark homebound casualties. Departing Noumea 11 July with over 1,700 passengers, she steamed for San Francisco and arrived the 27th.

The war ended, J. Franklin Bell sailed 21 September for the Western Pacific, carrying troops to Eniwetok, Okinawa, and Leyte. After boarding homebound passengers at Leyte, she sailed 27 October and reached Seattle 12 November. She began coastal operations on the 22nd shuttling between Washington and California ports. She arrived Suisun Bay, Calif., 20 March 1946; anl decommissioned the same day.

Transferred to the WSA for disposal, J. Franklin Bell was sold for scrap 3 April 1948, to Boston Metals Co., Baltimore, Md.

J. Franklin Bell received six battle stars for her World War II service.

Published: Thu Apr 25 20:17:55 EDT 2019