Manhattan, a passenger liner built for the United States Lines at Camden, N.J., by the New York Shipbuilding Co., was launched on 5 December 1931; and sponsored by Mrs. Edith Kermit Roosevelt, widow of former President Theodore Roosevelt.
After trials in and off the Delaware River, Manhattan departed New York City at midnight on 10 August 1932 for her maiden Atlantic crossing. Arriving at Hamburg 10 days later, she made the return voyage to New York in 5 days, 14 hours, and 28 minutes. a record for passenger liners. Proudly carrying the title of "the fastest cabin ship in the world," the liner continued to ply the North Atlantic from New York to Hamburg, via Cobh, Ireland; Southampton, England; and Le Havre, France, into the late 1930's. When Germany recalled her ships from the high seas during the Munich crisis in September 1938, Manhattan was en route to Hamburg but immediately came about and put into British and French ports instead, to bring back anxious American travelers who feared that they would be engulfed in a European war.
After war broke out a year later, she made voyages to Genoa and Naples, Italy. Following the Allied collapse in the lowlands of western Europe in the spring of 1940, she made a transatlantic crossing in July to repatriate American nationals from Portugal. With the European war endangering commercial shipping of neutral nations, Manhattan was then withdrawn from the once-lucrative transatlantic trade and placed in intercoastal service from New York to San Francisco, via the Panama Canal and Los Angeles.
In February 1941, during her third voyage to California, Manhattan ran aground off West Palm Beach, Fla., but was pulled free by tugs after the ship was lightened. After the ship was repaired at New York, the Government chartered her on 6 June 1941 for a two-year period and renamed her Wakefield, giving her the identification number AP-21.
Converted to a troop transport at Brooklyn, N.Y., by the Robins Drydock Co., the ship had her costly furnishings and trappings of a luxury cruise liner carefully removed and stored for future use. All of the ship's external surfaces were painted in Navy camouflage colors. On 15 June 1941, Wakefield was commissioned, with Cmdr. Wilfrid N. Derby, USCG, in command.
On 13 July 1941, Wakefield departed New York to participate in joint Navy-Marine-Army-Coast Guard amphibious training exercises at New River Inlet, N.C., in late July and early August. In early November, the troopship proceeded to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take on board British troops. Wakefield, with 6,000 men embarked, and five other transports got underway on 10 November for Capetown, South Africa. Escorted by a strong screen, which, as far as Trinidad, included the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4), the convoy arrived at Capetown on 8 December, the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. This drastic change in the strategic situation prompted the convoy to be rerouted to the Far East. On 29 January, Wakefield and West Point (AP-23) arrived at Singapore to disembark troops doomed later to capture by the Japanese upon the fall of the city in the following month.
On 30 January 1942, Wakefield commenced fueling at Keppel Harbor for the return voyage and awaited the arrival of some 400 British women and children who were being evacuated to Ceylon. At 1100, lookouts spotted two formations of Japanese bombers, 27 planes in each, approaching the dock area at Keppel Harbor. Unhampered by antiaircraft fire or British fighter planes, the enemy bombers droned overhead and released a brief rain of bombs on the waterfront. One bomb hit 50 yards off Wakefield's port quarter, and another blew up in the dock area 40 feet from the transport's bow before a third struck the ship's "B" deck and penetrated through to "C" deck where it exploded in the sick bay spaces. A fire broke out, but it was extinguished in less than one-half hour. Using oxygen masks, fire-fighting and damage control crews extricated five dead and nine wounded. Medical assistance soon came from West Point.
Completing her fueling, Wakefield embarked her passengers and got underway soon thereafter, burying her dead at sea at 2200 and pushing on for Ceylon. After disembarking her passengers at Colombo, the ship found that port authorities would not cooperate in arranging for repair of her damage. Wakefield, therefore, promptly sailed for Bombay, India, where she was able to effect temporary repairs and embark 336 American evacuees. Steaming home via Capetown, the transport reached New York on 23 March 1942 and then proceeded to Philadelphia for permanent repairs.
Underway on 11 May for Hampton Roads, Wakefield arrived at Norfolk two days later to load cargo in preparation for Naval Transportation Service Operating Plan Lone Wolf. This provided for Wakefield to travel, for the most part, unescorted, relying on her superior speed to outrun or outmaneuver enemy submarines. On the 19th, she embarked 4,725 U.S. Marines and 309 U.S. Navy and U.S. Army passengers for transportation to the South Pacific and moved to Hampton Roads to form up with a convoy bound for the Canal Zone. Arriving at Cristobal on the 25th, Wakefield was released from the convoy to proceed west. After destroyer Borie (DD-215) escorted her out of the Canal Zone, Wakefield proceeded independently to New Zealand and arrived at Wellington on 14 June. Departing one week later, the transport steamed via the Panama Canal and reached New York on 11 July.
On 6 August 1942, Wakefield departed New York with Convoy AT-18, the largest troop convoy yet assembled. A dozen troop transports made up the bulk of the convoy, escorted by 12 warships: cruisers and destroyers. After proceeding via Halifax to Great Britain, Wakefield received orders routing her and three other transports to the River Clyde, where they arrived without incident. On 27 August, Wakefield departed the Clyde estuary as part of Convoy TA-18, bound for New York.
While the transport was en route to her destination, on the evening of 3 September 1942, fire broke out deep within the bowels of the ship and spread rapidly. In the port column of the formation, Wakefield swung to port to run before the wind while fire-fighting began immediately. Ready-use ammunition was thrown overboard to prevent detonation; code room publications were secured, and sick bay and brig inmates were released.Destroyer Mayo (DD-422) and light cruiser Brooklyn (CL-40) closed to windward to take off passengers, a badly-burned officer, and members of the crew not needed to man pumps and hoses. Other survivors were disembarked by boat and raft, to be picked up forthwith by the screening ships.
At 2100, Brooklyn again came alongside to remove the remainder of the crew, while a special salvage detail boarded the ship. On 5 September, towing operations commenced, and the big transport nosed aground at McNab's Cove, near Halifax, at 1740 on the 8th. When fire-fighting details arrived alongside to board and commence the mammoth operation, fires still burned inthree holds and in the crew's quarters on two deck levels. Four days later, the last flames had been extinguished, and the ship was refloated on the 14th.
While Wakefield was undergoing partial repairs in Halifax harbor, a torrential rainstorm threatened to fill the damaged ship with water and capsize her at her berth. Torrents of rain, at times in cloud-burst proportions, poured into the ship and caused her to list heavily. Salvage crews, meanwhile, cut holes in the ship's sides above the waterline, draining away the water to permit the ship to regain an even keel. For the next 10 days, the salvagers engaged in extensive initial repair work: cleaning up the ship, pumping out debris, patching up holes, and preparing the vessel for her voyage to the Boston Navy Yard for complete rebuilding.
Temporarily decommissioned, the charred liner proceeded for Boston with a four-tug tow, and was declared a "constructive total loss." The Navy purchased the hulk from the United States Lines through the War Shipping Administration at 4:00 p.m. on 18 September 1942 and soon stripped the vessel to the waterline. Construction began, and a virtually new Wakefield arose, Phoenix-like, from her ashes.
The repairs and alterations began in the fall of 1942, and lasted through 1943. On 10 February 1944, Wakefield was recommissioned at Boston, with Capt. Roy L. Raney, USCG, in command. She departed Boston on 13 April, beginning the first of 23 round-trips in the Atlantic theater, and three in the Pacific. Between 13 April 1944 and 1 February 1946, Wakefield transported 110,563 troops to Europe and brought some 106,674 men back to America-a total of 217,237 passengers.
In many cases, Wakefield operated as a "lone wolf," except for air coverage a few miles out of a port. Her primary port of call in the European theater was Liverpool, visited so often in fact that the transport's crew nicknamed her "The Boston and Liverpool Ferry." The average round-trip voyage took 18 days.
After D-day, 6 June 1944, Wakefield began the first of her trips as a casualty-evacuation ship, bringing home wounded GI's. On occasion, she also brought back German prisoners of war for internment in the United States. Sometimes she even carried both evacuees and prisoners on the same voyage. After 13 trips to Liverpool, Wakefield was sent to the Mediterranean theater to carry men and equipment to Italy. She made three visits to Naples and a run each to Marseilles, Oran, Taranto, Le Havre, and Cherbourg. Returning from her 22d voyage to Europe, the transport departed Boston on 4 December 1945 for Taku, China, and a Magic Carpet" mission: returning to San Diego, Calif., on 1 February 1946. Two round trips to Guam, in February through April 1946, rounded out the ship's active service as a Navy transport.
Mooring at New York on 27 May 1946, Wakefield was decommissioned on 15 June 1946, five years to the day since she first entered service. Laid up in reserve, out of commission, at New York, she remained there in an inactive status until entering the Hudson River Reserve Fleet at 4:00 p.m. on 7 June 1957. Wakefield was stricken from the Navy List on 1 December 1959, and was advertised on 5 May 1964 for sale for scrapping. Acquired by the Union Minerals & Alloys Corp. on 27 May 1964, the ship was removed from her Hudson River berth at 2:30 p.m., on 5 March 1965 to be broken up.
Robert J. Cressman
Updated 1 April 2022