This is the life story of a famous ocean liner; a classic steam ship
that enjoyed three separate, quite distinctive and highly productive
careers that spanned almost four decades. Designed and built in the
mid-20th century to ply the North Atlantic passenger trade, her original
name was AMERICA. During World War II, she served her namesake nation
as the USS WEST POINT. When jet travel displaced ocean liners as the
primary mode of crossing the Atlantic, she found a new career and a
new name - AUSTRALIS
In the twilight of her productive years, she was less successful,
and later languished for years at anchor in Greece under a succession
of forgettable names.
Optimistically renamed AMERICAN STAR, she was headed for a new career
as a hotel ship in Thailand when she went aground in the Canary Islands
in 1994 ...
first placed in service, the AMERICA was a renaissance celebration of
emergence from the depths of the Great Depression for her namesake nation.
This vessel was America’s first foray into the realm of the
great ocean liners. Not the biggest or fastest liner, she also was not
decorated in the European-inspired grandiose style of that time. Instead,
her interiors represented a modern contemporary American design, resulting
in a grace, charm and warmth that kept passengers coming back to her
again and again.
Designed and stoutly built to weather the North Atlantic, her entry
into that maritime market was delayed for several years.
Significantly, her gala launching on August 31, 1939 (put cursor
on pictures for additional info) - a christening at the hand of
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and witnessed by over 30,000 - was overshadowed
the very next day when World War II started.
But AMERICA was already prepared for such possibilities, for the
United States Maritime Commission had subsidized her construction and
certain military measures had been inconspicuously incorporated into
Contractually, they were called "defense features" and
consisted mainly of reinforced decking in locations where antiaircraft
guns were to be mounted, in time of war. Some of her safety-related
features (e.g., extensive compartmentation, elaborate fire protective
systems, redundant mechanical and electric systems, etc.) were other
items that proved to be beneficial when she became a troop transport.
Completed in the summer of 1940, this star-spangled ship of state
undertook a series of Caribbean cruises with her neutrality boldly proclaimed
by huge American flags and her name - and the name of her owners painted
on either side of her glistening black hull. Above her hull were several
decks of brilliant white, topped by two tall, streamlined and uniquely
finned smokestacks of red, white and blue. Called sampan funnels - these
crowning creations had been hastily raised fifteen feet after her sea
trials (with nary a word publicly) to alleviate soot deposit problems
on her open passenger decks. To many, that change only further complimented
her appearance - and bespoke of a powerful vessel of great promise.
obvious was the intriguing fact that AMERICA’s forward funnel
was a fake. In the mid-twentieth century, multiple funnels were considered
to be symbolic of a powerful ship.
Other ships of that era also had 'fake' funnels. AMERICA was originally
designed with two funnels - one active, the other one intended to convey
the "power" message and add balance to her overall appearance.
While not functional as a smokestack, AMERICA’s forward funnel
did provide a useful place to locate the ship's emergency generator
and back-up batteries.
"Designed by Americans ... constructed by skilled American
labor from materials provided by virtually every State in the Union
... decorated and furnished by leading American artists and craftsmen
- the AMERICA could scarcely be a more "all-American"
ship, or more completely equipped to assure you at sea the same high
American standards of luxurious comfort and efficiency which you enjoy
ashore. And once you are aboard, regardless of how high your enthusiasm
may have soared, this magnificent liner will not disappoint you. She's
the finest example of modern shipbuilding art."
(United States Lines’ brochure, circa 1940)
In less than a year, AMERICA was drafted for military service. She
returned to her builders´ yard in June of 1941 and just eleven days
later she was commissioned as a United States naval vessel. Renamed
the USS WEST POINT, in honor of the nation’s military academy
and appropriate to her purpose as a military transport, she ultimately
was fitted to carry over 8,000 troops at a time. In 1942 a coat of "dazzle"
camouflage replaced her all-grey paint job, and her original antiaircraft
armament was greatly expanded.
The top of her forward ‘fake’ funnel served admirably
- albeit unexpectedly by her designers - as a fire control and lookout
station. In essence a steel-lined 'foxhole', it was higher than the
crow's nest and provided an excellent place to control the aim of her
guns, and to give lookouts an unrestricted view completely around the
Affectionately known as "The Grey Ghost" by her 785-man
navy crew, she steamed 436,144 nautical miles and ferried over half
a million souls to and from battlefronts around the world - and without
the loss of a single soldier to enemy action! WEST POINT most often
made her crossings unescorted, zigzagging too fast for enemy submarines
to hit her, or even for friendly escorts to keep up.
narrowly missed being hit by bombs at Singapore in early 1942. WEST
POINT hurriedly left that port with over a thousand British civilians
onboard and shortly thereafter celebrated the birth of a boy on the
high seas - and right at the equator.
Moving into and out of harbours around the world, mostly at night, "The
Grey Ghost" carried troops of many allied nations, United Service
Organization (USO) and Red Cross civilian personnel, army nurses and
members of the Women´s Army Corps (WACs). Her return trips to the United
States often included both allied wounded and enemy prisoners of wars
on her passenger manifests.
And victorious soldiers - and quite a few war brides - at the end
During the war, the enemy announced seven times that they had sunk
her. But the closest call she had was when a torpedo crossed her bow
as she was leaving Rio de Janeiro, missing by only a few yards (a distance
that gets closer with each retelling at WEST POINT crew reunions
While making 15 Pacific crossings and 41 on the Atlantic, the crew
often performed heavy maintenance and major repairs, tasks normally
only accomplished in port. A tribute to her crew - and her builders
- she never suffered a breakdown during this entire period of strenuous
In February of 1946, WEST POINT returned to her birthplace and was
decommissioned. Craftsmen at Newport News Shipbuilding performed a multi-million
dollar restoration befitting her dual peacetime role as Queen of the
American Merchant Marine and flagship of United States Lines. In November
of 1946, she emerged from the shipyard. A few improvements had been
made - such as adding radar to her navigation equipment and improving
her water purification capacity. However, any pre-war passenger would
have been hard-pressed to discover anything much different in her public
spaces or staterooms.
United States Lines spared no expense in replacing furniture, carpets
and decorations in strict conformance with her original specifications.
The shipbuilders of Newport News miraculously recreated her pre-war
beauty. Pierre Bourdelle meticulously restored her First Class Dining
Room murals to their original condition. The 26 lacquered Linoleum panels
that defined this majestic space were his crowning achievement as an
The only thing noticeably different externally in 1946 was the deletion
of her "neutrality" markings, no longer needed in peacetime,
and the addition of two small radar antennae to her foremast. Following
another set of sea trials, her captain declared: "She has been
tried and tested in war, and she is better than ever".
After sailing majestically into her homeport of New York harbour
in late 1946, AMERICA - at long last - made her maiden voyage to Europe.
And thus, her glory years commenced.
After the excitement of her maiden voyage was over, AMERICA settled
into a routine of transatlantic crossings, making 15-18 round trip voyages
a year. Her European port calls often included Bremerhaven. She was
a favorite of many voyagers who ascribed to the old adage - getting
there is half the fun - especially in the comfort and style that was
the SS AMERICA.
By the time her service with United States Lines ended in 1964, she
had completed 288 Atlantic crossings, steamed 2.8 million nautical miles
and carried over 500,000 peacetime passengers to their destinations.
She also served as the birthplace for two more children. A girl in 1951
and a boy in 1954 were both born, appropriately enough, in mid-ocean.
Annually, she returned to her birthplace for what were called "voyage
repairs". Her every arrival and departure was witnessed by hundreds
gathered on a nearby riverbank to watch her sail past - spouting great
clouds of steam from her baritone voice - her twin steam whistles mounted
high and inside each of her signature red, white and blue stacks.
Between 1946 and 1964, things changed significantly. In 1952 she
got a running mate - the famous SS UNITED STATES. For a time they both
prospered, providing weekly service between the United States and Europe.
But the late fifties / early sixties brought two disturbing changes
- increasing, costly and disruptive demands from the maritime unions
and the advent of transatlantic jet passenger service.
Getting there became but an expedient, and AMERICA became expendable.
In time, her yearly losses were counted in the millions of dollars.
The number of passengers declined and United States Lines resumed cruises
to the Caribbean in an attempt to keep her profitable. In 1960, her
three classes of passenger service were reduced to two; eliminating
Third Class entirely.
Finally, in 1964, she was sold to the Chandris Lines which held contracts
with the British Government to provide emigrant service from England
to Australia and New Zealand. Ironically, when sold, AMERICA was moored
at her Virginia birthplace - there for annual voyage repairs. She shared
a pier with an almost completed, giant aircraft carrier ... the USS
On a particularly bleak day in November of 1964, the Stars and Stripes
were lowered from her main mast, replaced by the Greek national flag.
The only change readily visible to the faithful few who watched her
leave Newport News - for what proved to be the very last time - was
a sad sight, indeed. Her famous, familiar, red, white and blue funnels
were drably covered over by dark blue paint with black caps ...
And thus, the newly named AUSTRALIS - "The Australian Maiden"
- sailed away. When purchased by Chandris, she became the largest liner
in their fleet - in fact, in any Greek-flagged fleet. Before being placed
back in service, she received major modifications at Chandris’
Piraeus yards. Her passenger capacity was more than doubled; increased
to 2,300. Her superstructure was extended aft, an external swimming
pool was fitted further aft and she became completely air-conditioned.
her original "all-American" décor was largely left intact.
She became the largest one-class liner in the world. As the aptly-named
Australian Maiden commenced the first of what was to prove to be 62
round the world cruises between 1965 and 1977, the spirit of the immigrant
influenced nation of her origin was mirrored by thousands of people
seeking a new life in their new world "down under".
Typically, every three months, AUSTRALIS would sail from Southampton
to ports in Australia and New Zealand. Under a prized and heavily subsidized
migrant transportation contract, her passengers could pay as little
as ten Pounds each for their adventure - essentially
a carefree cruise more than halfway around
the world. At such attractive rates, she sailed at full capacity
more often than not, with whole families sharing four and six-berth
staterooms on the lower decks.
In times of tranquility, outbound trips included numerous stops in
the Mediterranean, capped by passage through the Suez Canal. In times
of international turmoil, AUSTRALIS would sail around the Cape of Good
Hope from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean, often calling in exotic
ports along the way.
Over time, her mainmast was removed and replaced by an ungainly-looking
stub mast affixed to her aft funnel. Sometime later still, a "stovepipe"
extension was added atop the ship´s after funnel to divert oily particles
entrained in boiler exhaust gases from being deposited in her outdoor
Her hull, at first painted white, was later changed to dove grey;
to help obscure her original black paint that kept stubbornly bleeding
After disembarking her excited passengers in various ports of their "brave
new world", the ship would carry passengers of opportunity (and
sometimes homesick people returning to England) across the Pacific -
retracing her wartime tracks. Return passages included exciting transits
of the Panama Canal and occasional visits to Port Everglades. It was
here that her wartime crew held a memorable reunion onboard "their"
ship in 1975, and happily showed families where they once bunked, ate
and stood watch.
But below decks, time seemingly stood still, frozen by what was then
probably the greatest collection of pre-WW II "American Moderne"
art and décor to be found anywhere in the world.
The décor of the cocktail lounge ceiling remained untouched - decorated
with animated cartoons seemingly right out of New Yorker magazine -
depicting life at sea in the 1930´s.
The ship’s original grand ballroom was enlarged but still retained
its original atmosphere; described in pre-war promotional literature
as being the vessel´s "most dramatic, gayest and sparkling space
of all". A magnificent "circus scene" mural dominated
the room´s forward bulkhead, behind the bandstand, adding just the right
touch of festivity and a bit of frivolity.
In 1970, AUSTRALIS suffered a major fire that started in the passenger
galley area while the ship was in transit between Auckland and Nuva
(see the report of a former passenger).
After the fire was surpressed, she limped into Fiji for temporary repairs
and discharged her passengers.
Although completely repaired, a couple of years later the Australian
Maiden lost her coveted contract as passenger jet service triumphed
over travel by sea again. She sailed from Southampton for Australia
the last time in November of 1977, thirteen years to the day from when
her service with Chandris was began. With hundreds of thousands more
nautical miles in her steaming log, and after carrying over 300,000
passengers; AUSTRALIS was laid up in New Zealand.
In early 1978, an American venture group that envisioned profiting
from the then-booming cruise-to-nowhere fad acquired her. Returning
to New York via the Panama Canal, she underwent hull and machinery inspection
in Bayonne, where marine surveyors were amazed at the excellent condition
of this 38 year-old ship.
Her new owners/promoters opted to rename her AMERICA, in hopes of
capitalizing on her former fame. But they came up woefully short with
cruise preparations, and after two disgraceful attempts at cruising,
her reputation as a cruise ship was badly damaged. Her owners declared
bankruptcy and in August of 1978, she suffered the indignity of being
arrested and auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Incredibly, Chandris became her next owner, paying several million
dollars less to reacquire her than they had received just a year before.
Sailed back to Greece, refurbished and renamed ITALIS, her forward "dummy"
funnel was removed, in part.
Chandris cut it off, saying it was rusted and dangerous, but also
it is believed they wanted to make her appear more like contemporary
cruise ships that only sported one funnel. But, because the base of
the forward stack housed the ship's emergency diesel generator, it was
kept, thus creating a curious-looking, tear-drop shaped room. Chandris
added insult to injury by placing the forward stack's steam whistle
(once enclosed, high in the stack) in an exposed position atop the stub.
Italian Lady", she made a few charter cruises in the Mediterranean,
but apparently was not profitable. In the Fall of 1979 Chandris rang
up "Finished with Engines" on her engine-order telegraph for
the last time. For 15 years, she languished at anchor in the harbour
of Piraeus, surrounded by other former liners whose useful years had
Her ownership changed three more times during that period of extended
anchorage. ITALIS was first renamed NOGA, then ALFERDOSS. But she never
sailed under any of those names. For years, rumors of various possible
new careers or scrapping went unrealized.
Then, suddenly, in late 1992, the future for the ship once again
appeared bright. She was acquired by a Thai company, with ambitious
plans to extensively renovate her as a floating, five star hotel. They
admired her original all-American décor and planned to retain it. Renamed
AMERICAN STAR and placed in a dry dock, a through inspection of her
hull indicated that she was fit for an open-ocean move to Thailand.
On Christmas Eve, 1993, she left Piraeus on what was planned to be a
But off the Canary Islands, the weather deteriorated and the towline
snapped. After several fruitless attempts to recover control of the
drifting, wind-driven and lifeless hulk, her life ended on January 18,
1994 when she was driven hard aground on the west coast of Fuerteventura
Pinned on a remote, rocky shore, and exposed to storm winds and raging
seas, her back was broken within 48 hours, almost dead amidships. Declared
a total loss, islanders haphazardly removed valuable fittings, teakwood
railings and decking, and her irreplaceable art and furniture. Eventually
her stern half rolled over and sank in deeper waters.
After more than twelve years of neglect and exposure, recognizable
portions of this once-proud Queen of the American Merchant Marine improbably
still remained in early 2006, still defying the elements.
deteriorating, ultimately what is left will someday be claimed by the
relentless sea. The Queen is dead.
Long after her physical being is but a distant and dimming image
- precious memories will endure. In museums, in private collections,
but most of all in many hearts of the hundreds of shipbuilders, thousands
of crewmembers in war and peace, and well over a million passengers
that knew her in happier days.
It was they who made her come alive, and, in so many ways it was
as the AMERICA - or the WEST POINT - or the AUSTRALIS - that she, in
turn, changed their lives forever ...
Born within sight of AMERICA´s shipbuilding cradle, Bill Lee attended
her 1939 launching ceremonies at the tender age of three. That inspiration,
coupled with a childhood of frequent visual and audible memories of
her - both as AMERICA and WEST POINT - created the basis for his virtually
life-long affection for this ship.
Bill entered her builder´s Apprentice School in 1954, just in time
to work briefly on the AMERICA a year later when she came to the shipyard
for repairs. On a number of occasions, he was present on a riverfront
bluff as the AMERICA came or went. And he was there in 1964 when she
sailed away - forever - to begin a new career as AUSTRALIS.
After a career in shipbuilding and other industrial enterprises,
Bill retired in 1998. Now living in the Charlotte, North Carolina area,
he likes to research and write about ships in general; and the AMERICA
in particular. In June 2005, a two-year effort that he instigated and
supported culminated in the dedication of the SS AMERICA Library onboard
a cruise ship named the Pride of America.
He continues to communicate with a growing number of people, worldwide,
of similar interests. These fellow enthusiasts, or 'Amerifans', as Bill
likes to collectively refer to them often call him AMERICA's Unofficial
Historian. Their numbers include a unique group, The USS WEST POINT
Reunion Association; composed of members of the ship's wartime crew.
In 2006, in appreciation of the numerous articles he has written
for their newsletter and other publications, Bill was named the association's
Official Historian. At their annual reunion in 2007, the Men of WEST
POINT further recognized Bill's efforts to keep the memory of their
ship alive by declaring him to be an honorary WEST POINT crewmember.
There is no higher honor for an Amerifan …
The reunion association started a new web site about the ship.
Bill Lee has contributed a number of ideas, articles, photos and
such to this project:
© 2007-2009 Text/Photographs Bill Lee
the Explorer Team
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