Farewell to the Troopship (2024)

The last remaining AP-type troopship to operate in the United States, the USNS Upshur (T-AP 198)—most recently retired as the State of Maine and assigned to Maine Maritime Academy (MMA)—represented the last vestige of heavy troop sealift from ships built expressly for this critical purpose.1

The March 1973 issue of Sealift magazine prophesied: “The chapter is finished, the book is closed, the era of the troopship is over. With the return of the USNS Barrett and Upshur from the Far East to the United States in March, Military Sealift Command ended almost 23 years of troopship operation.” Fortunately for these troopships— and for their beneficiaries—a short breath of life remained; the last three active transports were not retired but put to sea as training vessels. Since then, however, the USNS Geiger (T-AP-197), renamed the Patriot State and assigned to Massachusetts Maritime Academy, suffered an engine room fire and was replaced by the former Grace/Prudential passenger cargo liner Santa Mercedes. And the Barrett (T-AP-196), renamed the Empire State and assigned to the State University of New York Maritime College, has been replaced by the former freighter Mormactide. (The two replacement vessels are currently classified as APs, but they received that designation only when converted to training vessels.)

The last voyage of the Upshur was a turning point in U.S. maritime history, because AP-type transports have made such significant contributions to overall deployment mobility of U.S. forces.

World War II provided the impetus to design and construct expansive AP ship types. The largest were 11 “Gen- eral”-class vessels, with a length overall of 622 feet, a top speed of 19 knots, and a capacity of more than 5,500 troops. One reference cites the General-class vessel as a “super troopship.”2

Slightly shorter in length at 609 feet, eight “Admiral”- class vessels were constructed having a top speed of 19 knots and a capacity of about 4,500 troops. The Navy controlled these two classes during World War II, but initially, Coast Guard personnel manned several of the ships.

The most prolific class of the large transports was the C4-S-A1 and -A3 variants, with lengths of 522 feet, top speeds of 17 knots, and capacities for about 3,000 to 3,800 troops. A combined total of 45 ships of the A variants were constructed. Eight C4-S-B2 transports had the same general characteristics as the A variants but had a smaller capacity—about 2,400 troops. Some 30 A1 variants were constructed for the Navy and named after Army generals. For the War Shipping Administration, 15 A3 and 8 B2 variants were built and manned by civilian mariners provided by contracted steamship companies. These ships generally had names with the prefix “Marine.” The C4-class vessels presented an unusual profile, because their funnels were placed aft and they resembled tankers.

With trooplift capacities ranging between 2,500 and 5,500, the APs were the capital ships of our fighting forces ashore. Some APs used during World War II were converted from ocean liners, and a few of them had higher trooplift capacities than the General and Admiral classes. For example, the SS America operated as the USS West Point (AP-23) and could carry 8,000 troops. A number of troop-carrying ships were built on freighter hulls (specifically, the C3, C2, Victory, and Liberty types), generally had a capacity of 1,000 to 2,000 troops, and mostly were classified as APAs—attack transports.

The newest APs were the three previously mentioned Barrett class—Barrett, Geiger, and Upshur—built in 1951. They were originally intended to be around-the-world cargo/passenger liners for American President Lines, but the Navy acquired them while they were under construction and ordered them completed as APs because of the outbreak of the Korean Conflict.

The Generals, Admirals, and C4s began arriving in 1943, but the C4 program was not completed until after V-J Day. Obviously, World War II kept the transports extremely busy. For example, the General W. A. Mann (T-AP-112) steamed more than 186,000 miles and transported almost 100,000 passengers during her wartime service.3

During World War II, transports made many unescorted trips through dangerous waters. Steaming independently, the General John Pope (T-AP-110) was diverted from her intended track when the convoy ahead was attacked by a wolfpack that sank several ships.4 As with any fighting ship, constant vigilance was an absolute requirement for the AP crews, because these ships were prime targets.

By the end of the war, more than 90 APs were in service and could transport more than 300,000 troops. This number includes ships constructed as APs as well as former passenger liners. Of course, these were the days before jet transport aircraft. Consequently, this period saw the most extensive use of troop sealift in history. After the war many transports were deactivated, but some of the General, Admiral, C4, C3, and C2 vessels were used to carry on normal troop and dependent rotational requirements that accompany deployments of large forces overseas.

As a part of these rotational services, liner service ran across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Generals and Admirals commonly steamed these routes; the C4s, being the jacks of all trades, were assigned to augment the liner services and any other sealift requirements. But that era is now over.

The retirement of the Upshur symbolically ended the strategy of using Navy vessels for heavy point-to-point troop sealift. The U.S. strategy now is to rely on airlift for heavy troop deployment. At this juncture in our naval downsizing, does history have a lesson? Will airports of sufficient capacity always be available to land our reinforcement troops when and where they are needed in distant lands? Only the next crisis will tell.

The AP Troopships: A Chronology 1945-1973

On her maiden voyage, the Pope transported an over-capacity load of 6,283 troops from Newport News, Virginia, to Greenock, Scotland.

In her first 20 months’ service, the Mitchell completed five transatlantic voyages, four transpacific voyages, and one Atlantic-Pacific voyage; sealifted 80,900 troops; steamed 165,000 miles. The Burner steamed 166,952 miles and carried 74,134 troops in her first 21 months, at an average speed of 18.5 knots. The Meigs steamed 129,017 miles and carried 50,537 passengers in her first 16 months’ service.

June 1945

The Sultan steamed from Le Havre to New York, carrying 5,026 troops; many were repatriated military prisoners.

September 1945

Among many ships redeploying troops from the European Theater to the Pacific Theater, the Buckner, Mitchell, Pope, Randall, and Sultan transported 20,000 troops.

September-December 1945

The Randall made two voyages to Yokohama from the U.S. West Coast, carrying Japanese repatriates and members of the Japanese diplomatic corps and returning U.S. servicemen as a part of the “Magic Carpet” Operation.

1946

United States Lines chartered four C4-S-A3 vessels to accommodate postwar sealift needs that included transporting of war brides, immigrants, displaced persons, and U.S. students to Britain and Europe. This service continued through to 1949 and in all, eight vessels were chartered with a maximum of seven operated at one time.

September 1946

Given special diplomatic clearance, and while under charter to American President Lines, the Gordon was the first U.S. ship to enter Shanghai after the communist takeover of China. She evacuated 1,441 U.S., British, and Jewish refugees.

October 1949

The Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) was established with the transfer of 92 ships from the Naval Transportation Service; interservice transfers of Army ships followed; all military APs came under MSTS control.

1949-1950

The Walker, continuously serving the Okinawa U.S. West Coast route, was affectionately called “The Okinawa Express.” The Gordon made another trip to Shanghai to bring out refugees, but while she waited outside the harbor, the Chinese communists refused to allow some 2,000 nationals of the United States and other nations to depart. The Gordon departed without them. Her next voyage, to the port of Tientsin, successfully evacuated all U.S. consular officials from North China.

July 1950

The Ainsworth and the Shanks participated in landings at Pohang, Korea, supporting the defense of the Pusan perimeter.

September 1950

Inchon, Korea: Eight MSTS transports participated in various aspects of the amphibious landing, including the attack force, and the second- and third-echelon movements.

October 1950

Wonson, Korea: The Marine Phoenix supported the landing of 22,000 Marines.

December 1950

Hungnam, Korea: Nine MSTS vessels and many other ships evacuated Marines who fought their way out of the trap at the Chosin Reservoir. In just 17 days, 105,000 troops, 91,000 civilians, 17,500 vehicles, and 350,000 tons of supplies were evacuated by ships of all types.

May 1951

Three MSTS troopships steamed to Europe with the 4th Infantry Division to join NATO forces.

October 1951

The first of 2,500 aliens from Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Russia arrived in New York on board the Rose.

Mid-1952

The Walker steamed 35,000 miles in less that three months, transporting United Nations forces of Colombian, Greek, Turkish, and Dutch troops to Korea.

1953

The Walker made eight transpacific round trips and had the distinction of bringing home the first U.S. prisoners of war from Korea. Six of every seven people who went to Korea went by sea.

February 1955

During Operation “Passage to Freedom,” the Howez arrived at Saigon, bringing the total of North Vietnamese refugees sealifted to 200,000 by shipping of all types.

November 1955

In Operation “Gyroscope,” the simultaneous overseas rotation of entire Army divisions and their dependents, MSTS vessels transported 44,000 passengers between New York and Bremerhaven.

1957

Four MSTS transports brought Hungarian refugees from Bremerhaven to the United States.

March 1961

The Eltinge delivered 100,000 pounds of dried milk to the Congo.

December 1961

MSTS troopships sealifted 29,182 troops to Europe during the first three months of the Berlin Crisis.

October 1962

The Upshur evacuated 1,725 dependents from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

August 1963

The Blatchford, the “Ambassador Ship,” returned home after 2-1/2 years in support of United Nations Congo operations. She had steamed 174,014 miles and transported about 34,000 Indian, Malayan, Indonesian, and other U.N. troops.

March 1965

The Mann transported the first segment of a 2,000-man Republic of Korea unit to Vietnam.

July-December 1965

Nineteen MSTS transports supported the troop buildup in Vietnam. Transatlantic APs were redeployed to the Pacific.

July-December 1966

Sixteen MSTS transports supported the second surge of the Vietnam troop buildup. The Patch and Darby completed the longest trooplift in U.S. military history—Boston to Vung Tau— 12,358 miles. Between 1965 and 1966, two out of every three fighting men in Vietnam arrived by sea.

August 1966

Deployment of two Korean infantry divisions to Vietnam began. In total, 18,625 troops in four increments were transported. Korean troop rotation service began between Pusan and Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Nha Trang. This service required the continuous assignment of the Barrett, Geiger, and Upshur. The Barrett made last MSTS trip carrying dependents, arriving in Oakland on 15 August.

June 1971

With a large Red Cross banner hung athwartships, the Upshur departed Da Nang with 13 (of 570 eligible) sick and wounded North Vietnamese prisoners of war for repatriation to their homeland. Midway through the voyage, the North Vietnamese canceled the mission, and the Upshur returned to Da Nang, where the 13 POWs debarked.

January 1973

The Barrett and Upshur made the last Korea- Vietnam trip, ending seven years of shuttle service. This ended troop sealift by APs built for that purpose. During the Vietnam era, the transports traveled more than 2.5 million nautical miles and transported more than a half-mil- lion troops.

Farewell to the Troopship (2024)

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