SS American Victory: History of a WW2 Cargo Ship

She is not glamorous to look at–just a big boxy grey ship with cranes sticking out everywhere. But the USS American Victory, and her 500 sister ships, were absolutely vital to winning the Second World War.

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The SS American Victory, docked in Tampa Bay as a floating museum.

The Victory ships, and their earlier counterparts the Liberty ships, were the centerpiece of one of the most desperate struggles in the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic. After the failure of the German Luftwaffe to establish air superiority in the Battle of Britain, an invasion of England was impossible, but, as an island, Britain was still vulnerable to the Nazis. Since nearly all of England’s food supplies, raw materials, and military equipment came from North America and had to cross the Atlantic, a systematic German attempt to cut off this flow of shipping, through “commerce raiding” using submarines would cut off the vital supplies and choke England into surrender. From 1940 to 1942, called “The Happy Times” by submarine crews, German U-boats ran rampant from their bases in France to the waters off Africa, Canada, the Caribbean, and, after the US entered the war, the American East Coast, sinking enormous amounts of shipping.

In response, the Allies had to be able to produce enough cargo ships to keep delivering vital supplies to England–and build them faster than the German U-Boats could sink them. The result was the “Liberty ship”.

The Liberty ships were a perfect marriage of British sea experience and American industrial might. Designed in England, the Liberty ships were intended to be cheap, easily and quickly produced, and disposable–built to last only five years. They were made from prefabricated steel sub-assemblies that were welded together instead of riveted, in most cases by quickly-trained women shipyard workers who had replaced the men who were off fighting the war. Liberty ships were 441 feet long with a displacement of 14,500 tons, and could move almost 11,000 tons of cargo. Although they carried a single 4-inch deck gun (to defend against submarines) and a number of machine guns (to defend against aircraft), the Liberty ship’s primary protection was the screen of American and British destroyers that escorted the supply convoys. They had only one mission–deliver as many supplies to England as possible to keep them in the war.

By 1942, Liberty ships were being produced in 18 shipyards in the US. The first ships took an average of 240 days to build. As methods were improved and shortcuts were found, this shrank to 40 days, then to 25. In a publicity stunt to promote war bonds, one shipyard completed the hull of the USS Robert E Peary in just 5 days. By 1943, the US was launching an average of three Liberty ships every day. In all, some 2700 Liberty ships were built during the war.

The Liberty ships did what they were supposed to do.  Despite heavy losses, especially in the first part of the war, the merchant convoys kept England supplied. The Battle of the Atlantic was won. (But at an enormous price—the proportion of merchant seamen killed in the war was over twice as high as that of the US Marines in combat in the Pacific, and the seamen, being civilians, did not receive any veteran’s benefits.)

But the Liberty ships had some enormous problems. They suffered from a design flaw that left the middle of the ship relatively weak, and it was not unusual for them to break in half in rough seas. By 1943, the US had designed a stronger and faster cargo ship to replace the Liberty ship. It was known as the “Victory ship”.

The Victory ships were 455 feet long, with a displacement of 15,200 tons–slightly larger than the Liberty ship. They carried a 5-inch gun at the stern and a 3-inch gun at the bow, and eight 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Like the Liberty ships, they were welded together from prefabricated sub-assemblies–it took an average of 55 days. With their more powerful engines, the Victory ship could make 15 knots, compared to the Liberty ship’s 10 knots. There was also an “attack transport” version built, which had more guns and could carry 1500 troops and small landing craft to put them ashore.

The first Victory ship launched in January 1944. In the last years of the war, 414 Victory cargo ships were built, and 117 attack transports. Because the German U-Boat threat had virtually disappeared by 1944, only two Victory ships were sunk by submarines, and three were sunk in the Pacific by Japanese kamikazes.

The Victory cargo ship USS American Victory (named after American University in Washington DC) was built in Los Angeles and launched in May 1945. During the last months of the war,American Victory delivered cargo from California to Southeast Asia. After the war ended, she was used to ferry troops in the Pacific home to the US, then carried supplies to Europe under the Marshall Plan.

In 1963, American Victory was selected by the Navy to be converted into a “forward depot”, loaded with supplies and stationed in areas where they might be needed, but the program was cancelled before any work could be done on her. In 1966, she was assigned instead to the Military Sealift Command, and was used to ferry troops, cargo, and supplies to South Vietnam until 1969, when she was deactivated and placed into storage in Virginia. In 1985 she was restored as an experiment (to see how much effort would be needed to reactivate mothballed ships), and after one voyage was placed back into storage. In 1998, she was scheduled to be scrapped, but was purchased by a group of private citizens (the “American Victory Ship and Museum”) and towed to Tampa Bay in October 1999, where she is now maintained as a floating museum. The ship has been restored to seaworthy condition, and twice a year makes a memorial cruise into the Gulf of Mexico.

American Victory is one of only three remaining Victory ships–the other two are in California.

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