AMERICA'S Brief Consideration as an Auxiliary Fleet Carrier

Aircraft Carrier Designation AVG-4 Once Provisionally Assigned to the SS AMERICA

During the 1930's, there was much interest in the possibility of converting fast passenger liners to serve as aircraft carriers in wartime. Extensive studies were carried out on the feasibility of converting liners to what the navy called auxiliary carriers (to distinguish them from front-line carriers designed and built for combat). Liners that exhibited the greatest potential (e.g., size, speed, sufficient compartmentation, etc.) were identified and preliminary plans for their potential conversions were secretly drawn up by the United States Navy. After World War II erupted in Europe in 1939, four ships were identified as the prime candidates for such work, and were allocated aircraft carrier designations.

The brand-new liner SS AMERICA was one of these vessels, and was provisionally assigned the designation AVG-4 by the Navy. The other liners thus identified were the MANHATTAN, WASHINGTON and KUNGSHOLM (a Swedish liner that had been interned in the United States).

Preliminary BuShips' design studies envisioned removal of these ships' funnels, masts, upper superstructure, etc., and the addition of a full-length flight deck and hangar. Had these proposed modifications actually taken place, these four ships undoubtedly would have been assigned different names. In the role of auxiliary fleet carrier it's unlikely that the AMERICA would have been named WEST POINT, as she was in 1941.

Furthermore, if she had survived the war as an aircraft carrier, it's doubtful that it would have been economically feasible to convert AMERICA back to passenger liner usage. However, it was ultimately decided early in 1941 that all of the liners under consideration for conversion to carriers would be better employed as much-needed troopships, and all four subsequently served in that role during World War II.

A number of much smaller and slower freighters were substituted for the liners in the Navy's auxiliary carrier program; followed by almost a hundred similar-sized, but purpose-built escort carriers. The very first ship in the AVG program, the USS LONG ISLAND (AVG-1) was converted from a merchant ship (SS MORMACMAIL) at Newport News Shipbuilding - AMERICA's birthplace. LONG ISLAND was commissioned at Newport News on 2 June 1941, and then steamed across Hampton Roads to the Norfolk Naval Station.

That same day the AMERICA, dropped off her passengers from a National Emergency-shortened Caribbean cruise in New York and steamed south to Newport News to undergo her own conversion. For all we know, they may have passed within sight of one another.

During that same period of time, other navies converted a few liners to become aircraft carriers. All of these vessels were smaller than AMERICA, and none made any substantial impact on the war effort. To provide some idea of what the AMERICA might have looked like as a carrier, the following images show the Italian liner ROMA, built in 1926, and a profile view of her intended conversion.

Renamed AQUILA (Italian for Eagle), her conversion proved to be more difficult than anticipated, and was never completed. After the war her damaged hulk was scrapped.

Although the SS AMERICA never became an aircraft carrier, another Newport News Shipbuilding product most certainly did. A supercarrier, CV-66, was designed and built there, and proudly bore the name AMERICA for her entire service career.

In 1964, while the SS AMERICA was at NNS for annual voyage repairs and on the eve of the completion of the USS AMERICA, these two great ships briefly shared a pier at Newport News. It was somewhat of a symbolic passing of the torch, as shortly thereafter the liner AMERICA was sold foreign and was renamed.

Bill Lee

December 2007

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