AMERICA's FIRST BORN
A True Son of Neptune
In early 1942, America had been officially at war for less than two months. But her newest, biggest and best ocean liner, the SS AMERICA, had been 'drafted' months before, and pressed into service to transport British Empire troops as part of the nation's Unlimited National Emergency program. Painted drab gray and renamed USS WEST POINT
(AP 23), she had just delivered British troop reinforcements to the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore. After being subjected to several air raids, she hurriedly loaded a precious cargo consisting largely of frightened civilians. On 30 January, WEST POINT spirited away almost two thousand souls from the clutches of the advancing Japanese.
As the war news filtered in, it was overwhelmingly bad for the Allies. Disasters and heavy losses were reported one after another, and the ominous fate of Singapore (and the troops disembarked there) became increasingly obvious. After a brief stop in Batavia, Java (now Djakarta, Indonesia), WEST POINT sailed again, slipping through Sunda Strait and avoiding any lurking enemy submarines.
Destined to unload her mostly British passengers at Columbo, Ceylon, the ship steamed further and further northwest, well into the Indian Ocean. Rainsqualls helped hide the former passenger liner from enemy aircraft. By Wednesday, 4 February, as the ship approached the equator, sailors started preparing for the expected arrival of King Neptune. Almost all on board AP 23 breathed a little easier.
But not one very pregnant civilian refugee/passenger, nor her anxious husband, as the first signs of labor became quite evident. Although the ship had a very modern and well-stocked sick bay, manned by members of the United States Navy's Medical Corps; no planner had foreseen the need to provide the ship's company with an obstetrician. But fate had. For another of the British refugees onboard was just what the proverbial doctor would have ordered - a baby doctor!
One can imagine the relief felt by expectant father Leslie Alfred Sheldrake when Surgeon Lieutenant Commander I. S. Robertson Bain, RNVR made his presence known. But perhaps not nearly as relieved as Edith Eastwood Sheldrake. Especially early that afternoon, when she gave birth to a baby boy almost exactly at the equator.
Shortly after Baby Sheldrake's arrival, he was measured (19-1/2 inches long) and weighed (7 pounds - 10 ounces)... on the bakeshop scales! And then he was anointed with a decidedly unusual first name, but one appropriate to and representative of the mobile site of his birth:
Westpoint Leslie Sheldrake
As word of this new arrival into a war-torn world was happily passed around the ship, enterprising crewmembers quickly turned to some unexpected tasks. In short order, they created a unique birth certificate, including all the pertinent data pertaining to the exact 'place' of birth.
Also devised was a certificate declaring the baby to be a true Son of Neptune (signed by none other than King Neptune 'himself'). The ship's company conducted a ceremony and gently initiated the juvenile pollywog into a heavenly shellback; further commemorating the geographical location of his birth. The crew also fashioned a baby-size life jacket, which was presented to his parents.
On 5 February 1942, the WEST POINT's daily typewritten and mimeographed news - called Pointer's Pup - announced the blessed event at the top of page one under an eye-catching, tongue-in-cheek headline: Stowaway Discovered.
Further, as reported in the ship's weekly newspaper, The Pointer, on 7 February 1942: A Service Record has been opened for this new recruit, and he is therefore a full-fledged member of the crew. Amongst other things, this 'Official' USN Service Record indicated acceptance for enlistment 'onboard' for a period of 'many years'. Surely, this jacketed service record was official, for both the ship's Executive Officer and Medical Officer signed it.
It also indicated eye color (blue-grey), hair color (light brown) and complexion (light). But for some reason, perhaps a clerical oversight, the recruit's signature was not recorded. However, the date of transfer for Seaman Recruit Sheldrake, USN was recorded (6 February 1942), which is probably another record - for brevity of service. But there is no indication that he was paid off properly...
Over three decades later, Norman Merklee, a member of the ship's company wrote to him and recalled: I was in the gun crew on the port side of the forward stack and remember very well when the word was passed around that a baby boy had been born.
John A. Genes also wrote to him in the 1970's, commenting: I was aboard the WEST POINT when you were born. At the time of your birth I was a printer aboard the ship and printed your certificate of birth. I remember how happy our crew was to know you were named after our ship. I also remember Captain Kelly announcing that you, as an American citizen, had become the youngest member of our ship.
When the Sheldrake family disembarked in Colombo, the crew showered Mrs. Sheldrake with their final gifts - their collective heartfelt best wishes plus an engraved silver cup and spoon. Several months later, 'Baby' Sheldrake and proud parents posed with these treasured gifts.
And so, AMERICA's first born left his unlikely birthplace. But that is only the beginning of the story...
Before proceeding, perhaps we should go back a bit and learn why Edith and Leslie Sheldrake were in such a precarious position when WEST POINT sailed into their lives. Edith Kate Eastwood was born in Brighton, Sussex. Leslie Alfred Sheldrake was born in London, became an electrical engineer, and soon there after accepted a Government Service technical position at HM Dockyard, Portsmouth. It was here, or in nearby Brighton, where he met his bride-to-be. They were married on Boxing Day (December 26th) in 1936.
In 1938, Leslie was offered a similar position at the Singapore Naval Base, and the young couple embarked on the adventure of their lives - but one far more exciting (and dangerous) than they had bargained for originally. Comfortably ensconced in a bungalow near the naval base in Singapore, they learned that their previous home in Portsmouth (which was heavily bombed by the Germans in 1940) had been completely destroyed, along with all the personal possessions they had left behind. At the time, they were safe in the Far East, remote from the dangers of 'blitzes' and the Battle of Britain. Or so they thought... as they went about the business of making a home and planning for a family. In late 1942, upon her eventual return to Great Britain, Edith Sheldrake recounted:
When my husband had a job offered him four years ago, she said, We thought we would take a venture. Out we went to Singapore, and got there in a month. Everything went very well, and the life, although altogether different from the life we had lived over here, was very nice. When war broke out in Europe things there (in Singapore) altered just a little, but not very much. Then the Japs came...
They arrived on December 8, and then, my word, we knew it! It went on for six weeks and there wasn't much work done - it was awful: life and death all the time, as it were. The planes came over every morning at 8:30, more or less, and we had some night raids as well. Day after day the 'blitzing' went on. We were near the naval base, which was of course a target all the time. I could have gone to Australia, but I preferred to stick by my husband.
Then arrangements were made for us to sail on an American ship, the Westpoint (sic). Two days before we sailed a lone plane came over and dropped all its bombs on the bungalow next door. Everything there was completely smashed, and the roof came on us and fell right into our house. However, we survived all right and came out alive, and slept in the shelter all that night. Next day my husband came home and said we were going. We had six hours in which to get out.
Of course, we were terribly rushed, but we collected the few belongings we knew we should take with us - we made a bundle of baby clothes and things in a curtain - and leaving everything else behind us we went off in the car (a small Morris).
We left that car at the dockside, and we were glad to hear afterwards that the Army commandeered it and that it was the means of saving the lives of at least six people. When it had done its work they pushed it into the sea. We came away in the American liner, and four days afterwards the baby was born.
When the WEST POINT arrived in Columbo on 6 February 1942, Mrs. Sheldrake and tiny Westpoint were the very first to go ashore. For five months, the Sheldrake family - now numbering three - two Britons and one American national (by birth) remained in Ceylon.
While there, the baby Sheldrake was baptized at Christ Church, Columbo on 29 June 1942. At that point, he officially became Peter Westpoint Leslie Sheldrake.
The addition of the Christian name of Peter apparently was due to some family influence; albeit from far away and in writing. Evidence to that effect is provided in a cabled message dated 26 March 1942. Edith's sister Amy (who referred to herself in a later telegram as 'Godmother Auntie Amy') asked what appears to be a leading question in the stilted and abbreviated wording used then in costly telegrams - and obviously in reaction to prior notice of Westpoint's birth (and unusual given name):
WHAT'S BABYS REAL NAME
So little Westpoint became known as Peter, thereby confusing historians some six decades later. But that's jumping far ahead. After his baptism in 1942, Peter's life continued to be
one of travel. By September of 1942, the Sheldrake trio had made their way back to Great Britain. They crossed India in a four-day train ride that left the baby covered with sand, but his mother reported he remained a good chap in spite of it. At Bombay, they boarded a British liner and shortly thereafter, the by then much-traveled Son of Neptune - barely seven months old at the time - collected his second Equator Crossing Certificate. Oddly, although he had been christened Peter less than two months earlier, that certificate was also issued in the name of Westpoint Leslie Sheldrake...
But the name Peter was to move to the forefront thereafter, and in deference to the memory of Godmother Auntie Amy, we shall refer to him as such hereinafter.
His ultimate arrival in Great Britain resulted in reporters making the Westpoint - WEST POINT feature dominant in their stories. In one or two news articles, his true first name was mentioned, but just briefly. The Sheldrakes lived for a time in Edith's family home in Brighton, having been made homeless twice over by the Axis. Master Sheldrake, age seven months,
received reporters there while sleeping in his pram, so it was left to his mother to report: He's had a life of adventure already, hasn't he? It's been all traveling, but he's stood everything quite well and he's gained quite a lot of weight since we got back home.
The British newspapers made much of the fact that he was born on an American warship and thus claimed under United States law as an American citizen - which he remained until 13 summers had passed. At that point, to confirm his citizenship he would have had to take up residence in America. He did not, but by then, Peter had accumulated some further travels - and the first of two reunions with his birthplace.
His father's work took the family to Malta in 1949, where Peter attended a Maltese public school, then a British Army one and ultimately a British Naval school for children. They returned to the UK in 1952; his father to a succession of jobs in Government Service in different locations.
Sometime in 1954, his parents, upon reflecting on their WEST POINT experiences, thoughtfully contacted United States Lines to inquire if their son could perhaps visit his birthplace - at that time sailing regularly in transatlantic passenger service as the refurbished and revitalized SS AMERICA. The steamship line immediately realized the mutual appeal of such a visit. Not only did they arrange for a reunion of boy and birthplace, they held a unique dinner party for Peter in the ship's first class dining room on 20 December 1954.
What a wonderful experience - and early Christmas present - for a boy of twelve. It started out with a battery of reporters and photographers who greeted Peter (although they persisted in referring to him as Westpoint) when he arrived, for he was 'hot news' that evening. As the ship's officers and crewmembers welcomed him onboard, another person - very familiar to his parents, but only a name heretofore to Peter - stepped forward.
It was none other than I. S. Robertson Bain - the doctor who delivered Peter into the world on 4 February 1942! In practice in London as a gynecologist in 1954, Doctor Bain had maintained a correspondence with Leslie Sheldrake and the steamship line thoughtfully included him in the festivities that evening.
For AMERICA's first born, it was all smashing. The 'special dinner' menu (in honor of Westpoint Leslie Sheldrake) for that evening featured some signature courses - Consommé Westpoint and Baked Alaska en Surprise Sheldrake.
A number of crewmembers that shared in the excitement autographed a menu for Peter - including the AMERICA's Executive Officer at that time - Leroy Alexanderson (destined to be later be her Captain, and eventually the last skipper of the UNITED STATES and a Commodore of United States Lines).
Doctor Bain also autographed the menu, wishing Peter a 'bon voyage' for the rest of his already adventurous life.
After dinner, a tour of the ship ensued, and his parents valiantly - but vainly - tried to identify the specific cabin in which he was born, but to no avail; they simply could not remember its number.
That small disappointment faded quickly when, upon returning to the dining room, the chef presented Peter with a large cake, inscribed - in icing - Christmas Wishes to Westpoint Leslie Sheldrake.
After a ceremonial cake cutting, with still more photographs taken to mark the occasion, Peter watched his parents dance part of the night away in the ship's exquisite ballroom during the bon voyage period that traditionally precedes a luxury liner's departure.
The end of that wonderful evening came - appropriately - at midnight, when the Sheldrake family watched from pier side as the liner sailed to America. It was the last time Peter was privileged to visit his birthplace in her all-American finery.
In 1956 the family moved far to the north - to Cockermouth where his father was employed at a nearby NATO base. By late 1958, Peter had attended a total of 13 different primary and secondary schools. That same year, he started an apprenticeship with Workington Iron and Steel Co. (later to become British Steel). He spent five years there in various departments, including the design office. He also spent six months on temporary assignment with Salzgitter Steel in what was then West Germany. In 1963, at the end of his apprenticeship, Peter was awarded a full technical certificate.
And then, oh so briefly, he contemplated a return to the sea: Shortly after finishing my apprenticeship I was chasing all sorts of vacancies for 'junior engineer' on either tankers or cargo ships. Had a couple of offers (one was with P&O) but I never took up the challenge of a merchant navy career.
Quite likely, one reason for making that decision was seeing the picture of an attractive young lady - Irene Woodburn - on the cover of the Christmas, 1961 issue of the Company's monthly bulletin. Peter, in the finest tradition of his US Navy Seaman Recruit status, quickly contrived to boldly meet her, perhaps by 'accident' when she worked the telephone switchboard in relief.
On 11 June 1966, they married. The next year, they moved to nearby Carlisle, where in 1971 their first daughter, Sarah Louise was born (inland and nowhere near the ocean... or the equator).
A second daughter, Nicola Ann, arrived in 1974. Certainly, if asked, Peter would list those three events as some of the most significant in his life. Perhaps not as important to him, but of considerable nostalgia nonetheless, was a third and final visit to his birthplace, a few years later.
Harold B. Vos, President of the WEST POINT Reunion Association, had written to Leslie Sheldrake in May of 1971, seeking information about the ship's youngest shipmate to share at a crew reunion held later that year. In a later exchange of correspondance, Hal suggested that Peter try to visit the ship again - by then sailing regularly between Great Britain and Australia/New Zealand as the AUSTRALIS.
Thus encouraged, Peter contacted the Chandris Lines, and in 1975 he received an 'open' invitation to visit the ship whenever she was in Southampton. This invitation was thoughtfully followed up in early November of 1977 by a very specific - and special - invitation; to attend a Farewell Luncheon on the occasion of the commencement of AUSTRALIS' last voyage.
Realizing that this might well be his final opportunity to see his birthplace again, Peter quickly rearranged his work and personal schedules so as to attend that event - held just days later - on 17 November 1977. Peter and his wife Irene asked her parents to care for their two young daughters and then motored down from Carlisle to Southampton.
Unfortunately, his father, Leslie Sheldrake was unable to attend on such short notice. And, sadly, his mother, Edith Sheldrake had previously passed away four years prior. Devoted husband Leslie subsequently joined her in 1984.
As Peter remembers it, his final visit was one of mixed feelings: It was a very interesting visit, I was even able to get down to the engine room and most other places, including the bridge and the sick bay, where I am sure my Mother would have spent some time. I must say the old ship was at that time looking very tired. Compared to my earlier visit, when she was still owned by U.S. Lines.
Lunch that day, as indicated by the unpretentious menu Peter kept as a souvenir, was fairly modest; fewer courses and choices when compared with the elaborate meals routinely offered in AMERICA's heyday.
Chandris did rise to the historic occasion, producing a special handout for the final sailing; commemorating and chronicling the three wonderful careers of the ship - as AMERICA, WEST POINT and AUSTRALIS.
Chandris Lines also had a pleasant surprise in store for Peter. A couple then living in Southampton, Mr. and Mrs. Rattle, who had escaped from Singapore in 1942 in WEST POINT, also had been invited and attended the farewell luncheon.
Pictured below, left to right: the Rattles, a representative of Chandris (British) Limited, and Irene and Peter Sheldrake.
Copies of brochures used to promote travel in AUSTRALIS were also passed out to the guests. One of those pamphlets included information about five scheduled sailings in 1978 that never materialized. But the many illustrations included in those documents, both external and internal, clearly showed her timeless beauty. So much of her original artwork and décor, restored in 1946, was still in ample evidence in 1977.
And then, on a typical November day in Southampton - where they had been reunited in 1954 - they parted;
AMERICA's first born (whose given name once was Westpoint) and 'his' ship birthplace (whose name once was WEST POINT as well).
Two decades later, Peter and his family vacationed in the Canary Islands - not knowing that the remains of his birthplace languished on the rocks of a nearby, albeit remote beach. Perhaps it is best he did not see her that last possible time...
Finding the first child born in this famous vessel (eventually there would be three) proved difficult as initial searches in the year 2000 for Westpoint Leslie Sheldrake were unsuccessful. But, two years later, Ken Johnson of the WEST POINT Reunion Association provided a copy of a letter received by that group in 1971. Clearly from the person in question, but signed 'Peter W. L. Sheldrake', it included a Carlisle, UK address. With those clues in hand, finding Peter's current address was a matter of but moments exploring the UK white pages on the Internet.
Now, having attained the age of 60, Peter recently proudly displayed his treasured, like-new gifts from the crew of AP 23.
Peter is the Technical Director for Keytor Engineering, a part of Carrs of Carlisle. His business is involved with the design of machinery for the human food sector and the animal feed industry. Thus, Peter makes it possible for people world-wide to enjoy Carrs famous table-water biscuits, amongst other products.
Peter's pleasures over the years have included camping and caravanning about the UK and Europe. In the 1980's he took up jogging and since that time has participated in many half and five full Marathons.
His technical interests (and, perhaps, a prenatal influence from the engines of WEST POINT) led him to build (over four-years) this 1/3 scale, working model of a 1909 Garrett general-purpose steam-driven tractor.
Already testing by running on compressed air, it is almost ready to be run on steam. Many of the parts for this is a scaled-down replica of a machine once widely used in UK agriculture were handmade by Peter.
Peter and Irene have seen their daughters grow into beautiful young women and marry. Sarah, the eldest, completed a four-year degree course at Bradford University in Modern Languages and speaks French, German, Italian and some Dutch. She married Richard Hird; a school chum from her youth in Carlisle.
Before they married in December of 1997, (while on holiday in America), he attended Dartmouth Naval College and served in the Royal Navy, attaining the rank of Second Lieutenant. Sarah and Richard live near London and both work in the computer industry at present. They now have two children; Caspar, nearly four, and Gavarnie, who is two.
Youngest daughter Nicola obtained a office diploma at the local college, worked as a solicitors' firm receptionist; then became a medical laboratory assistant in the Carlisle Health Authority's Hematology Department. After a long courtship with Chris Ward, who owns a care sales garage, Nicola married in a more traditional manner in June of 2001.
And so, the Westpoint/WEST POINT story ends. Well, not quite...
It seems that Sarah was fascinated by the story of her father's original first name, and never tired in her pre-teen years of hearing her grandfather Leslie tell of his many travels and adventures.
Shortly after the birth of their son Caspar on 13 January 1999, Sarah and Richard decided to add two names, honoring both of the baby's grandfathers. Richard's father is named Colin Peter, so the singular addition of Peter to the newborn's name served an appropriate dual purpose.
As for the other name they chose to bestow, you ask?
Well, as you might have surmised by now, it's
Caspar Peter Westpoint Hird
Great-grand parents Edith and Leslie - looking down from above - undoubtedly are quite pleased.