A Tale of Two Anniversaries

Being celebrated this year by the USS WEST POINT Reunion Association

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the commissioning of the USS WEST POINT (AP-23), as well as the 60th anniversary of her decommissioning. Originally conceived and constructed as the SS AMERICA, her design wisely incorporated what were vaguely termed 'certain defense features' to better enable her to safely transport troops in time of war.

Completed in June of 1940, AMERICA's promising civilian career was interrupted less than a year later. In response to President Roosevelt's specific request, she was hastily converted from being the nation's largest and finest luxury liner vessel to become a navy transport.

On June 15, 1941, almost six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was commissioned alongside a pier at the shipyard that was her birthplace.

Her new crew, mostly naval reservists from the New England states, were also hastily assigned; some of who crossed Hampton Roads from the Norfolk Navy Base standing on a windy and rocking barge.

The WEST POINT's commissioning event is tersely described in the ship's very first entry in its Official USN Log Book:

Later that same day, WEST POINT backed away from her pier and sailed off to serve her nation. It would be 56-1/2 months of arduous duty later for the ship and her crew before she returned to the Newport News shipyard.

Between 15 June 1941 and 28 February 1946, the USS WEST POINT (AP 23) sailed 436,144 nautical miles, and transported over 500,000 souls to their destinations all over the world. During that period of time, she never lost a single passenger to hostile action.

WEST POINT had the largest capacity of any USN troopship in service during World War II. On one voyage, she carried over 9,000 people (including the ship's company of 785). Affectionately called The Grey Ghost by her faithful crew, she crossed the Pacific 15 times and the Atlantic 41 times, almost always sailing alone and depending on her speed and maneuverability to avoid the enemy.

On the last day of February 1946 she returned to her birthplace.

Following a brief ceremony, AP-23 was placed out of commission at 1346 hours and entrusted to the care of her builders.

Ten months and several million dollars later, she had been restored to near-original condition; ready to resume her peacetime role as the Queen of the American Merchant Marine and United States Lines' flagship. When she left Newport News in November of 1946, she was - once again

- the largest and finest American passenger vessel afloat - she was AMERICA.

Her navy crew also returned to civilian life. Decades later, they still remember her. Their ranks are noticeably thinning, but these veterans gather almost every year to reminisce. One of the most poignant parts of any USS WEST POINT Reunion Association gathering is when they pause to honor the memory of their departed shipmates and 'their' ship. In September of this year, in Colorado Springs, that observation will include recognition of what may be a one-of-a-kind record for the United States Navy.

The WEST POINT's career started and ended at Newport News, where she was designed and built. Normally, such events are held at USN facilities, but very seldom at the same location. These signal events in the service career of the USS WEST POINT represent a unique set of circumstances - for it is believed that she is the only United States naval vessel to have ever been commissioned and decommissioned at its civilian birthplace.

Bill Lee

July 2006

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