The Liners: Queens of the Merchant Fleet

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SS America menu cover

Private collection

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SS America model by Robert Stewart

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USS West Point in war paint, arriving

at New York loaded with troops

Courtesy of Dover Publications

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SS Washington, with neutrality

markings on her hull

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SS Washington model by Robert Stewart

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Swedish-American Line's Gripsholm,

famous for repatriating diplomats, missionaries

and other non-combatants to the U.S. 

     Though fewer in number compared to the huge fleet of cargo ships, the passenger liners of the U.S., Canada, and the European Allies shed their glamorous trappings to serve in the war effort, not as carriers of equipment and supplies but as transporters of precious human cargo: soldiers and airmen on their way to battle.  Graduates of Fort Trumbull and the nation's other maritime training programs would have served aboard them, as well as aboard the fleet of new, purpose-built government troopships.

     America, the new flagship of United States Lines, the largest passenger ship built in this country until the United States went into service in 1952, was requisitioned for war service in 1941. She had been christened by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on August 31, 1939, the day before the Nazi invasion of Poland. By 1941, the red, white and blue of her funnels had disappeared under gray paint as she was converted to the troopship USS West Point.  Between 1941 and 1946 she steamed tens of thousands of miles carrying hundreds of thousands of troops and non-combatants to and from locations around the world.  

     Until the America went into service the Washington and her sister, Manhattan, were the nation's largest passenger ships. During the period of American neutrality, prior to Pearl Harbor, they wore prominent flags and markings on their flanks to ward off targeting by German U-Boats, but soon they too were called to duty, painted gray, and served admirably.  

     Note: Models of America and Washington made by the late Robert Stewart are displayed in McGuire Library together with twelve other American and British Merchant Marine vessels. 

     Engaged in the South America trade, Grace Line's Santa Rosa and her three Santa sisters were called to duty, their wartime voyages taking them far from their usual routes.  Most passenger liners survived the war, but among the losses were two of the Santa sisters, torpedoed off the coast of Algeria. Grace Line was known to Fort Trumbull students: its patriotic notices, and those of other shipping lines, appeared regularly in Trumbullog.

    When Mussolini's Italy attacked France in 1940, the glamorous Italian liner Conte Grande was seized at the Brazilian port of Santos and sold to the U.S. Navy for conversion to the troopship USS Monticello. Another beautiful Italian liner, Conte Biancamano, interned in Panama when war broke out, was confiscated and became the USS Hermitage.

     A 1944 issue of Trumbullog reported that, after months of salvage work following a tragic, preventable, fire at her New York pier in 1942, the French liner Normandie could not be converted to the troopship USS Lafayette as planned and her hull was ignominiously scrapped in 1946. According to an article in Mast Magazine, galley and food service equipment removed from the Normandie found its way to the new mess hall at Fort Trumbull.

     Trumbullog for June 29, 1945, announced that the German liner Europa had been seized in May, in Bremerhaven, to be overhauled as a troopship carrying American soldiers back home after the war.  Later she was given to France as war reparation, renamed Liberte as the new flagship of the French Line.

      Many less well-known passenger ships also performed war duties, but with the possible exception of the America, the liners most firmly held in public consciousness were the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth of Britain's Cunard Line, the largest, fastest, most famous ships in the world. While their officers and crew were British, during the war they operated under American authority. Able to carry more than 15,000 troops at a time, their extraordinary service was said to have shortened the duration of the war.