The Ship That Would Not Die

Sorry for the short notice, but Saturday afternoon, October 29, Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Professor Steve Curley will give a presentation and book signing for his new history of the school’s original training ship, Texas Clipper. The volume, written with an afterword by Dale Shively, covers the ship’s remarkable history, first as a World War II attack transport, then her postwar career as one of the American Export Lines’ “Four Aces.”

“Over and over I sensed that this ship had touched lives and left an indelible groove in memories,” Stephen Curley, TAMUG English regents professor, said.

Curley worked eight years to write “The Ship That Would Not Die: USS Queens, SS Excambion and USTS Texas Clipper.”

“For me, the story is mostly the story of people rather than a technical story about a ship and its rivets,” he said. It’s the details that the people who sailed on her told me.”

The ship was transferred to the new Texas Maritime Academy for use as a training ship in the 1960s. My father was an English instructor on Texas Clipper‘s summer training cruise in 1973, visiting the Azores and Mediterranean ports, as well as witnessing a full solar eclipse. It was sad to see her retired some twenty years or so later.

The presentation and book signing will be held at Rosenberg Library, 2310 Sealy St., in Galveston from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Image: Stephen Curley, English regents professor, talks about the Texas Clipper, Texas A&M University at Galveston’s original training ship. Curley will speak about the Texas Clipper and sign copies of “The Ship That Would Not Die” Saturday at the Rosenberg Library. Photo by Kevin M. Cox, Galveston County Daily News.

Four Lakes/V. A. Fogg, Part 2

Part 1 here.

Four Lakes-01
Postwar image of
Four Lakes, from the Old Ship Picture Gallery.

The Four Lakes sailed in ballast from Liverpool on May 28, 1944, as part of unescorted convoy UC 024. The following morning, in the North Channel, the Liverpool group was joined by additional escorted vessels from Belfast and Glasgow, making a combined westbound convoy of 50 merchantmen and six escorts. Early that evening, as the convoy entered the Atlantic, the lookouts reported hearing depth charges. The lookouts reported more gunfire and depth charges over the next half hour.

The next several days passed without incident. On June 4, the convoy was joined by a smaller escort carrier group. Three days later, just before 1:00 p.m., the lookout reported depth charges and one of the escorts ahead was seen to be flying a black signal pennant. The suspected submarine contact must have been very close ahead of the convoy, for only four minutes after the first depth charges exploded, the convoy commodore ordered a 45° emergency turn to starboard, followed by another 45° turn to starboard two minutes later. The convoy turned back to its original course a few minutes later and stood down from General Quarters, but throughout the rest of the afternoon there were more alerts, depth charge attacks and emergency course changes. The escorts’ attacks were inconclusive.

A track chart of Four Lakes‘ World War II voyages, reconstructed from reports of the Naval Armed Guard on board. Between early 1944 and late 1945, Four Lakes circumnavigated the globe from west to east. Some routes (e.g., Liverpool-New York) represent multiple voyages. Tracks shown are approximate, and may not reflect the ship’s actual course. Full size version on Flickr, here.

The Four Lakes passed the Ambrose Lightship off New York just after midnight on June 9, 1944. She later dropped down the coast to Norfolk, Virginia, where she took on a cargo of gasoline, diesel fuel and aircraft. She sailed on July 1 in a convoy of 24 merchantmen and 10 escorts. The convoy steamed eastward for the Mediterranean without incident until the evening of July 9, when lookouts reported seeing two white flares ahead of the convoy. This was the signal that a ship had been torpedoed, and the Armed Guard of the Four Lakes went to General Quarters. There were no depth charges heard, though, and when no report of the supposed torpedoing came from the commodore, the Armed Guard dismissed after several tense minutes of waiting (both literally and figuratively) “in the dark.”

The Four Lakes was routed to Casablanca, on the Moroccan coast, and with three other merchantmen departed the convoy late in the afternoon of July 11. The ships were escorted by three Free French warships. The tanker anchored at Casablanca early on July 12 and began discharging her part of her cargo. Two days later she was moved to a dock, where cranes were used to offload the aircraft she had carried as deck cargo. That evening, July 14, she sailed with one British and one Free French escort for Gibraltar. She arrived there shortly after noon the following day, and was tied up at the coaling wharf, where she discharged the remaining fuel cargo in her tanks. Port officials came aboard at 2:00 and immediately placed the ship under a 10- day quarantine, keeping the crew from going ashore because their last port of call, Casablanca, was suspected to have active cases of bubonic plague.

The Four Lakes sailed alone on the evening of July 24, with water ballast in her tanks. In the Straits of Gibraltar she sighted her assigned westbound convoy. She joined up with the convoy shortly before midnight, bringing the strength of the convoy up to 16 merchantmen and eight escorts. The passage across the Atlantic was without incident, and on August 2 the convoy split into two sections bound for different ports. The Four Lakes was assigned to the New York section, and anchored in the harbor there on August 3, 1944.

The Four Lakes sailed again on August 11 for Great Britain. She was part of Convoy CU 035 of 52 merchantmen and 14 escorts. She again carried diesel oil in her tanks and military aircraft on deck. The convoy was routed close to the Azores, and so was under Allied air protection for most of the way across the Atlantic. The escorts depth-charged several suspected submarine contacts, but without clear results. The convoy arrived at Swansea, in Wales, on August 22, 1944.

The Four Lakes returned to New York with Convoy UC 035, and sailed again for Britain on September 12 in Convoy CU039. She carried gasoline and miscellaneous deck cargo. The convoy of 44 merchantmen and 16 escorts steamed east at an average speed of 14 knots. On the afternoon of September 21, as the convoy neared the entrance to the Irish Sea, about a third of the merchantmen and half the escorts detached themselves from the convoy, reformed, and continued eastward for Cherbourg. The remaining vessels turned northward and continued on to Avonmouth, England, a small seaport near Bristol, arriving on September 22, 1944.

On September 26, she sailed in ballast to Milford Haven, where the routine briefing for the upcoming eastbound convoy, UC 039A, was held the following day. The briefing customarily included both the masters and Armed Guard Officers of the merchantmen in the convoy. The notice for this particular conference, however, had been delivered with the line instructing Armed Guard Officers to attend marked through in red pencil. The officer commanding the Armed Guard aboard the Four Lakes, Lieutenant Joseph H. Elcock, Jr., USNR, went to the meeting anyway. Elcock was told that while Armed Guard officers were always welcome, they had not been asked to come since the conference dealt primarily with navigation, not gunnery, and also because the additional officers attending would put too much strain on the transportation available to take them from their ships to the conference and back. In his report of the incident, Elcock noted dryly that it was “rather late for an Armed Guard officer to have to establish his right to attend the masters’ sailing conference.”

The convoy passed without incident, and the Four Lakes arrived at New York on October 8. With the U-boat threat in the Atlantic decreasing steadily, an increasing amount of the Armed Guards’ time was taken up in drills and training. But neither the Navy nor the shipping companies chartering the vessels provided the necessary resources to made this training effective. Lt. Elcock, for example, found that aboard the Four Lakes there was no quiet compartment available where he could conduct classes or give his men a place to study for examinations required for promotion to the next rate. He had to share his own cabin with another officer, and recommended that in the future Armed Guard officers be assigned their own cabins, which could double as classrooms for the gunners. Later Elcock complained about the lack of live-firing practice available for his men. On several Atlantic crossings in a row, the Four Lakes was assigned a position near the center of the convoy (standard practice with tankers and munitions vessels), and as a result her gunners were not allowed to fire their weapons for fear of striking another ship. Even when the Armed Guard could safely discharge its weapons, the Navy’s ammunition allowance did not provide enough ammunition for regular, realistic practice. A full year’s ammunition allowance for a 20-mm antiaircraft gun, Elcock pointed out, would be fired away in just 48 seconds.

At New York the Four Lakes took on a load of gasoline and deck cargo, and sailed in convoy for Naples, Italy, on October 14. The 16 merchantmen from New York were joined the next day by four from Norfolk and one from Bermuda. The combined convoy, escorted by six warships, continued on the Straits of Gibraltar, after which it began shrinking steadily as merchantmen and escorts broke off to proceed to various ports. Four merchantmen continued on to Naples, arriving there on October 28. While in Naples, Armed Guard gunners received mail forwarded from the United States, the first time the ship had a “mail call” while in a foreign port.

To be continued. . . .

Texas Clipper: Last Port of Call

A new, two-part documentary on the history of the famous school ship Texas Clipper and the process to turn her into an artificial reef is scheduled to air in March on PBS. One segment of the second installment of the documentary, focusing on the ship’s use as a reef, discusses the problems created when Texas Clipper rolled over as she sank, putting her on the bottom on her side rather than upright:

The second segment, “An Ocean Oasis,” focuses on the ship’s current state. It also details one contentious aspect of the Clipper’s relative success. After ten years of planning, the Clipper unintentionally sank on its side.

Though the Clipper remains an attractive fishing and diving spot, where divers can explore the explosive underwater world that’s been created on the ship’s “living skin,” officials say it would have been more successful had it landed upright, as they had hoped.

“We’d like to pull the ship upright,” Shively said, “but this 10-year endeavor was a $4 million project. Just to pull it over would cost five to six million.”

So why is it so important to lift the hulking vessel into an upright position?

First, if the ship were upright, more of it would be in a part of the water where’s there’s more light. There, both deep-water fish and mid-depth fish could make the ship their home. Second, the ship was designed as a tourist attraction for divers. There would be more places to explore and openings to access if the ship were in its planned position.

Check your local listings for airtimes in your region.

Texas Clipper being “reefed” in November 2007.

– Andy Hall

The Four Lives of a Ghost Ship

USS QueensThe Texas Clipper was commissioned by the US Navy as the USS Queens (APA-103) in December 1944.  During World War II (WWII), she was used as a troop transport ship into the South Pacific and as a floating hospital and transport after the battles in Iwo Jima. Before being decommissioned in 1946, the Queen was also part of an American occupation in Japan.

In 1948, the Clipper’s name was changed to the S.S. Excambion; and from 1948 to 1959, she served as one of the post-war four aces for the American Export Lines. The original Four Aces were ocean liners that routinely crossed the Atlantic to various ports in the Mediterranean. But when WWII broke out, these ships were sold to the US Navy and converted to troop transports. Unfortunately, three of these ships sank in battle including the original S.S. Excambion. To replace the lost vessel, the American Export Lines purchased the USS Queens and quickly converted her to a cruise liner to continue their business abroad.
SS Excambion
Once her service with the American Export line ran its course, the S.S. Excambion lay at anchorage in the Hudson River Ready Reserve Fleet for seven year.  It was not until 1965 when the next phase of her life was determined when the federal government lent the Excambion to the Texas Maritime Academy.  Once at the Academy she was renamed the U.S.T.S. Texas Clipper; and from 1965 to 1996 she spent summers at sea providing an educational experience to hundreds of student.

Finally, after more than 30 years of service with the Texas Maritime Academy, she was placed on reserve mooring at the port of Beaumont in Texas.  For 2 years her future was undecided but in 1998 the final phase of her life was resolved.  She was to be given to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to use in their Artificial Reef Program.  She was to offer 76,000 ft2 of hard surface to enhance the growth of marine organisms and an underwater ecosystem that would include barnacles, oysters, mussels, moss animals, sponges, and various forms of corals. Her high vertical profile would also attracts many fish species such as Atlantic spadefish, red snapper, barracuda, almaco jack, cobia, and various sharks.
The Reefing
Texas Clipper on its way to South Texas
The Texas Clipper was reefed on November 17, 2007, 17 miles off South Padre Island.  The location of the site was selected because of the depth it could provide above her highest most feature and because it would offer clear water for divers most of the year.  The reef site is located in federal waters in the western portion of the Gulf of Mexico. The ship was placed at a depth of 134 ft giving it a minimum depth of 62 ft.

While at anchorage in Beaumont, the ship had to undergo considerable hull modifications to ensure she met the depth clearance requirements, while also retaining as much of the ship’s original external features as possible. Modifications were also made to ensure divers could make limited penetration through large openings to better provide for their safety. Once the modifications were made and all pollutes removed, the ship was towed to south Texas and eventually the reefing site in November 07.

The plan was to flood the Texas Clipper in a way to make her bottom heavy which would sink the vessel in an upright position. Unfortunately, as she sank, she filled with water in such a way as to make her port side heavier causing her to land on her port side instead of her keel.  If she had stayed upright, her upper most structure would have been relatively shallow at about 50 ft.  Because she is on her port side she is just a little deeper at around 62 ft.  This is still shallow enough for recreational divers but just a little more disorienting than planned.

Plaque on the Texas Clipper
- Layne Hedrick