Saturday, August 28, 2010

USS Caswell (AKA-72)

Generic Tolland-Class AKA
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The USS Caswell (AKA-72) was a Tolland-class attack cargo ship (AKA) built in 1944 by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington, North Carolina (keel laid 25 August 1944). The North Carolina Shipbuilding Company was created as part of an emergency shipbuilding program in the early days of World War II. The company built 243 ships, beginning with the Liberty ship SS Zebulon B. Vance, and including 54 ships of the US Navy. Most of the latter were attack cargo ships (AKA), amphibious force flagships (AGC), and ammunition ships (AE).

North Carolina Shipbuilding Company
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The USS Caswell was named in honor of Caswell County, North Carolina. Sponsored by Mrs. W. H. Williamson, the 459-foot ship was launched 24 October 1944, and acquired by the U.S. Navy 27 November 1944. When the USS Caswell was commissioned on 13 December 1944, Lieutenant Commander P. M. Diffley, USNR, was in command. Mrs. W. H. Williamson was Bertha May Fowler Williamson (1886-1952), wife of Walter Headon Williamson (1878-1947) of Caswell County's Locust Hill community.1




 



At bottom right of these two photos:

Launching of U.S.S. Caswell Oct 24th 1944
N.C. Shipbl'g Co., Wilmington, N.C.
MC 1402 Bld'rs 147

Lady Seated (or just short): Mrs. Walter Headon Williamson (1886-1952)
Lady Third from Left: Pattie Griffin Gunn (1895-1956)
 


Launching of U.S.S. Caswell Oct 24th 1944










 





















USS Caswell Crew
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Like all AKAs, Caswell was designed to carry military cargo and landing craft, and to use the latter to land weapons, supplies, and Marines on enemy shores during amphibious operations. She carried substantial armament, twenty-two smaller craft, and a crew of 395 (officers 62, enlisted 333), Even with her impressive cargo capacity of 5,275 tons, the Caswell could steam at almost seventeen knots, being propelled by a 6,000 horse-power General Electric geared single-propeller turbine drive. Range was 17,000 miles.

Escorted by the USS Maurice J. Manuel (DE-351, a John C. Butler-class destroyer escort), the USS Caswell cleared Bayonne, New Jersey, on 16 January 1945, headed for the Panama Canal and Guadalcanal. She arrived in Quadalcanal on 14 February 1945. Several weeks of training preceded her departure combat-loaded for the Okinawa beaches. Sailing with the Northern Attack Force, Caswell arrived for the initial landings on 1 April 1945, and remained off the beaches for the next week, landing cargo to support the 6th Marines in their rapid advance across the Motobu Peninsula. The skillful work of her men made an important contribution to this success, and she cleared Okinawa on 9 April 1945 for overhaul and replenishment at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands.

Returning to the U.S. West Coast, Caswell loaded cargo for Okinawa, where she arrived on 5 August 1945 to begin a series of cargo and troop movements throughout the Far East, calling at ports in the Philippines, China, and Japan until 7 December 1945, when she cleared Sasebo for San Diego. Between 23 February and 2 May 1946, Caswell carried cargo from San Francisco to China.

For her wartime duties the Caswell received the following: one battle star (World War II); American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; and Navy Occupation Service Medal (with Asia clasp).

USS Virgo (AKA-20)
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While the ship used to film the movie Mr. Roberts was a commercial fishing boat, the story was based upon an actual Andromeda class attack cargo ship named the USS Virgo (AKA-20) (http://www.uss-virgo.com/). Thomas Heggen served on board the Virgo and wrote the novel Mr. Roberts. Heggen based his novel on his experiences aboard the USS Virgo and the USS Rotanin (AK-108) in the South Pacific during World War II, and began the book as a collection of short stories. It was subsequently adapted as a play, a feature film, a television series, and a television movie. Although not filmed aboard an actual AKA, scenes from Mr. Roberts will give a feel for duty aboard the USS Caswell during the war.

USS Caswell Decommissioned
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As World War II officially ended September 2, 1945, with Japan's formal surrender, some of these vessels no longer were needed and were decommissioned. After sailing to Norfolk, Virginia, the Caswell was decommissioned on 19 June 1946. However, Caswell was returned to the Maritime Commission two days later. Those ships under Maritime Commission were intended to be chartered (leased) to U.S. shipping companies for their use in the foreign seagoing trades. The ships were also intended to serve as a reserve naval auxiliary force in the event of armed conflict, which was a duty the U.S. Merchant fleet had often filled throughout the years since the Revolutionary War.

USS Caswell Decommissioned
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The Merchant Ship Sales Act of 1946 was enacted to sell off a large portion of the ships built during the war to commercial buyers, both domestic and foreign. This facilitated the rebuilding of the fleets of both allied nations such as Great Britain, Norway and Greece, which had lost a majority of their prewar vessels to the Battles of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. Although not sold outright to the nations the United States had only so recently fought, U.S. merchant ship helped nations which had been our enemies recover their merchant shipping capacity (such as Japan which had lost many hundreds of its merchant vessels to the US Navy's WWII submarine offensive in the western Pacific).

SS Southwind
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What was done with the Caswell immediately after being decommissioned in 1946 is not known. However, her sea-going duties were far from over. On 23 June 1947, the USS Caswell was sold to the South Atlantic SS Line and renamed the SS Southwind. Presumably, the Southwind carried freight on an international basis. Here is a photograph of the ex-Caswell (AKA-72) (left in the photograph) in commercial service as the South Atlantic SS Line freighter SS Southwind working cargo at Bremen, Germany circa late-1947/early-1948. The ship to the right is the United States Lines C-2 type freighter SS Rattler being towed to her berth. The photograph is from a Bremen City promotion brochure distributed in the mid-Sixties. No photographs have been found of the USS Caswell in naval garb.

There is some evidence that the SS Southwind participated in the Korean War in connection with the embarkation of the 1st Marine Division as part of the Inchon-Seoul Operation. The loading began on 8 August 1950 and was completed by the 22d. The following 19 ships were employed to "mount out" the main body of the 1st Marine Division: Lst 845; two APAs, the USS Noble and USS President Jackson; five APs, the USNS General Buckner, USNS General Weigel, USS Marine Phoenix, USNS General Meigs and USS General Butner; and ten AKs, the SS Dolly Thurman, SS Green Bay Victory, SS Noonday, SS African Patriot, SS Twin Falls Victory, SS Southwind, SS American Press, SS American Victory, SS Alma Victory, and SS Belgian Victory. Presumably, the SS Southwind sailed to Korea. No record has been found of further involvement in that war.

SS American Surveyor
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The SS Southwind (ex-Caswell) was sold in 1955 to the United States Lines. Now seventeen years old, on 18 May 1961, she was renamed SS American Surveyor. She apparently continued in commercial service during the 1955-1961 period. See the photograph to the left: ex-Caswell (AKA-72), ex-SS Southwind, in commercial service as SS American Surveyor underway ( location and date unknown). The photographer apparently was British ship photograph collector Alex Duncan (deceased). Note the shortened masts, which enabled her to pass beneath the bridges on the way to the ports of Manchester, U.K.

The next episode in the life of the USS Caswell, now the SS American Surveyor (ex-Southwind), involved the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missle Crisis, and international diplomacy and intrigue. On May 18, 1963, the US Coast Guard Cutter Androscoggin escorted the SS American Surveyor from Havana, Cuba, to Everglades, Florida [probably Port Everglades, Florida]. What (and under the authority of whom) the SS American Surveyor was doing in Havana, Cuba in 1963 is not known for certain. However, it appears that the vessel was involved in the shipment of goods to Cuba in connection with the release of men captured during the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation. Lead negotiator, James B. Donovan, attorney for the Cuban Families Committee for the Liberation of the Bay of Pigs Prisoners of War, Inc., and the American Red Cross, were the main actors in this effort to free 2,506 prisoners.

Shipping donated to the American Red Cross by the Committee of American Steamship Lines (bold not in original):

S.S. African Pilot
S.S. Shirley Lykes
S.S. Santo Cerro
S.S. Priamos
S.S. Copan
S.S. American Surveyor
S.S. Morning Light
S.S. Maximus

Exports to Cuba
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We know that the SS American Surveyor (ex-Caswell, ex-Southwind) made at least two trips to Cuba carrying material as part of the agreement reached to free the Bay of Pigs prisoners. One was 17 April 1963, when she sailed from New York loaded with 8,499 short tons of goods valued at $3.2 million. The second was 8 May 1963, when she sailed from Philadelphia loaded with 7,352 short tons of goods valued at $7.5 million. Some of these freighters, including the SS American Surveyor (ex-Caswell, ex-Southwind), had transported freed prisoners on the return trip to the United States. The following is from the front page of The Miami News (18 May 1963): "The S.S. American Surveyor under escort by the U.S.S. Androscoggin, arrived in Port Everglades, Florida with 759 Cuban refugees."

The unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba took place in April 1961, with the negotiations for release of the prisoners transpiring during the Cuban Missle Crisis (October 1962). Thus, the old ex-Caswell was operating during a time of tense international relations.

On 7 June 1963, the SS American Surveyor was returned to the Maritime Administration for lay up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet, James River Group, Lee Hall, Virginia. Some ships assigned to the Natinal Defense Reserve Fleet saw action in the Vietnam War (1961-1975). No record was found indicating that the SS American Surveyor participated in that conflict.

The end of the USS Caswell's active life came 10 August 1973, when she, now the SS American Surveyor, was sold to Northern Metal Company for "non-transportation use." She was scrapped in 1974.
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USS Caswell References

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships: Caswell
HullNumber.Com: USS Caswell
Mr. Roberts
Naval History: USS Caswell
NavSource Online: Amphibious Photo Archive: USS Caswell (AKA-72)
United States Navy Memorial: Navy Log 
USS Virgo (AKA-20)
Visual Wikipedia: USS Caswell (AKA-72)
Wikipedia Article: USS Caswell (AKA-72)


North Carolina Shipbuilding Company References

Citizendium Article: North Carolina Shipbuilding Company
North Carolina Ship Building Company, Wilmington, North Carolina
North Carolina Ship Building: Wilmington, North Carolina
Wikipedia Article: North Carolina Shipbuilding Company
Ralph Scott. The Wilmington Shipyard: Welding a Fleet for Victory in World War II (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2007).
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1Note the following from The Sonarman's War: A Memoir of Submarine Chasing and Mine Sweeping in World War II, H. G. Jones (2010) at 157: "My furlough [November 1944] coincided with big news in the local paper--the launching of the USS Caswell (AKA-72) at the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington. Mrs. Walter Williamson, a leading light in Locust Hill Methodist Church, christened the attack cargo ship that, unknown at the time, would participate in the invasion of Okinawa the following April and operate in the vicinity of the two minesweepers on which I would serve during 1945. . . ."
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2 comments:

  1. One of the many ships that are never really mentioned in war, but the ones that carry it in their backs.

    Also, representative of the massive war effort on the home front.

    Thanks for doing a great history of it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I appreciate the article on the SS Southwind . My father use to talk about the Southwind. He sailed on her for many years as Chief Mate and I have his log books when he sailed during the Korean War. Thanks again Kevin Parker

    ReplyDelete