From the Very Beginning

23 Feb

This is the story of the U.S.S. Tryon. Although this incredible ship proved it’s mettle time and again during the dark days of World War II, the story doesn’t begin at the steamy tropical port of a lazy Pacific island somewhere south of the Equator. It really begins in a small shed, a summer kitchen, in the back yard of a modest brick home in the small town of Oberlin, Ohio, half a century before the Tryon was conceived of.


Today aluminum is among the most ubiquitous of metals. From household items, to beverage containers, to the cars, boats and planes we travel in, to the power lines that carry electricity to our homes – it is everywhere around us.

But it’s only been such for a relatively short period of time. Aluminum was first discovered around 1825, and for the first fifty or so years after it’s discovery it was quite rare. In 1852 the price of aluminum was $545 a pound; compare that with gold, which in that same year was selling for about $300 per pound. In 1855 bars of pure aluminum were shown next to the French Crown jewels at the Paris Exhibition. By all accounts it was a rare and exotic metal. In 1884, during the construction of the Washington Monument, it was decided to place a nine inch high aluminum pyramid atop the obelisk to serve as both ornament and lightning rod. The cap weighed about 100 ounces and cost $225, or about $4,000 in today’s dollars.(1)

Shortly after the Washington Monument was completed a young college student named Charles Martin Hall had a vision for developing a commercially viable process for extracting aluminum from aluminum ore, which is commonly called bauxite. Born in 1863, Hall studied chemistry at Oberlin College, where his chemistry professor told students that “fame and fortune awaited the man who would find an inexpensive way to separate the metal” from bauxite. After graduation from college Hall set about finding a method for economical extraction of aluminum from bauxite, using a summer kitchen attached to the back of the Hall home as his laboratory. On February 23, 1886, while still 22 years old, Hall succeeded in separating aluminum from raw materials(2).

Hall immediately sought a patent for his technique (which was granted in 1889), then began seeking investors to commercialize the process. Eventually he demonstrated his method to Captain Alfred E. Hunt, a well-known metallurgist in the steel industry in Pittsburgh, PA. Hunt was so impressed with Hall’s process that he gathered investors from among his associates, and and on October 1, 1888 the Pittsburgh Reduction Company company was incorporated. The name was later changed to the Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa. Capt. Hunt assumed the role of president of he fledgling company, and remained so until his death in 1899. His son, Roy A. Hunt, would become Alcoa’s president in 1928.(3) This fact was to have an “impact” on our subject, the Tryon, later.

The steady flow of bauxite ore is the mother’s milk of aluminum production. While bauxite is found in modest amounts in Arkansas, the U.S. does not have bauxite in large quantity – it is found in much more plentiful supply overseas. For the Alcoa company in the early part of the twentieth century, the most readily available bauxite for it’s North American plants came from the Caribbean, or West Indies, and South America. In the early years of the company they relied on foreign shipping to transport the ore to American ports; however, with the outbreak of World War I the dependability of foreign shipping diminished, and in 1917 Alcoa purchased it’s first steamship for hauling it’s own ore. The company continued to operate it’s own ships, under foreign flags, until 1940, when they consolidated the three shipping lines they had been operating into the Alcoa Steamship Company. From then until 1969 the company operated ships under U.S. flag.(4)

In 1939 war broke out in Europe, and available foreign-flag cargo vessels again disappeared from the charter market. The Alcoa Steamship Company was forced to order fourteen C1 cargo ships under the U.S. Maritime Commission’s construction program for operation under the U.S. flag. All were requisitioned by the War Shipping Administration for use in the war effort. In 1941 the Alcoa Steamship Company contracted for three more ships, this time C2 vessels. Initially laid down as Alcoa ships, they would ultimately become the Tryon, the Pinckney, and the Rixey.

The U.S. Maritime Commission

In the nearly 20 years following the end of the World War I, America’s merchant fleet was becoming obsolete and declining in numbers. So, too, were American shipyards.(5) Between 1922 and 1937, only two ocean going dry cargo freighters were produced in America (a few tankers and passenger ships were also built during this time). By 1936 there were only ten shipyards in the U.S. capable of building ocean-going vessels 400 feet or longer. These ten shipyards had a total of 46 shipways.( 6) The majority of ships in use by then had been built prior to 1920, as part of the large maritime construction program undertaken at the outbreak of World War I, and were no longer economically viable. The slump in shipping created by the depression had forced a large number of these vessels to be laid up, and had also caused a virtual stoppage of new construction. Over 91 percent of the ships in the U.S. merchant marine were approaching twenty years of age by 1936. In 1936 Congress, recognizing the deteriorating condition of the American merchant marine fleet, and with what Vice-Admiral Emory Land (second chairman of the U.S Maritime Commission) described as “seemingly prophetic foresight,” first authorized a long-range construction program. They did so by passing the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, which was signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 30, 1936. The shipbuilding achievement in the period leading up to, and including, World War II as a result of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 is without parallel in history.

Among it’s goals, the Merchant Marine act of 1936 created the United States Maritime Commission (MARCOM), an independent agency whose purposes was fourfold: First, to create shipyards capable of building a fleet of 500 modern fast merchant cargo ships over a ten year period, with the intention that these would be sold, chartered or leased to American companies for overseas trade. These ships were also intended to act as a reserve Naval auxiliary fleet in the event of armed conflict involving the U.S. As previously stated, at the time the law was enacted only ten shipyards remained in the U.S capable of building these ships. So shipyards had to be built. Second, to train shipyard workers – with the decline of the shipping industry in the period between the wars, the men who had once built ships had been forced out of their craft to other occupations. Some had died, or were too old; nearly all remaining lacked up-to-date skills for building modern ships. Training was a top priority. Third, to build ships – the initial mandate was fifty ships per year over ten years, for a total of 500 ships, but after the U.S. entered the War production was much greater. Fourth, to train and recruit merchant marine personnel.

Also, the Maritime Commission was to administer subsidy programs which would offset the differential in cost between both building ships in the U.S. and operating them under the U.S. flag, thus putting American shipbuilding and shipping on a more level playing field with their foreign counterparts. The first of these programs was called the “Construction-Differential Subsidy”. This called for shipyards to win contracts for the construction of ships by open bid, with the shipyard receiving only compensation for costs during the construction phase, then after completion selling the ship for a price, determined by MARCOM, equivalent to the cost of a similar ship built in a foreign shipyard. The difference between the contract price and the foreign price was paid to the shipyard as the construction-differential subsidy.

Similarly, the “Operating-Differential Subsidy” allowed for American ship owners to make application to MARCOM to subsidize the difference between their cost of operation under U.S. flag and the cost of using foreign-flag competition. This operating-differential subsidy was paid annually.


The first ships, fourteen in number, placed under contract in 1939 by Alcoa through the U.S. Maritime Commission were designated “C1” ships; the three ordered in 1941 that would later become the Tryon and her sister ships, were “C2” ships. A look at these designations is in order at this point.

Among the duties assigned to MARCOM by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 was the creation of standardized shipbuilding designs. These would allow the use of prefabricated and pre-assembled components so that the building process could be streamlined and costs minimized. MARCOM first drew up plans based on the type of ship and it’s size designation. Then, in 1937, these tentative designs were distributed for evalution and critique by shipbuilders, ship owners and naval architects. The final designs incorporated many changes suggested by these groups. The designs were for general purpose ships that could be modified for specific uses.

MARCOM used a design classification system, or design code, to individually identify each ship built under their program. The first letter in the design code indicated the type of ship being built – in the case of the ships contracted for by Alcoa, the “C” indicated cargo ships. There were a number of such ship-type designations; some of the more commonly built included “T”, the designation for tankers, “B” for barges, “P” for passenger ships, “V” for tugs, and so on. The number associated with the letter was the size code of the ship, “1” representing the smallest ships of each type, with numbers ranging up to “7” for some types. Cargo ships had designations of 1 to 4. C1 ships (11) were approximately 400 feet in length; C2 ships (12) were about 450 feet; C3 ships (13) were up to 500 feet in length; and C4 ships (14) were in excess of 500 feet. There were also 8 C5 ships built under MARCOM for Bethlehem Steel, but only one was completed before the end of the war. All were 560 feet long.

The code for a ship generally included additional symbols. For example, the design code for the Tryon was C2-S1-A1. The second set of symbols usually represented the propulsion system. “S” refers to a steam powered ship. An “M” designation indicated motor propulsion, “G” indicated a gas turbine engine, and so on. The number associated with the second letter generally indicated the number of propellers and number of passengers the ship was intended to carry. The letter alone represented single propeller, with fewer than 12 passengers. The letter and the code “1” meant one propeller, more than 12 passengers. Increasing numbers indicated increasing numbers of propellers. The Tryon Class ships were the only ships given the C2-S1 designation, and in this special case it was intended to indicate that the Tryon Class ships were steam propulsion C2 ships fitted with the more powerful C3 type engines. The effect of the more powerful engines in these ships was to increase the power from the 6,000 hp of standard C2-design ships to about 9,350 hp of the C3s. The third letter/number combination is simply a design number, indicating these ships were modified from the original MARCOM design.

So, I think the stage for our story is set! The Alcoa Company needs bauxite so they can make aluminum, and in order to get it in the quantity they need they are required to ship it from ports in the Caribbean and South America. In 1936 the U.S. Congress decided to become proactive in updating American shipping and shipbuilding, passing the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, intended to get American companies back in American-flag ships. They did this by providing subsidies for both building ships in U.S. shipyards and for operating those ships under U.S. flag. The initiation of hostilities in Europe led to a loss of available foreign-flag ships for Alcoa to use for bauxite transport, leading them to order their first ships from MARCOM. Incidentally, the fourteen C1 ships originally contracted for by the Alcoa company were all pressed into service by the War Shipping Administration (WSA). Recognizing the great need for aluminum in the war effort, the WSA provided Alcoa with decrepit World War I–vintage cargo ships to keep the flow of bauxite going. These ships were not immune to German U-boat aggression. Several ships operated by the Alcoa Steamship Company were lost to U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico during the course of the war, including the City of Birmingham and the Robert E. Lee. Four of the fourteen C1 ships were also lost.

Flag, Alcoa Steamship Company

Flag, Alcoa Steamship Company

In 1940 Alcoa consolidated the three shipping lines they had been operating in their Gulf of Mexico operations into the Alcoa Steamship Company. In an effort to increase voyage revenues and keep possible competitors away from it’s trade with South America, the company decided to expand it’s cargo services to include passenger travel. As early as 1936 the Alcoa Company had incorporated this strategy into their Aluminum Line Freighters. In 1941 the company ordered three cargo-passenger liners, but they were not yet completed when the U.S. Navy requisitioned them for World War II. These, as you might guess, were the Tryon Class ships. World War II put a temporary end to Alcoa SS Co. passenger travel – or more accurately, morphed it into carrying American workers to locations throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere. (At the end of the war, Alcoa did not want the three C2 ships back and preferred to take advantage of the Ships Sales Act to buy three unfinished Victory hulls for operation under the U.S. flag. Those three ships, named the Alcoa Cavalier, the Alcoa Clipper and the Alcoa Corsair, were completed with a new design that provided a swimming pool and other first-class facilities for ninety-eight passengers.(9) They continued to transport bauxite and passengers until 1960.)

From the collection of Björn Larsson,

The concept of cruising on a freighter seems rather odd today, but the Alcoa Steamship Company was successful in marketing this unique form of travel for over twenty years. After renewing passenger service on their bauxite freighters in 1946, it was continued into the early 1960s, when airline travel cut deeply into their passenger business. Here is the pitch from an Alcoa Steamship Company brochure from 1962:

“What’s it Like to Cruise on a Freighter? Most of us feel the lure of the sea – the song of the wind in the rigging, the quiet of a starlit night and the thrill of seeing new and exotic places. Few cruises capture this romance of the se os well as Alcoa’s Freigher cruises to the Caribbean.

Step aboard an Alcoa Friegher and you will know that this is a travel experience unlike any other you’ve tried. The officer and crew make you feel like one of the family, and you quickly make friends among

1962 brochure touting "what it's like to cruise on a freighter", and desciribing how "you feel a sense of pride, knowing that you are a part of an important advventure in international trade . . ."

your half-dozen or so fellow passengers. You watch with fascination the ship’s cargoes loaded with precision – and you feel a sense of pride, knowing that you are a part of an important advventure in international trade . . .

How are the accomodations? You’ll find these ships comfortable. The staterooms are large, outside and amidships. The beds are soft, the chairs made for sitting and the décor bright and cheerful. Some of the ships have lounges or small game rooms. On others the dining room becomes a passenger lounge between meals.

How about food and service? Meals served on these ships are well-prepared and hearty. (you dine with the ships’s officers.) Thre is some choice on each menu, but don’t expect to find the variety of foods and fancy dishes offered on a de luxe passenger ship. Menus on foreign flag vessels operated by Alcoa will include popular preferences of the country of registry.”

Interestingly, post- World War II brochures and advertisements for cruises aboard Alcoa Steamship Company freighters are still readily available on the internet, from sources like Ebay and Amazon.

When Alcoa contracted through MARCOM for the ship that would become the Tryon, such was the purpose for which it was intended.

In 1941 Alcoa contracted for the three C2-type ships from the Moore Dry Dock Company in Oakland, CA. They were intended for passenger travel on Alcoa Steamship Company freighters as described above. A departure from the standard (but readily modified) C2 design, they were to handle up to 102 passengers in luxury accommodations. Amenities were to include a swimming pool, beach, sports and sun decks, glass enclosed promenades and a lounge, two decks high, with tall windows facing the veranda deck. The ships were also to be fitted with cocktail lounges, a library, and passenger staterooms with private baths and showers. In addition, the ships were to have a total of 313,000 cu. ft. of cargo space, including a refrigerated hold. Large hatches into the lower holds, designed for bauxite shipping, were to facilitate rapid discharge and quick turnaround.

When the keels for these ships were initially laid down at Moore Dry Dock they carried the names Alcoa Courier, Alcoa Corsair and Alcoa Cruiser. Ships that were contracted through MARCOM were each assigned a U.S. Maritime Commission number as well as a hull number. These were specific for each ship built in U.S. shipyards through the Maritime Commission. In the case of these three sister ships, the numbers assigned were:

Alcoa Courier (Tryon) – USMC# 175; Hull# 201; Design Code Designator C2-S1-A1
Alcoa Corsair (Pinkney) – USMC# 176; Hull# 202; Design Code Designator C2-S1-A1
Alcoa Cruiser (Rixey) – USMC# 177; Hull# 203; Design Code Designator C2-S1- A1

The Alcoa Courier was laid down on March 26, 1941 and was launched October 21, 1941; the Alcoa Corsair on June 3, 1941 and was launched December 4, 1941; and the Alcoa Cruiser was laid down on August 6, 1941 and was launched December 30, 1941. None of these ships would be delivered to Alcoa.

“. . . December seventh, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy.” The event that spawned those immortal words would completely and permanently alter the purpose of the three Alcoa ships that were to become the Navy’s APH class. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the deteriorating political relationship between the United States and Japan immediately plunged into full-fledged war. The Tripartite Pact, signed initially by Germany, Japan and Italy, tied these countries together militarily, and four days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Hitler declared war on the U.S. World War II had begun.

As previously mentioned, part of the purpose of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 was to create a merchant marine fleet that would serve as a reserve Naval auxiliary fleet in the event of armed conflict involving the U.S. With the outbreak of war most of the ships under contract through MARCOM were requisitioned by the Navy for service as Naval vessels, and the three Alcoa ships at Moore Dry Dock were chosen to become the new evacuation transport (APH) class. But in fact, they had not been the Navy’s first choice for this purpose.

As early as October 10, 1941 the Bureau of Medicine recommended acquisition of a vessel that could be converted to an evacuation transport. The Auxiliary Vessels Board recommended that a ship from the President Harrison class be chosen and converted to this purpose. The ship used was to have adequate room for medical equipment and for the care of the sick and wounded. These were to be the governing considerations during conversion. Secondarily, all spaces not required for medical facilities were to be fitted for maximum accommodation of troops for the purose of transport. Thus, the ship could be utilized for the transporting of troops when it’s primary purpose of evacuation was not required.

The President Harrison class of ships were built in 1921, and had an overall length of 502 feet. They were not ideally suited for conversion to the APH-class – their construction included extensive use of wood, which was considered a fire hazard for a Naval ship. Examination of the ships in this class showed them to otherwise be in poor condition, and unsuitable for the purpose of conversion. They would later be used as troop transports and hospital ships, but were not suitable for conversion to APHs.(10)

In early 1942 the Auxiliary Vessels Board learned that the Maritime Commission hulls 175-177 had APH features already incorporated into their design, and by the end of May, 1942 had acquired all three. All were completed for the Navy under it’s Military Program. Not being considered hospital ships under the Geneva Convention, all were equipped with defensive armaments.

The Navy elected to name the APH ships after Surgeon-Generals of the Navy – APH-1 Tryon was named after Admiral James R. Tryon (b. September 24, 1837, d. March 20, 1912). After a Naval career as a medical officer beginning in 1863, he was named Surgeon General of the Navy on September 7, 1893, serving in this position until retiring from the Navy on September 24, 1899. APH-2 Pinkney was named after Medical Director Ninian Pinkney (b. June 7, 1811,d. December 15, 1877), who, as a medical officer, distinguished himself during the Civil War, was named Medical Director of the Navy On March 3, 1871 and retired from this position on June 7, 1873. APH-3 Rixey was named after Rear Admiral Presley M. Rixey (b. July 14, 1852, d. June 17, 1928), who served as Surgeon General of the Navy from February 15, 1902 until his retirement on February 3, 1910. He was the personal physician to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt during his career.

Even though the three Alcoa ships were requisitioned before they could be used as passenger freighters, they bore distinctive design characteristics from their original purpose that distinguished them from most other Naval vessels. These features included their sharply raked (inclined) masts, the graceful, gently curved clipper bow, the terraced midship deckhouse overhanging the hull and the oval solarium surrounding the small, conical funnel. Apparently the design of the funnel caused ongoing problems with proper dispersal of smoke away from the superstructure, and was reconfigured several times during the course of the war. This photo of the USS Tryon, taken on Sept. 19, 1942, about a month before it’s first voyage to the South Pacific, undoubtedly illustrates this vexing problem. At some point wind tunnel tests were done to seeking a solution – it’s unclear if the problem was ever fully resolved.

Thus was the Tryon, and her sister ships, born.

One final comment about the Alcoa Courier/U.S.S. Tryon – by tradition a ship’s sponsor is a prominent citizen, usually female, who is chosen to christen a new ship. In the christening ceremony this person will break a bottle of champagne on the ship’s bow, a bit of maritime superstition intended to bring good luck to the ship. Numerous sources on the internet indicate the the sponsor of the Alcoa Courier was “Mrs. Roy G. Hunt”. This may be correct; however, I have used several research tools to try to identify this person without finding anyone that fits. I believe it is HIGHLY probable that the sponsor for the Alcoa Courier was actually Mrs. Roy “A.” Hunt. This was the wife of then-president of Alcoa, Roy A. Hunt, son of the founding president. Mrs. Hunt, whose full name was Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt, earned some distinction on her own as an expert in bookbinding and, having a lifelong interest in horticulture, a collector of botanical books and art. In 1961 she and her husband donated her collection of botanical literature to establish the Hunt Botanical Library in Pittsburgh. At the time of the launching of the Alcoa Courier, Mrs. Hunt would have been 59 years old.

Earlier I commented that when Roy A. Hunt became president of Alcoa it had an “impact” on the Tryon. This is what I was referring to – the impact of a champagne bottle against the hull of the Alcoa Courier, a bottle hoisted by the hands of Mrs. Roy A. Hunt. At least that’s what I believe to have been the case.

I will continue to research the sponsor of the Alcoa Courier until I am able to resolve my question about who this person actually was.




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