Captain Alfred Jensen Byrholdt

16 May

The first Naval officer to command the USS Tryon was Commander Alfred Jensen Byrholdt, USN. From “The South Pacific Express” and other sources I was able to piece together a vignette of his interesting life.

A. J. Byrholdt, about 1923

A.J. Byrholdt was born in Denmark.  At about one year of age he immigrated with his family to the United States.  They settled in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and his parents, Fred and Sophie, set about raising their young family in their new home. Early on Fred worked as a coachman, but later as a farmer, tilling the fertile farmlands of central Wisconsin. Perhaps farming didn’t suit Alfred’s temperament, perhaps he longed for more adventure, or maybe family financial strains led him to seek an early escape – whatever the reason, Alfred joined the US Navy.


Alfred enlisted in the Navy on September 15, 1908, at age 17 or 18. By 1910 he was assigned to the USS West Virginia, based at the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard in California. He carried a rating of Fireman. This rating, according to one source, “. . . enjoys a proud and storied history. The name originated in the days when the Fireman was responsible for keeping the fires burning in the ship’s boilers which were used to make steam.” This was, no doubt, the duty that Alfred carried out, for the ratings of others listed with him at that time were Coal Passer, Oiler and Water Tender, all jobs related to the production of steam power.


By 1915 Alfred J. Byrholdt was serving in Honolulu, Hawaii as a Machinists Mate. In 1917 he was in Charleston, South Carolina, with the same rating. In 1919 he still lived in Charleston but had the rank of Lieutenant JG. During the period that included World War I Byrholdt advanced from an enlisted man to officer.


By the early 1920s he was serving in the eastern Mediterranean, with duties in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania Yugoslavia and Austria. In 1930 he was serving in the Panama Canal Zone, living with his family. In fact, two of his children were born while he was on duty there. On June 17, 1932 Alfred and his family boarded the S.S. President Jackson bound for Los Angeles, and arrived there on June 26.


Cruisers and destroyers in Balboa Harbor, Canal Zone, April 23, 1934

Alfred Byrholdt was living in the Seattle area in 1935, serving first as a War Plans officer and later as a Navy recruiter. At that time there was concern on the part of civic leaders about the corruption, moral decay and vice causing major upheaval in the city, effects of the Great Depression. Beginning in April, 1935 Alfred joined with a group of business and civic leaders for a weekly morning prayer meeting in the Olympic Hotel. According to the web site “Leadership Development,” “The main objective was to bring together civic and business leaders informally to share a meal, study the Bible and develop relationships of trust and support.” Apparently these meetings were quite successful: “People began to come without announcement or invitation; first one room, then two rooms, then three. There was no preaching, only prayer, and ‘such a power of the Holy Spirit rested upon us for revival in Seattle’ and the northwest.”


In the summer of 1942 Commander Byrholdt arrived in San Francisco to become the captain of the U.S.S. Tryon and to oversee her completion. According to Mac Perry in “The South Pacific Express,” Byrholdt and the other officers had been ordered to Moore Dry Docks “in connection with the conversion of the exAlcoa courier to the U.S.S. Comfort and to duty aboard that vessel when placed in commission.” They soon found that instead the Navy would name the ship “Tryon”, after a famous naval surgeon, and that her role in the war would be quite different than that of a dedicated hospital ship covered by the Geneva Conference Treaty.


USS Tryon on October 10, 1942, ten days before sailing for the South Pacific

By all indications Captain Byrholdt was well liked by the officers and crew of the Tryon. Although a career Navy man, he did not hesitate in bending a few rules to help his ship run more smoothly and efficiently. If the atmosphere in an organization is set at the top, Captain Byrholdt understood what it took to create an environment that promoted high morale. Sometimes this meant bending the strict naval regulations a bit for the betterment of all. Said Perry: “Somehow I always will believe that the comradeship of the Tryon gang was unsurpassed on any ship. from the group who sailed her from the states, through the ones that took her out of Auckland the last time, the same spirit was there. It was true ashore with fun and true aboard with work. Assignments were given more on ability than on date of rank and no one took exception because it made the job easier on everyone. Maybe it wasn’t according to naval regulation and tradition, but with the exception of the few regular naval officers aboard, we were all civilians at heart and wanted the best set-up possible regardless of date of rank for none of us were too expert. Certainly this was one of the secrets of the Tryon success up to this time, and throughout the command of Captain Byrholdt . . .”


An interesting anecdote of morale-building occurred while the Tryon was on her maiden voyage from San Francisco to the South Pacific:


“The Captain came out on the bridge during my watch [October 29, 1942] and asked what watch I [Perry] would have the next afternoon. I had the first dog-watch, so he told me to have my relief report early as he wanted to see me in his cabin at 1800. I must admit that it frightened the devil out of me. I wondered what I had done, and thought of everything and decided that he might beach some of us when we arrived at our destination . . .


“At 1800 I reported to the Captain’s cabin and of all the surprises! This was my birthday and the Captain was beginning a custom of entertaining each officer for dinner on his birthday. I had forgotten all about it. There was a fine dinner, topped off by a gaily decorated cake. The Filipino steward was beaming when he brought it in. “


There were numerous other policies in place to keep morale high. One was the way men were chosen for a return to the States when a rating was available: “Orders went out to all department heads and division officers that when a rating was available to return to the states, the best qualified man with the best record, was to have first choice. If he refused the trip, then next best man was to go. It meant the loss of some mighty good men, but the recognition of merit, ability and good conduct paid off. A number of our best men turned down the chance home to remain on the Tryon and it gave others incentive to work harder so they might have a change to go stateside. It was so different from the action of some ships in sending their trouble-makers and loafers and keeping their best men. That increased their morale problem, while on the Tryon it helped keep morale at its highest.”


A. J. Byrholdt, 1924

Captain Byrholdt insisted on fresh water showers on the Tryon – a luxury on many ships: “Troop passengers aboard the Tryon were most fortunate in having fresh water showers and for the first two years, at least, there were no water hours and no rationing of fresh water except for two days on the long voyage from San Diego to Noumea.


“One newly named first Lieutenant, a fugitive engineering officer, had salt lines run into the showers and planned to furnish only salt water to the troops. When the Captain found out about it, he immediately called a halt with the remark, “One of the few luxuries we can offer the troops from these hell-holes is fresh water, and I intend to see that they have it just as long as our evaporators can produce fresh water.”


After a particularly strenuous stretch for the crew of the Tryon without a break, “. . . the Captain and exec announced all hands would be given a four-day unofficial leave . . . This was one gesture that was really appreciated.”


And Captain Byrholdt showed kindness and consideration to his men at a personal level: “About 0400 on the morning of July 1st [1944], Bill Butz, the old communicator, waked me up with the news that I had orders back to Uncle Sugar . . . During the morning the Captain called me to his cabin and said I could make the trip to Auckland with the ship because transportation back to the states might be better from there. He would relieve me of my duties so I could really enjoy the trip – a gesture I appreciated.”


Later, a ‘”by-the-book” captain would command the Tryon, would attempt to undo the efficient system set in place by Captain Byrholdt and replace it with Navy regulation. The reaction to this by the crew is summed up in the title of Chapter twenty-six in “ The South Pacific Express”: CAPTAIN JONES ARRIVES, LADY MORALE DEPARTS.


Although relatively even-tempered on board the Tryon, under trying circumstances Captain Byrholdt could show a temper. In late May, 1943 the Tryon was filled to capacity with troops and supplies. This signaled to the crew where they were headed – Guadalcanal. Although the battle for the island of Guadalcanal had ended on February 9, 1943, the waters around the island remained treacherous. Japanese ships still patrolled the adjacent seas, and Japanese planes still combed the skies. It was only natural that there would be a heightened sense of urgency and tension about this mission.


The Tryon sailed for Guadalcanal as part of a convoy which included six escorts, one of which was an escort carrier, silhouetted against the horizon, that provided air support. The Tryon rarely traveled as part of a convoy; nor did she usually enjoy the luxury of an escort, especially one that displayed so sizable a show of force. Surely these things provided a sense of security on the one hand but heightened the sense of danger on the other as the convoy sailed toward “Ironbottom Sound.” On the north side of Guadalcanal, Ironbottom Sound had been the site of numerous major naval battles over the preceding months. As many as forty-six Allied and Japanese ships lay on the ocean floor of Ironbottom Sound (thus providing the colorful nickname, given by sailors, to what had previously been known as “Sealark Sound.”) According to Mac Perry, “The day before our arrival, the Captain and executive officer became tense. Tempers became short. the exec put out a master plan of the day that accounted for every minute we were to spend at Guadalcanal. “


After arriving and attempting to unload their cargo, “It soon became obvious that the various beaches were not able to accept our time-table unloading plans. Everything went wrong and the high command aboard the Tyron raised the devil with everyone . . . our master plan was shot and as the day wore on, it was evident that we would be there over night. The high command really blew it’s collective tops by then. All was confusion . . . [The next day] Off Lunga, the Captain went ashore and raised so much cain that he finally did get some flat-top barges, and this made the unloading much faster.”


Apparently Captain Byrholdt knew how to get the attention of shore crews!


Under less stressful conditions, Captain Byrholdt had a routine he followed preceding the arrival of the Tryon at Auckland, New Zealand, a port that she often visited. “It became a standing practice of the Captain’s (and an amusing one to the crew), as we steamed down this coast, to order the word passed, ‘Turn out all unnecessary lights.’ Then he would call the engine room, ‘Secure the evaporators. Make standard speed 19 knots [slightly above the standard cruising speed of 18 knots, and near the “flank speed” speed of the Tryon].’ The engineering officer would mutter to himself and obey the command.


Auckland, NZ and it’s harbor

“The next order would be ‘wash down all weather decks,’ then ‘uniform of the day will be blues. Liberty for first and second sections will commence at 1600’ And the South Pacific Express, the pride of Auckland, would speed into that delightful harbor.”


On September 24, 1944, two years after taking command of the Tryon, Captain A.J. Byrholdt was ordered back to the states. He was relieved of command by Carl Morck, executive officer of the ship. In telling of the departure of Captain Byrholdt, it is clear that Mac Perry held his commander in highest regard: “Captain Byrholdt had had a long and eventful naval career to this date. He had literally “bucked” his way up to Commander, USN, and had taken the Tryon, with a non-experienced corps of officers and a green crew, into the South Pacific where his ship performed every task called for, whether it was transporting troops, evacuating the wounded or rushing bombs, ammunition and other priority cargo into the battle zones. Through it all, the Tryon never lost a man., was never damaged, and always carried out its mission.


“During this period, men with less experience were promoted to Captain, while Byrholdt remained a Commander. Until he reads this, he probably doesn’t know that his officers knew he had been passed over in spite of a recommendation from Admiral Halsey for his promotion. We knew it and admired him for instead of being bitter and “taking it out” on his officers and crew, as has been known to happen, Captain Byrholdt made life even easier for all.


“He constantly fought at headquarters for trips to New Zealand, for rest periods, for quick trips, and better movies. In New Zealand he gave two-thirds of his sections liberty instead of the regulation one-half. Formal Captain’s Inspections were held only twice a year and his sentences at mast were light and easy, unless it was a major offense. There were no general court martials and few, if any, Summary court martials during his command.


“Yet the ship was run in an orderly manner. Discipline was good, morale was high, and the Tryon was a “happy ship.” His hard-earned promotion to Captain finally came to him, months after he had left the Tryon.”


Although it’s a bit unclear where he spent the rest of the war, it does not appear that he skippered another ship. Shortly after the signing of the Articles of Surrender by Japan, A. J. Byrholdt boarded a Navy plane in Okinawa, Japan bound for Honolulu, and no doubt from there headed for to the States. Back in Seattle, he remained in the Navy for another year or so, separating on January 1, 1947, having spent nearly forty years in service to his country. After leaving the Navy he worked for a short time for Boeing as an engineer, but on November 16, 1952, just five brief years out of the service, Alfred Byrholdt died at the age of 60. He was buried in a beautiful conifer-lined memorial park in Renton, WA, just south of Seattle.


While researching this story, several interesting questions and facts emerged about A. J. Byrholdt:


● First question – what was the year of his birth? A number of documents, normally known for their trustworthiness in such details, variously list his birth year as 1889, 1890, 1891 and 1892. Based on what information I could gather, I believe he was most likely born in 1891 and immigrated to the U. S. in 1892.


● Second question – was he a U.S. citizen during his tenure in the Navy? Documents are, surprisingly, a bit murky on this. The key document raising this question is an application for citizenship filed in December of 1946, just days before he would separate from the Navy. Passport applications prior to that indicate that he’d become a naturalized American Citizen five years after arriving in the U.S. So it’s a little hard to tell what the situation was regarding his citizenship during his years in the service.


● His son and namesake, Alfred Jensen Byrholdt, Jr., one of the children born while Byrholdt was serving in the Canal Zone in the 1930s, died in Maryland just days ago, while I was doing research for this post – an unlikely and unfortunate coincidence.


● As it turns out, the name Byrholdt is quite uncommon. While I have not researched this thoroughly, it appears that all Byrholdts that I’ve been able to find in the U.S. are directly related to A. J. Byrholdt’s family.


● Between the World Wars, Byrholdt served as an officer aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, the battleship that was tragically sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 with great loss of life.


● His wife, Mrs. A.J. (Bertha) Byrholdt served as sponsor of a naval ship, the U.S.S. Ozark, launched in Portland, OR the same summer that Alfred took command of the Tryon in San Francisco.


1905 Wisconsin State Census

1910 US Census

S.S. President Jackson Passenger list, 1932

Emergency Passport Application, Constantinople, Turkey, July 27, 1923

Emergency Passport Application, Constantinople, Turkey, January 29, 1924

Petition for Naturalization, Seattle, WA, December 17, 1946


7 Responses to “Captain Alfred Jensen Byrholdt”

  1. Elsa Byrholdt May 8, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    Hello there, my name is elsa Byrholdt, my fathers name is Bradley Dean Byrholdt, and his fathers name was Kenneth Byrholdt. Leaving Alfred as my great grandfather. I’d love to hear from you about any more information you have. Thanks

    • rememberthetitans May 9, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

      Hello Elsa, and thanks so much for your comments! I’m very excited to be contacted by a descendent of Captain Byrholdt! As you read in my brief biography I found nothing but positive opinions of him as the captain of Tryon. By all accounts he maintained a tight ship with great morale. I must say, I was very impressed by what I learned about him.

      Unfortunately, I have not been successful in finding any more about him than what I wrote in the blog, although I have continued to search. I have not been as active on the blog as I should be, but have continued to compile information on Tryon and her travels. Unfortunately, that does not include any new info on your great grandfather.

      From all I can tell he was an exceptional leader. My dad was fortunate to have served under his command. If you happened to have read other comments left by readers you might have found a comment from Karen Byrholdt Fuson who is also a great granddaughter of Captain Byrholdt, which makes her you second cousin. Do you know her, by any chance?

      Do you happen to have a war time photo of your great grandfather? I would dearly love to add a wartime photo of him to his biography.

      I’d be happy to continue our discussion of Captain Byrholdt and Tryon, and try to answer as many questions for you that I can.

      • Jane Barton September 25, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

        I just purchased a lovely dining room table at a consignment shop in Baltimore. The leaves for the table came in a wooden crate marked LT A. J. Byrholdt. From the other markings on the crate, it appears the table was being shipped from San Diego to Seattle Washington. I found your wonderful article in my Google search to determine the age of the table. Do you know when this move would have taken place?

      • rememberthetitans September 27, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

        Hi Jane, thanks for visiting my blog. I wish I had a definite answer for you, but unfortunately it is only a guess. Here is what I know – Captain Byrholdt returned from duty in the Panama Canal Zone in 1932. While records indicate that the family returned via Los Angeles, it’s possible that the family’s belongings were shipped to the Naval base in San Diego. Or maybe they lived in San Diego for a time before being transferred to Seattle. What I can tell you is that by 1935 the Byrholdts were living in Seattle, and so far as I know lived there until 1942. It seems very likely to me that the piece would have been shipped in that period, between 1932 and 1935. Does that fit with what you know about the table?

        An even more interesting question might be how the table got from Seattle to Baltimore! You may already know this, but I found in my research of Captain Byrholdt that his son, A.J. Byrholdt, Jr., worked for years in Washington and lived in Maryland. I believe that Captain Byrholdt had a granddaughter in the Baltimore area.

    • Jane Barton September 25, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

      Where do you live? I just purchased a lovely dining room table at a consignment shop in Baltimore. The leaves for the table came in a wooden crate marked LT A. J. Byrholdt. From the other markings on the crate, it appears the table was being shipped from San Diego to Seattle Washington. I bought the table shortly after it was taken to the consignment shop. Any idea where it has been? I loved reading the history of your great grandfather!

  2. Linda March 11, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    I am one of Alfred Jensen Byrholdt’s granddaughters. My mother, Lois, was his only daughter. She was born in the Canal Zone in 1931. I have always wanted more information about him because he died before I was born in the late 50’s. My mother did not pass on too much information about him and all of my siblings have been very curious to know more. Thank you for your post on his service. It is the most information I have been able to find. It tells a tale of his life and personality. I wish I could have known him. For the woman how bought the family table in Baltimore I am sure that it was a family piece that my Uncle Alfred had for many years. He lived in Chevy Chase with his family and things were sold when he passed away. I would love to have the wooden crate with by grandfathers name because I have so little from his life.
    Once again, thank you for the information you brought to me. Puts a smile on my face to think of what a wonderful man he must have been.

    • rememberthetitans March 12, 2016 at 12:20 am #

      Hi Linda! It’s a tremendous pleasure to hear from you, and thanks so much for your kinds words. I’m happy to know my blog regarding your grandfather was interesting to you. It’s been a while since I researched his life, but I remember thinking at that time he was a remarkable person. I hope that all I wrote about him was correct!

      I’m curious if you happen to have a photo of Captian Byrholdt from his time in the service. I’d love to be able to include a later photo of him in the blog, especially from the war period. I recently found some photos of my dad’s that had the men identified, and I’m planning to add those to the blog soon. I’d love to have one of Capt. Byrholdt to join the group!

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