Tryon Departs for White Poppy (Part 1)

21 Jun

“Sailed at 1330 [October 20, 1942] and outside the harbor joined up with the Mormacport, the Delbrazil and finally the flagship, the Brastagi, with Captain Roesch, USN, as convoy commander. An old four-stacker destroyer escorted us out, while planes from the navy base flew overhead. Immediately, we were introduced to our first ship·handling in convoy as we zig-zagged on our course southwestward . . .

“On the 23rd, had our first real general quarters . . . “this is not a drill” . . . as an unidentified plane was sighted. It was soon recognized as friendly and we resumed ship’s work. At 1100, went to general quarters again as ships were sighted hull down on the horizon. This time it was the other ships of our convoy reaching our rendezvous point. Soon could make out the old cruiser Raleigh and the USS Rochambeau and the SS Perita. The new arrivals joined up and took station as the Raleigh moved out in front as our escort . . .”

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America and the rest of the world watched in helpless frustration as the Japanese military juggernaut swept across the western Pacific and Indochina. They knew that the only way to stop the advance of Japanese aggression was to put men and materiel on the ground in the South Pacific as quickly as possible. To that end, the US military began to gather and convert all ships available for transporting troops and supplies to the war zone.

Departing San Diego in the afternoon of October 20, 1942, the Tryon, fully loaded with Marines bound for the Solomons, was finally headed for war. After months of preparation and training, the mostly green officers and crew sailed toward an unknown tropical port – all that most of them knew for sure was that they were headed southward and westward. On this trip they would enjoy something that they would rarely experience in the South Pacific – the friendly and comforting presence of convoy and escort. The convoy was made up of ships from a variety of nations that had been converted for the purpose of troop transport, and all were filled with fresh troops eager to join the fight. The histories of these ships are so varied and colorful they deserve retelling.  The Tryon headed to the tropics during the first October of the Pacific war with six other ships. Here are their stories.

SS Mormacport

The Mormacport was owned by the Moore-McCormick Lines, an American company. Like the Tryon and her sister ships, the Rixey and Pinkney, the Mormacport was built under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. The keel was initially laid down as the Sea Fox at the Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in Kearny, NJ and was a Type C-3 cargo ship. Shortly after the ship was delivered in March, 1940 Moore-McCormick changed her name from Sea Fox to Mormacport, in keeping with company policy at that time of using the prefix “Mormac” on all of their ships (this large shipping company gave some colorful names to ships in their fleet – Mormacsun, Mormacstar, Mormacmoon, Mormacsea, Mormacland, Mormacwind, Mormacpine, Mormacspruce, Mormacwren, and Mormactern to name just a few). The entire Mooremack fleet was placed at the disposal of the nation‘s defense establishment immediately after Pearl Harbor, and thus was the Mormacport pressed into service as a troop transport. Moore-McCormack was responsible for the operation of over 700 ships during the war. (1)

Prior to it’s transfer to the Pacific the Mormacport saw limited duty in the Atlantic. One report indicates the Mormacport rescued twenty-nine crew and one passenger from the Dutch SS Triton after it was sunk by U-boat 450 miles southeast of Bermuda on June 2, 1942. The survivors had been adrift at sea for three days before they were spotted by the Mormacport’s crew. It also appears that the Mormacport may have returned to the Atlantic for the purpose of bringing US Troops home from Europe late in 1945. (2)

While it’s difficult to determine how many trips across the Mormacport made, it’s safe to say that MANY GI’s found their way to the South Pacific aboard the Mormacport. On this trip, Perry reports that two weeks out the Mormacport broke away from the main convoy:

“November 3rd, passed somewhere south of the Fiji Islands and at 1600 sighted land for the first time since leaving the states. A blur on the horizon was identified by the navigator as the Ongea Levu group of Fiji. During the night the Brastagi and the Mormacport left the convoy, turning southward, while we continued on a southwesterly course.”(3)

George Baronowski was a Merchant Marine crew member aboard the Mormacport on that trip with the Tryon: “My first assigned sea duty was on October 10, 1942. I was sent by train to San Diego and boarded a brand new troop ship, the SS Mormacport, while they still were working on it.(4) We sailed to the South Pacific, delivering U.S. Marines and war materials to Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand; Noumea and Nepoui, New Caledonia; and Bora Bora, in the society Islands . . .

“We picked up wounded and handicapped U.S. Marines from Latouka and Suva in the Fiji Islands and transferred them back across the Pacific to the Naval Hospital in San Diego. Then we sailed for repairs and reloading to San Francisco.”(5)

A medic in the Army’s 111th Infantry Regiment, Bob Thobaben, found himself on the Mormacport late in 1943: “We went [from Hawaii to the Makin Island, in the Gilberts] on a ship that was called the Mormacport. If you’ve ever seen an old Humphrey Bogart movie it always reminded me of that. It was a cargo ship, probably built to handle about thirty or forty sailors; the problem was that we had probably three of four thousand men on the Mormacport. Anyway, we got on the Mormacport, and we headed out for what was the first major assault in the central Pacific.”(6)

The Mormacport would meet up with the Tryon at least once (and probably other times) when both ships transported troops to the Battle of Peleliu, which begun on September 15, 1944.

The Mormacport received five battle stars for participation in the following battles: Gilbert Islands Operation; Occupation of Eniwetok; Capture-Occupation of Saipan; Capture-occupation of Southern Palau Islands; Assault-occupation of Okinawa Gunto. (7)

After service as a troop ship during the war the Mormacport returned to freighter duty when the war was over.

An interesting interview of a crewman from the Mormacport, Bill Small, describing his experiences of trying to place “smoke bombs” to protect the war ships during the invasion of Saipan is available here.(8)

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SS Delbrasil

When Mac Perry wrote of convoying with the “Delbrazil,” he was actually referring to the SS Delbrasil. The Delbrasil was another ship built under the U.S. Maritime Act of 1936. Constructed by Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point, MD beginning in 1939(1), the ship was delivered to the Mississippi Shipping Company (Also known as the Delta Lines) in May, 1940(2). The Delbrasil was a Type C3-P ship, the “P” indicating that she was altered from the standard Type C-3 cargo ship design for cargo/passenger use. The Delbrasil was used by the Delta Line as a passenger/cargo liner, visiting ports in the Gulf of Mexico and South America until the outbreak of the war.

Early in the war The Delbrasil was taken over and operated by the War Shipping Administration with a civilian crew under allocation to the Navy. In July and August 1942 she received a limited conversion at San Francisco to increase her passenger capacity for officers and troops to 2000.(3) It was in this configuration that she sailed out of San Diego with the Tryon on October 20, 1942, as the SS Delbrasil.

In 1943 the Navy initially began seeking three additional troopships of the Type C-2 variety, but the expanding need for troops in the Pacific led the Navy to alter it’s search, instead pursuing three Type C-3 ships requiring minimal conversion for troop transport. The Delbrasil was one of the ships selected for this purpose. She was renamed the USS George F. Elliott (AP-105), and was commissioned in September, 1943.(4) The George F. Elliott served as a troopship for the remainder of the war, participating in several invasions and receiving at least three battle stars for participation in the Marianas invasion, Leyte invasion, and the Luzon invasion.(5)

After hostilities ceased, the George F. Elliot became part of the “Magic-Carpet” fleet, returning troops from the western Pacific to San Francisco until January, 1946.(6)

The George F. Elliott was sold to Farrell Lines of New York in 1948 and was renamed the African Endeavor. She was scrapped in 1972.(7)

MS Brastagi

The MS Brastagi was a Dutch ship, built in 1939, whose home port was Rotterdam. The Brastagi and her Dutch crew found themselves in an unenviable situation at the outbreak of the war. Their story is told by Richard Thompson, a passenger aboard the Brastagi as part of the 471st Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion in 1943:

M.S. Brastagi

“The M.S. Brastagi was a huge, old Dutch inter-island freighter that operated in the Dutch East Indies territories in the South Pacific before the outbreak of World War II. Its homeport was Rotterdam, Holland. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Germans invaded and took over all of Europe, including Holland. After Pearl Harbor, in 1941, the Japanese invaded and took over all the territories and islands in the Pacific, including the Dutch East Indies . . .

“The Brastagi and its crew were a ship and crew without a country and without homes. They had nowhere to go. It couldn’t return to either the East Indies where it operated, or go back to its homeport of Rotterdam until both the Japanese and the Germans had been beaten and their countries and ports taken back. The crew decided to join the Allies in the fight against the three Axis countries, Germany, Japan and Italy. None of the Brastagi’s crew could even hope to go home until the war was won. That’s how and why the old Brastagi came to be a transport for U.S. troops in the Pacific.

Members of VMB-443 bid farewell to well-wishers as the MS Brastagi departs from San Diego. Photograph: U.S. Marine Corps (Courtesy of Ray Peeler)

“All of the Brastagi’s officers were Dutchmen, six or seven of them. The rest of the crewmen were hard working Javanese from the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies. There were about 30 of them. The Javanese crewmen spoke only a few words of English. They were a lively bunch. They wore colorful shirts, shorts, sandals and either kerchiefs or turbans wrapped around their heads. In addition to the Dutch Captain, officers and crew of the Brastagi, there were a few U.S. Navy officers assigned to the ship . . .

“The Brastagi could easily travel at 12 to 13 knots per hour, relatively fast for a ship of its type. Most of the liberty ships of the day had a top speed of only 6 to 8 knots per hour. As the ship got fully underway and gradually picked up speed we passed under the famous Golden Gate Bridge. It was painted orange. What an impressive sight!”(1)

Lawrence Sidel was a young Navy medic who also rode aboard the troopship Brastagi, and he gives an interesting glimpse at his trip across the Pacific:

“We boarded the first ship that I was ever on and what a surprise. It wasn’t even an American ship. It was named the D.M. Brastagi and it was flying a Dutch Flag. Der Majesti Shiff Brastagi was a Dutch Merchant Ship that was converted from a cargo vessel to a troop transport. Their crew was made up of Dutch and Javanese and two of the crew were young teenagers, who were apprenticing . . . This Dutch Merchant ship was refitted to carry troops instead of cargo and I’ll describe living conditions and the voyage to the South Pacific. The cargo holds of which there were five now held cargo in two and the other three carried troops. To accommodate the troops the sleeping arrangement was six to eight bunks high, with the height between them so small that a sleeper’s shoulder would touch the one above, if one tried to sleep on his side. Heads (bathrooms) had group showers with only salt water and sinks also had only salt water. There were no urinals or commodes below decks. On the main deck forward toward the bow there were two troughs that were about ten feet apart and they covered about three quarters of the width of the deck from port to starboard. Open sections were on the port side so passage could be made and the troughs on the starboard side were extending out over the side of the ship. Pumps were used to continuously pump a fast heavy rush of seawater through. These troughs were used by sitting on the side and holding on tight to prevent falling backwards into them. All other troop ships I was on had regular toilets below decks, but all had salt water showers and only provided fresh water for drinking. This ship provided only two meals daily so we were very hungry all the time. Sleeping below decks got to be very uncomfortable as the ship headed south toward the equator. There were no air conditioners in those days on these ships. We left under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and without convoy we zigged and zagged for thirty two days and arrived at [Noumea, New Caledonia] . . .” (2)

The Brastagi made numerous runs from the West Coast to the South Pacific. After the war the M. S. Brastagi was returned to her Dutch owners. In 1947 she ran aground in Mozambique; during recovery attempts the Brastagi caught fire and was abandoned.(3)

**********

Perry notes that “Captain Roesch” was the commander of the convoy, aboard the Brastagi – his full name was Captain Herbert Otto “Fats” Roesch, USN, a skipper that nearly twenty years earlier had been involved in one of the worst peace-time naval disasters in the history of the US Navy: the Honda Point Disaster. On September 8, 1923 off the coast of California, fourteen

The U.S.S. Nicholas, under way during sea trials, a few days before commissioning. November, 1920.

ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 were sailing from San Francisco harbor to San Diego. One of the destroyers, the USS Nicholas(DD-311) was skippered by Captain Roesch. Due to an earthquake in Japan a week earlier, currents along the coast of California had changed, throwing off dead reckoning navigational calculations, which were already made difficult by poor visibility. Nine of the fourteen destroyers, including the Nicholas, ran aground on treacherous Honda Point, near the entrance to Santa Barbara Channel. Two were able to work free; the remaining seven were total losses. Twenty three men, many trapped below decks, died.(4)

The U.S.S. Nicholas in San Francisco Bay a week before the Honda Point disaster. September, 1923.

Eleven officers of Destroyer Squadron 11 were subjected to a general court-martial. Three were found guilty, including Roesch. (5) However, Roesch’s guilty verdict was set aside by Admiral Samuel S. Robison, Commander in Chief, Battle Fleet, who had initially ordered the general court-martial. The Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby (who would later resign from office in disgrace as a result of his part in the Teapot Dome scandal), was angered by the fact that there were only two guilty verdicts resulting from the loss of seven warships and twenty-three lives, and reversed all of the acquittals, including that of Captain Roesch. All eleven officers were found guilty of negligence, and two, Capt. Edward H. Watson, Commander, Destroyer Squadron Eleven, and LCdr. Donald T. Hunter, Commanding Officer of the USS Delphy, were also found guilty of culpable inefficiency. (6)

The U.S.S. Nicholas pictured in background behind the U.S.S. S.E. Lee. A crewman is being highlined to safety off the Lee.

In their book, “Tragedy at Honda”, Lockwood and Adamson had this to say about Roesch’s conviction:

“Unfortunate ‘Fats’ Roesch. His was the seventh case before this Court. But on that November 20, seven was not his lucky number. The general Court Martial had found him guilty. Just why the members of the Court felt that there was a difference in conduct between Lieutenant Commander Roesch and his brother skippers sufficient to justify a guilty finding against him is hard to understand. Since members of a Court Martial are not allowed to reveal their vote-except in a legal action – those for and against his acquittal will probably never be known. It is noted that in his official report, Captain Roesch stated that visibility was poor. In the testimony of his radiomen it was stated that three radio bearings had been intercepted – which was more than other ships reported. Possibly the court felt that, in visibility which he considered poor, he should have made more use of his radio bearings – disturbing as they no doubt were – and perhaps have requested permission to take soundings. Such a request might have started a chain reaction of questioning which might have produced results. If such were the reasoning, it was obviously unfair to Roach, and the Commander-in-Chief, Battle Fleet, Admiral S. S. Robison, promptly disapproved the conviction.”(7)

The U.S.S. Nicholas (DD 311) on the rocks, with the broken apart U.S.S. Delphy in the foreground. September, 1923

Years later Captain Roesch would comment, “When all of the acquittals were disapproved (by the Secretary of the Navy), we were all in the same boat. The principle effect of these reversals was that all skippers were put in the position of having been responsible for the loss of their ships. This prevented us from submitting claims for the loss of our personal gear and equipment as did our junior officers.”(8)

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(1) http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/mormac.shtml
(2) http://www.6thcorpscombatengineers.com/imagevue/?content%2FWWII+Engineers%2F36th+Engineers%2FHarold+Bare+36th+Engineer%2FMarseilles+France+-+Sept+1945+-+Heading+for+home+-+boarding+the+Mormacport.JPG
(3) SPE by Mac Perry, pg. 10.
(4) As the Mormacport was in service before the war broke out, Baronowski was undoubtedly referring to her troop ship conversion, although records indicate that she had made already made the south Pacific round trip before the date of this trip.
(5) Before It’s Too Late by Arnold Rosen, pg. 49.
(6) For Comrade and Country: Oral Histories of World War II Veterans by Robert G. Thobaben, pg. 47.
(7) http://www.usmm.org/battlepacific.html
(8) http://www.pop.witnesstowar.org/content/view.php?g=e&c=R&v=1171

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(1) http://www.shipscribe.com/usnaux/AP/AP47.html
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_George_F._Elliott_(AP-105)
(5) http://flagspot.net/flags/us~hfd.html#delta
(3) http://www.shipscribe.com/usnaux/AP/AP47.html
(4) http://www.shipscribe.com/usnaux/AP/AP47.html
(5) http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/22/22105.htm
(6) http://www.shipscribe.com/usnaux/AP/AP47.html

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(1) http://rtautobiography.blogspot.com/2011/01/chapter-7-aboard-ms-brastagi-and-trip.html
(2) http://www.wsre.org/pdf/honor-flight-larry-sidel.pdf
(3) http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/rotterdamL.htm
(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honda_Point_Disaster
(5) http://www.navytimes.com/legacy/new/0-NAVYPAPER-439565.php
(6) http://www.pointhondamemorial.org/point.htm
(7) “Tragedy at Honda” by Charles A. Lockwood, Hans Christian Adamson, pg. 213.
(8) http://www.pointhondamemorial.org/recent_research.htm

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