Tryon Departs for White Poppy (Part 3)

26 Oct

USS Rochameau

The story of USS Rochambeau is among the great tales of the war. Though details are a bit sketchy and conflict slightly from one account to the next, this appears to be her story.

Rochambeau was initially a merchant ship built in France in 1931 as MS Maréchal Joffre. She was in Manila harbor when the the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. (1)

M.S Maréchal Joffre – Probably shown between her entry into service in 1933 and an overhaul in 1937 during which her diesel engines were supercharged and she was repainted white.

After news of the attack reached Manila, merchant vessels in the area were requested to depart for U.S. ports, for it was known that the Philippines were likely the next target for Japan. Japan had demonstrated expansionist intentions with their move into Vichy-controlled French Indochina, and that, along with their control of the Mandate Islands, left the Philippines nearly surrounded by Japanese-controlled territory. Fears of Japanese attack were warranted; Japanese troops began landing on Luzon, at points both north and south of Manila, on December 8, 1941. American military bases were also hit by Japanese carrier-based aircraft.

Japanese invasion of the Philippines, beginning December 8, 1941

Maréchal Joffre had been operating under Vichy control, and the crew was split between those that were sympathetic to the Vichy government and those that sided with the free French under de Gaulle:

“The Vichy French ship, Maréchal Joffre, posed its own problem. Its skipper had reported that, although fully fueled and manned, the ship could not sail. Dissension between crewmen supporting the Vichy government sympathetic to Nazi Germany and crewmen supporting the Free French forces led by General Charles de Gaulle had immobilized the ship. The Americans decided to send an armed boarding party to seize the ship and sail it to Australia. The Americans were uncertain as to how the French might react. Would they need cutlasses and pikes to board the ship? Would the French resist? A Navy lieutenant, armed with a sword, a pistol, and a carbine, led his men aboard. The French were calm and offered no fight. The ship’s captain strode up, smiled, and welcomed the Americans with an accented “Allo.”

”The Americans had each man choose either Vichy or de Gaulle. Vichy men stepped to the port side and went ashore into internment. The 63 de Gaulle supporters assembled starboard. A Navy lieutenant gathered 100 American naval air ground crewmen and aviators and raised anchor late on 18 December. They sailed the ship through Japanese waters to Australia, where the Maréchal Joffre was renamed the USS Rochambeau.” (2)

The boarding party was made up of members of US Patrol Wing 10, led by Lieut. Edward N. Little. Patrol Wing 10 was made up of the pilots and crews of 28 PBY-4 flying boats as well as a number of auxiliary aircraft. Many of these planes were destroyed on the ground by the Japanese carrier-based aircraft mentioned before. The Navy flyers commandeered a local yacht, called the Gem, and used it in the boarding of Maréchal Joffre. The boarding occurred on December 14, 1941. By December 18 Maréchal Joffre was headed for the U.S. by way of Australia and New Zealand, arriving at San Francisco in April, 1942 with a cargo of wool and zircon sand. The following, from the obituary of Donald Dixon, is illustrative of what happened to members of Patrol Wing 10:

“By the time WWII started on December 7, Don’s squadron had been re-designated PATRON102 part of Patrol Wing 10. During the early months of the war, Don was listed as missing in action three times and after all of his squadron’s planes were destroyed he was able to get out of the Philippines on a captured Vichy French ocean liner the Maréchal Joffre which he and 25 other Navy pilots and airmen sailed her to Java, Australia and New Zealand.” (3)

There is an unfortunate side note on Lieut. Little, who led the boarding party: he was taken prisoner with the fall of Corregidor, and ended up in a prison camp in Japan – Fukuoka Camp #17. He was the ranking U.S. officer at the camp, and served as mess officer, in charge of distribution of food to POWs. Other prisoners said he was meticulous about this, making sure that prisoners did not receive “an extra grain of rice” more than their allotted amount.(4) After the war reports circulated that he had attempted to curry favor with the Japanese by reporting minor infractions of camp policy to the commandant. As a result of these reports Little was court-martialed for cooperating with the mistreatment of prisoners by the Japanese. The official charges were: “Maltreatment of a person subject to his orders; conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” (5) Witnesses alleged that as a result of Little’s snitching one American was beaten to death and another was starved to death. The one starved to death was Private William H. Knight, who Little turned in to the Japanese for stealing a dozen “buns.” His punishment for this was to be repeatedly beaten and placed in solitary confinement without food or water until death ended his suffering after twelve days of abuse. I’ve been unable to determine the outcome of the court martial, but Little served in Korea and was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery in 1967, so he probably was not found guilty of the charges.(6)

The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) Wednesday 21 May 1947

Once Maréchal Joffre arrived in San Francisco she was turned over to the Navy for conversion to a casualty evacuation transport. Maréchal Joffre was re-commissioned as USS Rochambeau on April 27, 1942 (although the name was not formally approved until two days later), and conversion was begun that same day at the Moore Dry Dock facility in Oakland, lasting until September 28, 1942. This means that Rochambeau was being converted at Moore Dry Dock at the same time that Tryon was being completed ( indicates on one page that the conversion was done at MDD, but on another at Mare Island, so there is a bit of confusion on this). The ship was named after the the French general Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, who assisted the colonies in the war against the British and is considered to be one of our nation’s founding fathers.

Issued on October 19, 1931, this 2-cent stamp marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown (1781). The battle followed the victory at Yorktown at which General Washington received the sword of surrender from British General Cornwallis. Black within a red frame, the stamp pictures Washington flanked by Count de Rochambeau and Count de Grasse, leaders of the French forces that aided in the American victory

By Oct. 20, her conversion was complete, and Rochambeau joined Tryon and the other ships bound for the south Pacific – exactly where, few crew members or passengers knew. Aboard Rochambeau that day was a twenty-five year old nurse from Massachusetts named Lena R. Gelott, attached to the 48th Station Hospital. Lena’s story reveals what life was like aboard a transport bound for the war zone:

“On 20 October 1942, the 48th Station Hospital boarded the USS Rochambeau(AP-63) for overseas. Our destination was not known, but we were the second contingent of US Army Nurses to head out across the Pacific packed in a convoy of 7 ships with 5 hospital units on board . . .

2d Lt Lena R. Gelott pins the Purple Heart on one of her patients. Short ceremony held while the 48th Sta Hosp was still at Guadalcanal. The hospital opened on February 1, 1943.

“The ship (ex-French Maréchal Joffre) converted for use as a troop transport and casualty evacuation, left Oakland with troops, supplies and replacements for the Guadalcanal campaign. She made Nouméa, disembarked her medical cargo and passengers, picked up casualties, stopped at Suva and Bora-Bora, and returned to San Francisco by 3 December.

“For the first week I was always seasick; we had 2 meals a day, regular salt-water showers, and were quartered 4 to a small stateroom. When crossing the equator, we had to undergo the official ritual when King “Neptune” ruled supreme. Life on board was not dull: calisthenics and abandon-ship-drills were almost routine, and sometimes a sailor with a guitar would entertain, and men would start singing.”(7)

Eight of the twelve crew members, including John F. Kennedy, are in the PT-109 photo above which was taken in July 1943, one month before PT-109 was hit.

On a later voyage of Rochambeau was another Massachusetts native – a young navy lieutenant (jg) eager to see combat duty named John F. Kennedy. In April, 1943 Kennedy boarded Rochambeau and sailed to Espiritu Santos Bay in the New Hebrides. From there he was transferred to the motor torpedo boat base at Tulagi where he was made skipper of the famed PT-109.(8)

Throughout 1943 and 1944 Rochambeau transported troops to the war zone and returned to the States with the seriously wounded. In February, 1945

Troops Return to the USA on Oct. 1, 1945
aboard the SS Maréchal Joffre, New York Harbor

Rochambeau was sent to New York, where she was decommisioned and returned to French custody. Once in French hands the name of Rochambeau was changed back to Maréchal Joffre. She was used to transport American and British troops home after the war, under French flag.

A final anecdote regarding Rochambeau – in an apparent effort to bolster the defensive appearance of Maréchal Joffre during the initial trip to San Francisco, the captain had crewmen build two wooden 5” gun replicas, one fore and one aft. They were manned as though real guns whenever submarine attacks were expected. Not surprisingly, they were removed during the conversion at Moore Dry Dock.(9)

Near the Mare Island Navy Yard on 5 October 1942 after completing conversion.

Another, near the Mare Island Navy Yard on 5 October 1942 after completing conversion.

Another, near the Mare Island Navy Yard on 5 October 1942 after completing conversion.

SS Perida

The Maersk Shipping Company, started in Denmark in 1904 by ship captain Peter Mærsk-Møller and his son Arnold Peter Møller, is today the largest shipping company in the world. They have in operation over 550 ships world-wide. Among them is Marchen Maersk. Launched in April of 2008, Marchen Maersk is among the world’s largest container ships, capable of carrying up to 10,150 twenty-foot-equivalent container units. © Julian

But seventy years ago, in the days leading up to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, it was another ship that bore the name Marchen Maersk. This ship was a cargo freighter, built by the German company Bremer Vulkan. During World War II Bremer Vulkan became an important manufacturer of German U-boats and was the target of heavy Allied bombing throughout much of World War II. But between wars Bremer Vulkan built cargo ships, and they delivered Marchen Maersk to Maersk Shipping Company in 1937.(10)

Maersk Lines Marchen Maersk in 1937.

By the outbreak of war in 1939 Maersk was operating a world-wide fleet of forty six ships. As the cold winter days of 1939-40 gave way to spring, it became increasingly apparent that German forces would occupy Denmark. On 8 April 1940, A.P. Møller issued Permanent Special Instruction One to the 36 Maersk ships on the high seas: should Denmark become involved in war, all ships were to report directly to the New York office and follow its instructions. No orders from Copenhagen were to be followed if not approved by the New York office.(11) The following day German troops crossed the Danish frontier.

Previously, Denmark had declared itself a neutral nation, signing a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939. Germany’s preparations to occupy Denmark hadn’t gone unnoticed by the Danish government, but in fear of provoking Germany, and relying on the non-aggression treaty, no preparations at all had been made. No troops were mobilized, and no fortifications were prepared. The Germans crossed the border into Denmark on the morning of April 9, 1940.(12)

German Ju 52 transport planes over Denmark on the morning of April 9th. At 4:00 am the German ambassador to Denmark, Renthe-Fink phoned the Danish foreign minister Munch and requested a meeting with him at once. When they met 20 minutes later Munch was told that German troops at that moment, were moving into Denmark to occupy the country.
The motivation was to protect Denmark from a French/English attack on Denmark. He demanded that all resistance was to cease immediately and that the Danish authorities were to contact the German forces. If these demands weren’t fulfilled the German Airforce would bomb Copenhagen.

Faced with the threat of the Luftwaffe’s bombing of civilians in Copenhagen, the Danish government capitulated within hours in exchange for retaining political independence in domestic matters. The occupation of Denmark by the Germans would continue until Germany surrendered on May 5, 1945.(13)

On June 5, 1941 the United States authorized acquisition of idle foreign merchant ships under the Ship Requisition Act . As a result, Marchen Maersk and several of her Maersk sister ships in US ports were placed under American control. Operation of Marchen Maersk was assigned to the American President Line, who was the operator of many troop transports during the war.(14) My dad first made his way to the south Pacific aboard the SS President Monroe, one of APL’s ships.

After the US assumed control of Marchen Maersk in late 1941 she was placed under Panamanian flag and her name was changed to SS Caldera. By 1942 the ship had apparently been switched to US flag, and renamed again to SS Perida (Perry mistakenly called the ship “Perita.”).(15) I’ve been unable to determine the specifics regarding these changes, but they appear to be related to the Neutrality Act of 1939.

Neutrality act 1939. Cartoon by Herb Block.

Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939 to avoid involving American flag vessels in incidents which might entangle us in the conflict. Since the Neutrality Act kept American flag shipping away from most north European ports during that period, it soon became expedient to transfer American vessels to foreign flags.(16) Virtually all of the foreign ships that were seized under the Ship Requisition Act were thus placed under foreign flags.(17) With the outbreak of war against Japan on December 7, 1941, and the declaration of war against the US by Germany and Italy on December 11, the need for foreign registration of ships no longer existed, and apparently that was the reason Perida shifted back to US flag. Because I’m not entirely clear on the details behind these changes I will continue to research this topic.

At some point, the cargo ship Perida must have undergone troop-ship conversion – most likely, the change in flag, change in name, and conversion all occurred at about the same time, though I’ve found no direct evidence to confirm this.

It’s not clear how many trips Perida made to the south Pacific. After sailing with Tryon in October, 1942, Perida moved troops and cargo around the south Pacific before returning to San Francisco by December, 1942.(18)

In January, 1943 planning began for an amphibious landing in the Aleutian Islands to remove Japanese forces from the island of Attu. On April 7, the task force, which included three battleships (Pennsylvania, damaged while in Drydock #1 in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and freshly overhauled in San Francisco, was one of them) , six cruisers, an escort carrier, nineteen destroyers, and a variety of auxiliary ships, including Perida, sailed from San Francisco. An interesting side note is that prior to sailing, every effort was made to hide the

Soldiers unload landing craft on the beach at Massacre Bay, Attu, on 13 May 1943. LCVPs in the foreground are from USS Zeilin (APA-3) and USS Heywood (APA-6).

objective of the task force. “Sundry ‘cloak and dagger’ measures were taken to keep the destination secret. A false training order was given wide circulation; medical officers lectured on tropical diseases; stacks of winter clothing were hidden; commanding officers allowed themselves to be seen studying sailing directions for the North Atlantic and charts of the Argentine Republic.” These efforts were unsuccessful; Tokyo had already alerted forces on Attu that the Americans were coming prior to their arrival.(19)

After arrival in the Aleutians on May 4 conditions were so poor that the landing had to be postponed twice, but finally was able to proceed on the morning of May 11. On May 12, with the battle raging on the island, the hapless Perida ran

Fleet Tug USS Ute (AT-76)

aground, still fully loaded with cargo and troops, damaging two compartments and placing the ship at risk of foundering. Fortunately for Perida the tug USS Ute was able to pull her to safety, and allowed her to unload. It took twelve days for Perida to patch the damage and to make her sea-worthy enough to return to the west coast for repairs.(20)

Perida’s movements during the war are difficult to trace; however, she was back in the south Pacific by 1944.

After the war Perida was returned to the Maersk Shipping Company, who changed her name back to Marchen Maersk. She was used by Maersk until 1951, when Marchen Maersk was sold to Poland. She remained a part of the fleet of the Polish Ocean Lines until 1972, when she was sold for scrap. © Hans-Wilhelm Delfs

(1) Wikipedia – USS Rochambeau (AP-63)

(2) Army Logistician, Volume 38, Issue 4, page 36 : Manila as a Logistics Center by Leut. Col. John W. Whitman

(3) Obituary for Donald Dickson – The San Diego Union-Tribune

(4) JAPANESE WWII POW Camp Fukuoka #17 – Omuta: Description of Camp 17

(5) Oswego Palladium-Times, Oswego, NY, May 20, 1947

(6 ) Fukuoka 17 POW Camp Roster, “L”

(7) Veteran’s Testimony – Lena R. Gelott, 48th Station Hospital

(8) Naval History and Heritage Command – Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, USN

(9) All Hands, May, 1947, pg. 29.


(10) Wikipedia – History of Maersk

(11) Wikipedia – History of Maersk

(12) Danish Military History – The German Occupation of Denmark

(13) Wikipedia – Occupation of Denmark

(14) American Merchant Marine At War – Foreign Passenger and Cargo Ships Taken Over by U.S Maritime Commission during World War II

(15) American Merchant Marine At War – Foreign Passenger and Cargo Ships Taken Over by U.S Maritime Commission during World War II

(16) Fordham Law Review, Volume 28, Issue 2, 1959. Some Legal Problems Arising out of Foreign Flag Operations

(17) American Merchant Marine At War – Foreign Passenger and Cargo Ships Taken Over by U.S Maritime Commission during World War II

(18) Re: Missing voyage MS Boschfontein

(19) History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 7: Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls By Samuel Eliot Morison, pp. 38-40.

(20) Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, V. 7: T-V, edited by James L. Mooney, pp. 424-25.


6 Responses to “Tryon Departs for White Poppy (Part 3)”

  1. M. Stanford Gaulden April 3, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    My Grandfather was the Troop Transport Commander Major Thomas C. Hunt, for the USAT Perida from January 1942 until December 31, 1943. He told us about hitting the Pinacle at Attu and about beaching the Perida to make repairs. According to him they filled the gash with matresses and concrete. My grandfather had a copy of Life magazine, in which was photograph of the beached Perida.

    • rememberthetitans April 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

      Hi Stanford – thanks so much for your comments. Your grandfather was undoubtedly aboard Perida at the time of her convoying with Tryon, which I think is very cool. Your point about methods used to patch holes in the hull of Perida in the Aleutians is interesting. I wrote a little bit about that in my post about USS Raleigh, moored on the northwest side Ford Island on the morning of December 7, 1941. She was hit by a torpedo and a bomb. Similar methods, using life jackets, concrete and timber beams to make her floatable and towable to Dry Dock #1 on the other side of Ford Island. Every ship in the Navy had to be able to patch and repair damage regardless of where the damage occurred – whether in port or in the middle of the Pacific. It may be interesting to look at methods used by damaged ships to make them seaworthy enough to get to the nearest port in a future post. Thanks again for your comments!

      • M. Gaulden January 10, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

        I am working on our Family Information on WikiTree. I’d like to post the picture of the Perida to a profile for the Perida on that site. Are you someone who can give that permission? Thanks.

      • rememberthetitans January 11, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

        Hi! Thanks for visiting my blog. Here is a link to the site where I found the picture of the Marchen Maersk/Perida:

        Marchen Mærsk (1937)

        If you click on the “Some rights reserved” link at the top of the page it will take you here:

        On that page you will find the following approval:

        “You are free to:
        Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format
        Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material
        for any purpose, even commercially.

        The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms.”

        Good luck on your family history! I split my free time between studying WW II and doing genealogy. Both are fascinating pasttimes!

      • M. Gaulden January 10, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

        I have the page for you to review…

  2. M. Gaulden January 11, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    Thanks so much!

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