Last Monday afternoon, just after I returned from following the scrap-bound GENERAL EDWIN D. PATRICK out to San Francisco’s Land’s End, my cell phone buzzed with a new voice mail message. “Peter, this is Bob Brown. Give me a call back about the GENERAL JOHN POPE when you get a chance. I’m doing her move from Suisuin to San Francisco on Wednesday, May 5. Would you like to work as a linesman for the day?”
Bob Brown? I rang and/or wrote a dozen or so people the prior week, some of whom I did not know, referrals from friends in the hopes of reaching a contact with access to either the PATRICK (before she left the San Francisco region) or the POPE (before she left Suisuin for San Francisco in preparation for her journey to the scrappers). Mr. Brown, a professor at the California Maritime Academy, was on the call list. Suffice it to say, if it were not for him, this latest trek would not have been possible, so it is to Bob Brown that I dedicate this blog with the utmost gratitude and respect.
I spent the next day at Home Depot and Trader Joe’s, shopping for a hard hat, safety goggles, flashlight, work gloves, trail mix and bottled water. Fortunately, I already had my steel-toed boots handy from recent Alang visits.
Very early on the morning of May 5, 2010, I joined sixteen cadets from the California Maritime Academy aboard the 4,300 hp Oscar Niemeth tug AMERICAN EAGLE, which was tied up at the Vallejo-based campus’ jetty. After signing liability waivers and donning PFDs (personal flotation devices), we were off at 3:30 AM sharp.
My weary eyes welcomed the chilly wind as we sped through the Carquinez Strait and into the ink dark waters of the Suisuin Bay, home of the U.S. Naval Reserve Fleet, where the GENERAL JOHN POPE has been tied up for no less than four decades.
All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2010 unless otherwise noted. Please click on image to view an enlarged version.
During our relatively short night passage, we were assembled on the EAGLE’s fantail for some line-handling lessons and safety tips. Half of our contingent would assist with the removal of the POPE from her raft and the other eight would tend to the transfer of the 1957-built fleet oiler, USNS SHOSHONE, between moorings.
We edged toward a cluster of fellow tugs that were lashed to the side of the USNS GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE, the former Moore McCormack cargo ship, MORMACALTAIR of 1965, now serving as a floating port crane facility.
Off in the distance, in the vague, greenish glow of a searchlight, I could make out the distinctive funnel and superstructure of the POPE sandwiched between several other vessels.
The GENERAL JOHN POPE was the first of eleven P2-S2-R2 type transports built in Kearny, New Jersey by the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company for the U.S. Navy’s World War Two service. The GENERALs, like the aforementioned ADMIRAL class transports from Alameda, were intended to ultimately serve as passenger liners after the war but only a few sparingly enjoyed such a purpose. The POPE and her sisters measured 17,800 gt and could carry 5,142 troops. They were 622.5 by 75.5 feet with a draft of 25.5 feet and were armed with no less than 28 guns of varying power. Dual boiler and engine rooms drove twin screws via geared turbines at a speed of 21 knots. And while both GENERALs and ADMIRALs enjoyed eye-pleasingly balanced silhouettes with twin funnels, this class was more dynamic looking, with taller funnels and raked bows.
Ironically, the POPE, the first in her platform, has quietly outlasted all of her sisters, except the nearly equally long-lived 1944-built GENERAL W.P. RICHARDSON, by well over two decades. The RICHARDSON was the only one of the class to become a bonafide ocean liner and ultimately a cruise ship, having sailed for American Export Lines as the LA GUARDIA, Hawaiian Textron as LEILANI, American President Lines as the PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT, Chandris Cruises as the ATLANTIS, Eastern Steamship and Admiral Cruises as the EMERALD SEAS and a few lesser incarnations until her final service as the OCEAN EXPLORER I. That ship, which was vastly altered over the years, was broken up at Alang in 2005. Two fellow P2-S2-R2s, the GENERAL W.H. GORDON and the GENERAL M.C. MEIGS, served as austerity liners immediately after World War Two but neither went on to their proposed conversions as proper American President Liners. These powerful looking ships were apparently too costly and difficult to operate in commercial service with their dual power plants and heavy hull plating.
In her two years of World War Two service, the POPE steamed to nearly every corner of the earth, then spent a year repatriating troops until going into temporary lay up in New York’s reserve fleet.
In 1950, she was reactivated by the Military Sea Transport Service for Korean War duty until 1955 and in 1958, she was laid up with a number of other P2 vessels at Olympia, Washington. During the Korean War, the POPE received no less than six battle stars for her services.
In 1965, the POPE left for San Francisco where she began trooping voyages to Asia in support of the Vietnam conflict until her final retirement in 1970, when she was laid up at Suisuin Bay. In 1990, she was stricken from the registers and eventually sold for scrap in March of 2010.
With the rest of the tugs assembled, the SHOSHONE crew departed for their day’s work and we rumbled off towards the eerily-lit POPE, where at the northern end of her raft, we disembarked at the bottom of a steep gangway alongside the USNS CAPE GIRARDEAU. This 1968-built former American Mail Lines break bulk cargo ship (ex ALASKAN MAIL) is just one of many fascinating vintage vessels still in “ready reserve” status.
“Only three at a time on the gangway”, we were instructed. Darting flashlights guided our steps as we clambered up to the GIRARDEAU’s foredeck and then over three more vessels until reaching the POPE. With a half moon hovering between her mast and forward funnel, we laid down our gear in the shelter of the POPE’s superstructure.
A crew from MARAD removed the gangway and the POPE’s starboard lines were loosened in succession, from the base of her superstructure to the tip of the fo’c’sle. We formed our cues and synchronously hoisted eight pounds of rope per foot over the tops of rusting bollards and through the hawsers.
The AMERICAN EAGLE pivoted off our stern as the sun began to rise and the line duties continued from the POPE’s starboard promenade to her fantail.
Gradually, the sleek form of the neighboring 1963-built two-island type tanker MOUNT WASHINGTON emerged from the darkness. Yet another good-looking ship tucked away in reserve…
The AMERICAN EAGLE nudged between the two vessels and began to push the four ships on the northern end of the raft away from the POPE. Meanwhile, we undid the POPE’s port lines from the 1956-built USS MONTICELLO, a naval dock landing vessel.
Once cleared of all ties, the POPE was gradually pushed forward and ultimately freed from her raft.
The POPE’s massive funnels cast a long parting shadow over Suisuin’s sheltered waters.
Just ahead lay a motley collection of outmoded but beautiful merchant mariners.
At the end of the next raft lay the rakish, 1964-built S.S. AMERICAN RACER, a former United States Lines cargo ship that has been laid up since 1983.
As the POPE awaited clearance to proceed, the raft behind her was gradually closed. Although I am sure the ship looked magnificent from afar in the morning light, I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone at that moment.
With the AMERICAN EAGLE and her fleetmate SILVER EAGLE on either side, the POPE slowly proceeded past her soon-to-be-former reserve fleetmates. The USNS GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE was at the end of the next raft.
The USNS SHOSHONE led the next gathering, her curvaceous features bathed in the morning sun. Tugs were already alongside to move her to her next berth within the fleet.
The battleship IOWA was next in the line up.
Before much longer, the POPE had passed the last of Suisuin’s silent sentinels as she gained momentum on her short passage to San Francisco.
Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea. With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications. Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India. He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."