It was a seemingly normal Friday morning this past April 16, when I settled in with fresh cup of roast and began to browse my e-mails. Business as usual until a friend from San Francisco wrote, “Hi Peter, One of those great two stack military ships from Suisuin Bay just arrived outside my office for drydock, I’ll get some photos and send them to you. Hope you are well, James.”
My barely caffeinated jaw unhinged and shattered the desk. Surely, he was mistaken, for the last P2 transports — those wonderful twin funneled ocean liner prototypes built for World War two trooping duties — were not scheduled to leave the Suisuin Bay Reserve Fleet until midsummer. Just a few weeks prior, I had contacted the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) requesting to see them before their journey to Brownsville, TX, where they would be recycled.
The photo attached to James’ next e-mail verified which of the two vessels had arrived at BAE Systems’ drydock for cleaning of toxic paint from her keel before continuing onward to Brownsville. And, then, yes, as my surprised friend at MARAD soon confirmed, both P2s had been sold for scrap in March, much earlier than expected.
There was not much time to arrange a visit to our subject, the USNS GENERAL EDWIN D. PATRICK, which would be in San Francisco through April 29 (and could possibly depart sooner). I had a press trip scheduled the following week in the U.K. for the christening of the CELEBRITY EQUINOX and might miss her entirely if I did not act immediately. After some deliberation, I jumped into my car with a friend who was visiting from New York and raced up Interstate 5 to San Francisco, where another friend put us up for the weekend. Even without permission to visit the ship, I could at least get some photos and video from the basin across from the yard, should the PATRICK depart before I could return.
All Photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2010 unless otherwise noted. Please click on image for a larger version to appear.
I’ve always held a special fascination for the P2 transports — underneath their parched gray paint were the hulls and superstructures of undeniably handsome passenger ships. There were two types: the P2-S2-R2s, eleven of which were built in Kearny, New Jersey (more on those in another Sea Treks) and the P2-SE2-R1s, eight of which, including the PATRICK, were manufactured in Alameda, California. The long term goal was to introduce these vessels into needed troop and repatriation service and then possibly distribute them among U.S. passenger shipping lines in peace time, where they would be converted into bona fide liners. The inverse, of course, was that most U.S.-built liners were designed to serve as troopships, should the need arise.
For a number of economic and logistical reasons, only a handful of P2s were completed as liners or converted for civilian duty, the majority continuing in military service until being laid up in the late 1960s.
Wikipedia and a few other sites have done a fine job of detailing the histories of most of these ships, so I will just provide the basics about the PATRICK’s long career. She was built as the U.S. Army Transport ADMIRAL C.F. HUGHES by the Bethlehem-Alameda Shipyard and commissioned on January 31 1945. Ten of these ships were planned but only eight were completed as such. The war had ended by the time the ninth and tenth were underway and these were ultimately completed as American President Lines’ splendid PRESIDENT WILSON and PRESIDENT CLEVELAND. TV aficionados would know them from the “The Gale Storm Show” and film buffs can catch glimpses of the WILSON in the Sophia Loren/Marlon Brando yawner, “Countess From Hong Kong”.
The ADMIRALs were 608.9 feet long by 75.5 feet wide and drew 26.6 feet of water. They had twin screws driven by turbo-electric steam power plants capable of 19,000 shp for a service speed of 19 knots. These vessels were manned by a crew of 356 and capable of carrying 5,217 troops and 100,000 cubic feet of cargo. They also had 26 gun mounts to support a variety of defense weaponry.
The ADMIRAL C.F. HUGHES spent her first six months in Pacific duty, then made a voyage to Europe before returning to the Pacific. In June of 1946, she was decommissioned and renamed USAT GENERAL EDWIN D. PATRICK for the US Army Transport Service and returned to Pacific duties serving the West Coast, Hawaii and Asia. In 1950, she was transferred to the Navy’s Military Sea Transport Service (MSTS).
The PATRICK was in some respects a proper passenger liner as she carried families and dependents as well as troops. She had a promenade deck, lounges, a shop and dining rooms as well as cabins in addition to dormitory style accommodation.
She steamed until shortly after the escalation of the Viet-Nam War, when all military transport ceded to the airplane. In 1967, she was decommissioned and in 1968, placed in “ready reserve” at Suisuin Bay (near San Francisco). She remained laid up until her sale for scrap in March of 2010 and was moved to BAE Systems on April 15. Of all the ships in her class of transport (including the two PRESIDENT liners), she is/was the last to survive.
On Saturday, April 16, we waited until early afternoon for the right lighting before heading down the hill to document the PATRICK at BAE.
The ship looked quite magnificent up in the air, her lower flanks hidden by the steel casing of the drydock. All this despite, or maybe even in a strange way, enhanced, by the patina of blistered gray paint and decades of unchecked rust dripping from her funnels, superstructure and upper hull. The contemporary of liners like AMERICA (1940), NIEUW AMSTERDAM (1938), the second MAURETANIA (1939) and even the QUEEN ELIZABETH (1940), her balanced profile shared some of the same sculpted elements.
But in most peoples’ eyes, she is/was a toxic, outmoded hunk of steel that needed remediation. As a matter of fact, she is the sixth dilapidated ghost ship to leave Suisuin Bay since October. She follows in the wake of the last four VICTORYs (WINTHORP, EARLHAM, RIDER and PAN AM) and the last T2 tanker (MISSION SANTA YNEZ), with another 35 or so scheduled for demolition by 2012. Bay Area residents who are not avowed shiplovers and preservationists have every right to rejoice over such decisively bold environmental action on the part of MARAD. And, by cleaning these doomed keels of their toxic lead-based paint in San Francisco, the purge provides some much-needed work for the yard and its contractors.
Without advance permission, it was impossible to get access to the yard, so I had to settle for the distant glimpses of the PATRICK before we returned to Los Angeles. I immediately put in a request with MARAD to see the ship when I returned from the UK on the 28th of April. I had also hoped to see her “undocking” on the 29th and subsequent tow out of the Bay to Brownsville. And since the other P2, the GENERAL JOHN S. POPE, was scheduled to be towed from Suisuin Bay to BAE on May 5, I would plan to stay in the hopes of visiting her and capturing her last transit through the brackish waters that have lapped at her forgotten hull for the past four decades.
That Icelandic volcano with the tongue-twisting name scrubbed my trip to the U.K. immediately after I returned to Los Angeles, so I packed the car and drove the 450 or so miles back up to San Francisco (this time along more scenic Highway 101) and literally watched the hills turn from yellow green to yellower green.
MARAD had approved my request to see the ships but the process involved several steps that were still not completed. In the meantime, I made contact with an official at BAE who was kind enough to allow me access to the drydock but not on the ship, herself. The timing was fortuitous as the PATRICK was still in the air and the blasting work was finished. All paint and marine encrustation had been removed from the keel and drydock.
Walking underneath and even touching her ribbed and riveted plating was nothing short of spectacular: two huge screws overhead, arced keel fins, the fine contours of her bow and stern fully exposed. It was the last time this view would ever be seen and the lighting just happened to be perfect.
And then a walk along the top of the dry dock for some parting views. There were so many photos and so much video that still needed to be taken but I am grateful for what I was allowed to do in the half hour or so provided.
Unfortunately, permission did not filter through the MARAD system in time, so that was my only up close encounter with the PATRICK. I will appeal to her breakers for a visit if I can get to Brownsville sometime in June.
On Thursday, April 29, as scheduled, the USNS GENERAL EDWIN D. PATRICK was undocked. I watched from distant Pier 50 as the drydock was gradually lowered. At approximately 11:00 AM, after some three hours, the keel was only partially submerged so workers could inspect for any possible leaks.
I returned at 2:00 PM as PATRICK was being nudged out of the drydock. She was not to leave for Brownsville until the following morning due to high winds off the coast of California.
The light got better and better as the ship was slowly maneuvered. Her profile had gone from back lit classic twin funneled silhouette to genuine, three dimensional, ribbed and rust-streaked liner. The apparition was edged by several tugs into a berth farther inside the yard. I would return the following day for her scheduled departure to the proverbial scaffolds of Brownsville.
The tow was scheduled to depart between 9:00 and 10:00 on Saturday, May 1. I arrived at 8:15, expecting to find a battalion of tugs and an army of linesmen preparing the PATRICK for her final journey. But just a small local tug (not the type of vessel that could handle this large deep sea tow) lingered in a corner of the shipyard. It was obvious that the PATRICK’s departure had been postponed.
As I started to pack up the cameras, someone called my name. It was Frank Cleope, Jr., whose father was the executive chef of APL’s PRESIDENT CLEVELAND. Frank has been keeping track of the PATRICK, the prototype of the long-departed CLEVELAND and her sister, the PRESIDENT WILSON. He has kept his late father’s legacy alive with menus, post cards and APL ephemera as well as some old black and white photos of life on board the CLEVELAND before she was retired and sold overseas in 1973. He witnessed that ship’s final arrival under the Golden Gate and has since maintained contact with some of his father’s fellow staff and crew.
We joked that “all you had to do was blur your eyes” and magically, before us, was one of the two great American President Liners. A local photographer Barton Selby, also appeared and we all watched as that smaller, local tug sealed the PATRICK’s waterline in a protective yellow boon. The tow was not going anywhere, at least not immediately.
Trying to find out when a “dead” ship is due to depart on a weekend is not an easy task. I tried the Marine Exchange, the Pilot Association, the Coast Guard and finally obtained the name of the company handling the tow, Westar Marine. In my series of calls, I was referred to someone who would make the next Sea Trek possible — but more on that later.
Westar verified the departure was delayed until Monday due to 40 knot winds off the coast of California. Well, that gave me a chance to continue seeking a way to get access to the PATRICK. I called and e-mailed everyone I knew for their advice and to see if they had any contacts that might help persuade the powers at BAE to allow me on board. Unfortunately, no such luck, although I was heartened by all the support from my maritime friends.
Late Sunday afternoon, I returned once more to capture the PATRICK in the best possible light before she left. She soaked up every drop of San Francisco’s brilliant sunshine on her last full day in home waters.
The following morning (Monday, May 3), I was back in position at 9:30, watching as the tug ALEXANDRA nudged herself against the PATRICK’s forepeak. Two tugs were alongside and another two were heading toward BAE from Pier 50. Linesmen scurried around the fo’c’sle as a crane lowered others onto the ship via a metal basket. Fumes and the rumble of diesel engines emanated from the backlit scene.
Frank arrived with a fantastic collection of memorabilia from the PRESIDENT CLEVELAND, which we pored over. It was very moving to hear about his late father’s career and the obstacles a Filipino American man overcame in the 1950s to attain his status. Frank does his family legacy and shiplovers a great service by preserving these memories in such a dedicated way.
And then, before we knew it, the PATRICK’s lines were loosened and she was slowly edging forward. My excitement was tinged with a bit of sadness that this scene would never be repeated and a dose of frustration that I literally “missed the boat” in having the chance to properly document those liner-like decks and interiors.
Like an old cow being led to slaughter, the PATRICK seemed reluctant to proceed. She had a slight list to port, her nose in a futile struggle against the ALEXANDRA’s leash.
Frank and I hopped into our cars and raced up the waterfront to the next vantage spot. I thought Rincon Park would be the best place but the wide open expanse of Pier 32 was even better. We drove out to the end, parked, and waited as the convoy approached. Ironically, we were standing at what was left of the old Prudential-Grace Lines pier where the four SANTA combi-liners made their regular calls in the 1970s and early 1980s during their round-South America voyages. One, the SANTA MARIA, was the first ship I sailed in (I used to save my lunch money in junior high school so I could make the overnight voyage from Long Beach to San Francisco) and another, the SANTA MAGDALENA, was Frank’s father’s last ship.
Eyes blurred once more, we watched as the reluctant ghost appeared, passing us with Alameda brightly lit behind her.
The northbound tow slowly slipped under the Bay Bridge, in every way the reverse of an iconic APL image of a sparkling southbound PRESIDENT liner at night.
Frank and I parted ways as he raced off to the Marina and I beamed myself toward the lookout point just east of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every stop light was met with a curse and a groan until I finally reached the spot, albeit with plenty of time to spare. As a matter of fact, the gusty conditions made me wonder if the tow might at some point turn back.
Ever so slowly, PATRICK was nudged to the sea lanes north of Alcatraz, disappearing behind “The Rock” for several minutes and then struggled against the wind and currents to make a very slow passage through the far end of the Gate.
There were no fireboats or throngs of revelers for this passage into history, although a couple did stop to ask me why I was documenting “that derelict ship”. When I explained, they seemed to understand, lingering a while before rejoining their tour.
Next stop, the western lookout to catch the ship with the cliffs of Marin behind her. She was going so slowly, I decided I could actually make it to Land’s End for the final views of her transit. From there, she passed Point Bonita light station and turned in a broad arc on a southbound course into a white-capped, green Pacific. A Coast Guard cutter bounced alongside, perhaps assessing the tow, then continued on its northbound course. After some three hours of chasing her from the tow’s starting point of BAE, my last view of the PATRICK was from the USS SAN FRANCISCO memorial, an ironic place to bid farewell to a ship that also did honorable service and touched many lives.
Very special thanks: BAE Systems, Frank Cleope, Martin Cox, Dennis Deisinger, Rob Di Stefano, Esteban, Mary Ferlin, Erhard Kohler, Steve Perry, San Francisco Bay Pilots Association, Doug Satterblom, Randy Sautner, James Tagliani, US Coast Guard, Barbara Voulgaris, Westar Marine
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."