Friday, 19 June 2015
Evacuation from Singapore by the USS West Point
Singapore evacuee John Kirkham pointed me to this fascinating summary on Wikipedia regarding the ship he and his mother was on being the UUSS West Point
Having completed her discharge by 31 December 1941, West Point anchored in the stream on the morning of 2 January 1942 and awaited further orders until 4 January, when British authorities asked Captain Kelley, of West Point, if his ship and Wakefield could be brought under fresh water supply—thus endangering the ship's stability. (9.1 m) draught to make passage for Singapore. Kelley responded that it could be done, but this would entail discharging ballast and expelling some of the ship's
Due to prevailing low-water conditions at Bombay at this point, neither West Point nor Wakefield could go alongside piers in the harbor to either load equipment or troops. Thus, the embarkation and loading procedures had to be carried out by the tedious process of embarking troops and loading supplies from smaller ships and lighters brought alongside. Wakefieldembarked – almost to a man – the troops which she had brought from Halifax, a total of 4,506, while West Point embarked two-thirds of the troops which she had transported, in addition to some which had come out in other ships. All told, she carried some 5,272 men.
West Point sailed for Singapore on 9 January, in a "15-knot" convoy, with Captain Kelley as the Convoy Commodore. In addition to the two American ships, three British transports – Duchess of Bedford, Empress of Japan, and Empire Star – made up the remainder of the van. Escorted by British light cruiser HMS Caledon until this ship was relieved by light cruiser HMS Glasgow at 1630 on 22 January, the convoy's escort soon swelled to three cruisers and four destroyers as the convoy neared Java. Japanese submarine activities near the Indonesian archipelago prompted concern for the safe arrival of the valuable ships, hence a ( ) detour through the shallow, coral-studded Sunda Strait.
Led by British cruiser HMS Exeter, the ships slowed to 10 knots ( /h), and streaming paravane gear, began the passage. An escorting destroyer steamed between each transport, as they steamed in single-column order. It was a dangerous passing, a small divergence from the charted course could mean a disastrous grounding.
The screen's commander, Captain Oliver L. Gordon, R.N., commanding Exeter, desired to arrive at Singapore with as many ships as possible by dawn on 29 January, and thus split the convoy up, sending the faster vessels—West Point, Wakefield, and Empress of Japan—ahead at increased speed under escort of cruisers HMS Exeter, HMS Durban, HMS Dragon, and destroyers HMS Express and HMS Electra. Proceeding to Singapore via Berhala Strait, Durian Strait, and Philips Channel, the group steamed through these bodies of water in bright moonlight which made navigational aids unnecessary. Upon their arrival off Singapore, the ships lay to in an exposed position, beyond the range of shore-based antiaircraft guns, until pilots could be obtained to bring the ships in. Since the naval base came under daily heavy air raids, the transports proceeded to Keppel Harbor, the commercial basin at Singapore, where they could discharge their troops and cargo.
Securing abreast godowns (warehouses) 52, 53, and 54, West Point commenced off-loading equipment and disembarking her troops. All but 670 engineer troops, who had been ordered retained on board, were ashore before nightfall. Air raids, meanwhile, continued until midnight as the Japanese steadily pounded Singapore from the air. At each alert, the local workers working dockside would vanish, taking to the shelters and leaving the vital cargo still unloaded. As a result, the unloading was carried out by the crew of West Point, her embarked troops, and 22 local workers who were brought aboard to assist.
On 30 January, seven Japanese bombers appeared over the city and were engaged by British Brewster Buffalo fighters. As the alert continued, 30 more Japanese planes appeared overhead, on course over Keppel Harbor. Several bombs fell on shore, eastward of West Point's moorings, while another stick fell in the water to the southward. In the interim, bombs hit other targets. A small tanker moored near Wakefield was sunk at dockside; bombs fell abreast Empress of Japan; and Wakefield took a direct hit forward which destroyed her sick bay, killed five men and wounded nine. The last bombs in this stick straddled West Point and showered her with shrapnel. As the raid lifted, West Point sent two medical officers and 11 corpsmen on boardWakefield, at the latter's request, to render medical assistance.
Later that morning, Captain Kelley attended a conference with British authorities, who informed him that his ship was to be used to carry a contingent of Australian troops from Suez to Singapore and to transport refugees and evacuees to Ceylon. With the emergency "acute", Kelley agreed to take on board up to one thousand women and children and such additional men as the British desired to send. With the abandonment of the naval dockyard, untenable in the face of increasingly heavier Japanese bombardments from artillery and aircraft, several dockyard naval and civilian personnel and their families were assigned to West Point for evacuation. Most carried only hand baggage; had little, if any, money; but were all fortunate enough to escape the doomed city before its fall to the onrushing Japanese troops of General Yamashita. All told, some 1,276 naval officers, their families, dockyard civilians, civilian evacuees, a 16-man Royal Air Force (RAF) contingent, and 225 naval ratings made up the 1,276 people embarked by 1800 on 30 January.
Clearing Singapore, West Point and Wakefield headed due west, escorted by HMS Durban. Overcast and squally weather covered their departure and permitted them to transit the Banka Strait unmolested by the seemingly omnipresent Japanese aircraft. Routed to Batavia, Java, to embark more refugees, West Point led Wakefield and Durban through the minefields and anchored in Batavia Roads at 0305 on 31 January. HMS Electra—which would be lost in the Battle of the Java Sea 27 February—came alongside eight hours later and transferred 20 naval dockyard personnel, three women, five naval officers' wives, one Free French officer, and an RAF officer to West Point for passage to Ceylon.
At 1240 on 1 February, West Point—in company with Wakefield and under escort of Exeter, HMS Encounter, and HMAS Vampire—got underway. The destroyers eventually went off to perform other duties, and Exeter as well soon dropped away to escort another convoy, leaving the two big troopships on their own. While they were en route, disconcerting news came over the radio. Japanese I-boats (identified after the war as I-162 and I-153) had been active in the vicinity, sinking six ships between them. West Point acquired an extra passenger while en route; for, on 4 February, a baby boy was born on board.
Colombo Harbor, Ceylon, where they arrived on 6 January, was so crowded that British authorities could not permit Wakefield to repair her damage there. The passengers, in turn, experienced much difficulty in arranging for suitable transportation ashore. In addition, neither transport could fully provision.
British authorities requested the American ships to evacuate personnel to Bombay. Accordingly, West Point took on board eight men, 55 women, and 53 children, as well as 670 troops, for passage to India. Wakefield, despite her weakened condition caused by the direct hit on 29 January, embarked two naval ratings, six RAF personnel, and 25 men and one officer of a British Bofors gun detachment. The two ships departed Colombo on 8 February and, escorted by the Greek destroyer Queen Olga, proceeded at 20 knots (/h). Captain Kelley later highly praised the operations of this sole escort. Although heavy weather was encountered en route, the elderly Greek destroyer acquitted herself well, continuing to patrol her station "at all times at high speed ahead of our zig-zag."
After discharging her evacuees at Bombay, West Point parted company with Wakefield and proceeded to Suez where she picked up Australian troops who were being withdrawn from theNorth African Campaign to fight the Japanese in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, one disaster after another had plagued the Allied forces. Singapore fell on 15 February; Java on 4 March. West Point carried her embarked troops to Australia and disembarked them at Adelaide and Melbourne before heading across the Pacific toward San Francisco.
As the Allies built up for the long road back, West Point participated in the effort to aid America's allies in the southwest Pacific with massive contingents of troops. Accordingly, the transport carried men to Wellington, New Zealand, and arrived on 30 May. There, she received orders to return to New York; and she got underway from Melbourne on 8 June, bound for the Panama Canal. She entered the Atlantic on 26 June and arrived at New York on 2 July.
After two voyages to the United Kingdom, West Point sailed for India, via the South Atlantic route, and arrived at Bombay on 29 November, before pushing on for Auckland, New Zealand, the following month.