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Tom Wade Articles
Harris Class APA's
American Forces in WWII

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Harris Class APA's
Harris Class APA's 
by Tom Wade

Military history often overlooks the contributions of those whose efforts are vital to winning, but don't garner the headlines. World War II could not have been won without the logistics tail, transporting and supplying the tip of the spear with everything needed to win. The Harris or 535' Class of Attack Transports were one of the contributors that have been largely in the background when the histories of the great campaigns were first written. This small class of ships earned a total of 48 battle stars and was present at every major invasion throughout the war. Their role, noted in the footnotes of great battle stories deserves telling in more detail.

During World War I it became apparent that fast transports were needed to speed troops to Europe. The U.S. Shipping Board was formed in January 1917 to revamp the American cargo fleet and build ships that could be converted to naval transports if the need arose. Three firms, New York Shipbuilding, Bethlehem Steel and Newport News Shipbuilding were contracted to build a class of 535' long ships to meet this requirement. Between 1919 and 1922, sixteen ships were built. They were steel-hulled; 13,500 ton empty weight and originally designed to carry 550 passengers. The ships displaced 21,000 t. under a full load and were propelled by eight Yarrow header-type boilers, two Curtis type turbines, with twin shafts, and a designed shaft horsepower of 12,000. This allowed them to have a top speed of 17 1/2 knots, making them some of the fastest ships in service in the 1920's.


SS Southern Cross and SS Hoosier State at the fitting out piers adjacent to the shipways at New York Shipbuilding Corp. Shipyard, Camden, NJ
Photographed by the Aero Service Corp., Philadelphia, PA.
US Navy photo # NH 105177. Donation of Charles R. Haberlein Jr., 2007.

Completed to late for service in World War I the ships were released to private steamship lines that configured them as combination passenger and cargo steamships with accommodations for 280 first class and 194 third class passengers, along with 5000 tons of cargo. They spent the next two decades plying routes that served South America, the Pacific and Europe. In the 1930's newer and faster ships and the first attempts at transcontinental air travel began to make the class obsolete.

In 1937 as talk of war loomed the U.S. Government began to plan to place the 535' auxiliaries back in service as troop transports. War broke out in Europe in 1939 and it was decided to place them back in government service. Out of the original sixteen ships, twelve were acquired and converted back into troop transports for use by the U S Army. Several shipyards were contracted to begin the conversion, which proceeded at a slow pace.

Staterooms were stripped out and in their place, bunks were tiered 4 high to accommodate between 1500 and 1900 enlisted men. First class staterooms were converted to carry up to 120 officers in slightly less cramped quarters than the enlisted men. The holds of each ship could carry 2000 tons of material to support the troops in their mission. Gun mounts were welded in the spots where travelers had lounged, and navy gray erased the bright colors of civilian livery. Quarters for the crew that now included gunners and boat handlers were enlarged to carry 650 officers and men, and became as cramped as the space allowed for the transport passengers. Armament originally consisted of 4 x 3"/50 caliber dual-purpose guns placed front and back in raised gun tubs near the cargo holds and one single 5"/38 dual purpose gun on the fantail, that would soon replaced by either a quad 1.1 or quad 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. .50 Caliber machine guns were later replaced as the threat of air attack became paramount, by eight single barrel 20mm automatic cannon, mounted along the upper superstructure.

1940 saw the ships handed over to the U.S. Navy who retained the names the Army chose for the ships already commissioned, and named the Harris AP-8 and Zeilin AP-9, for Marine officers. Conversion proceeded slowly through 1940 and 1941; the priority was for capitol ships to meet the immediate threat seen by the Navy. Some ships, like the USS Zeilin was acquired by the Navy in July 1940 and finally commissioned in January 1942.

December 7, 1941 came like a bolt of lightening that shook the soul of all Americans. Any last minute alterations were postponed and all 12 ships were placed in service. The first months of World War II saw the transports carrying troops to Hawaii and training along both coasts. The class was originally named the Wharton Class after the lead ship USS Warton AP-7. The role initially intended was to be troop transports ferrying troops to ports in distant outposts.

The Pacific War and the decision to launch an invasion to eject the Axis from North Africa changed the role of the ships and created the need for a new type of ship, the attack Transport. Shipyards went to work adding cradles for Higgins boats along the promenade deck and the ships were rigged for rope ladders.

At the outbreak of the war these ships were already older than most of their crews and future passengers. The strength and endurance of this class of ship will be come clear as we examine the history of each ship in the class.

USS Wharton AP-7 ex- Southern Cross began its wartime service transporting troops to Hawaii and returning with personnel and families. During the summer of 1942, the Wharton made several trips to ports in the South Pacific carrying troops and supplies. After a short overhaul lasting two months, she was dispatched to carry troops to Dutch Harbor and return with troops and patients. Beginning in February 1943, the Wharton sailed to the South Pacific where she spent the rest of the year making five trips between the West Coast and dozens of ports in support areas. In 1944 she was pressed into service to carry service to carry assault troops at Kwajalein. She had not been re-fitted to carry landing craft and had to transfer her charges to LST to be carried ashore. She went on the support landing operations at Guam and evacuated wounded to Eniwetok. After the Marianas operation, the Wharton returned for an overhaul and spent the rest of the war carrying personnel back and forth between ports in the Pacific and the West Coast. She was in Operation "Magic Carpet, and ended her career transporting observers to the Bikini Atoll for the atomic bomb tests. She was struck from the Navy lists in April 1947. She earned 3 battle stars. Because she was not re-fitted as an attack transport, she remains a member of her own class along with the next two ships.


US Navy photo # NH 102888, a US Navy photo from the collections of the US Naval Historical Center.

AP 42 Tasker H. Bliss and AP 43 Hugh L. Scott had almost identical careers. They were both began the war making five and four voyages respective from the West Coast to ports in the Pacific. They were both taken over by the Navy in August 1942 and converted to assault transports. Both were commissioned in September and prepared to carry the troops for Operation Torch the invasion of North Africa. Arriving off Fedhala, Morocco on November 8 1942. Four days later as they lay at anchor in Fedhala Roads a German submarine U-130 slipped in and fired five torpedoes at three transports, the Edward Rutledge (AP-52), Hugh L. Scott, and Tasker H. Bliss. The Scott burst into flames and began sinking. The availability of landing craft allowed all but 59 men to escape. The Bliss burned until the morning and finally sank.

One ship, the former Buckeye State, AP 44 Willard A Holbrook, was transferred to the Army and never commissioned.


US Navy photo # BUAIR NWYK 10,039, 12 November 1942. Photo taken from New York (BB-34)

The remaining eight ships took the name of the first to be configured as an assault transport, the USS Harris AP 8. Named for Colonel John Harris of the US Marine Corps, she began the war service ferrying Marines to outposts in the South Pacific. In August 1942 she was transferred to the Atlantic fleet in preparation of Operation Torch as the flagship of the transport force. Arriving off North Africa on November 8, 1942 the Harris quickly disembarked her troops and sailed for home. She was dispatched in December to San Diego and redesignated APA-21 before setting sail to Alaska to support the recapture of Attu from the Japanese. She briefly returned to San Diego and then returned to Alaska to support the unopposed landings on Kiska. In the fall of 1943, the USS Harris sailed for the Pacific and carried reinforcements for the invasion of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. Arriving a day after the initial landings she discharged her troops and evacuated casualties before sailing for Pearl Harbor on December 2nd. Two months passed and the Harris again sailed into harms way, the objective, the Invasion of Kwajalein. After a week of fighting, the successful assault force was re-embarked and the Harris sailed for Hawaii. The summer of 1944 found the Harris off the shore of Saipan supporting the invasion force. Before the end of the year, the Harris had landed troops in a diversionary landing during the Invasion of Palau Islands and then embarked elements of the 1st Cavalry Division for the Philippines. She remained active around the Philippines for the next several months before becoming part of Rear Admiral Hall's Southern Attack Force at Okinawa. As part of the initial invasion force, the Harris's crew fought off many enemy suicide attacks as several other ships were hit. The Harris continued supporting the invasion force by evacuating wounded and returning with fresh troops and supplies for the remainder of the war. She finished her career carrying occupation troops to Japan and its former outposts. The Harris won 10 battle stars for her service.

AP 9 soon to be designated APA-3, was the USS Zeilin, Ex-President Jackson of the American President Line. She may have had the most battle experience of all the ships of this class.


Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1973, U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Commissioned in January 1942 with a crew made up of a few old hands and many new recruits the Zeilin spent the first few months working out the bugs in shakedown cruises along the coast. After a quick trip to deliver troops to Samoa in April, she returned to San Diego and fitted out for her next mission. Several more anti-aircraft guns were mounted and more crew added. On July 8 1941 the Zeilin sailed for Suva in the Fiji Islands where she would transport the 3rd Marine Defense Battalion as part of Task Force 62 to Guadalcanal.

After unloading her charges on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, the Zeilin sailed to New Caledonia where she continued to make supply runs in support of the operations on Guadalcanal.


On October 11 as the Zeilin was unloading off Lunga Point, she was straddled by Japanese shore batteries. A month later, on November 11 her luck was seriously challenged again. Nine bombers and twelve fighters were reported inbound. The Zeilin and her consorts were being led north by their escorts when several of the planes peeled off and began to make an attack approach. The Zeilin opened fire with her 3 inch and 20 mm guns and was able to fend off the attackers but suffered three near misses that ruptured several plates in the hull and resulted in some flooding.

Below is a partial copy of the After action report, filled November 11, 1942.

FIRST ATTACK

This vessel in company with U.S.S. BETELGUESE and LIBRA, escorted by ATLANTA and Destroyer Division TWELVE, arrived off the designated unloading area east of Lunga Point, Guadalcanal Island, anchored, and commenced unloading at 0540.

At 0857 a radio message reported that enemy bombers and fighters were headed for Guadalcanal; subsequently a message by radar set the arrival time at 0935.

The ship ordered boats to remain clear and at 0919 proceeded to get underway. At 0936 enemy planes were observed coming in over the western tip of the island and ten were identified as dive bombers, type Aichi 99-N-DB. The fighters were to high to be accurately counted, however a message reported twelve.

At 0940 the hip commenced firing 3"/50 cal. AA batteries using 1.5 second fuse settings. The enemy planes took diving formation and proceeded to peel off. One was hit by shrapnel and the port wing was afire. This plane did not dive. Five planes dived on this vessel, releasing bombs at approximately 1,200 feet. There were three near misses registered on the ship; two on the port side - one about amidships, the other aft; and one on the starboard side at about frame 45 opposite No. 8 hatch, depth about 15-30 feet. The ship suffered severely from this bomb.

A second attack later in the afternoon was repulsed and after making emergency repairs, the Zeilin carried casualties to Espiritu Santo and then sailed via Tutuila, Samoa to San Pedro, California.

Repairs complete, the Zeilin sailed for Alaska in April 1943 with the men of the U S Army 7th Infantry Division for the invasion of Attu where she supported the initial landings.

Returning to California in the summer of 1943 the Zeilin took a break from the real war to be part of the reel war by playing herself in the movie Guadalcanal Diary. Several of the crew acted as extras in the shipboard scenes. Her movie career over, the Zeilin returned to Alaska with the Kiska invasion force only to be turned back when the landing went off unopposed. October 1943 found the Zeilin preparing for the assault on Tarawa. November again turns out to be a challenging month for the men of the Zeilin, their passengers were the 2nd battalion of the 2nd Marines destined to land at Red Beachn on Betio Island. This small landing zone turns out to be the bloodiest day yet in Marine Corp history. The Zeilin and her crew saw the young men they had come to know the past weeks, chopped up as they tried to land across the reef.

 
Troops of the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines, 2d Marine Division, load magazines and clean their weapons enroute to Betio on board the attack transport Zeilin (APA 3).
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

One landing craft from the Zeilin carried a flame thrower crew to burn out enemy snipers on the pier, for which several crew members were decorated.


Captain and crew of Zeilin (APA 3) pause on D-Day to commit casualties to the deep. The three dead men (two Marines and a Navy surgeon), were found in a derelict LVT drifting through the transport area, 10 miles away from the beaches.
LtGen Julian C. Smith Collection

The shock of carnage must have taken its toll on the crew of the attack transports. The natural animosity between the Navy and Marines that harkened back to the days of sail, was washed away with the sight of torn bodies of young men returning to the ship that bore them. The crews vowed to remain even more distant on future voyages so as to preserve their sanity.

After “Bloody Tarawa”, the Zeilin drew another assignment to carry their old friends the 7th Infantry Division to Kwajalein Atoll. Short work by the Army allowed the “Mighty Z” as she was known to depart for Hawaii in 7 days. The next six months was filled with carrying troops and supplies, between ports, broken only by the invasion of Guam. Early 1945 found the Zeilin off San Fabian, Luzon in the Philippine Islands. It was during this time while in a convoy that the Zeilin came to know the real taste of war. A single Japanese Kamikaze attacked the convoy, and after missing another ship slammed into the cargo loading equipment next to the number 6 cargo hatch. The fuselage of the airplane spun and crashed into the starboard side of the upper deckhouse. The plane exploded and started several fires, which were quickly controlled. The physical damage to the ship was confined to the upper deck and superstructure worst of all, seven men were killed, three missing and thirty wounded. The ship continued in the convoy and completed its assignment at Leyte and after temporary repairs, sailed for Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands.

March 1945, came with the Zeilin off Iwo Jima, landing reinforcements and evacuating wounded Marines. The wear and tear was beginning to take its toll and the Zeilin sailed for San Francisco for an overhaul in preparation of the invasion of Japan.

The war ended before she saw any more action. The Zeilin spent the next year as a transport between ports on the West Coast. After earning 8 battle stars the Zeilin was retired and scrapped in 1948.

The next ship in this class was AP-25 soon to become APA-12 the USS Leonard Wood, named for the US Army Chief of Staff, 1910-1914. The Wood went on to earn 8 battle stars during the war. She began her war career in November 1941, carrying Canadian troops to British outposts in the Far East. After unloading troops in Bombay and Singapore, she was able to slip back to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in March 1942 for conversion to an attack transport.

 
Leonard Wood (APA-12) underway, starboard bow view, 28 April 1944, off the coast of southern California. Her paint is camouflage scheme 32/4T.
US Navy photo # 6206 US Naval Air Station, San Pedro, CA. 

Conversion was completed and the Wood trained throughout the summer of 1942 for Operation Torch. She sailed from Hampton Roads with almost 1900 men of the 3rd Infantry division. During the landings in French Morocco the Wood provided gunfire support and sent boats to rescue survivors of her sister ships, the Tasker Bliss and Hugh Scott that had been torpedoed the night before.

After discharging her duties the Leonard Wood sailed for Norfolk for a refit and then began training for her next assignment. The summer of 1943 she was off the coast of Sicily in the Woods Hole sector. The Wood's crew kept up a constant barrage against incoming German aircraft and helped to shoot down three. After three days, her work complete the Wood sailed for home. The month of August saw her undergoing a refit and in September she sailed for the Pacific where she remained to participate in seven amphibious assaults. Those landings in order were: Gilbert and Marshall Islands, the Invasion of Saipan, the Palaus and Leyte, Lingayen Gulf and finally the Mindoro Island assault February 9, 1945.

Returning to San Francisco for repairs the Leonard Wood spent the final year of her life making runs between Manila and Tokyo. She won eight battle stars and was retired and scrapped in 1948.

The USS Joseph T Dickman, APA-13 spent most of her career in the European Theatre, supporting amphibious assaults in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Normandy and Southern France. She sailed for the Pacific in January 1945 and began training for the invasion of Okinawa. During the landings she stood offshore and fought off air attacks while unloading her cargo. Withdrawn from Okinawa the ship returned to San Francisco with veterans rotating home. Refitted as a casualty evacuation ship she was still in San Francisco when the war ended. The Joseph T Dickman was awarded six battle stars for her service.

Hunter Liggett, a US Army General was the name given to the former SS Pan America when the Army purchased her in 1939. She was turned over to the Navy and commissioned AP-27 in 1941 and again redesignated APA-14 in 1943.

Given a Coast Guard crew the ship sailed into the Pacific to take part in Operation Watchtower, the invasion of Guadalcanal. The Liggett carried troops for the second wave, but sent her own boats to assist in the first wave. The following days were filled with danger as Japanese planes attacked the invasion force. Three days later the Liggett joined other ships in rescuing the survivors of the Battle of Savo Island where three crusiers the, Vincennes, Astoria, and Quincy were lost. For the rest of the year the Hunter Liggett plied the waters around Guadalcanal as she carried reinforcements and supplies to the beleaguered Marines. Coming under fire several times and fighting off air attacks the Hunter Liggett escaped damage and loss of life to complete her mission. Remaining in the South Pacific during 1943 the Liggett was again called into action when she joined the amphibious operation for the Invasion of Bougainville.

After Bougainville she picked up wounded at Espiritu Santo and sailed for San Francisco where she under went a major overhaul. April of 1944 saw her in a new career as an amphibious training ship teaching lessons learned in the South Pacific to others who would conduct the next missions. The end of the war saw the Hunter Liggett joining her sisters in Operation Magic Carpet, bringing troops home from the war. She earned four battle stars for her service and was scrapped after the war.

The next ship APA-30 Henry T Allen had a career much like several of her sister ships participated in Operation Torch. Assigned the Northern Attack Force she unloaded her troops off Mehedia, near strategic Port Lyautey. Following the North African landings, the Henry T Allen was transferred to the Pacific, where she reverted to a transport, and carried US and Australian troops in support of operations in New Guinea. After one final amphibious assault at Wakde-Sarmi, the Henry T Allen was made a flagship and became the floating administrative base for the 7th Amphibious Force and reclassified AG-90 in February 1945. The Henry T Allen earned four battle stars and within two years joined her sisters in the scrap yard.

The J Franklin Bell began her life as the Keystone State, then became the President McKinley when sold to the Pacific Steamship Line. The Army bought her back in 1940, named her in honor of a former Army Chief of Staff and started conversion to a troop transport. The first months of war consisted of hauling reinforcements to Alaska and Hawaii. In the fall she joined the task force that would support the landings to recapture the Aleutian Islands. The next four months was consumed with landing troops in seas strewn with submerged rocks and peasoup fog. The fall of 1943 saw the J Franklin Bell sailing towards the Gilbert Islands and Tarawa Atoll. Although not part of the initial landing force, the Bell came under shore fire and was forced to retire to await better conditions to land her troops. January found the Bell joining her sister ship APA-3 Zeilin in the invasion of Kwajalein.

Quick work by the men of the 7th Infantry Division allowed her to depart for Hawaii on February 8 with over 2000 men. The next operation was the island of Saipan, where the Bell , arriving the day after the initial assault landed supplies and reinforcements. Remaining in the area she loaded Marines at Saipan for an assault on nearby Tinian.

The final year of the war AP-16 supported landings at Leyte and Okinawa, where she escaped harm. The end of the war saw her makings several voyages across the Pacific as a troop transport. Six battle stars were awarded for the six invasions.

The last ship of the Harris Class retained its original name American Legion in honor of the veteran's organization. She earned two battle stars and had a career that was different from her sisters. She was put in military service before the war and made five voyages to the Panama Canal with military passengers.

In early 1941 she received a special mission at the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proceed to Petsamo Finland to pick up Crown Princess Märtha of Norway and her party and bring them to the United States. The ship marked with a huge US Flag arrived in Petsamo and embarked the princess along with American nationals and refugees from many countries for a total of 897 souls. But unknown to all, was a special cargo that would mean lives saved in future battles. That cargo was a twin-mount 40-millimeter Bofors antiaircraft gun, spare parts and 3000 rounds of ammunition. This special shipment made it possible for the United States to secure the plans to build the excellent Bofors anti-aircraft gun. As the last neutral ship permitted to leave Petsamo the American Legion fulfilled two vital missions and arrived home in 12 days.


US National Archive photo # 19-N-25097, a US Navy photo from the Bureau of Ships Collection now in the National Archives

The next few months of 1941 saw the ship carrying Marines and aircraft to Iceland and enduring a breakdown that required being towed back to port. A long stay in port was followed, by being sent to the Pacific in early 1942. Along with her sister ships she landed elements of the 5th Marines on Guadalcanal during Operation Watchtower. The days that followed were filled with constant air attacks, one of which resulted in the death of a crewman. In bittersweet revenge, the attacking aircraft was shot down by the American Legion. The early morning hours of August 9 were filled with flares and tracers off to the north. The crew was witnessing the Battle of Savo Island, and the next morning picked up the surviving crew of the sunken USS Quincy CA-39 and carried them to Noumea, New Caledonia.

The following three months were filled with supply runs with port calls all over the South Pacific. It was during this time that a landing accident claimed the lives of ten men, when a boat capsized in heavy surf.

The final amphibious assault conducted by the American Legion was during the invasion of Bougainville. She was again touched by tragedy when an LCPL was strafed and lost. This was followed the next day by grounding while trying to maneuver close to the beach to recover stranded landing craft. Japanese aircraft appeared overhead and the rest of the task force fled seaward. The American Legion assisted by two fleet tugs, fought off the attack and worked herself free by mid-afternoon.

Having logged 83,140 nautical miles since leaving New York in the spring of 1943, the American Legion sailed for San Francisco and a major overhaul. The ship, aged after twenty-two years of service was assigned to the Transport Training Division, Amphibious Training, Pacific, based in San Diego. She spent the rest of the war training others to carry the war to the home islands of Japan. She made one last voyage after the war, across the Pacific to Guam before returning to port and eventual decommissioning in March of 1946. Two battle stars were awarded for service.

The story of the Harris Class is unique; they were built for an earlier war and ended fighting in their elder years. Most of the men who crewed and were carried by these ships were not even born when they were launched. It is a testament to the shipbuilding skill of the shipyards that they were able to survive great damage; as in the Zeilin, sail months without repair; as the American Legion. And in every operation land thousands of men onto enemy shores and supply them with all the material of war. The Harris Class became the perfect substitute until newer ships were launched. In Human terms they were late middle aged when asked to serve the country and they did it with class. Every ship in today's “Gator Navy” can trace their lineage back to this first class of Attack Transports.

This article is dedicated to my father Jay B. Wade, who joined the Navy December 8, 1941 and served on the USS Zeilin from June 1942 until May 1944.
* * *

Copyright © 2008 Tom Wade.

Written by Tom Wade. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Tom Wade at:
tom.wade@sbcglobal.net.

About the author:
Tom Wade is a Vietnam veteran with 30-year career in global logistics. He recently reinvented hisself by obtaining a Masters degree in history. His current goal is to spend the rest of his life connecting echo boomers to a future worth creating, by understanding the past. He resides in California, is a member Small Wars Council, and contributor to various blogs.

Published online: 04/13/2008.
© 2014 MilitaryHistoryOnline.com, LLC Contact Brian Williams at: militaryhistoryonline@hotmail.com