| 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2008 Tom Wade.
Written by Tom Wade. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Tom Wade at:
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.