Plans for the S.S. America were laid down under the first Maritime Commission contract on August 22, 1938. The builder was to be the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry dock Company, in Newport News Virginia. The America was designed by noted naval architect William Francis Gibbs and constructed for the United States Lines company. She was one of the few ocean liners of the time that had interiors designed by women.
The S.S. America was launched on August 31, 1939 and was sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President of the United States. The America served her owners faithfully for 55 years until she was finally run aground in the Canary Islands in 1994. To this day she sits stranded, and deteriorating.
The S.S. America was the flagship of the United States Lines when she commenced her maiden voyage on August 22, 1940. In less than a year, she was called up to assist the allied efforts during World War II.
After entry in World War II, the United States military was desperate for transport. Non-essential civilian ships were often temporarily employed for use by the armed services.
For the S. S. America, the call would come whilst on cruise to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands. In late May of 1941 she was ordered to return to Newport News to be handed over to the Navy.
The America was moored at Norfolk and acquired by the Navy on June 1, 1941, to be used as a troop transport. The ship was renamed the USS West Point. (AP-23, below right)
During her Naval service she would carry over 350,000 troops – the most of any Navy troopship in service during World War II.
The West Point would also carry Red Cross workers, United Nations officials, children, civilians, prisoners of war, and U.S.O. entertainers.
Eventually she was re-titled the America and returned to the civilian sector. In 1952 she was joined by a sister ship run by United States Lines, the S.S. United States. With the introduction of the larger and faster ship in 1952, America’s reign as queen of the US merchant marine was short-lived.
S.S. United States (background) & S.S. America (foreground)
Post-US service: The Chandris Group
The S.S. America was sold to the Greek-owned Chandris Group in 1964 and renamed “Australis“. At twenty-four years old, she was facing competition from newer, faster ships as well as airplane travel.
The postwar emigrant run from Europe to Australia proved to be a lucrative market for aging passenger ships due to the cheaper cost than air travel. Australis was the last liner providing a regular service from Southampton to Australia and New Zealand until her final voyage on November 18, 1977.
After arriving at Auckland, she was laid up at Timaru on December 23, 1977.
Embarrassing years under Venture Cruises
Following a brief layup in Timaru New Zealand, Australis was sold to Venture Cruises of New York. Under Venture Cruises ownership, the ship was renamed the S.S. America once again in an attempt to capitalize on the ship’s heritage.
Venture Cruises’ S.S. America set off on her first cruise on June 30, 1978. Her refit, however, had not been completed in time for the maiden voyage.
The ship was reportedly filthy, with piles of soiled linens and worn mattresses strewn about. There were scattered piles of trash and plumbing issues resulted in toilet backups.
Water in overhead pipes leaked. Boards on the floor creaked when you walked on them. Doors wouldn’t shut properly. Along with numerous maintenance issues, visible attempts to spruce the ship up hadn’t fared well either.
Multiple layers of exposed paint was visible on the outer bulkheads, lifeboat davits, and lifeboat gear. Additionally, the public rooms were carelessly repainted, the America’s stainless steel trims now scarred with brush strokes.
Customers reported having discovered cockroaches and rats on the ship as well.
Due to overbooking and her incomplete state of repair, a number of passengers immediately mutinied. The captain was forced to return to New York, having only barely just passed the Statue of Liberty. 960 passengers were offloaded upon the ship’s arrival. On a second attempted disembarking later that day, an additional 200 passengers left via tender at Staten Island.
The S.S. America left for a five-day cruise to Nova Scotia on July 3, 1978. When the cruise was over, she was met with $2.5 million in civil claims from passengers. Further issues plagued Venture Cruises and they would eventually scuttle operations. All cruises were cancelled and on July 18th the S.S. America was seized for non-payment of debts.
The America received an inspection score of 6 out of a possible 100 points by the US Public Health Service. On August 28, 1978, the S.S. America was ordered to be sold at auction by the United States district court to satisfy debts.
Second turn at Chandris Lines
Chandris Lines re-purchased the S.S. America for one million dollars and renamed her Italis (“Italian Lady”).
Chandris had the first funnel (stack) removed and Italis operated under Chandris Lines as a hotel ship from June 23 to July 20, 1979 when she was chartered for the OAU Conference held in Monrovia, Liberia.
Italis then carried out three 14-night cruises from Genoa and Barcelona to Egypt, Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean beginning on July 28, 1979.
At the end of this series of cruises she was finally laid up in Elefsina Bay, Piraeus on September 12, 1979.
The Beginning of the End
The ship was sold to Intercommerce Corporation in 1980 and renamed the S.S. Noga. Intercommerce planned to convert the ship into a private contractor-operated prison ship. They intended to anchor the ship in Beirut, but this would never happen.
In September 1984 the ship was sold to Silver Moon Ferries and was again renamed, now called Alferdoss (“paradise” in Arabic).
While under the ownership of Silver Moon Ferries, a rusted bilge pipe burst and caused flooding in the engine room and crew quarters.
The ship started to list quickly; her starboard anchor was raised, her port anchor cut away, and she was quickly beached to prevent her from sinking. After the water was pumped out and repairs were made, she was returned to her original location.
Soon after the demolition of the lifeboats and lifeboat davits, the scrappers defaulted on payments and terminated operations.
The Alferdoss would sit in this state, partially-disassembled, until 1993.
The Final Chapter: Wrecked at Fuerteventura
In February of 1993 the ship was sold yet again with the intention of being re-fitted as a five-star hotel ship off Phuket, Thailand. Dry-docking at that time revealed that despite years of neglect, her hull was still in remarkably good condition. In August she was renamed the American Star, her propellers were removed and placed on the deck, the funnel and bridge were painted red, and ladders were welded to her starboard side.
On New Year’s Eve of 1993, the American Star left Greece for the final time, towed by Ukrainian tugboat Neftegaz 67; the one-hundred day tow began.
The American Star and Neftegaz 67 ran into a thunder storm in the Atlantic. The tow lines broke and six men were sent aboard the American Star to reattach the emergency tow lines. This proved unsuccessful. Two other towboats were called to assist Neftegaz 67. On January 17, the crew aboard the American Star was rescued by helicopter and the ship was left adrift.
On January 18, the ship ran aground off the west coast of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.
While authorities debated their options, the ship was left to her own devices. Storm activity sent violent seas to attack the stranded vessel.
The waves were brutal; within 48 hours of running aground, the pounding surf broke the ship in two just past the funnel. The American Star was declared a total loss on July 6, 1994.
The stern collapsed completely to port and sank in 1996, while the bow continued to remain intact.
In November 2005, the port side of the bow section collapsed, which caused the liner’s remains to assume a much sharper list and the funnel to detach and fall into the ocean.
The collapse of the port side also caused the hull to begin to break up and by October 2006, the wreck had almost completely collapsed onto its port side.
In April 2007 the starboard side finally collapsed causing the wreck to break in half and fall into the sea. Throughout 2007 what little remained had been slowly disappearing beneath the waves. As of February 2010, only about 15 – 20 feet of the bow remained above the water.
Overhead Satellite view & Map: click here
(update 2013: Sadly the S.S. America is no longer visible on Google Maps)
S.S. America Memorabilia
Reader-submitted materials memorializing the S.S. America. Have a piece of her history to share? Let us know! Don’t have a camera or scanner? No problem. Send it to us, we’ll digitize & return your materials to you.
• 1958 Manifest (courtesy S-I reader Thomas Bruce)
Mr. Bruce was kind enough to share with us a copy of the S.S. America ship manifest from its journey between March 16-18th, 1958.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
• 1962 S.S. America Gala Menu (courtesy S-I reader Tony Penn)
Mr. Penn shares with us the Gala dinner menu from his 1962 journey aboard the S.S. America. Tony was a young teenager at the time when this photo was taken during a lifeboat drill procedure (at right).
“I still fondly recall scouring every inch the crew would allow me.”
For full-scan .pdf of the menu, click here. Viewing images below:
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
• S.S. America Luggage Ticket, autographed by Charlie Chaplin (courtesy S-I reader Kim Applebury)
We are thankful to Kim for sending in photos of her S.S. America Cabin Class Stateroom luggage ticket, something we had not seen previously. If that wasn’t enough of a treat, this particular ticket is autographed by Charlie Chaplin.
Fantastic find, thank you Kim for sharing this with us.
Danny sends us this photo from his family’s trip to Cork, Ireland in April of 1954. He tells us they returned on the same ship in February of 1960. Thank you Danny for your submission!
If you have any S.S. America memorabilia you would like to share with the world, please get in touch with us.