Clipper’s Final Journey
A ship that served as an attack vessel, luxury liner and floating classroom will live a fourth life as an artificial reef.
By Stephen Curley
Last December in a Brownsville wrecking yard, a TV crew was interviewing me about the Texas Clipper I. Behind me, its rusting hull glistened in the light rain. Literary critics call that the pathetic fallacy: You know, when the sky, too, seems filled with tears during a burial service. And now my old ship was being gutted for sinking as an artificial reef.
Well, no tears for me. My Irish heritage prompts me to treat funerals as celebrations of life. For several years, I’ve been talking to those who sailed the ship during its three separate careers. So I conjured up images of the WWII navy ship Queens, the luxury liner Excambion and the merchant marine training vessel Texas Clipper. In all their stories, that hollow ghost ship is once again filled with people and skipping over the waves.
USS Queens (1944–1946): Country
Jeanne Fogle, a secretary who earned the honor by selling $105,250 worth of war bonds, stood on a bunting-lined platform by the 13,200-ton attack transport at Bethlehem-Sparrows Point Shipyard, near Baltimore. It was September 12, 1944. “I christen thee the Queens,” she proclaimed, then squinted and smashed the champagne bottle across its bow. The 473-foot-long and 66-foot-wide ship slid down the greased ways and settled gracefully into the water. Three months later, on December 16, the commissioned ship boarded its crew of 49 officers and 504 men.
The USS Queens (APA 103) was an attack transport, with emphasis on the word attack. It was designed to help capture Pacific islands and eventually invade Japan. Although it carried 24 20-mm, four 40-mm and two 5-inch guns, its main offensive weapons were two dozen landing boats. When each of these Higgins boats made contact with the shore, its hinged bow slapped down, and 36 assault troops could hit the beach running. The Queens’ ancillary job was to keep troops (up to 1,500 of them at a time) and cargo (1,600 tons of equipment, ammo, food, medicine and the like) flowing to the front.
Cruising at a speedy 16.5 knots, the Queens soon gave its crew their first look at Pearl Harbor - the reason America got into the war in the first place. They were stunned. “It was frightening,” remembered radioman Arnold Fleshood. “As we sailed by, we could see much of the wreckage and damage done. Little had been cleared. It was a real eye opener. ‘Here it is; I’m in it,’ I thought.”
The Queens’ most perilous operation was hitting Red Beach at the foot of Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. The ship arrived in time for the last organized Japanese air attack on March 26. Fortunately, Japanese Betty Bombers, headed right for the ship’s convoy, could not get past American Black Widow P-61 fighter planes. The Queens never fired at the enemy, but did take aboard 26 stretcher cases - wounded Marines - hoisting them up gently up over the rails, then below to sick bay. Tragically, one died of a gut wound before the ship arrived at the hospital at Guam.
At Pearl Harbor, when the war ended, the Queens added its flares and booming guns to the celebration. Instead of invading Japan, it became part of the postwar occupying force. The Queens was one of the first ships to enter the submarine port at Sasebo, Japan, an uncomfortably close 30 miles from Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb had exploded just a month earlier.
A 70-pound black-and-white mutt named Moe was adopted as the Queens’ mascot. “He knew the different calls on the ship and when GQ [General Quarters, or battle stations] was called he disappeared. No one knew where he hid. Chow call was one he really knew and he always showed up for chow,” recalled Coxswain Joe Edwards. Fed snacks by the crew, Moe developed a sweet tooth.
For its final military mission, Operation Magic Carpet, Queens returned more than 6,000 Americans stateside. At the port of Los Angeles, Moe - wearing miniature navy blues - upstaged all returnees. When a reporter asked if the dog was sailor enough to drink beer, Edwards smeared chocolate on a beer bottle. Moe reared up and stared devotedly at the bottle. The photo of the alleged beer-drinking pooch made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Moe later went home with Edwards.
The Queens was decommissioned on June 10, 1946, at Norfolk, Virginia. It earned the American campaign, Asiatic-Pacific campaign, Navy Occupation service and World War II victory ribbons. During the war there were more than 230 attack transports - workhorses of the amphibious fleet. Today only five remain - one of them is the Queens.
Excambion (1948–1959): Commerce
American Export Lines retrieved the Queens from the reserve fleet and sent it to Bethlehem Steel’s shipyard in Hoboken, New Jersey, for re-conversion into a combi-liner. It would carry 250 people - half passenger and half crew - along with 4,400 tons of dry cargo plus 30,000 cubic feet of refrigerated perishables.
On December 3, 1948, the renamed SS (Steamship) Excambion embarked on its maiden voyage. It was now - with identical sister ships Excalibur, Exeter and Exochorda - one of the famous postwar Four Aces. The ships made 45-day roundtrip voyages between New York City and Mediterranean ports like Barcelona, Marseille, Beirut, Alexandria, Piraeus, Naples and Genoa.
America had the premier merchant marine fleet in the world and the Excambion was top of the line - the first fully air-conditioned liner - featuring convertible staterooms (“living rooms by day - bedrooms at night”), and an illuminated, tiled swimming pool. Henry Dreyfuss, the brain behind the dial telephone, the upright vacuum cleaner and “Democracity” inside the Perisphere of the 1939 World’s Fair, designed the ship’s country-club interior. The Excambion operated on the principle of American democracy - every passenger traveled first class.
Outbound, the Excambion might carry 200 crated American automobiles plus manufactured goods for the European market; inbound, the Med’s riches of olive oil, cork, marble, canned fish and oranges for the American market. For as little as $850 (or as much as $2,240) you could purchase a month and a half of deckchair leisure. Passengers spent 1-3 days in each port (far different from today’s frantic 3- to 5-hour cruise-ship stopovers) while cargo was being loaded and unloaded. According to deck cadet Robert Meurn, it was quite the party ship with, ahem, “much dating of officers and passengers.”
In 1956, things started to look bad for the Excambion. Middle East turmoil was scaring off passengers, airplane passengers for the first time outnumbered shipboard passengers crossing the Atlantic, and the advent of the containership promised to make piece-by-piece cargo ships obsolete. Two years later, when the first passenger jets made the crossing in 10 hours as opposed to the liner’s 10 days, the end was near.
After the Excambion completed its 68th cruise on March 12, 1959, with only 56 passengers, the once-sensational ship was towed to the Hudson River reserve fleet.
Texas Clipper I (1965–1996): Education
Six years later, the Texas Maritime Academy (forerunner of Texas A&M University at Galveston) was in need of a ship to train merchant marine cadets as third mates or third assistant engineers. The Excambion got the nod and was towed to Galveston. The ship was officially renamed the USTS (United States training ship) Texas Clipper.
Its first 10-week training cruise in June 1965 was a doozie. After only a month in the shipyards to compensate for a half-dozen years of neglect, the boilers malfunctioned, the evaporator wouldn’t produce fresh water, and - no less important - toilets wouldn’t flush. One officer called the ship “a bloody mess.” It broke down four times, but it carried cadets to Northern Europe and back again.
Over the next three decades, the Clipper traveled mostly to nearby Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean ports, but also to Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, and once to the Pacific through the Panama Canal. Its distinctive hull, painted Aggie maroon in 1976, was recognized the world over. In an era when most ships looked like boxes or floating apartment complexes, the Clipper stood out as a classic beauty from its sharp raked bow to overhanging counter stern. The ship attracted tourists wherever it went.
The Clipper was my floating classroom - I taught composition to freshmen cadets - and home for 12 summer cruises. I remember being wished bon voyage by Jacques Cousteau in 1974; being initiated as a shellback in 1978 when we crossed the Equator; listening to novelist James Michener give a guest lecture to my students in 1984; watching one of our former cadets, Ann Sanborn, sail as the first-ever woman captain of a U.S.-flag deep-sea vessel in 1988. I even sailed on the so-called farewell cruise of 1993, which turned out to be one year premature.
In time, even the best of ships grow too old to face the rigors of the forever-young sea. On August 4, 1994, more than a half-century after its keel was laid, the Texas Clipper hobbled home from its 30th and final training cruise to be used as a permanently moored dormitory. Two years later, the ship - renamed Texas Clipper I to distinguish it from its replacement - was towed to what seemed oblivion in Beaumont. It was then the oldest active ship in the American merchant marine fleet.
Artificial Reef (2007–?): New Life
After a decade in the lay-up fleet, it was now in the knacker yard. I took my last slow walk down the gangway and paused by the ship’s starboard side. The rain had stopped. I stood at attention in the mud and snapped a salute to a distinguished vessel that had sailed more than 1.3 million miles for six all-too-short decades. The faces of tens of thousands of officers, crew members, passengers and cadets - from 1944 on - wafted through my mind.
And then it struck me. This isn’t the end, but the beginning of a new job as an underwater reef, nurturing the sea’s flora and fauna. Seems the Queens/Excambion/Texas Clipper is destined always to be full of life - my ship, their ship, our ship. Maybe it was just my imagination, but at that instant I could swear that, through a crevice in the clouds, the sun’s rays shone out briefly and beautifully.
Clipper’s Last Secret Revealed: Saul Steinberg Mural
In 1948, artist Saul Steinberg, whose cartoon-map View of the World from 9th Avenue may be the most famous cover ever to grace New Yorker magazine, drew a 20-foot wide cartoon mural for the cocktail bar aboard the Excambion. In the 1970s when interior designers “remuddled” the room aboard what was then the Texas Clipper, the mural was believed destroyed.
But in January 2007, as the ship was being prepared for reefing, the “lost” mural was found. All these years, it had been hiding under layers of wallpaper, paint and bolts. Some of the overlay has been peeled back to reveal exciting portions of the mural - including lively images of passengers, ships, the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Experts are now trying to determine how much of this damaged work of art can be restored.