Travel Log: Dueling Warships (Part 3)

Travel Log 2

(Niceville, Florida; March 8, 2018) The Sunshine State has waded into the waters of museum ships with two entries of her own. Granted, the firepower of these combined vessels wouldn’t dent the battleship North Carolina’s armor, but these ships are both rather unique vessels that tell an often overlooked part of America’s maritime story: the Merchant Marine and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The famous Liberty Ships of World War II were a class of mass-produced cargo ships that helped the Allies stem the bleeding caused by German and Japanese submarine warfare. Based on a British design, the Liberty Ships could be cranked out in less than 90 days and moved an unimaginable amount of goods and munitions. The Victory Ships were an improvement on the Liberty design, increasing both speed, armament, and cargo capacity. The Victory Ships started coming into service in early 1944, and replaced the losses incurred by the Liberty fleet with a faster, hardier ships.

The SS American Victory entered service in June 1945, and was on her first cargo run it the Pacific when the war ended. She ended up ferrying American troops back home before embarking on a career that saw her sailing under several different commercial charters as well as the American reserve fleet before finally being mothballed in the mid-1980s. The ship was rescued by preservationists in 1998 and arrived at her new home of Tampa, Florida, in 1999. Today she is one of only three operational Victory Ships left out of the 530 that were built (by operational I mean that these three ships all are sea worthy and still sail for educational purposes). The rest that still exist are sitting in ghost fleets, rusting away.

SS American Victory
A multi-image composite panorama of the SS American Victory at her permanent home in Tampa, Florida.  (Digital illustration by Nathanael Miller.  Feb. 21, 2018)

Compared to a day aboard a sexy battleship or aircraft carrier, a day spent walking around a cargo ship can seem rather dull. However, one must remember this merchant fleet was the lifeline that kept those sexy battleships and aircraft carriers fueled, fed, and manned. In 1944 alone the Victory Ships moved more than 70,000,000 tons of cargo around the world (this statistic doesn’t include the cargo moved by the older Liberty Ships or other cargo carriers). These merchant ships were manned by civilian mariners who faced every hazard wartime service brings. The allied victory in the Battle of Atlantic resulted in no Victory Ship being sunk in that theater, but the men sailing them in 1944 and 1945 did not have our advantage of historical hindsight. As far as they knew, they were sailing in an active theater of war, and they did it without hesitation. The danger was also real in the Pacific, where three Victory Ships were sunk by kamikaze strikes.

Taking the time to tour the SS American Victory gives one a chance to get up-close and personal with this unsung part of our naval heritage. These mariners made long voyages in hostile waters with no air conditioning or heating as we’re used to. They endured broiling under tropical heat or frozen by arctic winters with no hope of medals or media recognition or any kind of glory. Their story may not be as exciting as those of the great warships, but their story was critical to the great warships winning those great battles.

SS American Victory
The American Victory was armed with anti-aircraft weapons, critical especially in the waning days of World War II in the Pacific.  Three Victory Ships were sunk by kamikaze strikes.  (Nathanael Miller. Feb. 21, 2018)

The American Victory can be toured in two or three hours at most. She’s moored behind the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, and combining the two makes for a day of good education and fun. Tour the American Victory to learn the story of America’s merchant mariners, and then go watch otters play and fish placidly swim in a world-class aquarium. You can’t beat that!

Now, I’m taking a huge detour here in time. I did not have a chance to visit Key West and the USCGC Ingham (WHEC 35) on this trip, but I did visit her back in July last year while on holiday. Ingham is Florida’s other museum ship, and, as such, deserves an entry in this duel of the warships.

Ingham was in commissioned from 1936 until 1988, making her one of the longest serving commissioned U.S. armed vessels. The ship sunk Germany’s U-626 in December 1942, making her the last active duty ship in the Navy or Coast Guard with a confirmed U-boat kill from World War II until she was decommissioned. She went on to serve off Vietnam where she earned two Presidential Unit Citations—the only Coast Guard cutter in history to achieve such unprecedented recognition. When Ingham was finally retired she had served under eight U.S. presidents. She was commissioned under Franklin Roosevelt and decommissioned under Ronald Reagan, who sent the ship’s company a personal letter upon her retirement.

Ingham was originally housed at Patriot’s Point in South Carolina. However, the ship’s condition was deteriorating and the museum didn’t have the resources to get her shipshape in Bristol fashion. As a result, the ship was in danger of being lost to scrap or sunk as an artificial reef until she was acquired by the Key West Maritime Memorial Museum. She arrived at Key West in 2009 (appropriate as she had served out of Key West at various times in her career).

Both ships in Florida charge an entry fee, but I think I’ve made the case that admission fees for museum ships are necessary to the high costs of maintaining these unique treasures. And, while Florida’s entries to the museum ship navy may not be as spectacular as those of her northern neighbors, I think it’s eminently worth the time exploring such vessels. The story of our Navy and Coast Guard goes far beyond the great warships; without the support of the Liberty and Victory Ships, World War II could not have been won. The United States Coast Guard has stepped up far beyond their mandate of coastal defense and lifesaving to face the dangers of war with their Navy counterparts. Each of these two vessels carries an honorable history and is critical to the overarching story of America at sea.

The Coast Guard Cutter USCGC Ingham is permanently on display in Key West, Florida.  (Nathanael Miller, July 2017)

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For information on visiting the SS American Victory:

For information on visiting the USCGC Ingham:

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