Converting a Steam Ship to a WWII Attack Transport

Building an attack transport during WW II could be viewed as a two stage process. The first stage was to build a transport vessel according to designs provided by the Maritime Administration; what you got was a plain-jane, no-frills ship that needed… CONVERSION, the second step.

Conversion was the process of “finishing off” the ship, beginning with modifying its superstructure and interior compartments, e.g., rebuilding Holds 1 and 2 to become berthing space for large numbers of troops and storage for light equipment. Next came reconfiguring deck machinery and rigging to a configuration known as “yard and stay” rigging, the fastest way to move cargo at that time.

Then came new firefighting systems, rearranged booms and king posts to unload heavy equipment from her holds, and triple Welin davits to lower landing craft over the side and down to the water. The last finishing touches included installation of her armament and top secret communications and radar systems.

The whole notion of a ship’s conversion was a mystery to me until I read an account provided by one George S. Gibb, Ensign SC USNR. Gibb was assigned to USS Sumter APA 52 while she was undergoing conversion. The letters that he wrote home to his family about conversion were hilarious and informative. They described the furious, rushed process of preparing a ship for war while the Pacific fleet impatiently waited 4000 miles away.

The following account of Gibb’s experience during conversion is drawn from his document Battle Star History.



Summer At Leyte: D Day evening 22 October 1944 Sketch by author made on location

The Official Ship’s History states: “Designed to land fully-equipped assault troops on enemy-held beaches, while defending herself against possible enemy action, the attack transport turned out to be one of the most important vessels of World War II …..” Acquired by the Navy as the AP 97 on 30 April 1943, she was taken to the Baltimore Yards of the Maryland Dry-dock Company, where she was converted to an APA (attack transport), renamed Sumter, and designated APA 52.

The Sumter was a C-2 transport… The Official Ship’s History provides the following specifications:

Overall Length               469             Feet

Beam                                    63              Feet

Speed                                    16              Knots

Displacement              13,910             Tons



First to be assigned to the ship was Ensign Gibb, SC USNR, eleven months in uniform, a hardened veteran of three months duty in the Coding Room of the Eastern Sea Frontier in New York City, three months of training duty at Naval Supply Depot, Newport, Rhode Island, and four months schooling at the Navy Supply School at Harvard. He reported for duty, as Disbursing and Assistant Supply Officer, at 0900 on 4 June 1943 to the Assistant Industrial Manager of the Maryland Dry-dock Company (officially, the Baltimore Repair and Conversion Branch, Norfolk Navy Yard). The Sumter was berthed at a dock at 112 South Gay Street. The weather was excessively hot; conversion had not commenced; the Assistant Industrial Manager impatiently told Gibb to go home.

Two weeks later there was still little work to be done, although the new Disbursing Officer faithfully reported each morning at 0900. Gibb and his wife played golf and went hiking and fishing at Lake Roland. Work on the ship, however, finally commenced. Supply Warrant Officers Hugh Hambric and James Munson – both old Regular Navy – reported for duty, looked around, and promptly left for the nearest bar. On June 15 a consignment of 11 typewriters arrived. On that same day Gibb wrote home:

“I’ve been aboard the Sumter. It’s a big ship, and new – but in a messy stage of conversion. . . what confusion! Riveters going full blast, whistles blowing, steel plates banging around, winches and derricks puffing away, nine million motors of every shape and description going full blast . . . . I am the only officer present. I just sit around and wait for something to happen. If it does, however, I lack authority to do anything about it!”

The Sumter contingent was assigned office space where necessary paperwork, mounting rapidly in volume, could be handled. This space was shared by contingents from two other transports similarly being converted. On 17 August Gibb went to Philadelphia to pick up the pay accounts for the ship. Letters written home at this time tell of a side of the war that perhaps had best remain hidden.

“The ship is progressing fine, but there is a bunch of female help aboard and they are no dam good. A lot of them work only when the mood is on them to do so, and what is worse; each one of them who is idle takes about four male workers to entertain her. One of the riveters and his sweet young apprentice were recently discovered christening the Captain’s bunk – both being fired, I am happy to say, though I do not frown on young love in other places than on my own ship!

Last week we devoted three days to ordering stock for the Ship’s Store. Of those three days approximately one-and-one-half were devoted to a spirited discussion between us and two old chiefs as to how many rubber prophylactics 500 men require for six months and four port calls. The answer, in case your wife is skeptical of the virility of the present generation of mankind, is ten thousand. That’s a lot of f-f-f-f-(excuse my stutter) fun for the kiddies!”

And later . . . .

“The supply system is actually very simple in theory, and with reasonably average intelligence along the line it works very efficiently – but draw up a chair and I will tell you how things have gone with us! 

  1. We go to set up our yard office and order all necessary equipment and supplies. Very simple. Fill out Form 1034 and send it in requesting delivery under your commissioning allowance. After a long delay the stuff arrives – tons of typewriters, stationery, adding machines, desks, and miscellaneous crap of every description. Five minutes after the mess is unloaded the yard superintendent walks in and asks you what all this is. You tell him. He says, “Why, all this stuff was ordered by someone three months ago and there’s a whole duplicate shipment over in the warehouse! 

That “someone” is the guy who is messing up this whole show! I don’t know who He is or where He hangs out. Every day mysterious bundles arrive that “someone” has ordered. We stack’em in the corner and when “someone” calls to claim them, we’ll plug the guy for keeps! 

  1. You open the typewriters and notice that none of them have space keys. The Underwood repair man informs you that if he makes a real special effort he can get the keys down to the Yard three days after we are due to sail. 

  2. You order 500 cases of toilet paper, and get 50, with the information that the rest will be sent along next December. You resort to the obvious remedy in this case and order 450 Sears Roebuck catalogs. 

  3. You examine the ship’s galley and discover that Satan himself couldn’t turn out a meal there because the passage between the ovens is 18 inches wide. You tell the Yard construction officer about it and he screams, “GODDAMIT Gibb – #XX#&&X!!!!XXX – we’re trying to turn this ship out on schedule and we can’t make every dam change, which your pretty young fancy requires. GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” 

  4. The Captain reports for duty and decides that he’d like to have your desk, so you move. The subsequent office reorganization takes three days. 

  5. You receive 1,000 expensive penholders, with a note from the manufacturer that there will be no pen points for them until after the war. 

  6. The Captain comes up and says, “See here, “Pay,” the Chief of the Bureau of Supplies & Accounts just told me I couldn’t collect expenses for the use of my car in Baltimore. But when you get your money, by God, YOU are going to pay me for it. Besides, it only amounts to $850 or so.” 

  7. The ship’s quota of heavy guns arrives in the Yard – we’ve been held up for 2 months waiting for them. The freight company “isn’t sure” that the guns are for us because the invoices don’t say so. They refuse to deliver them up. The words “DELIVER TO USS SUMTER” are painted in letters four inches high on the sides of the crates but this, of course, is considered merely as circumstantial evidence.”

For the record, the crew of Sumter earned six battle stars during their service in the Pacific theater.

Source: Battle Star History The U.S.S. Sumter APA-52

George S. Gibb






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