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






One WWII ship drill in particular must have given everyone aboard the attack transports pause, sailors, marines, and soldiers alike: Abandon Ship. Just try to imagine yourself—an 18 year old sailor, fresh out of boot camp and amphibious training—reading the following memo from your XO!


USS Ormsby APA 49

The coming operation is going to be a tough one, and no doubt some ships are going to go down. It is well within the realm of possibility that this ship may be one of those to go down. With this in mind, the following hints are bought to your attention so that you may study them, think them over and profit by them if and when the occasion arises.

Bear one thing in mind, this ship will not be abandoned while there is the slightest chance in the world of keeping her afloat. We expect to fight the “Mighty O” just as long as the guns are above water, there is a man left to load a gun or a shell to shoot out of it. If we do find out that the ship cannot be saved, then we shall try to give all hands time to get over the side and clear of the ship.

“Life Raft Stations” will be given first followed by “Abandon Ship”, if and when that becomes necessary. WE WILL NOT USE THE WORDS ABANDON SHIP UNLESS WE MEAN IT.

All men whose life raft stations are at the rafts are to be sure that they know how to cut them adrift when so ordered. Carry a knife and see that you have something handy with which to slip the pelican hock. As many boats as possible will be launched and all others are to have their lashings cut adrift.

As there is a possibility that the loudspeakers will be out of commission, all bosn’s mates are to take up and pass any word that is given by competent authority.

If you have to go over the side, wear what you have on at the time, but try to be fully clothed. Clothes will protect your body from many things and if you have your life belt or jacket the additional weight means nothing.

Do not jump unless you have to. If time permits, go down a net, ladder or line. If gloves are handy, they will save you some skin if you have to slide down the line. Keep your shoes on until the last minute as they will protect your feet while on the nets or ladders or climbing down the side of a capsized ship. They will also protect your feet if you have to jump, especially if there is debris in the water.

Wear a knife and take it with you when you go. It can come in handy for many things, from cutting a line to opening a can of rations, not to speak of playing games with sharks.

Try and learn the names of your shipmates who aren’t swimmers and keep an eye on them. Be on the lookout for men who have neither life belts nor jackets and assist others to blow up their belts if they haven’t done so. Do not blow up your belt unless you are in the water. If you can swim, get over and put as much distance between the ship and you as possible, then blow up the belt.

If destroyers are dropping depth charges, blow up your belt and shift it to the small of your back, raising your mid section as clear from the water as possible and thereby lessening the shock to your spinal cord and nervous system. If there is debris floating around, grab a piece and raise your mid section clear of the water.

Do not go over the lee side, as the ship will drift down on you.

Don’t jump unless there is no other alternative. If you have to, keep your clothes on, cross your legs, protect your chin, hold your nose and jumped as far out as possible.

Before going over try and locate the nearest boat, raft or anything else liable to support your weight. Do not attempt to climb in at once, hold on to the raft until you recover your breath and then move carefully. If there is a large number of men, put the weakest or those without belts in the raft, all others hold on. By doing so you can handle many more men.

If the nets and ladders are crowded, grab yourself a fire hose, secure the inboard end and go down that. Do not slide unless you are wearing gloves, but go down hand over hand. Whether on a net or ladder or sliding down a line or hose, watch out for the man below you. If you are jumping be careful that you do not jump on anyone.

If you have to jump, get as close to the water as possible, but do not jump from the bridge or boat decks.

On an operation such as this the chances are that you will be picked up within a reasonable length of time. Follow the instructions of the ship’s officers of any ship which might pick you up. And don’t forget that even if this ship is sunk, her organization still continues. While you are subject to the disciplinary jurisdiction of the ship that picks you up you are still a member of this ship’s company and your regular officers and petty officers have the same status in relation to you as they had aboard the vessel when she was afloat.

Efficient lookouts and snappy gun crews can keep us from being sunk, but if that does occur don’t lose your heads. Other ships have gone down and their crews picked up. Do everything in your power to save the ship and when that fails do everything that you can to save yourself. But look out for the injured, the non-swimmers and the boys who lose their heads.

Know what to do, how to do it and when to do it. When the time comes, make a good job of it.


Commander, USNR

With permission

Debarkation: Putting The Equipment In The Boats

As soon as the landing craft departed with the troops, the transport crews began unloading their supplies and equipment. The first task was to remove the hatch covers and gain access to the ship’s storage holds. All equipment and supplies there had been stowed according to a detailed loading plan that insured that the first materials to be requested from the beach would be the last items loaded.

Here is a picture of a heavy truck being loaded and stowed aboard an attack transport at Hawaii before an operation.


At a strongly contested landing, the first call from the beach would be — TANKS! TANKS!!Deep down in the #5 hold the 30 ton boom lifts  and swings over the side a medium Sherman tank.


Then down it goes, tank and crew… slowly… carefully into a waiting landing craft.

Next come the transportation company trucks and the beach party bulldozers.



After three days an experienced attack transport crew could unload a fully reinforced battalion landing team and all the equipment and supplies to support it in the first crucial days of an amphibious assault.  No less than Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, declared that what his navy learned about putting soldiers down on a contested beach was “the outstanding development of the war.”