Little did grandmother Meanie know as she snacked on the decks of her uncle-in-law’s party boat, the Alder, that those same decks would years later come under daily fire from Japanese warplanes.
That’s right, William Boyce Thompson’s 294-foot-long yacht, the Alder, which he used to sail to cushy ports around the world, was donated to the U.S. Navy in November 1940, renamed the Jamestown PG-55, and eventually converted to a war ship. Donating the ship to the government was probably a wise business decision, given that pleasure cruises into submarine-infested waters off the U.S. coast wouldn’t be advised for several years. Taking a tax deduction may have been the best decision!
The transformation from palatial party boat to warship wasn’t an easy psychological transition for the Alder, reputedly the second largest yacht in the world. She had no doubt grown accustomed to the sounds of party revelry and polite conversation. She was tended to by a large, super-solicitous staff that kept her clean, fit, and looking beautiful.
All these niceties were replaced by commanders barking orders, the strain of torpedo attacks, and soldiers shouting expletives as they took refuge from enemy planes in the South Pacific. Her once pristine decks were pitted with bullets and soiled by sailor blood. She was worked so hard that her engines gave out half way around the world.
This wasn’t the future she envisioned when she was brought into the world in 1928 by Pusey & Jones Corp. of Wilmington, Delaware. Originally named the “Savarona,” the graceful yacht was commissioned by Mrs. Thomas S. Cadwallader of Philadelphia and bought by the Magnate a year later. Thompson sailed the Alder throughout the world in his final year, visiting the most luxurious ports of call–the Riviera, Names, Corsica, Monaco, and Constantinople, among others. What a grand life it was for the young ship!
The Navy may not have been sure what to do with the Alder once it acquired her. Military records indicate that she was purchased by the Navy at New York on December 6, 1940. Little work was done on the ship initially, as evidenced by the picture (below right) that was taken in April 1941. Eventually, she was converted to a gunboat in the Fletcher Division Shipyard of Bethlehem Shipbuilding Co. in Hoboken, N.J. Her name was changed to the Jamestown and she was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on May 26, 1941, with Commander A. P. Lawson in charge.
An Easy Summer of Training
Fortunately, the Jamestown wasn’t thrust into combat immediately. Her first summer was devoted to training Naval Academy midshipmen, a suitably leisurely endeavor for the former pleasure craft. She sailed to Annapolis on June 1st, with a detachment of 100 third-class men (can you believe it, third-class men?) and three instructors to conduct two-week training cruises. She did several of these cruises during her first four months of active duty, all the while knowing that more important tasks were in store.
When summer ended, the Jamestown dutifully steamed back to New York for more reconstructive surgery. A decision had been made to fit her out as a motor-torpedo-boat tender. As a tender, her job would be to provide a “home base” for torpedo boats in remote parts of the ocean. Specifically, she would furnish fuel, supplies (probably not the caviar and fine teas that she was used to dispensing), repairs, and communications. To protect herself, she was given two, 3-inch gun mounts. The work was completed in March 1942.
She wasn’t thrust into harm’s way immediately. She first sailed to Melville, RI., to help establish the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center. Once there, she served as a training ship and a tender for the PT boats of Squadron 4.
In June the former party boat was ordered to return to the familiar harbors of New York to receive more equipment. Two months later Commander Lawton received word: The Jamestown was headed for the South Pacific. She steamed out of New York Harbor on August 1st, 1942, camouflage to escape enemy detection. Her destination? The New Hebrides Islands, via the Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor.
Young Boat Sees Her First Action
While the Jamestown was en route, the Allied Command had daringly launched its second major thrust against Japan, Operation Watchtower. This involved landing the 1st Marine Division on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida in the southern Solomon Islands. The objective was to keep the Japanese off the islands, so they couldn’t use the perch to threaten supply and communication routes between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. The Allies also hoped to use the bases to support a campaign to eventually capture or neutralize the major Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain.
The Allies, who greatly outnumbered the Japanese, quickly captured the islands of Tulagi and Florida, in addition to an airfield (later named Henderson Field) that was under construction on Guadalcanal. But the Japanese didn’t give up without a fight, a big one that lasted from August through November 1942. Their objective: retake the airfield.
Three big land battles and five large naval fights were part of this campaign. Once they took Guadalcanal, the Allies had real trouble controlling the surrounding oceans. Fuel was in short supply; there was never enough for Allied bombers to fly enough missions. The Navy had launched the mission with meager supplies, which grew even shorter during the ensuing weeks of battle.
The Jamestown, which arrived in September, found itself in the thick of combat. When she docked at Espiritu Santo, an island in the nearby archipelago of New Hebrides, the marines of Guadalcanal suffered from a critical supply shortage. While she waited for PT boats from Squadron 3 to arrive, the Jamestown escorted resupply convoys between New Hebrides and Tulagi, towing a barge carrying 2,000 barrels of gasoline and 500 quarter-ton bombs.
The Long Wait for PT Boats
When the boats of the 1st Division of Squadron 3 finally arrived on September 19th, the Jamestown worked with Bellatrix, a cargo ship, to tow them to Espiritu Santo, where they were turned over to two fast minesweepers for the final passage to Tulagi. This work completed, the Jamestown turned her attention to keeping up the vital flow of supplies through enemy-infested waters to the Marines on Guadalcanal.
On October 12th, the one-time party boat made history; she was credited with a probable hit on an enemy submarine. At the time she was escorting a task unit to Tulagi under air attack. She managed to return with the majority of the convoy to Espiritu.
There was no time for celebrating, however. Three days later, about 75 miles from Guadalcanal, a Japanese search plane reportedly sighted the Jamestown along with an expedition of Allied vessels towing a major supply barge. The bigger ships in the envoy, including the Jamestown, immediately turned back to Espiritu Santo. Later on that day, one of the ships, “Meredith,” was sunk by a 27-plane raid from the carrier “Zuikaku.”
The situation marked the “nadir of misery” for the Americans at Guadalcanal, wrote Samuel Eliot Morison, in his book “The Two Ocean War.” Admiral Nimitz issued a sharply worded estimate of the situation. “It now appears that we are unable to control the sea in the Guadalcanal area. Thus our supply of the positions will only be done at great expense to us. The situation is not hopeless, but it is certainly critical.”
The Allies stepped up their efforts in response. On October 22, the Jamestown was dispatched to Tulagi, which put her in the center of the struggle, subject to constant air attack. Undaunted, she worked diligently to service PT boats, construct pipe lines to water holes, and assist with repairs to battle-damaged American cruisers.
It was a 24-hour job. During the day, the Jamestown worked feverishly to ready the worn and battered boats for their next patrol. And at night, the little ship (by naval standards at least) fearlessly patrolled “Ironbottom Sound,” heroically challenging Japanese destroyers, cruisers, and the even battleships of the Tokyo Express.
The hostilities culminated in the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in early November, when the last Japanese attempt to land enough troops to retake Henderson Field was defeated. The Japanese evacuated their forces by February 7, 1943. The victory marked a turning point in the war, the beginning of offensive operations that resulted in eventual surrender and the end of WWII.
For her courageous efforts, the Jamestown, along with the PT boats of Squadron 3, were explicitly included in the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the 1st Marine Division. The citation commended the Marines and their ships for taking and holding the strongly defended Japanese positions on Tulagi, Gavutu, Tanambogo, Florida, and Guadalcanal.
Change of Venues
It was time for a chance of pace for the decorated boat. On January, 13, 1943, the Jamestown was re-designated AGP and began operating under the Commander Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, Pacific Fleet. She left the port of Tulagi on February 18, 1943 on one of countless trips during the following year to the New Hebrides or Rendova to supply PT boats or act as escort between island groups.
After 12 months of valuable service, though, the Jamestown badly needed an overhaul, which she received in February 1944 at San Pedro, Calif. But this was no time for parties. Five months later, she sailed back to Espiritu Santo, arriving on August 5th, according to highly detailed military records. Thankfully, much of the region for which he had fought was now under Allied control. The Solomons and the Bismark Archipelago were secure.
But PT boats were needed in the Southwest Pacific, where General MacArthur was battling for New Guinea. The Jamestown sprang into action, shuttling supplies, equipment, and supporting troops from the Solomons to bases in New Guinea.
But an unfortunate thing had occurred in the Jamestown’s absence. The retrofitted party boat was no longer needed as a tender. Her former role was now filled by ships built explicitly for the work. The Navy’s ship-building effort had caught up with demand. The Jamestown was relegated to a mere supply ship.
The Jamestown didn’t drop her head. With a stiff upper lift, she “proudly proved her worth” as a utility ship, according to one Naval account, maintaining communications between PT boat bases. She kept very busy.
On September 6, 1944, for instance, she left Treasury Island to rendezvous at Bougainville with a troop transport. She was part of an escort to Milne Bay, Dutch New Guinea. She returned to Treasury Island a week later to prepare for a similar voyage, escorting merchantmen to Finschhafen, Dutch New Guinea.
In February 1945, The Jamestown was ordered to the Philippines to “mess and berth” the men of Motor Torpedo Squadron 24, which she ungrudgingly did until March 15. After that, she did convoy duty between Samar and Woendi in the Schouten Islands. Then she voyaged to Borneo and various ports in the Philippines until Japan surrendered.
By then it was time to return to safe harbors. The Jamestown departed Samar for the United States in October 1945, arriving in San Francisco a month later. She was decommissioned there on March 6, 1946, ending her busy and useful military service. She no doubt shed a small tear when she was transferred to the Maritime Commission for disposal on September 4, 1946.
Things really weren’t the same afterward. Still in her teens, the once glorious boat that had played host to millionaire revelers and served magnificently in some of the most hostile battles of WWII was sold to Balfour Gutrie and Co., Ltd., an English concern, on December 16, 1946. She became a merchant ship, first called the Jamestown and then in 1953 renamed the Marosana.
She was carrying banana–not bombs, not economic royalty–for the Caymon Islands Co. when she foundered 240 miles southeast of Panama on August 2, 1961. She sprung a leak and sank on a voyage from Ecuador to Tampa, Florida. It was an unfitting, ignominious end for the once-proud ship.
Great account. I remember my parents reminiscing about some of the parties aboard the “Alder.” I was sad to have been left out, because they sounded very glamorous and exciting, but I wasn’t born until 1945.
These stories made me glad to have parents who were from the pre-WWII generation, unlike most of my friends. 😉