The Long Voyage Home of the SS President Madison

By Grover, David H. | Sea Classics, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Long Voyage Home of the SS President Madison


Grover, David H., Sea Classics


The outbreak of the Pacific War placed a lone passenger liner in great jeopardy as it was forced to steam a precarious route to the safety of American waters.

One of the most unusual sea stories of World War Two has generally appeared in print only as a footnote to another great story. However, this unheralded story is so unique and so inspirational that it deserves to be told for its own merits. This story concerns the American passenger liner, PRESIDENT MADISON.

The MADISON is generally remembered as "the other ship" when the story is told of the PRESIDENT HARRISON, the ship that was captured by the Japanese off the mouth of the Yangtze just hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, and whose crew spent the war as prisoners of the Japanese. (See Sea Classics, March 1988). These two ships of the American President Lines had successfully evacuated the 4th Marine Division from Shanghai to the Philippines at Thanksgiving in 1941. At Manila, the Navy needed another troop lift out of North China to evacuate a group of 200 Marines from Chingwangtao. The PRESIDENT MADISON was originally selected for this mission, but inasmuch as she had more cargo for the next port of Singapore on board than did the HARRISON, she was allowed to proceed on her way homeward on her regular schedule while the HARRISON, after transferring her cargo, was sent north for the Marines.

The rest is history, at least for the PRESIDENT HARRISON which was captured off the mouth of the Yangtze before she could reach North China. But the story of the PRESIDENT MADISON's remarkable return to the United States has never been told. It is a story long on courage and resourcefulness, and short on the kind of support that Americans in the Far East expected, but failed to receive, from the naval forces of the United States.

The MADISON, like her sistership with whom she shared the Shanghai evacuation, was a class of seven ships known as the 502s, built by the U.S. Shipping Board shortly after World War One as combination passenger-cargo ships to be readily converted to troopships. The Dollar Line had acquired all these ships for its westbound round-theworld service, and had operated them profitably for many years before the lean years of the Depression had forced the company into bankruptcy. As a temporary measure to keep the vital service going, the federal government had acquired the company, renamed it American President Lines, and had continued to operate the ships on their peacetime routes right up until the outbreak of the war, even though by this time many steamship companies had been forced to surrender their liners to the Army or Navy as troopships.

Like other Dollar/ APL ships, the PRESIDENT MADISON had traded names with other ships during her career, making her a bit difficult to trace. Built as the BLUE HEN STATE, she had been the PRESIDENT GARFIELD after 1922, but when in 1940 APL sold original PRESIDENT MADISON (a ship of the somewhat larger class) to Philippine buyers who planned to rename her, the 502 was given the former name of the 535.

Commanding the MADISON (ex-GARFIELD) was her veteran captain, Valdemar Nielsen. A native of Denmark, he had first gone to sea in sailing vessels in 1914. Following World War One service aboard English, Norwegian, and Russian sailing ships, he arrived in the United States in 1921 in the fullrigged ex-German ship ARAPAHOE, which had been acquired by the U.S. Shipping Board. After becoming an American citizen in 1923, Nielsen joined Dollar Line as a quartermaster in 1924, and obtained his mate's papers later that year. His first command came in 1932; when the Second World War began he had been master of the MADISON for a year.

This voyage, the 53rd round-the-world trip for the MADISON, had officially begun in Boston, the first American port reached at the end of her previous voyage, on 6 September 1941. After loading in New York she had departed 12 September 1941, for a Panama Canal passage to her West Coast destinations, Los Angeles and then San Francisco, her last North American port of call. …

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