Last Voyage of the Famed 'Britanis'

By Dube, Dave M. | Sea Classics, February 1999 | Go to article overview
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Last Voyage of the Famed 'Britanis'


Dube, Dave M., Sea Classics


A Veteran cruise liner known by many names in the course of her long decades of service is finally retired.

On 10 October 1931, the SS MONTEREY roared into the water for the first time at Bethlehem Shipbuilding in Quincy, Massachusetts. During those tumultuous times in the early days of the Great Depression, her builders and designers could never have dreamed that her service life would span over 65 successful years.

After receiving a ten-year government contract to carry mail on the San Francisco-Sydney route, Matson Navigation Company embarked on a $25,000,000 construction program to build three 18,000 Gross ton express liners. Named MARIPOSA, MONTEREY and LURLINE, the new liners were delivered in 1931 and 1932 as replacements for older tonnage.

Specifications called for an overall length of 631 feet, a draft of 28 feet, and a displacement of 26,141 tons. Engines consisted of Bethlehem-Parsons steam turbines with an output of 22,000 shaft horsepower geared to twin screws. This arrangement gave the ships a service speed of 20 knots. Accommodations were provided for 477 first-class passengers, 229 tourist-class passengers, and 389 crew. In addition, 245,000 cubic feet of general cargo could be accommodated.

Because the ships were designed for use as naval auxiliaries in time of war, particular attention was paid to watertight subdivision and stability which exceeded all requirements for merchant ships. The ships were given a large fuel capacity of 6600 tons, which made the vessels capable of a round trip voyage from San Francisco to New Zealand without refueling. Provision was also made for the installation of gun mounts. After successfully completing her builder's trials, MONTEREY sailed on 12 May from New York on her maiden voyage with 83 passengers and 2100 tons of cargo. She began her intended South Pacific service from San Francisco in early-June which included stops in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Auckland, Pago Pago, Suva, Sydney, and Melbourne. MONTEREY and MARIPOSA established a four-week interval on this route and LURLINE was assigned the San Francisco-Los Angeles-Honolulu run. All three liners remained on these itineraries until World War II.

The MONTEREY's wartime career officially began at noon on 3 December 1941 when she was chartered by the United States Maritime Commission and then subchartered to the Army. Having just arrived in Sydney on 1 December, plans were to partially convert her to carry 2950 passengers prior to sailing for Manila on 8 December. These plans changed considerably on 7 December with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and she and the MATSONIA (formerly the MALOLO) and LURLINE sailed for Hawaii on 16 December with 3349 troops.

After disembarking troops in Hawaii, she sailed for San Francisco with 804 Army casualties and dependents. Upon arrival, she was transferred to the Navy which later completed her troopship conversion giving her a capacity of 3841 troops. Wartime demands frequently required her to carry double that amount which required setting the troops on rotational shifts. Half would be assigned to quarters while the other half would be on deck. Every 24 hours, the groups would switch quarters.

The MONTEREY and her sisters were fortunate that all survived the war without damage. There were, however, some tense moments. On 6 November 1943 while in a 22-ship convoy to Naples, the MONTEREY came under attack by German torpedo bombers off the coast of Algiers. Despite heavy antiaircraft fire from the convoy, two waves of bombers made it through. One enemy pilot came so close he carried away the MONTEREY's radio antenna. As he passed low over the ship, he was sprayed with gunfire by MONTEREY's gunners and crashed into the ocean.

Three other ships in the convoy were not so lucky and where hit by torpedoes, the largest of these being the Grace Liner SANTA ELENA carrying 1700 troops. She was struck in the engine room and began sinking.

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