When its keel was laid on September 1, 1949, the USS President Hayes had a bright future ahead of it, peacefully cruising the globe and transporting passengers and cargo to exotic ports of call. However, just like so many of the hundreds of thousands who would eventually cram its decks, the life trajectory of President Hayes was dramatically deflected by war. Rechristened USNS Upshur, from the Korean War era through the Vietnam War, the ship went on to spend a life in service to its country as did many of the young men who walked across its gangway.
My connection to the United States Naval Ship Upshur, T-AP-198, began on the evening of October 1, 1966, when my unit, the 459th Signal Battalion, boarded the ship in San Francisco after leaving our home station at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. As we waited in line to file up the gangway, Red Cross volunteers passed out coffee and donuts. The officers went to their staterooms, while the enlisted men made their way down into the various troop compartments below deck. If heading to an uncertain fate in Vietnam was not anxiety inducing enough, within hours rumors began to circulate that the ship we were now on had sunk at least three times before. This, of course, was totally false.
On the morning of October 3, all troops were on deck as we edged away from the pier and out into the main channel. The carrier USS Enterprise sailed across our bow in the fog as it also was heading out to sea. We passed under the Oakland Bay Bridge and then the Golden Gate Bridge, passed Alcatraz Island and then entered deep water. It didn’t take long to figure out why the empty 55-gallon drums were strategically placed around the main deck. Many a soldier found his head leaning into them as he suffered the effects of seasickness. Thus began Upshur’s voyage 172A.
The Navy ship was named for Marine Corps Maj. Gen. William P. Upshur, who was born in Richmond, Va., in 1881 and was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, receiving his commission as a second lieutenant in 1904. He earned the Medal of Honor for action against Haitian Caco bandits in 1915, and died from injuries suffered in a plane crash near Sitka, Alaska, on July 21, 1943.
Upshur and its sister ships, USNS Geiger and USNS Barrett, were originally designed as passenger and cargo liners by naval architect George E. Sharp. They were constructed by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, N.J., for American President Lines. Barrett, the lead ship of the class, was originally named President Jackson; Geiger was originally President Adams.
This new class of ship was 533 feet 9 inches long, with a breadth of 73 feet and a draft of 29 feet 6 inches. The class displaced 17,600 tons and had a normal sea speed of 19.2 knots. It was driven by a single four-blade propeller 22 feet in diameter. Upshur and its sisters could each carry 392 cabin passengers in 93 staterooms, and 1,500 troops in troop compartments. They had a typical crew of approximately 225.
When the Korean War broke out, the United States found itself sorely lacking in troopships. The government brokered a deal to acquire the yet-unfinished ships, rename them and assign them to the Military Sea Transport Service. President Hayes was acquired by the U.S. Navy on September 15, 1950. It was renamed USNS Upshur on January 2, 1951, and was launched January 9, 1951, after christening by Mrs. Charles Sawyer, wife of President Harry Truman’s Secretary of Commerce.
While Upshur and its sisters never saw Korean War service, they were used extensively to transport U.S. troops and dependents to Germany and other ports in Europe in the 1950s. In addition to its regular service, in 1958 Upshur carried personnel to Beirut, Lebanon, and was pressed into service during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, at which time it helped in the evacuation of thousands of dependents and civilians from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
During the Vietnam War, Upshur was transferred to the American west coast and made many trips to Vietnam, visiting almost every major port in that country. It also sailed to South Korea to transport Korean Army and Marine units to Vietnam.
As my voyage with the 459th Signal Battalion and several other smaller units aboard Upshur continued across the Pacific, we passed north of Hawaii and headed to Okinawa. We spent our days engaged in various mundane assignments, exercise and lifeboat drills. During one of those lifeboat drills, a dummy was thrown over the side and the ship made wide circles trying to snare it with a large hook. After many failed attempts, the ship’s captain, Vincent A. Nygren, ordered the crew to lower a lifeboat and retrieve the dummy. If nothing else, this convinced us never to fall overboard.
We arrived at Okinawa and were let off the ship for about eight hours while it was refueled and resupplied. Officers and NCOs were allowed to go anywhere on the island but junior enlisted were restricted to a small area near the ship. Early the next morning, minus a few soldiers who had failed to return for one reason or another, Upshur pulled away from the pier for the final three-day leg of our journey. We were convinced that there was not a single bottle of beer left on the island.
We headed southwest and entered the South China Sea, making port at Qui Nhon, where two companies of the 459th disembarked. The ship left the next day for Nha Trang, final port of call for the rest of the battalion. As we lined the gangways, awaiting our time to go over the side to the landing craft, the ship’s chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Kurt Wohlert, and our battalion chaplain, Major Calvin Fernlund, made their way up and down the rows of soldiers, hawking free rosary beads and Bibles as if they were selling beer and hot dogs at a baseball game. While this was going on, Captain Nygren announced over the loudspeaker, “Due to hostile activity in the area, the ship’s crew is restricted to the ship.” This was unsettling for those of us leaving the ship; there was suddenly a run on the Bibles and rosary beads— even among GIs who weren’t Catholic.
In addition to transporting tens of thousands of allied troops to Vietnam for years to come, Upshur would also, on at least one occasion, have the enemy on board. In June 1971, the ship was involved in an effort to repatriate and exchange North Vietnamese prisoners of war. The POWs were loaded onto Upshur at Da Nang and taken to a designated exchange point north of the Demilitarized Zone. Once they arrived, however, the North Vietnamese backed out of the deal.
Following its wartime service in Vietnam, Upshur would be the last of its class to be taken out of service. It was not long, however, before the three sister ships were transferred to the Maritime Administration and became training ships at three maritime academies. On April 2, 1973, Upshur was assigned to the Maine Maritime Academy where it was promptly renamed The State of Maine. After serving as a training ship for many years, it was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard for use as a fire test platform.
At the Coast Guard Fire Test Facility at Little Sand Island in Mobile Bay, Ala., Upshur is currently used to test modern firefighting equipment and train shipboard personnel in firefighting and antiterrorist techniques. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Upshur was pushed up onto the island bowfirst, and a slip later had to be dredged out so the ship could be refloated.
Upshur’s sister ship Geiger was scrapped many years ago after a disastrous engine room fire, and Barrett, at the time of this writing, is tied up and awaiting disposal in the James River Reserve Fleet, Newport News, Va.
These three vessels did yeoman service for the United States and will live forever in the hearts and minds of those who manned them and sailed aboard them.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.