Empress of Scotland

MEMORIES OF THE EMPRESS OF SCOTLAND
By Roger Molina (118th TRS-449th FS)
jing bao Journal
Vol. 59, Nos. 359 & 360

 

            Many of the nearly 4,000 American soldiers and civilians, including some 300 members of the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, aboard the HMS Empress of Scotland on their way to India and the Far East in January 1944 have probably wondered whatever happened to the ship that was taking them to war. To some, there are fond memories of a beautiful ship, and they remember with gratitude her speed and capability for detecting and outrunning the German subs that would have loved to repeat what happened to the HMT Rohna troopship sunk in the Mediterranean on November 26, 1943, with a loss of 1,015 American soldiers and with only 900 survivors. This was not to happen to the men and women traveling on the Empress of Scotland. However, that sinking just 6 weeks earlier weighed heavily on the minds of all of us as we boarded ship for what turned out to be a great adventure.

            Those of us still around, remember that dreary wet morning when we went on a ride from Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, to a Hampton Roads pier and boarded the ship via a long gangplank, wearing our overcoats, and each carrying two barracks bags containing all our worldly possessions. There was a brief exchange of identification information at the bottom of the gangplank where an embarkation officer read your name, and you responded with your serial number. Our First Sgt., Joe Galiette, was there alongside the embarkation officer to confirm the identifications. I have to assume that this was for security reasons and to ensure that no foreign agents got on board. We were directed to our compartments on the promenade deck immediately below the Captain's cabin. To our surprise, we didn't see the typical C-S Class U.S. troopship. But what we saw was an ocean-going liner, painted in her war colors, but a civilian liner nonetheless. We were to find out that this was the British Empress of Scotland, formerly the Empress of Japan. This was a real winner for the men of the 118th as the breeze coming in over the bow of the ship and through the forward hatches kept our compartments reasonably cool. This was important when we got into the South Atlantic and began feeling the tropical heat. Most other areas, especially the below deck compartments, were really too hot for sleeping, and some of the men would sleep on deck, weather permitting.):

            The 118th was one of the first units boarding. We boarded on January 10, 1944, a day and a half before most of the other troops. Also boarding early were MP's, medics and others that had been assigned to specific duties for the 30 days we would be at sea. The purpose of boarding 1 1/2 days in advance of the other troops was to indoctrinate everyone with his duties and familiarization with the equipment each unit would be responsible for. The cooks would learn the use of ship stoves and cooking on the high seas (regardless of weather); the sanitation and cleanup crews were to familiarize themselves with all areas of the ship falling under their responsibilities and above all, how to properly dispose of waste. But that was a point every man learned to adhere to because German U-Boats were known to follow a trail of trash in the ocean, and even a cigarette butt could spell death to a ship.

            The 118th was given the choice duty of serving as auxiliary Gun Crews manning all the ship's guns alongside the regular British gunners who would supervise our gunnery activities. Our training did not stop with that initial training period. It continued every day with practice and dry runs. On the gun I was assigned to, training included the traversing and elevation settings of the gun. There was a traversing man on the left of the gun and an elevation man on the right of the gun. Then there was a breech man and a lanyard man (who ultimately fired the gun). There were three ammunition handlers. The ship was equipped with two 12 pounders, one each on the starboard and port sides, on the monkey bridge. (A British 12 Pounder is equivalent to an American 75 mm artillery piece). I served on the starboard side gun. I well remember the British Gunner in charge of the gun, a British navy man, Fred Pritchet of Nottingham, England. The other big gun was a stern mounted 6 incher. And, if memory serves me right, the Sun Deck contained, six 40 mm pom pom antiaircraft guns and 8 or 9 racks of rockets. The 118th gunners, working in four-hour shifts, would man the guns 24 hours, around the clock. Also, the gunners would serve as lookouts, searching for periscopes on the waters out to the horizon. In addition, the small arms firepower of the rest of the 118th would be brought to bear in the event of a submarine sighting.

            Once the first troops were aboard, the Empress, she began to take on the appearance of an ordinary troopship. We boarded her right after she had been fully converted to a troop transport. Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to enjoy the luxury of the original Empress as the Australian army did early in the war in the Pacific. There she was used extensively by the Aussies, ferrying fighting men to the various islands that were still held by the British and bringing the wounded back home to Australia. Although she still had all the characteristics of a prewar luxury liner, she functioned as a troopship, taking men to war and serving as a hospital ship on the return.

            But before I get too far ahead of myself, I should point out that the ship was not always the Empress of Scotland. She was originally named the Empress of Japan. She kept that name while the Australians were using her to reach the islands of the Southwest Pacific Islands, and the ports of Southeast Asia. The Australian troops therefore enjoyed the original luxury of the ship's interior, with its rich woods, ornate chandeliers, and the beautifully decorated staterooms now occupied by Australian Army personnel in the rank of Sergeant and above. After the loss of the islands of the Southwest Pacific and the ports of Southeast Asia, the Australians no longer had a need for a ship such as the Empress, and the ship was returned to England for a complete makeover into a troopship. As best as can be determined, the 118th and all those troops boarding in January 1944 were the first to use her in the new configuration.

            The splendor of the ship that once existed was no more when she left England and headed for Hampton Roads, Virginia, to make her initial run as a real troopship. First class and tourist accommodations were no more, and in their places were thousands of folding canvas bunks and hammocks that we all slept on during what turned out to be a 30-day voyage.

            On the second day aboard, we were able to watch from the deck above as the rest of the troops boarded. One by one, up the different gangplanks they entered the different decks of the ship. There were Engineers, Infantry, Artillery, Quartermaster, Transportation, Railroad, Medical, Corps of Engineer, Road-building Engineers, Signal Corps, Paratroopers, Glider Pilots, Casuals and Specialists of all types: even a contingent of Red Cross workers, mostly women, all headed for China, Burma or India.  On that day, the ship slowly slipped away from the pier while the music played and continued to play until we were out of hearing distance. We were indeed on our way to war!

            Our 14 months of southeast U.S. maneuvers had taught us something about war and the uncertainties of service. We thought we knew about war and something of what to expect. We had been bombed many times with sacks of flour, but it was hammered into us that they could have been real bombs and reminded us that the enemy would not use flour bags. Most importantly, we were part of a cohesive, well-motivated unit. So we felt somewhat fortunate when we saw some of those casuals who were going over as replacements in units such as Merrill's Marauders, or the Combat Engineers whose units faced the Japanese at close range on almost daily basis.

            These men did not have the opportunity of being in an outfit with the same men for over a year. Many had barely finished basic training before finding themselves on an overseas roster. They were nervous about what they might find around the next corner. We were fortunate in that our unit, an old Connecticut National Guard unit (The Flying Yankees), had men who had served together for years and had been brought up to strength with draftees and volunteers when the unit was federalized in 1941. I was originally with the 152nd Observation Squadron (Rhode Island National Guard) who was also federalized at about the same time. I joined the 152nd at Ft. Devens Army Air Field in Massachusetts, but soon received orders sending me TDY to join a B-25 Medium Bomb Squadron on maneuvers in Tullahoma, Tenn. A short time later, I received orders to join the 118th Observation Squadron at Morris Field, Charlotte, North Carolina -- a good unit that I miss to this very day.

            As indicated above, the 118th, in terms of stateside training, was an experienced outfit that had undergone training on many airdrome defense tactics and weapons during maneuvers in the southeast of the U.S. The unit was ordered to almost every state in the southeast in the spring and summer of 1943 while the Air Corps was trying to come up with a proper designation for the 118th and other such squadrons. Originally a Connecticut National Guard Observation Squadron, the 118th was redesignated 118th Reconnaissance Squadron (fighter) in April 1943 and 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron in August 1943. During this period, the unit had undergone months of maneuvers throughout the southeastern states and had undergone extensive training in airdrome defense weapons including 50-caliber antiaircraft machine guns. Our antiaircraft gun training was conducted at Camp Stewart, GA (outside of Savannah). During most of that period, the unit was equipped with, and the pilots became proficient in, the P-39 Airacobra in anticipation of our deployment to the South or Southwest Pacific. We were ready.

            On our third day at sea, our commanding officer, Major Edward 0. McComas, in accordance with previous instructions, opened our previously classified travel orders to reveal our destination. Mind you, no one knew where we were headed, whether the South Pacific, England or the Mediterranean. To everyone's surprise, our ultimate destination was China via Bombay, Calcutta and Gushkara, India. This was strange since we had been very sure that we were destined for the South Pacific. Our maneuvers and training for 14 months and our training and briefings at Harris Neck, GA, that simulated almost any jungle condition of the South Pacific islands was a sure indicator. We were even briefed on what to expect in those jungle islands by officers and enlisted men who had returned to the U.S. from the South Pacific.

            We later learned that our original orders were for the South Pacific, but those orders were cancelled after the death of our then C.O., Major Robert Wierman, killed while attempting to bail out of a P-39 in the vicinity of Aiken, South Carolina. At that point, Major McComas, formerly the 66th Reconnaissance Group, Executive Officer, became our CO. and the entire squadron moved to Key Field, Meridian, Mississippi, for additional reconnaissance training and transition into P-40 and P-51 aircraft.

            Because of the HMT Rohna sinking a month and a half earlier with the loss of over 1000 lives, the Empress of Scotland's orders were also changed from going through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal to sailing south across the South Atlantic to Capetown and then to Bombay, India via the Madagascar Straits. That more then doubled the intended length of the trip. However, we crossed the equator twice, once in the Atlantic and the second in the Indian Ocean.

            The 118th began to get a taste of combat conditions even before our arrival in the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theater. While it's possible that other units may have encountered similar experiences on their trips overseas, the 118th may have well been among the first. On the third or fourth day out, live practice gunnery was the order of the day. The general alarm was sounded, and everyone manned his station or gun position. A 55-gallon drum with smoke grenades inside was set adrift to be used for target practice. On the 12-Pounders and the 6-inch stem gun, the ammo handlers were busy setting fuses based on the information forwarded from Central Fire Control where the British Gunnery Officer had set up a scenario of a sub periscope sighting. As the ship continued generally on course, it maneuvered into position for all guns to take their turns at firing at the simulated target. I can say that our gun did very well, and our ammo handlers set those fuses as perfectly as could be. The stem gun over-fired and came close on its last shot. If it had been a surfaced sub, it would have been a hit. The pom pom 40-mm guns also did well, as did the rocket launchers. There was no small arms fire on this exercise. Everyone felt more at ease after the practice, knowing that it would not be all strange should real action come up on the trip.

            Our first scare came up when we were in the South Atlantic which was then a hotbed of German U Boats on the prowl for American Liberty ships headed for India or the South Pacific and what was considered a safer route, particularly for the South Pacific. The alarm was sounded one evening when a lookout spotted a periscope wake in the moonlight. Our zigzag course and speed was sufficiently defensive against submarines, making it extremely difficult for a slower moving submarine underwater and its Captain to work up a scenario where the ship could be a good target. The submarine Captain would have needed advance notice of the course and direction of the ship and have lain in wait to fire off its torpedoes and hope for a hit. Fast ships like the Empress, Queen Mary and other luxury liners converted to troopships never traveled in convoys and none were sunk. They never took the same course to a destination, and they survived.

            After sixteen days at sea we finally arrived at Capetown, and were pleased to learn that we would be there two days, and that shore passes would be granted. To our surprise, the wharf where we docked was loaded with uniformed British troops, both men and women, waiting, as we soon found out, for us to start throwing American cigarettes to them. Naturally, the first cigarettes we threw them were the less favorite GI brands that had mostly remained unsmoked. Though they were not our favorites, they were received very enthusiastically by the Brits on the wharf. Some of them actually dove at single cigarettes on the wooden wharf deck. We wondered how many splinters they would be nursing later. In the meantime, a number of black Africans were in the water on the other side of the ship catching coins and cigarettes thrown to them. Black Africans were not allowed on the wharf.

            We had an opportunity to see beautiful Capetown under Tabletop Mountain. Every building, including the skyscrapers, was painted white. The entire city was white, and it gave you a sense of clean, which it was. Many of us boarded trains and headed out in several directions. Some went to Johannesburg, some to Muizenberg or Durban. Along with several other guys, I chose Muizenberg, as this was the King and Queen of England's vacation hideaway. The beaches were white sand and beautiful. The local inhabitants were in awe at seeing American soldiers in their midst and were very hospitable. It was obvious that American troops had not been this way very often.

            To all of us, it was our first experience at being served hot beer in bottles. When asked if they had cold beer, the reply would be, 'you're Yanks alright." Not all establishments had ice. The other thing we saw all over was "milk bars." These were stands along the beaches and in town that served milk and English cookies. Then there were stands that sold "prawns and chips." The prawns (first time I had ever heard that word) were huge shrimp, some weighing up to 3/4 of a pound. The chips, of course, were french fries. And, maybe the most fascinating of all was our first experience at riding really fast trains like those in Europe. Another new and strange discovery was that there were no "his" or "hers" restrooms. All restrooms were shared by both sexes. But, this was just the first of the long list of new and strange things we were to see and learn about in those foreign lands outside the U.S.

            We left Capetown on January 30, and, again, we had a periscope sighting, this time in the Madagascar Straits. We had been given advance warning to be on the lookout for subs since that area was a hotbed of Axis activity.

            It was a relief when we finally arrived in Bombay on February 16, 1944. After being issued C-Rations for a long train ride, we left Bombay on the infamous Indian railway between Bombay and Calcutta. To Americans, this was such a primitive way to travel it wasn't even funny. We had waited at the Bombay station for 3 days before our train was ready. We finally left on February 19 and arrived in the Howrah station in Calcutta on the morning of February 24. Our visit to Calcutta was a short one, as we left there for the airfield at Gushkara, 90 miles to the northwest that same afternoon. And here our journey ended temporarily. We would spend four months in Gushkara before moving on to China, and joining the 14th Air Force.

            Looking back on it, I don't believe those of us that were on the Empress of Scotland for close to a month en route to India, realized, or even cared, that the ship was owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad which had operated Trans Pacific liners since the 1880s. All the Canadian Pacific ships in this service, for some unknown reason, bore the title, Empress. It being wartime, and with all the "loose lips sink ships" restrictions, none of us knew much about the history and technical details of the Empress.

            Although I had a certain amount of curiosity about the ship, it wasn't until the 1990's that I began to satisfy that curiosity and do some serious research. That research put me in contact with many shipping and historical research agencies all over the world, including: The Canadian Pacific Railroad Steamship Co. Ltd.; The Australian Naval Historical & Archives, Canberra, Australia; the U.S. Military References Staff at Archives II, NARA; and the Imperial War Museum, London, England, who referred me to Dr. Dennis Griffiths, one of the designers of the ship's propulsion system. Dr. Griffiths, well into his retirement years, was gracious in his response, furnishing a number of important statistics and other information about the ship. Again, I was referred to the Australian Imperial War Museum in Sidney for more information, with additional details coming from the State Library in Victoria.

            Early research revealed that in February 1928, The Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. of the UK was awarded a contract to construct a new liner to be known as the Empress of Japan. When completed, the Empress of Japan would be: 666 feet in length, and 73 feet 6 inches in height from keel to boat deck. She would displace 27,400 tons, and, fully loaded, would have a draft of 30 feet. She was to be a big ship. She would have a crew of 510 and carry more than 600 passengers. She was expected to have a service speed of 21 knots making her one of the fastest passenger ships then in existence.

            The Empress was launched December 27, 1929, and ran her trials during June 1930. After a transatlantic test voyage to Canada from Liverpool, she sailed to Hong Kong via the Suez Canal to commence her transpacific service. On her first crossing, she broke the Pacific record with a voyage from Yokohama to Canada in 8 days, 6 hours and 27 minutes.

            With her debut, the Empress of Japan was the new star of the Empress line, and the last of a line of Empress Class ships that began with the original Empress of Japan, the Empress of China and the Empress of India in 1891. Those three were followed by the Empress of Asia and the Empress of Russia in 1913, and the Empress of Australia in 1914. With the addition of the new Empress of Japan, there were now three Empress Class Ships making the Pacific run. The older Empresses had long since been de-commissioned or transferred to Atlantic service.

            After several trips to India by way of Capetown, South Africa, the Empress was assigned to the North Atlantic run carrying American troops to Europe for the "D" Day landings and subsequent liberation of France as well as the eventual defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany. She continued in that role until she was relieved from the troopship role in May 1948. During the next two years, she underwent extensive refitting designed to fit her for service as a transatlantic luxury liner. Passenger accommodations were reduced from the prewar total of more than 1000 to less than 700, including 458 first class and 205 tourist class spaces. The transformation from troop ship to luxury liner resulted in one major change in the ship's appearance due to the enclosure of the promenade deck, a feature made necessary by the anticipated foul weather of the North Atlantic.

            The Empress finally returned to service during May 1950 and operated on the Liverpool to Quebec City, Canada, run. Her speed allowed for a crossing from Clyde to Quebec in 4 days, 14 hours and 42 minutes, and she thus held the records for the fastest transpacific and Britain-Canada crossings. A plan for her to use Montreal as her Canadian terminal led to her masts being shortened by almost 45 feet in 1952 so she could pass under the bridges on the St. Lawrence River.

            In addition to her Atlantic crossings, she made several trips from New York to the Caribbean, and at least one trip from Southhampton to South Africa in 1953. But her days in Canadian or British service were numbered. Unfortunately, her relatively small passenger capacity for her size limited the profitability of the ship, and she was destined to be withdrawn from service at the end of the 1957 season.

During a career that lasted nearly thirty years, the Empress of Scotland made 59 trips from Vancouver to Hong Kong, performed 8 1/2 years of war service, made 90 round trips across the Atlantic from Britain to Canada and completed 29 other cruises. On January 1, 1958, she was moved to Belfast and sold to the Hamburg Atlantic Line of Germany on January 13, 1958.

            The Hamburg Atlantic Line paid over one million pounds for the ship and moved her to Hamburg, Germany, where she was rebuilt by Howaldswerke Hamburg A.G. When she resumed service, she was no longer the proud Empress of Scotland but now renamed the Hanseatic by her new owners.

            During her refitting in Germany, the aft funnel was removed and a raked bow installed, increasing her overall length to 672 feet and giving her a new look. She was repainted from her old familiar white (we saw her in battleship gray as a troopship) to a black hull. Additional accommodations allowed the ship to carry more than 1200 passengers. The refit cost 1.4 million pounds, giving the new owners a modern 30,000-ton ship for less than 3 million pounds. In order to minimize stability problems, light alloys were used in reconstructing the upper deck and bridge areas. Twenty-two new aluminum lifeboats were added, and the ship was air-conditioned throughout. It was, in fact, a much different ship from the one we knew in 1944.

But, a sad ending was in the cards for this beautiful ship. During the morning of September 7, 1966, while docked in New York, a fire started in the engine room as a result of a fractured fuel pipe on one of the diesel generators. The fire spread to the main engine room and into some of the passenger accommodations, but was extinguished before too much damage was done. The ship was towed back to Germany where full assessment of the damage was made. Though the actual damage caused by the flames was not severe, there was serious smoke contamination throughout the passenger areas. In view of the age of the vessel and the need for extensive refurbishment of the passenger areas, it was decided that the Hanseatic would be scrapped. On December 2, 1966, she was sold to Eisen & Metall A.G. of Hamburg who completely scrapped her.

            I sometimes wonder if any of those thousands of Australian and American troops that traveled on her as a troopship, also traveled on her as the Hanseatic. If so, I also wonder if they knew they were on their wartime troopship. With all the modifications made by the Germans, and by renaming her the Hanseatic, it was probable that most passengers were never aware of her former role.

            Today, the Empress of Scotland is a ghost ship, remaining only in the minds of those that who enjoyed her prewar splendor or went to war with her in relative comfort in WW II.

 

Roger Molina, SMSgt (Retired)

Former Cpl. 118th TRS, 1942-44

 

 

            Roger Molina joined the 118th Observation Squadron (later the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.) in the fall of 1942. He served with the 118th through a lengthy series of maneuvers that took the unit from Morris Field, Charlotte, NC to Chattanooga, TN, Ft Campbell, KY, Statesboro, GA, Harris Neck, GA, Aiken Army Air Field, SC, and Key Field, Meridian, MS. At Key Field, the unit staged for overseas, receiving new P-51 Aircraft configured specifically for Tac Recon missions. The unit crated and shipped all its equipment from Key Field and left for the Port of Embarkation late at night December 20, 1943, spending Christmas and New Years at Camp Patrick Henry, VA. After his service in China, Molina remained in the Air Force, was decorated with the Army and Air Force Commendation Medals, and was a member of the USAF Pistol Team headquartered at Lackland AFB. Molina retired from the USAF as a SMSgt.

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