USS Harris (APA-2)
Attack Transport Ship
A lengthy war record during World War 2 could not save the storied USS Harris attack transport in the end.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
In the 1920's the tourist and business trade from the United States to the Orient was by passenger ship. The firms Bethlehem Steel, Newport News and New York Shipbuilding designed and built a class of 535-foot long ships to meet the demand. The passinger liner SS Pine Tree State, and others, were built in 1921 by the Bethlehem Corporation at Sparrows Point, Maryland.They built sixteen similar vessels weighing 13,500 tons when empty with double-steel hulls and designed as a combination passenger-cargo steamship. All had stateroom accommodations for some 474 passengers - 280 first-class and 194 third-class - along with below-deck cargo holds for 5,000 tons of freight. SS Pine Tree State displaced 21,000 tons when under full load and was propelled by 8 x Yarrow header-type boilers and 2 x Curtis turbines using twin shafts with a designed 12,000 shaft horsepower output. The class had a speed of 17.2 knots+, making them some of the fastest ships on the sea during the 1920s. The vessel managed a single smoke funnel and four large cranes with support structures - two forward and two aft - allowing cargo to be loaded and then unloaded expeditiously.
In 1922 she was reincorporated from the American Orient Line into the American Mail Line and renamed as the SS President Grant. SS President Grant's home port was Seattle, Washington and her routes were still to the Orient where she sailed from Seattle to Yokohama/Kobe, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila in the Philippines, Honolulu, Hawaii and other points. SS President Grant completed over 40 voyages from the West Coast to the Orient with the average round trip taking approximately six weeks. SS President Grant could make 20 knots if needed and she held speed records between Seattle and the Orient for a time - the vessel earning the name of "Blue Ribbon Ship of the Pacific". She showcased a black hull and an all-white paint scheme above the water line with a gold band around her midships. In the industry, SS President Grant became celebrated as the winner of a race between the luxury liner Empress of Russia from Seattle to Hawaii.Grant remained in port at Seattle during the 1936-1937 National Maritime Strike so, in 1940, the U.S. Navy obtained the ship for the Maritime Commission due to the possibility of war with Japan.
On August 8th, 1940, SS President Grant was placed in drydock at Todds Seattle Shipbuilding and Drydock Corporation. This new class of troopship was commissioned as Navy troopship USS Harris (AP-8) ("AP" recognizing here as a dedicated "Transport"). She was the first ship of her class when adopted by the U.S. Navy on August 10th, 1940. Her namesake was in honor of the late Colonel John Harris, USMC who was the Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps during the American Civil War (1861-1865). The passenger liner stateroom walls were removed for larger sleeping spaces and bunk beds constructed four high to billet 1,500 to 1,900 enlisted men. The first-class staterooms were altered to house up to 120 officers in somewhat less-restricted quarters and the ship's crew was almost doubled to 650 officers and men with the need for gunners and boat handlers. The cargo hold held space for 2,200 tons of troop supplies to be based on mission requirements. The cargo tonnage was reduced from the original 5,000 tons to allow the additional men being conveyed, the twenty landing craft as well as defensive armament and applicable mountings. The ship's landing craft were placed as eight vessels amidships on cradles and four on the aft deck over the Number Three hold. Raised gun tub mounts were added on the bow and stern, originally for 4 x 3-inch /50 caliber Dual-Purpose (DP) guns and single 5-inch /38 Dual-Purpose (DP) Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns placed in mounts near the cargo holds.
The twenty LCVPs ("Higgins Boats") were typically constructed from plywood. This shallow-draft, barge-like boat was used for ferrying troops and supplies ashore and back out. The displacement was 18,000lbs (8,200kg) light with a length 36 feet and beam measuring 10 feet, 10 inches and draught of 3 feet aft and 2 feet forward. Propulsion of these boats was a Gray Marine diesel-fueled engine developing 225 horsepower or a Hall-Scott gasoline-fueled engine delivering 250 horsepower. Their speed in ideal conditions was approximately 12 knots (14 mph) and each vessel could hold up to 6,000lbs - either a single vehicle or general cargo. The craft's personnel capacity was a platoon-sized complement numbering 36 men and their personal supplies. The men generally entered the boat by climbing down a cargo net hung from the side of their troop transport, exiting the craft against a beach by way of a lowered large frontal ramp. Four men were needed to operate the craft: a Coxswain, an Engineer, a Bowman and a Sternman. Armament was limited to 2 x 0.30 cal (7.62mm) machine guns.
The Harris-class transports also held the capability to ferry one to three LCM-3(Landing Craft Mechanized) for the delivery of tanks, heavy equipment and or additional troops. Each displaced 52 tons when loaded and 23 tons when empty. their length measured 50 feet with a beam of 14 feet a draught of 3 feet forward and 4 feet aft. These too were manned by a crew of four and armament was 2 x 0.50-cal M2 Browning heavy machine guns. Maximum speed in ideal conditions was 8 knots (9.2 mph) when loaded and up to 11 knots (13 mph) when empty. The craft's capacity one 30-ton combat tank, 60 combat troops or a comparable load of 60,000lbs of cargo.
USS Harris (AP-8) saw her first missions at the end of 1940 and during the first half of 1941 when carrying troops from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Her mission changed during mid-1941 when she returned to San Diego as atroop training ship. Her troops were trained how to climb cargo nets and land on varous types of landing craft. Once in a combat zone, there would be no time for rehersals when loading landing craft with troops and supplies and making cooridinated landings ashore - most likely under enemy fire. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harber on December 7th, 1941 and thrust America into World War 2 (1939-1945), USS Harris was training troops for amphibious assault operations in waters off of San Diego. USS Harris then returned to San Diego to begin making round trips to Pearl Harbor, delivering supplies and troops. The mission ended in January 1942.
Again, USS Harris was commissioned as a troop training ship near San Diego. Training was halted to move troops to Pago Pago, Samoa with the 7th Fleet on April 13rd, 1942. Returning to San Diego for additional troops, she then steamed to Uvea, Wallis Islands. Arriving in late May, the Marines and their supplies were unloaded in 72 hours due to steep beach fronts. The landing was for the upcoming assault n New Caledonia located in the southwest Pacific Ocean - 750 miles east of Australia. In late May of 1942, USS Harris was ordered to return to the West Coast of the United States to train additional troops in amphibious warfare from Monterey Bay, California.
In August of 1942, USS Harris was reassigned to Transport Division Six and steamed from San Diego to Norfolk, Virginia. As the flotilla approached Hampton Roads, Virginia, USS Algorab (AKA-8), an attack cargo ship, collided head-on into the portside of USS Harris just aft of the bridge. USS Harris was able to proceed under her own power into the Baltimore, Maryland yard, entering drydock where all repairs were completed by mid-October of 1942. USS Harris then sailed for Norfolk where troops boarded her in preparation for an amphibious landing at the French Morocco city of Safi. The force arrived at Safi on November 8th and landed troops.On November 19th, USS Harris returned to Norfolk for minor repairs that were completed on December 1st. Harris then took on 1,800 Marines in Norfolk, Virginia and sailed for San Diego, California, arriving there in mid-December.
On February 1st, 1943, Harris was reclassified with pennant number APA-2 as an attack transport. All AP-type ships were not equipped for combat zone service as the class did not have a C.I.C. (Combat Information Center) - the nerve center of the ship - where all available sources of combat radar and radio intelligence were gathered and disseminated to the flag and commanding officers as well as other control stations about the ship. The crew of the APs had signalmen and radiomen who were unable, with binoculars, to keep up with inbound enemy aircraft in the new type of air war seen in World War 2. USS Harris and USS Zeilin had crew spaces and the bridge facilities altered to include a C.I.C. room. To man her new status as a Squadron flagship, 43 officers and 108 enlisted men were added. While in port, her armament was upgraded through 2x2 40mm Bofors AA guns and 10 x 20mm Oerlikon AA guns. The ship remained in the San Diego area for the next four months while training troops. Orders then arrived to weigh anchor and steam for San Francisco. She arrived there on April 20th, 1943.
Back in June of 1942, the Japanese plan had evolved as a two-fold attack against Midway Island to create a base for the enemy to, in turn, attack Hawaii and arrange for an invasion force against the Alaskan Aleutian Islands. By April 24th, 1943, USS Harris (APA-2) was combat-loaded with 1,600 men of the 7th Infantry Division sailing for the Alaskan area. The flotilla arrived in Cold Bay, Alaska and, six days later, landed a contingent of Army forces. Weighing anchor, she then sailed for landings at Attu Island later in the day. Additional landings were made on May 11th during bad weather with more unloading of troops in Massacre Bay. Harris remained on station in the combat zone until June 10th, 1943, operating from a number of ports in the Adak-Dutch Harbor area while relocating Army and Navy personnel. Harris then returned to San Diego in mid-June for needed repair, then sailing for San Francisco on July 3rd where she loaded combat troops prior to getting underway on training exercises on July 10th. Harris then made headway for Kuluk Bay, Adak Island, Alaska where landings were made on Kiska Island and with no opposition on August 15th. The landings were completed over the next five days by which time she was called to San Francisco, arriving there on August 31st.
Harris was re-trooped and sailed for New Zealand on September 8th, 1943 and then reassigned to the Southern Attack Force for the invasion of Tarawa, Gilbert Islands. Harris arrived with a full complement of Marines at Tarawa during D-Day +1 after the initial landings had taken place on November 20th. Harris was under fire from shore batteries while her troops were discharged into landing craft. After she embarked wounded from the Sixth Regiment and Second Marine Division, she sailed for Pearl Harbor on December 2nd, arriving there on December 14th, 1943. Harris began minor voyage repairs until January 7th, of 1944 and undertook amphibious drills for the invasion of the Marshall Islands.
Harris and the invasion force arrived off Kwajalein, Marshall Islands on the first day of February. Debarking her elements of the Seventh Infantry Division began as soon as she dropped anchor and fighting proved fierce. In a week, she re-embarked her assault troops, casualties and Japanese prisoners on March 15th. Harris then required normal sailing repairs and was sent to the repair facility at San Pedro. Upon completion she returned to Pearl on May 9th, 1944 for resupply and to embark troops for the invasion of the Marianas as the island-hopping strategy of the Allies was now in full force. She landed her troops off Saipan on June 16th and remained on station for four days before re-embarking her troops as the battle proved short and sweet.
The Task force then moved on to Eniwetok and then back to Pearl in September for a new mission. Arriving at Babelthuap in the Palaus on September 15th, Harris landed her troops as the main assault was on the nearby island of Peleliu. She sailed for Ulithi Atoll and Manus and, after being resupplied, she was formed as part of the invasion force for the Philippines. Harris arrived at Leyte Gulf on October 20th, 1944, embarking elements of the 1st Cavalry Division and then assigned to look for survivors of Taffy 3 from the Battle of Samar Island between a Japanese fleet, containing the Battleship Yamato, and light U.S. carriers including the USS Gambier Bay and destroyers USS Johnston and USS Samuel B. Roberts. Departing the area on October 28th, she spent the month of December training troops for the move on Huon Gulf in Papua New Guinea.
Harris arrived off Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, Philippines with the assault forces on January 12th, 1945. The convoys encountered heavy air attacks by Japanese land-based aircraft while en route. The decision was to land troops under heavy smoke screen and, when completed, Harris departed for Leyte Gulf to embark new landing forces. Her mission called her to La Paz, Philippines and, as luck would have it, Harris landed her troop complement without opposition with the Japanese busy with the invasion of Luzon. Loading again at Leyte Gulf, Harris was assigned to the invasion of Okinawa. Sailing with the Southern Attack Force and arriving on April 1st, 1945, the initial landings were underway. The troops thought it was an April fools joke that the landing went so unopposed by the Japanese. However, Okinawa would become a costly battle of the war. Harris's gunners fought off numerous attacks by enemy suicide aircraft and was not directly hit. The unloading of the troops was accomplished on April 3rd to which then she departed for Pearl Harbor three days later. Harris returned to the United States in late April. After being recrewed, she returned with troops to Okinawa on May 28th and another trip from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa was scheduled in August of 1945. The formal surrender of the Empire of Japan came on September 2nd, 1945 which brought hostilities of World War 2 to a final close (the war in Europe had ended in May). Harris was reassigned to carry occupation troops to Japan and arrived in Tokyo Bay on September 8th, 1945. She made her final occupation voyage to Taku, Bar, China, where troops were needed to protect the Japanese, who had surrendered, from the Chinese. When ready, she steamed to the West Coast of the United States on November 16th, 1945 and then ordered to sail from San Francisco to Boston. Upon her arrival, she was decommissioned on April 16th, 1946, joining the massive worldwide drawdown of military forces in the post-war months. Placed in reserve, she was ultimately sold to American Ship Breakers, Incorporated in July of 1948 to be turned into scrap and profit.
During her honorable World War 2 service tenure, USS Harris (AP-8 / APA-2) earned 10 Battle Stars. She retroactively was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, the Navy Unit Commendation, the China Service Medal (extended), the American Defense Service Medal (with Fleet clasp), the American Campaign Medal - Europe-Africa-Middle East Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War 2 Victory Medal, the Navy Occupation Service Medal (with Asia clasp) and the Philippines Liberation Medal.