U.S. Army Transport URUGUAY

When I signed on, most of the peacetime crew was on board and I gleaned enough from them to appreciate that the prewar history of URUGUAY is worth writing about. For example, Joe Curran, the powerful head of the National Maritime Union, was URUGUAY’s bosun when the bloody mid-thirties strikes occurred.

Some of the crew still talked about bulkhead dynamos (kerosene lanterns) and Morgan-Line strawberries (prunes) that were part of the usual fare in pre-strike U.S. merchant ships. The prunes, they said, were the consequence of a barter agreement between the California Fruit Growers Association and the Morgan Line, and were to offset the effects of the horrible meals that were fed to seamen.

Shipboard labor management relations were not at all harmonious and the presence of cadets seemed to be disagreeable to both groups. Grudging acceptance came only from real performance, for example, my ability to operate a lathe. Regardless, the officers and crew in URUGUAY, most of whom would have been exempt from the draft had they been employed ashore, truly served the war effort by overcoming many challenges.

The conversion to a troopship was insufficiently planned; no provision had been made for additional fresh water. During peacetime, URUGUAY accommodated 350 passengers. When about 4,800 troops embarked at the Brooklyn Army Base they immediately used the showers. Thus many of us in the black gang found ourselves working between watches during the first week at sea in order to reconnect the showers, wash basins, and laundry washing machines for seawater operation only. Severe rationing was instituted and armed guards were assigned to the few remaining potable-water spigots.

URUGUAY departed Panama 700-tons short of fresh water. Attempts to use the evaporators, not used during prewar service, were futile; their copper coils were missing. Just then, after 14 years of operation, the bottom of the feed-and-filter tank corroded through causing tremendous loss of boiler feedwater.

A stop in Bora Bora achieved repair by a Navy welder, partial freshwater replenishment, and a gang swim by hundreds of soldiers and a few dozen gutsy Army nurses who jumped from the forty-foot high main deck while their frantic officers tried to stop them.

Seawater had to be used for boiler feedwater. Thus URUGUAY’s twelve boilers literally produced salt.

Salt accumulations in the boilers’ lower circulating tubes caused them to fail. Securing and dumping boilers in order to plug tubes became a regular part of every watch. Salt exuded from the numerous handhole covers in the boilers’ sinuous headers and packed the spaces under the boilers’ front and back casings in six-inch thick slabs. Salt stalactites grew beneath many pipe joints.

URUGUAY was diverted to Auckland, New Zealand.

After leaving Auckland for Melbourne, Australia with fresh-water tanks replenished and in company with two other troop carriers and His Majesty’s New Zealand Ship MONOWAI, an auxiliary cruiser, there was still salt carry over. Accumulations on the one-quarter-inch mesh screens in the main steam pipes leading to the turbine throttles caused speed to diminish. URUGUAY was forced to secure both main engines while MONOMAI circled her troopship charges.

When URUGUAY was wallowing in the Tasman Sea and being eyed by a few curious tiger sharks, the Battle of the Coral Sea that stopped the Japanese advance southward had not yet taken place. Also, at least one enemy submarine was operating on the approach to Melbourne as made evident by the torpedoing of SS RECINA five days later, 11 April 1942.

Below the temperature climbed as we worked in 15-minute shifts during the exhausting process of removing the salted in place strainers while the main steam stop valves, because of salt encrustation, could not be fully secured. Every one of us received painful steam burns. Our reward was thirteen days in Melbourne for repairs.

The next two voyages were not nearly as eventful for the engineers except during the passage from Panama to New York, 8 to 15 July 1942, when URUGUAY was steaming alone because there were no troops on board. German submarines were then having a field day. Boilers were forced in order to get as much speed as possible. Refractory brick disintegrated and boiler sides turned cherry red and bulged.

After the furnaces were rebricked in New York to the recently curved boiler sides, URUGUAY carried troops to Scotland and spent two months there swinging on the hook in the Firth of Clyde. The crew was told each day, “This is your last time ashore.”

Although none of us knew it then, we survivors of 60 consecutive farewell parties were destined to sail with a British force during the Invasion of North Africa.

URUGUAY, fitted with about 4,800 bunks, took on board more than 8,000 American soldiers in Liverpool. Thus many had to hot bunk, that is, two soldiers taking turns to sleep in one bunk during the ten-day voyage that included one day inside Gibraltar’s mine field.

Of course the Germans had a special passion for troopships. SS VICEROY OF INDIA was torpedoed off of Oran, Algeria. Another was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on 11 November in Oran as URUGUAY was disembarking troops in Mers El Kébir, Oran’s second port just three-miles away.

After the troops were ashore a commendation was attached to URUGUAY’s bulletin board; it was from the Naval Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Force North Africa and Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, Royal Navy.



Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When crossing the Tasman Sea at reduced speed because of URUGUAY’s boiler problems, our small convoy overtook a lone New Zealand troopship that seemed to be a coal burner making no more than eight knots. From across the water a mile distant we could hear the voices of perhaps five- to six-hundred ANZAC soldiers plaintively singing:

We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Keep smilin’ through
Just like you always do
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away

So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know?
Tell them I won’t be long
They’ll be happy to know
That as you saw me go
I was singing this song

We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

(We’ll Meet Again – Words and Music by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles)

That ballad presented in that manner during that bleak time caused those topside in URUGUAY to reflect on their circumstance. Each seemed to be thinking of home and family. There were few dry eyes.

“Who were the merchant marine of the second world war? A handful of prewar seamen, whom the fastidious saw as the scum of the earth, manned the small merchant fleet of 1941.

“The early crews were augmented by a swelling flood of old men, boys, retired seafarers, draft rejectees, slackers and suckers,” Time magazine once called them (21 December 1942). They were motivated, variously, by a search for adventure, patriotism, sense of duty, money.

“Crash training programs made seamen of the vast inexpertienced majority of them, and off to war they went. They were civilians all and volunteers to a man.

“And they died. From torpedoes, aerial bombs, collisions, shell bursts and machine-gun bullets, frigid seas, flames, exploding cargoes. From drowning trapped below decks or from freezing or starving adrift in oarless lifeboats. Their casualty rate in World War II was exceeded only by that of the U.S. Marine Corps. (Merchant marine deaths were 2.74 percent; 2.9 percent of marines were killed in battle, and the rate rose to 3.6 percent when non-battle deaths are included. The overall armed forces death rate was 1.05 percent.)”

The U.S. Merchant Marine at War, 1775-1945, edited by
Bruce L. Felknor, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1998,
ISBN 1-55750-273-0, p. 171.


Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo

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