Tuesday, November 22, 2011
USS Alchiba (AK-23, AKA-6)
Figure 1: USS Alchiba (AK-23) off the Boston Navy Yard, Boston, Massachusetts, 18 June 1941. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 2: USS Alchiba (AK-23) off the Boston Navy Yard, Boston, Massachusetts,18 June 1941. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 3: USS Alchiba (AK-23) off the Boston Navy Yard, Boston, Massachusetts, 18 June 1941. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 4: USS Alchiba (AK-23) photographed circa early 1942. Note her camouflage scheme. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 5: Guadalcanal-Tulagi Landings, 7-9 August 1942. A US Marine Corps M2A4 "Stuart" light tank is hoisted from USS Alchiba (AK-23) into a LCM(2) landing craft, off the Guadalcanal invasion beaches on the first day of landings there, 7 August 1942. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 6: USS Alchiba (AK-23) fighting fires in her forward holds, with the assistance of a tug (probably USS Bobolink, AT-131), while she was aground near Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, circa late November 1942. Torpedoed on 28 November by the Japanese submarine I-16 and torpedoed again on 7 December, she was salvaged and repaired. Note smoke venting from the top of her kingposts. US Marine Corps Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 7: USS Alchiba (AK-23) on fire near Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, circa late November 1942, after she had been torpedoed in the forward holds. Alchiba was torpedoed on 28 November by the Japanese submarine I-16. Her crew ran her aground and delivered her cargo while fighting fires, which burned until 2 December. She was torpedoed again on 7 December, but was salvaged and reentered service. Photographed by Sgt. Robert Brenner. US Marine Corps Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 8: USS Alchiba (AK-23) aground and on fire near Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, circa late November 1942. She had been torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-16 on 28 November. Men are handling cargo on the beach, possibly assisting in unloading Alchiba while she was fighting her fires. Note barbed wire fencing in the foreground. US Marine Corps Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 9: USS Alchiba (AKA-6) underway off Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, California, 4 August 1943. US National Archives photo # 19-N-49818., a US Navy Bureau of Ships photo now in the collections of the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 10: Broadside view of USS Alchiba (AKA-6) underway off Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, California, 4 August 1943. Alchiba was overhauled at the shipyard from 3 June until 7 August 1943. Navy Yard Mare Island photo # 5645-43. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 11: USS Alchiba (AKA-6) departing Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, California, 4 August 1943. Note the imposing bridge front in this class and the semi-enclosed bridge wings. US National Archives, RG-19-LCM. Photo # 19-N-49818. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 12: Amidships looking aft view of USS Alchiba (AKA-6) at Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, California, 31 July 1943. Navy Yard Mare Island photo # 5542-43. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 13: Aft view of USS Alchiba (AKA-6) at Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, California, 31 July 1943. USS Suamico (AO-49) is pictured at left. Navy Yard Mare Island photo # 5541-43. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 14: USS Alchiba (AKA-6) photographed circa 1945. Courtesy of James Russell. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 15: Ex-USS Alchiba (AKA-6) in commercial service as the Dutch flagged Royal Interocean Lines MS Tjipanas, circa 1950, location unknown. Courtesy Gerhard Mueller-Debus. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 16: Ex-USS Alchiba (AKA-6) in commercial service as the Singapore flagged MS Tong Jit underway in the Malacca Straits, date unknown. ©Airfoto, Malacca. Courtesy Gerhard Mueller-Debus . Click on photograph for larger image.
Named after a star, the 14,125-ton cargo ship USS Alchiba (AK-23) was originally built in 1940 as the civilian freighter Mormacdove by the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company at Chester, Pennsylvania. The US Navy acquired the ship on 2 June 1941 from the Moore-McCormack Ship Lines, renaming it Alchiba the next day and giving it the designation AK-23. Alchiba was converted into a cargo ship for naval service by the Boston Navy Yard at Boston, Massachusetts, and was officially commissioned into the Navy at Boston on 15 June 1941. Alchiba was approximately 459 feet long and 63 feet wide, had a top speed of 16.5 knots, and had a crew of 356 officers and men. The ship was armed with one 5-inch gun, four 40-mm gun mounts, and four single .50-caliber machine guns. Alchiba could also carry roughly 274,000 cubic feet or 4,705 dead-weight tons of cargo.
After being commissioned, Alchiba spent the rest of 1941 hauling cargo for the Navy in the western and north Atlantic, going as far east as Iceland. In early 1942, Alchiba was sent to the Pacific to transport supplies to the Society Islands and then returned to America’s east coast via Chile and the Panama Canal. The ship was ordered back to the Pacific in mid-June of 1942 and arrived in New Zealand the following month to join the amphibious force that was gathering there for the invasion of Guadalcanal. In early August 1942, Alchiba took part in the initial invasion of Guadalcanal and continued providing vital supplies to the American troops on the island for the next four months.
On 21 November 1942, Alchiba and the transport Barnett left Noumea, New Caledonia. Both ships were escorted by a destroyer. The ships were bound for Guadalcanal and Alchiba was carrying a highly volatile cargo of aviation gasoline, bombs, and ammunition. Alchiba was also towing a barge filled with Marston mats, steel mats needed for the critical runways on Guadalcanal. On the morning of 28 November, just two days after Thanksgiving, Alchiba was starting to unload her deadly cargo at Lunga Point on the coast of Guadalcanal when the Japanese midget submarine I-16 crept into the area. The submarine fired a torpedo that ran past a screen of five American destroyers and hit Alchiba right in her No.2 hold. There was a large explosion followed by a huge fire in the forward part of the ship. Alchiba took on a 17-degree list as the fire made steady progress to the aviation gasoline and bombs stored deep within her hull. The captain of the ship, Commander James S. Freeman, decided that the only way to save Alchiba was to beach her, giving his crew a chance to concentrate on the fire without having to worry about the ship sinking. Commander Freeman then gave the order to beach the transport two miles west of Lunga Point. At least if the ship blew up, it wouldn’t take the whole landing area along with it.
Within minutes, the burning Alchiba moved away from Lunga Point and grounded her bow hard into the sand so that more than 150 feet of her keel rested on the solid bottom. At the same time, Alchiba’s executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Howard R. Shaw, organized damage control teams to fight the fires, flood the magazines, and pour CO2 into the blazing hold. As the rest of the crew were frantically unloading ammunition from the ship onto small landing craft that transported the supplies to the beach, fire hoses were passed over from the minesweeper Bobolink (now doubling as a fleet tugboat), which was assisting Alchiba in fighting the blaze. The firefighting efforts continued all day, as exploding machine gun ammunition filled the air along with the smoke and the fire. Men scrambled all over the ship to fight the blaze, even though some of them passed out from all the smoke generated by the fire. That night, all crewmembers that were not fighting the fire were evacuated from the ship. By now Japanese aircraft were attracted to Alchiba, which was glowing in the night like a beacon because of the flames. Some bombs were dropped close to the cargo ship at 0330, but none of them scored a direct hit. For the time being, Alchiba was still alive.
The crew continued fighting the fire throughout the next day, 29 November 1942. Good progress, though, was being made in unloading the ship, thereby reducing the risk of a major explosion taking place. But the flames kept growing and there was still much more cargo to pull off Alchiba. The ship continued to burn for four more days, until finally the crew got the situation under control. An incredible effort was made by the crew to not only stop the ship from being consumed by the fire, but to also unload the precious cargo that was desperately needed by the men on Guadalcanal. Then on 7 December 1942, a torpedo was fired by yet another midget submarine and this one hit the aft section of the ship. The explosion killed three men, wounded six others, and caused severe structural damage to the ship. Fire and flames once more engulfed the ship, while the crew tried frantically to plug the new hole that was torn into the transport. Alchiba was in such bad shape now that the US Navy announced her to be a “total loss.” But the captain and the crew of this tough ship simply would not give in. They continued to battle the fires until they were finally extinguished. They also managed to patch up all the holes in the ship so that Alchiba actually floated again. The transport was eventually pulled off the sand and, remarkably, was able to start all its engines. The ship then was ordered to return to America for more permanent repairs. After spending the rest of December and part of January 1943 getting Alchiba in good enough shape to make the trip back to the United States, the ship began her long journey home. Although Alchiba had to make a stop along the way at Espiritu Santo for further temporary repairs, the battered cargo ship finally made it back to the United States and entered the Mare Island Navy Yard at Vallejo, California, on 2 June 1943.
Extensive repairs were made to Alchiba and work continued on the ship until August 1943. Alchiba was also re-classified an attack cargo ship and re-designated AKA-6. For the remainder of 1943 and up until March 1944, Alchiba performed logistics duties in the south Pacific. After an overhaul in mid-1944, the ship was plagued by recurrent engine troubles. She was in and out of shipyards for the next year and, during that time, completed only one voyage to the south Pacific. In July and August 1945, Alchiba delivered cargo to bases in the central and western Pacific. She stayed in the western Pacific area until late October 1945 and then returned to the United States, reaching the east coast by way of the Panama Canal in mid-December 1945.
USS Alchiba was decommissioned at Portsmouth, Virginia, on 14 January 1946 and her name was struck from the Navy list on 25 February 1946. The ship was transferred on 19 July 1946 to the Maritime Commission for disposal. She was sold in 1948, refitted as a civilian merchant vessel, and entered service as the Dutch-flagged MS Tjipanas. In 1967, the ship was sold to a Singapore-based company and re-named MS Tong Jit. In 1973, she was sold to a company in Whampoa, China, and scrapped.
The crew of USS Alchiba not only refused to give up their ship, but they knew they had to get their valuable cargo to the men who were struggling on Guadalcanal. For her service in World War II, Alchiba was awarded three battle stars as well as a Presidential Unit Citation for her service at Guadalcanal from August to December 1942. This was a rare honor for a US Navy cargo ship, but one that was certainly well deserved.