USS West Point (AP 23), the former passenger liner SS America, leaves Newport News Shipbuilding in June 1941 after conversion to a troop transport. NNS photo archive

NNS-Built Passenger Liner Served in WWII

Published May 24, 2022

Newport News Shipbuilding is known for its aircraft carriers and submarines, but even its non-military ships helped serve the nation in times of war.

Eighty-one years ago this week, SS America, an NNS-built passenger liner designed by famed naval architect William Francis Gibbs, was pressed into military service by the U.S. Navy. Used as a troop transport, it was renamed USS West Point (AP 23) and commissioned on June 15, 1941.

Enlisting in the Navy required a few changes. America’s rooms and suites sported a contemporary and informal look, the work of the women-led interior design firm of Smyth, Urquhart and Marckwald. Their work gave way to a camouflage paint pattern and anti-aircraft guns, according to Navy historical records.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still several months away, and the United States was officially neutral as the ship entered naval service. But with war raging in Europe, the ship helped transport British soldiers as part of a convoy to reinforce the Middle East.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, West Point served as a workhorse throughout World War II.

Even before its military conversion, the ship was touched by war. Two civilian members of America’s crew were later found to be German spies. Both left the ship before the Navy took over and were later arrested as part of the Duquesne Spy Ring.

According to FBI records, one was Erwin Wilhelm Siegler, the chief butcher aboard the ship. The second was Franz Joseph Stigler, who tried to recruit amateur radio operators in the U.S. to communicate information to German radio stations. Both men served time in prison.