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USS Columbia (AG-9) on 22 February 1922
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Class: COLUMBIA (AG-9)
Design Pass. & Cargo, 1914
Displacement (tons): 4,000 light, 9,708 normal
Dimensions (feet): 524.0' oa, 509.5' reg x 63.1' wl x 24.1'
Original Armament: 4-6pdr (1921)
Later armaments: --
Complement: 389 (1921)
Speed (kts.): 23
Propulsion (HP): 25,000
Machinery: Parsons turbines, 3 screws
||3 Aug 21
||William Cramp & Sons
||7 Jul 14
||12 Aug 21
||4 Mar 22
||4 Mar 22
||4 Mar 22
||25 Feb 48
The railroad magnate James Hill established the Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company in 1913 to connect his two trans-continental rail lines, which had just reached Portland, Oregon, with San Francisco. The steamers were to provide passenger service from Astoria, Oregon, to San Francisco and compete with the Southern Pacific's trains. The company built two sister ships, GREAT NORTHERN and NORTHERN PACIFIC, named for Hill's two principal railroads. Their 25,000 horsepower gave them a speed of 25 knots and made them, based on the ratio of horsepower to tonnage, the highest powered liners in the world. Although luxurious and fast, these coastal ships, whose draft originally was only 21.75 feet, gained an unpleasant reputation for rolling. The service was losing money and Hubbard F. Alexander, owner of another West Coast line, the Pacific Steamship Co., had made an offer to buy the ships when World War I intervened and the U.S. Shipping Board commandeered them in September 1917 for use by the Army.
GREAT NORTHERN was delivered by the Shipping Board to the Army at the Puget Sound Navy Yard on 23 Sep 17 and the next day the yard was ordered to fit her out as an Army transport to be operated by the Navy. She was commissioned by the Navy on 11 Nov 17, 10 days after NORTHERN PACIFIC, and both ships were still fitting out at Puget Sound in mid-January. Armaments of 4-6"/50 guns, 2-1pdrs and 2 Colts were assigned to the two ships on 2 Feb 18. After highly successful service as fast transports on the North Atlantic route, GREAT NORTHERN was placed out of commission and transferred from the Cruiser and Transport Force to the Army Transportation Service on 15 Aug 19, and NORTHERN PACIFIC followed five days later. The Army operated them into 1921 when they became surplus to the Army's shrinking requirements for transports.
In the meantime some U.S. naval officers had developed the theory that the British had not done better at the 1916 Battle of Jutland because the ability of their Commander in Chief to coordinate effectively the movements of his huge fleet had been limited by the inadequate command facilities in his flagship, a battleship. They proposed putting the Commander in Chief into an "administrative flagship," a non-combatant ship with sufficient size for a large staff and the speed to proceed where needed. When Admiral Hilary P. Jones became Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet on 1 Jul 21 he faced the imminent reassignment of his flagship, the battleship PENNSYLVANIA, to the Pacific Fleet, and the Navy decided to give the administrative flagship idea a try. Presidential Executive Order No. 3519 of 22 Jul 21 directed the Secretary of War to transfer the newly-available GREAT NORTHERN to the Navy Department without transfer of funds. (Soon afterwards, Executive Order 3580 directed the transfer of NORTHERN PACIFIC from the Army to the Shipping Board.) GREAT NORTHERN was taken over from the Army on 3 Aug 21 at San Francisco and towed to the Mare Island Navy Yard, which had been directed on 29 Jul 21 to place her in commission as soon as possible. CNO on 8 Aug 21 informed the Bureaus that, under the designation "Auxiliary, Miscellaneous," the ex-Army transport GREAT NORTHERN would be sent to the East Coast and converted upon arrival at the New York Navy Yard to an administrative fleet flagship for the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. The ship was commissioned on 12 Aug 21 with one of the chief advocates of the administrative flagship concept, Captain Joseph K. Taussig, in command. GREAT NORTHERN arrived at New York on 7 Oct 21 for a conversion that included what was described as "the most complete wireless equipment that was ever placed upon any ship." CinC Atlantic Fleet hoisted his flag in her on 14 Nov 21 and, at his request, the ship was reamed COLUMBIA on 17 Nov 21. A wartime armament of 4-6"/53, 4-3"/50, 4-6pdr and 1-1 pdr guns may have been reserved for her but not installed. COLUMBIA departed New York on 7 Jan 22, conducted visits of inspection at Charleston, S.C., and Key West, and joined the Atlantic Fleet at Guantanamo Bay on 21 Jan 22. There the "stringency of fuel" caused the cancellation of further inspection trips. While there the repair ship PROMETHEUS (AR-3) carried out some additional conversion work.
NORTHERN PACIFIC lay in Shipping Board custody at the former Army piers at Hoboken, N.J., until Alexander's Pacific Steamship Co. (also known as the Admiral Line) bought her on 2 Feb 22 for use with the RUTH ALEXANDER (ex CALLAO) in coastwise service between San Francisco and Seattle in competition with the train service. She departed New York on 7 Feb 22 with a skeleton crew of 70 men and four shipyard workers for the Sun Shipbuilding Corp. at Chester, Pa., where she was to be reconditioned under the name H. F. ALEXANDER. Early on 8 Feb 22 off the entrance to the Delaware Bay she was discovered to be on fire, probably from a fuel oil leak, and after all but the shipyard workers were rescued she capsized and sank, ablaze from stem to stern. Alexander then decided to apply personal political persuasion at the highest level of government to acquire his lost ship's sister.
Alexander's political efforts succeeded. On 23 Feb 22 SecNav Denby recommended to President Warren G. Harding that he transfer COLUMBIA to the Shipping Board "for such disposition as may commend itself to that branch of the government," and on the same date Presidential Executive Order No. 3640 authorized SecNav to make the transfer. Harding wrote Denby the next day to thank him for his recommendation in this matter, which he saw as "proof of the earnest endeavor of the Navy Department to minimize its expenditures in full harmony with the reduced cost which was the impelling thought in the Conference on the Limitation of [Naval] Armament" and in the hope that it would "appeal to the very cordial approval of the Congress." Cordial approval was notably absent when the House Committee of Naval Affairs grilled Denby on the transfer on 15 Mar 22, clearly believing (but never stating) that Harding had done a personal favor to Alexander. Denby told the Committee that he had initially objected to the transfer but later acquiesced because, assuming the Senate approved the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty, "the Navy apparently will be compelled to reduce in every possible way, and
we will try to keep the floating Navy up to the highest degree of efficiency. That means combatant ships, and everything but combatant ships will go by the board as our personnel is reduced." Such economies soon rippled through the rest of the auxiliary force, causing several newly-acquired auxiliary ships (AF-8, AK-14, AK-16, AO-17, and AO-21) to be placed in reserve rather than commissioned and others (AD-12, AF-9, AK-13, and several oilers) to be decommissioned after brief service.
CNO's office informed CinC Atlantic Fleet on 23 Feb 22 that COLUMBIA was to be turned over to the Shipping Board at Sun Shipbuilding Co., Chester, Pa., and would eventually be transferred to the Pacific Steamship Co. The Shipping Board approved the bid of the Pacific Steamship Co. for the ship on or about 27 Feb 22. COLUMBIA steamed to the yard of the Sun Shipbuilding Company at Chester, Pennsylvania, (the destination of NORTHERN PACIFIC on her fatal voyage) and was placed out of commission and delivered to the Shipping Board there on 4 Mar 22. Sun then converted the former Army transport and Navy command ship back to a passenger ship for the Admiral Line, which her owner named after himself, H. F. ALEXANDER. Captain Taussig was left to lament the premature end of the administrative flagship concept in the August 1922 issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings
H. F. ALEXANDER operated with varying degrees of success, primarily on the West Coast, until 1935 when the Admiral Line's passenger services ceased and the ship was laid up. She remained largely idle until 1941 when she was transferred to British registry for use as a troopship. On 25 Jul 42 the British sold her back to the War Shipping Administration at Boston. She became the Army transport GEORGE S. SIMONDS and, after being altered at Boston for increased troop lift by the Bethlehem Steel Co. between August and November 1942, she served on worldwide trooping duty until August 1944. The Army then loaned her back to the War Shipping Administration to transport Jamaican laborers between Kingston and Hampton Roads, a service that she continued to perform until late 1945. USAT GEORGE S. SIMONDS was redelivered to WSA for layup on 5 Mar 46 and was sold for scrapping in early 1948, being delivered to her purchaser on 25 Feb 48.
||Ex GREAT NORTHERN (ID-4569, completed Jan 15). Commissioned as transport USS GREAT NORTHERN 11 Nov 17, to Army 15 Aug 19. To Navy 3 Aug 21, named COLUMBIA 17 Nov 21, to Shipping Board 4 Mar 22 and merc. H. F. ALEXANDER. To B.M.W.T. 1941, to WSA and Army 25 Jul 42 as USAT GEORGE S. SIMONDS. To WSA reserve fleet 5 Mar 46 as H. F. ALEXANDER, to buyer 25 Feb 48 and scrapped at Baltimore.
Compiled: 30 Oct 2012
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2002-2012