This Was Then: ‘The Dishpan Fleet’

Steamers go to war.

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The steamer Naushon, converted to a hospital ship during World War II. Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Just after midnight on July 9, 1942, steamship officials were notified that they had less than 24 hours to turn over their largest and fastest steamer, the beloved Naushon, “Queen of the Island Fleet,” to the U.S. government for war service. 

The Naushon, built in 1929, was 250 feet long, just five feet short of our modern Island Home. It could carry 2,000 passengers and 60 cars, and featured more than 30 private overnight staterooms, each with hot and cold running water. Older island residents still reflect fondly upon it. “I remember the carpeted stairs, and the railings,” recalls Jackie Baer, 86, of Vineyard Haven. “I was just a kid.”

On July 10, the Naushon completed its final scheduled runs. That evening, as the bell on the Oak Bluffs wharf was tolled somberly, Capt. James Sandsbury and a sparse crew pulled out of the slip for the last time and delivered the steamer to New Bedford. “A severe blow to island summer business,” wrote the Falmouth Enterprise. 

Three weeks later, the Vineyard steamer with the next largest freight capacity, the New Bedford, was similarly seized by the government, leaving the Vineyard with only the steamers Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to serve all its summertime transportation needs. Built in 1928, the New Bedford was more of a workhorse than the Naushon — its entire main deck was devoted to automobiles and freight, although it also featured a passenger foyer, a small baggage room, and a smoking room on the saloon deck.

No compensation was forthcoming by the government for either seizure, sending the steamship line, at that time owned by the New Haven Railroad, deep into debt, and eventually into bankruptcy.

The U.S. War Shipping Administration had requisitioned a total of 11 passenger steamers from the Eastern Seaboard, to be sent to Europe and transferred to the British Ministry of War Transport. But first, they had to be made seaworthy for a North Atlantic crossing. So the promenade deck of the ornate Naushon was closed in with heavy timbers, and the open spaces of the New Bedford boxed in. The two vessels were gutted of most of their passenger accommodations, stripped of most of their lifeboats, their mooring chocks plugged, and their hulls painted wartime gray. To defend themselves at sea, each ship was equipped with a 3-inch caliber “12-pounder” gun, four 20mm autocannons, four parachute-and-cable rockets, and a rifle for sinking floating mines.

The official explanation for the requisition, released several years afterward, was that Roosevelt’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, weighing an offensive in Western Europe, wanted shallow-draft ships suitable for operations across the English Channel. The U.K., it was reported, had an urgent need for vessels that could be converted into hospital ships, training craft, and troop and cargo carriers. But an alternate explanation, put forth by some of the crewmen and argued by postwar historians, was that the steamers were decoys to attract U-boats away from another, more tactically important, convoy to North Africa.
The shallow drafts of the steamers — none drew more than 14 feet of water — made them poor candidates for cross-Atlantic travel, especially along shipping lanes watched closely by Nazi submarines. Derided as “frail skimming dishes” by a British transport ministry official, the convoy would be known as the “Dishpan Fleet” or the “Honeymoon Fleet” — a reference to the notion that some had been New York-to-Boston “pleasure steamers” popular with honeymooners. To raise the water lines, the lower decks were filled with heavy 40-gallon drums of fuel oil, crippling the vessels’ speed and navigational performance, and causing them to develop a nauseatingly top-heavy roll.

A final tally of eight retrofitted coastal steamships departed St. John’s, Newfoundland, in late September 1942, escorted by two antiquated World War I–era destroyers. The convoy was formally designated “RB-1” by the British (for “River Boat,” although none actually were), and their crossing codenamed Operation Maniac. They were crewed by British volunteers, and flew the British flag. The New Bedford was appointed rescue ship for the convoy. An Ohio newspaper, in a 1945 retrospective, called it “the weirdest fleet ever to brave an Atlantic crossing.”

On the fourth day out, the convoy was spotted by German submarine U-91, and the following day a “wolf pack” of Nazi subs attacked. The steamer Boston was hit by two torpedoes and sank within minutes; the crew took to four lifeboats. The New Bedford, the designated rescue ship, came to pick up survivors, but discovered its design was ill-suited for rescue work when the first boat they lowered caught on the heavy wooden ferry fender and capsized. The steamer New York was hit next, and sank. The survivors of both ships were eventually picked up by the escort ship, the HMS Veteran; but it, too, was hit and sank. All aboard died.

The Naushon separated from the others during the attack; its helm was jammed hard over during evasive maneuvers, and the ship began steaming around in circles while engineers struggled to repair the steering gear. The rest of the convoy scattered; Convoy Maniac was no more. The Naushon eventually made port in Northern Ireland; the New Bedford near Glasgow. But 302 sailors did not survive that bizarre and tragic Atlantic crossing.

In England, the Naushon was redesignated Hospital Ship No. 49. Its outer staterooms were converted into nurses’ quarters, and the car deck was sectioned off into wards and equipped with bunks for up to 300 wounded men. The vessel was painted white with red crosses. Both the Naushon and the New Bedford ultimately served as hospital ships at Normandy after D-Day, bringing some of the first casualties of the invasion back to England. 

Both steamers returned to the U.S. after the war, but neither to the Island. After some haggling and threats of lawsuits, the Vineyard steamship owners were eventually paid $445,000 in compensation for the seizure of steamers, but that did not save the company from bankruptcy. The new owners passed up the option to reclaim the Naushon and New Bedford, balking at the costs involved in restoring them.

The Naushon was eventually returned to service by another line as a Long Island excursion boat, the John A. Mescek. It was finally scrapped in New Jersey in 1974. The New Bedford was also rebuilt for a ferry service to Block Island; its rusty hull is still visible in a Staten Island scrapyard.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in June 2018.