SS West Grama

MS West Grama

MS West Grama, sometimes spelled as West Gramma, was a diesel-powered cargo ship of the that was sunk as part of the "gooseberry" breakwater off Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion. Prior to her diesel conversion, she was known as SS West Grama. In 1919, she was briefly taken up by the United States Navy under the name USS West Grama (ID-3794).

SS West Grama was built as a steam-powered cargo ship in 1918 for the , a predecessor of the . She was part of the West boats, a series of steel-hulled cargo ships built on the West Coast of the United States for the World War I war effort, and was the 9th ship built at Los Angeles Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in San Pedro, California. She was commissioned into the of the United States Navy as USS West Grama (ID-3794) in January 1919. She became the first American-flagged vessel to enter Bulgarian waters when she delivered a load of wheat flour to Varna in early 1919. After her one overseas trip for the Navy, she was decommissioned in June 1919 and returned to the .

SS West Grama sailed between Genoa and New York early in her civilian career. In 1927, West Grama was outfitted with a diesel engine that replaced her original steam engine as part of a pilot program by the . After her conversion, she sailed primarily between East Coast ports and South America. By the late 1930s, she had been laid up, but was reactivated for merchant service during World War II. She sailed primarily in the Caribbean until March 1944 when she sailed from the United States for the final time. She was scuttled in June as part of the "gooseberry" breakwater off Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion, earning a battle star in the process.

Design and construction

The West ships were cargo ships of similar size and design built by several shipyards on the west coast of the United States for the for emergency use during World War I. All were given names that began with the word West, like West Grama, the ninth of some 40 West ships built by the Los Angeles Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company of Los Angeles. West Grama (Los Angeles Shipbuilding yard number 9) was one of three Los Angeles Shipbuilding ships launched on 4 July 1918, and was completed in December.

West Grama was , and was long (between perpendiculars) and abeam. She had a steel hull that displaced 12,225 t with a mean draft of . Her hold was deep and she had a deadweight tonnage of . West Gramas power plant, as built, consisted of a single triple-expansion steam engine driving a single screw propeller which moved the ship at up to .

Military career

West Grama was taken over by the U.S. Navy on 9 January 1919 at San Pedro, California, and was commissioned into the the same day with Lieutenant Commander Eugene McCarthy, USNRF, in command. West Grama headed north to San Francisco to take on a load of wheat flour for delivery to Europe. After undergoing boiler repairs at Union Iron Works, she departed San Francisco for Norfolk, Virginia, on 28 January. West Grama transited the Panama Canal on 14 February and got underway again on 19 February, after a four-day layover in the Canal Zone.

On 25 February, a half-submerged ship was spotted some east-northeast of Nassau, Bahamas. Upon investigation, it was determined to be the wreck of the American schooner Nettie Shipman, but, with no signs of life aboard the hulk, West Grama continued on to Virginia, where she arrived three days later.

After general repairs and fuel replenishment, West Grama got underway for the Mediterranean on 13 March. Touching at Gibraltar, she next headed to Constantinople, Turkey, to unload part of her cargo, and then proceeded into the Black Sea. She arrived at Varna, Bulgaria, to unload the remainder of the flour, and, in the process, became the first American-flagged vessel to enter Bulgarian waters. After departure from Varna, West Grama returned to the United States via Gibraltar. She carried a mixed load of 13 depth charges and of general cargo. In early June, during her return voyage, West Grama was disabled by some unspecified problem while west of Bermuda. The U.S. Navy cargo ship , en route from New Orleans to Cardiff, assisted West Grama, and the Navy dispatched the icebreaker from Boston to aid West Grama. It's not known what assistance was provided or if West Grama was even able to proceed on her own, but she arrived at Norfolk on 11 June. Five days later, West Grama was decommissioned and returned to the for civilian service.

Civilian career

After her return to the , West Grama sailed on a GenoaGibraltarNew York route through 1920. In April 1920, West Grama carried some 52 passengers from Genoa and Gibraltar to New York. There is no mention in sources of the ship's activities over the next seven years, but in June 1927, the Los Angeles Times reported that West Grama had been selected for a $400,000 conversion from steam-power to diesel-power. By late November, the conversion, undergoing at the Fore River Shipyard near Boston, was nearly complete. The new engine was a McIntosh & Seymour double-acting diesel, the first of its type built in America. On 8 December, during successful sea trials of West Gramas new diesel power plant, a malfunction in a steam boiler used to heat the crew quarters caused minor damage to the ship.

Allocated to the American Republics Line for service to the east coast of South America, West Grama sailed for Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she had arrived by late January 1928, and back to New York by late March. In October 1929, West Grama was reportedly assigned to the new Pacific–South Africa Line by the , an around-the-world venture under the management of J. J. Moore & Company. The Pacific–South Africa Line—the world's only all-diesel around-the-world service, as described by the Los Angeles Times—sailed from Los Angeles to South Africa via the Straits of Magellan, across the Indian Ocean to Japan and China, across the Pacific to San Francisco, and back to Los Angeles. It's not clear how long, if at all, West Grama sailed for this line. In July 1929, a report in The New York Times shows that West Grama was still in South American service, sailing to Santos, Brazil.

Sources are not clear as to all of West Gramas movements over the next years. Hints can be gleaned from contemporary news accounts. In March 1930, the Los Angeles Times reported that West Grama was en route from Balboa to San Francisco. The New York Times reported West Gramas arrival from Portland, Oregon in September, her departure for Fremantle, Western Australia in October 1933, and her arrival from Baltimore in March the following year. After these mentions, West Grama disappears from contemporary news accounts, and by 1939, West Grama had been laid up in a reserve fleet.

World War II

In December 1940, the , a successor to the , announced that it was seeking bids for the sale of 24 ships from its reserve fleet, including West Grama. In January 1941, the announced that a consortium of Commonwealth shipping lines had been the high bidders for 19 of the 20 ships still offered. The highest bid for West Grama was $80,000, but it is not clear if the bid was, in fact, accepted; by November, West Grama was sailing between Antofagasta, Chile, and New York, but remained under the American flag. From July 1942 through February 1944, West Grama sailed between the United States and Caribbean ports, frequently traveling in convoys. The ship's recorded movements show her calling at Cristóbal, Guantánamo Bay, Trinidad, Key West, and Pilottown, Louisiana. In mid-February 1944, West Grama sailed from Key West to New York, and from there, on to Boston.

Final voyage

West Grama had been selected to become one of the blockships for the Allied invasion of France, then in the planning stages. Though the specific modifications performed on West Grama are not revealed in sources, modifications for other ships do appear. In November 1944, The Christian Science Monitor reported that blockships dispatched from Boston, like West Grama, had been loaded with "tons of sand and cement" and had been rigged with explosive charges before departing the port. Further, existing antiaircraft weapons had been moved higher up on the ship and supplemented by additional guns. An account by Cesar Poropat, chief engineer aboard , another blockship dispatched from Boston, mentions that shipyard workers proceeded to cut holes in "strategic places".

West Grama departed Boston on 25 March and arrived at Halifax two days later. Departing from that port on 29 March, she sailed in Convoy SC-156 and arrived at Barry Roads on 13 April, and by 7 May, she had arrived at Methil. West Gramas whereabouts and movements through early June are not recorded. Other ships that had been selected as blockships assembled in a "corncob" fleet at Oban, though it's not clear if West Grama did or not. The "corncob" fleet was the group of ships intended to be sunk to form the "gooseberries", shallow-water artificial harbors for landing craft. Poropat reports that once the ship crews were told of their mission while anchored at Oban, they were not permitted to leave the ships.

Three "corncob" convoys, consisting of what one author called the "dregs of the North Atlantic shipping pool", departed from Poole and reached the Normandy beachhead the next day, shortly after the D-Day landings. Poropat reports that the corncob ships traveled under cover of darkness and, stripped of all unnecessary equipment, carried no radios, having only a signal lamp (with a spare bulb) for communication. Once at the designated location, the ships were put into position and scuttled over the next days, under heavy German artillery fire. Naval Armed Guardsmen manned the guns on all the gooseberry ships to protect against frequent German air attacks All the while, harbor pilots—about half of the New York Bar Pilots Association, according to one source—carefully positioned the ships. West Grama was sunk off Omaha Beach on 8 June, though she continued to serve as an antiaircraft platform manned by Navy gun crews. On 9 June, West Gramas gunners fired 19 times and were credited with assisting in the downing one German airplane; only one of West Gramas Navy gunners was wounded during the attack. On 14 June, West Grama escaped serious damage when a bomb landed near the ship. By the time her Naval Armed Guardsmen were replaced by Army crews on 18 June, they had received credit for a second assist, and had been awarded a battle star for their participation in the Normandy Landings.

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