by Susan Harp
The Panama Canal Spillway, September 25, 1992
When the Panama Railroad Steamship line christened the SS Ancon in 1939,
no one would have predicted that the first-rate cargo and passenger transport vessel would
one day serve as the World War II U.S. Navy communications ship that would broadcast the
news of the Japanese surrender from Tokyo Bay to an anxiously awaiting world.
The original Ancon had become famous in 1914 as the first ship to officially transit the Panama Canal. Its namesake was built to make a routine ten-day voyage between New York and Cristobal, via Haiti, its cargo: up to 206 passengers, housed in modern accommodations and served excellent cuisine. In the hold for the southbound voyage were supplies for the commissary and Canal operations. Bananas, coffee and raw cotton made the northbound trip.
Designed by well-known naval architect George Sharp and industrial engineer Raymond Loewy, the Ancon and sister ships, the Panama and Cristobal,were built by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Their 493 foot- long and 64-foot-wide hulls were painted pearl grey, with white decks and cream smoke stacks. Brochures lured passengers with pictures of comfortable, air conditioned interiors and emphasized the vessel's fireproof construction and tile swimming pools.
Pearl Harbor changed all that. After the United States declared war on Japan on December 7, 1941, the Ancon was taken over by the U.S. Army Transport Service. Guns were mounted on the decks, and the entire ship was camouflaged with a dull, battleship-grey paint. The holds became troop accommodations; the pool, a bath-house; and the lounge, the officers' wardroom. Officers quarters still had pink-tiled private bathrooms, and the air conditioning was still functional - but the Ancon was now a working military vessel.
The Ancon's peacetime captain, David H. Swinson, had been with the Panama Line since 1921. He stayed on in 1942 and made two voyages carrying U.S. Army troops to Australia. When the U.S. Navy commissioned the Ancon and made it a flagship, the tenacious Swinson joined the Navy and stayed on again as the ship's executive officer. He remained with the Ancon through three invasions in the Atlantic before moving on to other assignments.
The Ancon's first war action as a flagship was at Fedalia, French Morocco, in the November 1942 invasion of Casablanca. There were many close calls. Alongside the Ancon, the USS Joseph Hewes, another transport, was torpedoed and sunk, and the Ancon's crew rescued the survivors. The next night was worse. Torpedoes struck and sank five more transport ships and an oil tanker that were around the Ancon,which only escaped by quickly cutting its anchor and putting out to sea.
After the narrow escape at Fedalia, the Ancon crew members proudly nicknamed the ship "The Mighty A." They took wounded American soldiers and a few German prisoners back to the United States and began preparations for a new mission.
On April 20, 1943, with the area that had once been a swimming pool now converted into a radio shack and miles of wire and tons of sensitive communications devices installed, the Ancon became the flagship and communications center for the invasion of Normandy, France. For the first two years of U.S. involvement in the war, the Ancon remained the only communications ship in the Atlantic.
(During the invasion of Sicily, Gen. Omar Bradley was aboard, as commanding general of the operation.) At Salerno, (with Lt. Gen. Mark Clark aboard as the commander of the 5th Army) "The Mighty A" escaped the German air force bombs by burning smoke pots during the day to hide its exact location and by changing positions at night. Nevertheless, an Italian submarine managed to locate it and surfaced close by. Instead of attacking, however, the submarine immediately surrendered. Some of the Ancon's crew members boarded the submarine and escorted it to Malta. During the massive D-Day invasion of the beaches at Normandy, the Ancon served as the eyes, ears and voice of Rear Admiral John L. Hall as he coordinated air, land and sea forces.
That fall, the Ancon returned to the United States to be recamouflaged and refitted. The day after Christmas 1944, it left Charleston, SC to spend New Year's Eve in Panama. But it was not yet time to resume the parties once held on its decks; the Ancon was headed for the Pacific.
A report spread through the ship that Tokyo Rose had announced that "The Mighty A" was in the Pacific and that Japanese forces were looking for it. The crew lit the smoke pots and burned them continually through the April 1945 invasion of Okinawa.
One night in Okinawa, one of the smoke generators on the deck exploded into flames just as Japanese planes were flying in. The crew put the fire out so quickly that it was never spotted by the enemy planes. Later, the crew blasted a kamikaze pilot out of the sky, only to watch another one plunge into a nearby battleship. Another day, the crew stayed on alert for 14 hours, repelling 19 air raids.
After the Japanese offered to surrender, the Ancon served as the communications ship for the Iowa,Admiral William Halsey's Missouri and Admiral Chester Nimitz's South Dakota in Tokyo Bay. It was from the Ancon that some 90 war correspondents from the United States, China, England and Australia sent jubilant messages to the world that the war was over.
With the glorious record of service to the Allied cause, the Ancon was returned to the Panama Line on February 25, 1946. Captain Swinson was on hand to once again take the helm. The Cristobal and the Panama (renamed the James Parker during the war) also returned from duty as troop transports.
Its hulls again painted pearl grey with a white trim, the Ancon settled down to a relaxed routine of carrying Canal employees to the States and returning with everything from locomotive engines to stenography pads in the hold.
The Ancon remained with the Canal until 1961, when it became a training ship for the Maine Maritime Academy. Twelve years later, "The Mighty A" was dismantled, its machinery and equipment sold and its hull cut up for scrap. The SS Ancon is gone now, but the tale of its exploits recalls a time in history when it served its mission well.