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TEXAS CLIPPER

Stephen Curley

TEXAS CLIPPER. The Texas Clipper, formerly an attack transport and an ocean liner, served for three decades as the Texas Maritime Academy’s first training ship and eventually became an artificial reef off the southernmost coast of Texas.

Texas Clipper was constructed during World War II as the naval vessel USS Queens. In March 1944 her keel was laid at Bethlehem-Sparrows Point Shipyard, near the entrance to the Port of Baltimore. She was designed as a Windsor class attack-transport (hull number APA 103): 473 feet long, 66 feet wide at her broadest point, with a cruising speed of 16.5 knots. She could accommodate a ship’s company of 54 officers and 434 crewmembers and transport 91 officers and 1,463 enlisted (more than 2,000 people in all).

Her armaments included two 5-inch cannons, two twin 40mm. guns, two twin 20mm. guns, and 18 single-mount 20mm guns, but, like all attack transports, her main offensive weapons were soldiers and marines. She was designed to carry combat troops across the Pacific to the battle line of departure for a beachhead attack. In addition she could convey 1,600 tons of cargo (like ammunition, vehicles, and food) to support any military operation. As the war was nearing its conclusion, attack transports were needed for the expected future assault on the home islands of Japan.

On September 12, 1944, Queens (named after a borough/county in New York) was christened and launched; she was commissioned on December 16. On January 19, 1945, under the command of USNR (U.S. Naval Reserve) Capt. John J. Mockrish, Queens departed on her maiden voyage through the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor. In March, she landed supplies and reinforcements at Iwo Jima and carried wounded marines to hospital facilities in Guam. One marine died on board—her only combat-related death. Queens never fired her guns in actual combat; after V-J Day, she participated in the occupation of post-war Japan.

On September 22, 1945, she took troops into Sasebo, Japan, about thirty miles north of Nagasaki, site of an atomic-bomb explosion forty-four days earlier. As part of Operation Magic Carpet, Queens returned more than 3,400 homebound troops and other personnel stateside. On June 10, 1946, the ship, under USNR Cdr. Cyril B. Hamblett, was decommissioned in Norfolk, Virginia, and laid up in the nearby James River for a year. Queens was awarded the American Campaign, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign, the Navy Occupation Service, and the World War II Victory ribbons.

In December 1947 Queens arrived at Bethlehem Steel’s shipyard in Hoboken, New Jersey, for conversion to commercial use as a combination passenger liner and cargo carrier. All military equipment was removed, and passenger spaces were expanded. On June 22, 1948, American Export Lines renamed Queens as SS (steam ship) Excambion, one of its famous Four Aces that included Exeter, Excalibur, and Exochorda. The Aces were mid-sized ships that revolutionized the industry. They were the first fully air-conditioned liners in the world and the first to create double-purpose staterooms: bedrooms that became sitting rooms (the upper bunk rolled up into the wall and the lower bunk converted to a sofa). Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss planned the ship’s interior, which featured expensive woodwork, painting, sculpture, and furniture. Excambion was designed to carry 250 people, half of them passengers and the rest crew. Beneath the luxurious passenger spaces lay the bowels of a modern cargo carrier. Excambion could haul 4,400 tons of freight in 362,000 cubic feet of cargo holds and could refrigerate 30,000 cubic feet of perishables. Over time, cargo would prove more profitable than passengers.

On December 3, 1948, Excambion left on her maiden voyage as a liner under command of Capt. W.W. Kuhne. Fares started at $850. On six-week roundtrips, the ship sailed from New York City to Mediterranean ports like Barcelona, Marseille, Naples, Beirut, Alexandria, Iskenderun, Latakia, Piraeus, Livorno, and Genoa. Passengers had an option to extend their stay in any port and then resume their voyage aboard another of the Four Aces (arriving every two weeks) for no extra charge.

By 1956, due to Mid-East violence, outbound voyages attracted only about a third of the normal number of passengers, but return voyages were packed with refugee families of American soldiers and diplomats. On December 9, 1957, Excambion, substituting for the Moore-McCormack ship Brazil, took her only non-Mediterranean voyage to South American ports. On March 12, 1959, Excambion completed her last cruise as a liner. Transatlantic passenger jets were driving American ships out of business. For the next seven years, Excambion was laid up in the Hudson River Ready Reserve Fleet.

In 1965 the federal government assigned Excambion to the three-year-old Texas Maritime Academy (forerunner of Texas A&M University at Galveston) to train cadets as officers for the American Merchant Marine. Towed from New York to Galveston, where she arrived on May 16, the ship was renamed USTS (United States training ship) Texas Clipper.

On June 15, 1965, under the command of Capt. Bennett M. Dodson, Texas Clipper departed on her maiden voyage to Northern Europe with about 120 undergraduate cadets. The ship’s itinerary, which changed each year, included ports in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, and Mediterranean. Texas Clipper could carry up to 250 people (including officers, faculty members, crew, and students). One of her more popular programs was the onboard summer school at sea for prep-cadets (recent high school graduates): they enrolled in two college courses, stood watches, and helped maintain the ship. Among the famous people who boarded her were French marine biologist Jacques Cousteau and American author James Michener, while he was writing his novel Texas.

After thirty consecutive summer training cruises, the infrastructure of the ship was showing signs of age. On August 4, 1994, under the command of Capt. Peter Jaime Bourgeois, Texas Clipper completed her final training cruise. At the end of her sailing life, she was the oldest active ship in the entire American Merchant Marine fleet. For the next two years, she was used as a dockside dormitory for Seaborne Conservation Corps, an educational and job-training program for at-risk high school students. On August 26, 1996, she was towed from Galveston to reserve moorings in Beaumont, Texas.

Her history and architecture made Texas Clipper a desirable candidate for the Texas Artificial Reef Program. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sought and received permission to make her the fifty-ninth and most prominent reef in the program. In November 2006 she was towed from Beaumont to a wrecking yard in Brownsville, Texas, to be environmentally readied for sinking. Over the next year, hazardous materials like oil and asbestos were removed; holes were cut in her sides to allow for water circulation and diver access; and her funnel and masts were sawed off to prevent them from scraping the bottoms of surface craft. On November 17, 2007, the gutted ship was towed to a pre-arranged site, seventeen miles off the coast of Port Isabel. The next day, bystanders (many of them former cadets of the Texas Maritime Academy) watched from dozens of small boats as water valves opened and the ship sank gradually. At first, it appeared as though the ship might descend straight down, and settle upright as planned. But she developed a port list, disappeared from the surface bow first, and settled port-side down in about 130 feet of clear water. Her starboard side is about sixty-two feet from the surface, accessible for experienced divers. Texas Clipper is now a habitat for underwater life, a fishing spot for sports fishermen and a popular ecotourism site for recreational divers.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Stephen Curley, The Ship That Would Not Die: USS Queens, SS Excambion, and USTS Texas Clipper (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011).

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Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Stephen Curley, "TEXAS CLIPPER," accessed December 05, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qtt04.

Uploaded on December 21, 2015. Modified on January 28, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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