Arkansan Info 

Early History

The origins of the ship that would become the Arkansan, like most ships built during her time, was the First World War. Specifically; the loss of Merchant Shipping during that war to the Imperial German Navy U-boat forces, and the need to replace that shipping. In this respect, the Arkansan’s creation and destruction are both the result of the U-boat.

According to historian Norman L. McKellar, by the middle of 1915 the British had recognized the fact that they had reached their shipbuilding capacity and needed to obtain ships from other countries in order to keep up with their losses. Neutral America, was to be an important source for these ships.

America would not remain neutral for long, however, and the Shipping Act of 1916 was passed by Congress, which resulted in the creation of the U.S. Shipping Board (USSB) on January 30th, 1917. The U.S. finally declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917, and eleven days after that the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) was formed under the USSB to requisition and build as many ships as possible, as quickly as possible.

Despite a monumental effort to meet the demand, the U.S. was quickly at capacity trying to meet her own demands as well as those of her allies. Efforts included the building of dozens of new ship yards and developing modular ship designs, called “fabricated ships” that could be built in sections and delivered by rail to dockyards for assembly and launching. Soon, America too needed to look elsewhere, to the Far East, specifically Japan and China, to supplement their enormous requirements.

Japan was a logical choice as they were already industrialized, already quite proficient at shipbuilding and were an active ally of England and America in the Great War. They helped capture German possessions in the Pacific and the German settlement at Tsingtao (present day Qingdao), as self-serving as those moves were. Japan lacked natural resources, however, especially steel which they imported largely from China. The EFC initially bought about 15 ships from Japan in various stages of completion, followed by contracts to build 30 more. This agreement came with the condition that America provide their much needed steel as part of the compensation. The USSB set up offices in Yokohama and staffed it with American experts in their fields.

Artist: James H. Daugherty circa 1914-1918, Courtesy of: The University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

According to the January 18th, 1919 edition of ‘The Nautical Gazette’; “The Oriental Commission of the United States Shipping Board and Emergency Fleet Corporation to supervise the construction of a fleet of steel freighters at eight Japanese yards and at Shanghai, China.” Leading the Commission was Special Commissioner John A. MacGregor, former President of Union Iron Works, Assistant Commissioner J. Lewis Luckenbach, Nephew of Lewis Luckenbach – Owner of Luckenbach Steamship Co., and Secretary Harry W. Deans, formerly with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.  Working for them were several shipbuilding experts including Hull Expert M.A. Perry, Engine Expert Christopher C. Miles, and Designer J.W. Rust.

China was not such an obvious choice. It was still emerging as a new republic, after centuries of isolation. China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, had only ended five years previously in 1912. The central government in Peking had little control outside of the capital, and much of the countryside was controlled by warlords. The Yangtze River basin was beset by bandits and pirates. America had a relatively small but growing foothold in Shanghai and the US Navy, along with their British counterparts patrolled the Yangtze to protect commerce.

The British, for their part, had already established a fairly successful shipbuilding business of their own in China since the turn of the century, mainly in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Production was fairly low, however, and as I researched this topic it made me question why the British simply didn’t go into full production in China for themselves. The issue appears to have been raw materials, specifically steel and iron, and the lack thereof. China was known to have enormous natural resources and potential, but they had not yet been developed, nor was there an efficient transportation system (namely rail) set up to get that material from the interior to the coast. Even the mighty Yangtze was not capable of handling that volume on top of normal commerce. What steel and iron was produced in China was gobbled up by the Japanese, lacking the resources they needed to fuel their industrialization efforts. China themselves were trying industrialize and modernize and needed this material as well but also needed the cash the Japanese were willing to pay. Eventually, in another decade or so, the Japanese would begin seizing parts of China to get the resources they wanted.

The only factor that made shipbuilding a viable option to the British in China was the advantage of inexpensive labor. As noted in the October 3rd, 1913 edition of the British monthly ‘The Engineer’ when describing the British owned Shanghai Dock and Engineering Company, Ltd.: 

The work is done entirely by the Chinese under British supervision. There was considerable difficulty with labour at the commencement, but the patience and perseverance of the management, and the industry and aptitude of the Chinese, has resulted in a small army of skilled workmen whose work compares favourably with that of the European mechanic. The wages paid amount to less than a third of the rate of pay in England. It is on this point the whole industry hangs. Material and management are more expensive items than in a Western yard, but the difference in the cost of labour enables the company to compete favourably. A European fitter will do more work than a Chinese one [at this time], but in some departments, notably foundry work and pattern-making, the Chinese could hold his own anywhere, both for quality and quantity of output.” 

Importing enough steel and Iron all the way from England or even India was not a viable option as the expense would have tipped the cost back into the loss column.

In fact, during the process of researching this topic, I found that even before the EFC came into existence the US Government dabbled in shipbuilding in China. This was mainly with the above mentioned Shanghai Dock and Engineering Company, who built a number of ships of various types mainly for use in the Philippines. These included a 362 foot long single screw steel Collier USAT Hubert L. Wigmore of 6,000DWT, the 300 foot long twin screw transport USAT Merritt displacing 2,898 tons, re-assembly and fitting out of the Yangtze River Gunboats Monocacy and Palos, which had been built at Mare Island, then broken down and ship to Shanghai for completion (I assume because the shallow draft river vessels were not capable of crossing the Pacific on their own), and various other smaller craft.

America had geared up for war production and had massive steel production capacity at the ready, and with the war now winding down, could therefore ship the high quality steel needed for shipbuilding from the West Coast using trade routes already in place for a more reasonable price. This initial contract with the EFC was not really about value anyway, it was more about diplomacy.

It is ironic that today China’s steel production is so great that it is flooding the worldwide market with inexpensive steel, causing much angst in American and European markets.

From China the American Emergency Fleet Corporation initially had plans to contract dozens of ships as long as the war went on. The story of how this contract actually came to be is a fascinating one.

According to ‘PAPERS RELATING TO PACIFIC AND FAR EASTERN AFFAIRS PREPARED FOR THE USE OF THE AMERICAN DELEGATION TO THE CONFERENCE ON THE LIMITATION OF ARMAMENT, WASHINGTON, - 1921–1922 (Department of State, Division of Publications. Series D, No. 79. General, N.O. l., Marked CONFIDENTIAL, Government Printing Office, printed and distributed May 20, 1922), in a section titled ‘XXV. CHINA BUILDS SHIPS FOR THE UNITED STATES’ written by Dr. E. T. Williams, Professor of Oriental Languages and Literature, University of California; member of the Conference Section of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs; formerly Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs (ES: how’s that for an attribution?):  

Immediately after the declaration of war against Germany and Austria by the United States, the American Government exerted itself most earnestly to encourage shipbuilding so as to provide the tonnage so indispensable to the prosecution of the war. On May 31, 1917 [ES: a month after the EFC was formed], the American Legation at Peking sent to American Consular officers in China a confidential circular instruction asking information regarding shipyard facilities in their respective districts and materials available for the construction of wooden vessels or parts thereof. The Consulate General at Shanghai replied, sending a report to which was appended a letter from the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works dated December 5, 1917, offering to construct steel vessels up to 5,000 tons dead-weight carrying capacity. The Kiangnan Dock is a Chinese Government institution. The result of the offer to which reference was just made was that early in the summer of 1918 the United States Shipping Board concluded a contract with the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works for the construction of four ten thousand ton vessels of steel, and an option on the building of additional vessels sufficient to absorb the entire capacity of the works for an indefinite time in the future. Although the contract was undertaken too late to furnish vessels for service in the war, the work was pushed forward, and the first two were completed in a comparatively brief period. One other has since been delivered and the fourth is due for delivery in December of this year. - E. T. W."

From 'The Far Eastern Review' - 1919

The exact date the contract was awarded varies between sources from July 10th to July 13th, 1918. The original contract was actually to build up to twelve ships, later reduced to eight, and then finally to four, the Celestial, which would become the Arkansan, and her three sister ships.

It was a very big deal and the announcement was spread quickly through newspapers large and small around the country. In the July 14th, 1918 edition of the Seattle Sunday Times ‘Along the Waterfront’ section they wrote: 

CHINA WILL BUILD TWELVE VESSELS FOR U.S. – Chairman Hurley of Shipping Board Lets Contract to Be Executed in Shanghai – WASHINGTON, Saturday, July 13 – Chairman Edward N. Hurley of the Shipping Board today let a contract for the construction of 120,000 tons of ships in the Chinese government yards at Shanghai.

Washington officials regard this move by the chairman of the Shipping Board as a good business, a diplomatic stroke and an important factor in cementing and utilizing the strength that is really arrayed against Prussian autocracy.

China, with her teeming millions, has for many years found her best friend in the United States and is an ally of this nation and the others at war with Germany. Thus far only her moral support has been given to the Allies, but she has been anxious to play a useful part in the war and especially on behalf of the United States.

Modern Plant at Shanghai.

Chairman Hurley in his world-wide census of shipbuilding facilities which could be turned to account in building ships for the Allies faster than the German submarines could destroy them, found a great modern shipbuilding plant at Shanghai, owned and operated by the Chinese government, but near to idleness because the war had practically cut off the supply of iron and steel to China.

The plant is known as the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works and include the senior China government naval dock. The entire works are wholly owned by the Chinese government and are under the exclusive control of the navy. They were established in 1868 and in 1904 a foreign technical staff of shipbuilders, most of them from Scotland and under the direction of R.B. Mauchan, a master shipbuilder, took over the works and have been operating them ever since for the Chinese government.

Twelve Launching Ways.

There are twelve launching ways in the yard, each capable of turning out large steel ships of the most modern type, and both shops and plant fully equipped with modern machinery and capable of producing powerful marine engines and all ship accessories. The works had turned out more than three hundred ships, all completed in the one plant. There is a great drydock capable of docking ships up to 544 feet in length.

Image of the main dry-dock at the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works circa 1920, likely from a newspaper article or perhaps a book. Original caption above noting Arsenal in background and source as T. Robertson. Image courtesy of Virtual Cities Project (Institut d’Asie Orientale). Virtual Shanghai reference number: 2035

Chairman Hurley was anxious to keep this plant in operation at full strength for the benefit of the Allies. The first work of the war given to the plant was the rehabilitation of the German and Austrian vessels interned in China. These were made seaworthy and turned over to the United States, England, France and Italy as a part of China’s contribution to the war.

Before this work was completed chairman Hurley had negotiations under way by which ships could be built at Shanghai for the United States. He met a most hearty response from officials on behalf of the Chinese government. They were anxious to place all the facilities and resources of China controlled by the government at the disposal of the United States.

Twelve Modern Vessels.

Mr. Mauchan came to Washington and today contracts were signed by which as a first order twelve modern vessels of the cargo type will be built on account of the Shipping Board. The program of construction of vessels as now framed calls for the expenditure of about $30,000,000.

In return for this friendly act on the part of the United States, putting China practically in the same relationship to the United States as Japan in the matter of shipbuilding, the Chinese officials, through Mauchan have promised to show their desire to aid by setting out to break all records in rapid ship construction. Delivery of the first vessels will be made in about six months, and would be made much sooner but for the unavoidable delay in furnishing steel and iron from this country. As soon as the material I s on hand in quantities the shipbuilders will put thousands of men to work and rush the work night and day until they are completed.

The ships to be built in China will be from the standardized plans of the Shipping Board and engines will be built along standard lines as approved by the Shipping Board, and the vessels will be modern in every respect from top mast to keel.

Through the agreement negotiated by Chairman Hurley with the great shipbuilding concerns Japan is turning over to the Shipping Board a number of ships in exchange for steel in this country. The Chinese did not ask such an exchange, but will utilize the great Shanghai yard to capacity in building ships entirely for the United States so long as they may be required.

According to Norman L. McKellar; 

The Chinese contracts arose from an approach to Washington by the Superintendent of the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works in Shanghai. A canny Scot, he left the U.S. with a contract in his pocket for the building of 4 ships from steel to be supplied by the U.S. Government. These proved to be excellent vessels.

When I first began researching this material I originally thought the ‘canny Scot’ McKellar referred was none other than Captain Robert Dollar (honorary title), who I’ll detail a bit later. While Dollar played a crucial role as an agent of the shipyard during the negotiations, in delivering material and delivering the finished products, I later learned from the above and other sources that the superintendent McKeller was specifically referring to was Robert B. Mauchan, a Scottish master shipbuilder who ran the Kiangnan yard. In fact, many Scotsmen had a role in the construction of these vessels as China had hired several shipbuilding experts from the renowned River Clyde area of Scotland, and even sent their own students there to train in Glasgow. Robert Dollar’s Scottish heritage was merely a coincidence.

Image of Butterfield & Swire steamers (Kiating class) tied up in front of the Kiangnan Shipyard, circa 1920, possibly for repairs. Note twin 75-ton shearlegs used for hoisting cargo from vessels dockside. Images courtesy of the Warren Swire collection and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol. From the photo album of G. Warren Swire. Historical Photographs of China reference number: sw07-004. Virtual Shanghai reference number: 19611

© 2007 John Swire & Sons Ltd.

According to Robert Dollar’s own memoir; 

I spent half of August [ES: 1918] either in New York or Washington. It was really hot but I got through with a great deal of business, principally in connection with the consummation of the contract for the Chinese Government to build steamers for the American Government. On closing the contract the Chinese Government through their Ambassador, Wellington Koo, conferred a very high honor on me by telling Mr. Hurley, President of the Shipping Board, that his Government requested the American Government to hand over to me all the money in payment for the ships, which would amount to many millions of dollars and not ask me to give either bond or agreement for the money. I cannot help but prize this confidence as one of the highest honors I have ever received. For our part in this business the President of the Chinese Republic honored me with the Chia Ho, a description of which is herewith given in the following excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Order of the Chia Ho, China’s most prized decoration has been conferred upon Captain Robert Dollar, San Francisco capitalist, in recognition of his service during the war in securing from the United States Government for the Chinese Government a $14,000,000 contract for the construction of eight ships. Captain Dollar received the decoration – four stars, two gold and two silver overlapping, with a raised shock of wheat in the center – from the former President of the Chinese Republic, Li Yuanhong, Wednesday.

The distinction conferred upon Captain Dollar is one that rarely goes to foreigners, General John J. Pershing also is a member of the order.

Captain Dollar has extensive interests in China and his reputation for honesty and integrity is so well established that no bond or other security was required of him by the Chinese Government in handling the $14,000,000 shipbuilding contract. The money, secured from the United States Government, was turned over to the Chinese Government by Captain Dollar.

The Chia Ho in English takes the meaning of Bountiful Harvest. The decoration was brought to this country by officers of one of the ships of the Dollar Steamship Company.

They were of Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works own design for a 10,000 Dead Weight Ton Steel Cargo Ship, which the EFC assigned the number 1092 (see plans below).

United States Shipping Board – Emergency Fleet Corporation, Records Section, Ship Construction Division, Design No. 1092 for a 10,000 D.W.T. Steel Cargo Ship designed by Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works, approved 8-1-1921. Plans are a composite created by Eric Stone (the editor of this website) of two drawings which were paste-ups for publication mounted on cardstock, roughly 19” x 24” each. From the holdings of the Special Media Archives Services Division, Cartographic Section of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. Records of the United States Shipping Board, Record Group 32, Reference NWCS: 2010M0043KK.

It would not surprise me if Dollar had some input on their design as well.

Celestial and her sisters were thoroughly modern steam ships for their day. They were designed from the start as oil burners (coal was being phased out), driven by triple expansion engines and had a typical riveted hull, included accommodations for wireless ship to shore communications (telegraph only, not voice) and had three decks for more efficient distribution of dry cargo.

Her forward and aft masts each incorporated four steam powered loading booms, each with 5 tons capacity. The forward mast also included a 30 ton heavy lift boom. Her forward pair of king posts each had two 3 ton booms, and the aft king posts each had a single 3 ton boom. All designed to move cargo in and out of her 5 large holds efficiently.

As the work was about to begin, the significance from the Chinese perspective was provided in an Article in April 1919 edition of the Pacific Marine Review titled ‘How China Builds Ships for the United States’ by H.K. Kwong, Secretary, Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works, Kwong states: 

The Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works will soon lay the keels of the four 10,000-ton steamers ordered by the American government. The significance of this event cannot be too strongly emphasized, since this is the first time that a great marine power has seen fit to ask of China assistance in shipbuilding. It comes as recognition of the immense progress this country has made in marine construction; and when the contract for four steamers with option of eight more is accompanied by the public statement of Mr. Hurley, chairman of the American Shipping Board, that he finds the Chinese government dockyard at Shanghai splendidly equipped and ranking as one of the most efficient plants of the world, it explains why the United States wants China to throw in her shipbuilding facilities for the cause for which the Associated Nations were fighting Germany. Nonetheless, America, in awarding the contract to the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works, acted not without a sincere desire for the friendship and with good-will toward this country. 

Has Built 316 Vessels 

Hitherto China has been building vessels for her navy and merchant marine in America, England and Japan. The table is now turned. China is to show that she is herself capable of doing what she has been wont to get done abroad. A new chapter of her industrial history is thus begun. In the thirteen years since the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works was changed from a dockyard devoted entirely to repairs and building vessels of the navy to one that takes in also commercial boats, it has built altogether 316 ships. Beside the Chinese government, Chinese merchants and shipowners of other nationalities in China, it has constructed vessels for the Russian government. The largest steamer built in China up till 1912 was launched at the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works in the spring of that year, when the steamship Kiang Hwa (a 4100-ton boat) of the China Merchants’ Steam Navigation Company hit the water. 

The 10,000-ton steamers which China is to build for the United States will be the largest ships ever undertaken in the Far East outside of Japan. Yard No. 317 – this will be the name of the first of the four sister steamers until she is christened at her launching – is 425 feet long, 55 feet beam, with a loaded draft of 27 feet 6 inches and equipped with a triple expansion engine. All the construction work, the engine and boilers will be built in China. The United States is, however, to supply the steel materials. 

To Employ 2500 Men 

Pending the arrival of steel plates to begin work, extensive preparations are being made to put the dockyard in readiness. More than 2500 laborers, skilled and unskilled, will be required, and steps have already been taken to ensure the enrollment of this number of men when they are needed. From the arsenal the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works has acquired several mow of land along the river front for ship-berths. This, together with the land bought from private owners, brings up the total area of expansion to more than twenty-five mow (one Chinese mow is equivalent to one-sixth of an English acre). The dockyard now has five ship-berths for steamers of 10,000 or higher tonnage, besides numerous berths for smaller vessels. A cofferdam is erected in front of the berths to keep the water from washing up on the ground and causing softness to it. The foundation of the berths is prepared by driving 16-foot piles into the ground at regular intervals. Cranes will be erected in the shipping yard to facilitate transportation. These cranes are now being made in the work-shops of the dockyard. 

It is the plan of the dockyard official to erect a new boiler shop, machines for which are now being shipped from the United States. The machine shop will also be enlarged with tools bought from America. As a part of the scheme to convert the dockyard from a steam-run to electricity-run plant, electricity will be used to propel the new machines. A large number of pneumatic hammers and drills have been bought: thus the Kiangnan dock will do away with hand riveting, etc., and make use of the labor-saving machines which are now being generally employed in America [ES: This was not to be. Much of the riveting appears to have been done by hand according to other accounts, as the pneumatic tools were not well received by the workers]. 

New narrow gauge railroad tracks will be laid to connect all the workshops and principal go-downs (storehouses) in order to facilitate transportation of materials and parts of machinery from one part of the dockyard to another. When the whole scheme of extension and improvement is complete, the shipbuilding plant will be thoroughly modernized and brought into line with the best dockyards of America and England. It will undoubtedly be one of the largest and most modernly equipped shipyards of the Far East.

Other than the abortive submarine deal of 1915, this was arguably the proverbial high water mark in U.S. - China relations. In China it was viewed as a vote of confidence for the Republic and a great show of respect for their abilities. It also provided much needed funds to allow them to continue their modernization efforts while gaining practical experience in the art of large shipbuilding. America would gain four fine freighters and the deal would catapult us ahead of our European rivals in our relations with the new Republic, potentially leading to better access to Chinese markets and resources and vice versa. It does appear to have initially been a win-win for both parties. 

A common thread I noticed in many of the articles I found, was the mention of the sheer size of the ships and the fact that China had never built ships this large, in tonnage or dimensionally, especially four at the same time. This surprised me as ‘never’ is a long time and China was one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. After a little digging, however, it appears to be true. China had only attempted to reboot their shipbuilding industry late in the 19th Century in the waning years of the Qing dynasty and it was given a high priority by the new Republic. Most of the ships built during this period were smaller river and coastal craft ranging from 112 to 1,480 tons. The closest they had gotten to date at Kiangnan were as H.K. Kwong mentioned, the 3,692 ton passenger river steamer Kiang Wah in 1912, which was 340 feet long with a breadth of 47 feet and had an impressive top speed of 16-1/2 knots. Kiang Wah was an exception by far. Prior to that, you’d have to go back five centuries to the Ming Dynasty and the great treasure fleets commanded by Zheng He.

River Steamer T.S. KIANG WAH, the largest vessel Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works had built until the four sisters. From the October 3rd, 1913 edition of 'The Engineer' in an article titled: "Progress of Engineering in the East". The article described Kiang Wah as "The largest vessel built in this yard is the S.S. Kiang Wah, with a displacement of 4000 tons. On the trial trip she steamed 16 1/2 knots. This, it should be noted, is the largest, and fastest steamer ever built in China. She trades between Shanghai and Hankow. Her length is 340ft. and her moulded breadth 47ft. The indicated horsepower is 3000."

As far as the boilers, the plan to have them built by the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works apparently fell through for some reason. In an article in the October 1918 edition of the Pacific Marine Review there was a plan to utilize six boilers salvaged from the San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company’s S.S. Bear, which had run aground on the Northern California coast in June of 1916. This plan too fell through, and the boilers were eventually brought to Yokohama on the wooden motor ship Alabama. As they were shipped to Yokohama, the assumption is that they were eventually used in some of the Shipping Board vessels being built there. 

Ultimately, twelve brand new boilers, valued at $300,000, ended up being manufactured by the Willamette Iron and Steel Works in Portland Oregon and were shipped in November of 1919 aboard the Dollar Steamship Grace Dollar. The Grace Dollar discharged the boilers to the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works on December 30th, 1919. The boilers were described as being “of a Scotch marine type, 15 feet 3 inches in diameter by 11 feet 6 inches long. They were designed and constructed for a working pressure of 200 pounds and each boiler weighs 65 tons.” Each of the sisters would be equipped with three of these.

Image of the completed Willamette Iron & Steel Works boilers staged and ready for shipment. Original caption: “A shipment of Portland-built boilers for China.” From an article titled ‘Direct Selling in China’ by F.R. Sites, page 67 of the December 1919 edition of the Pacific Marine Review. Chinese text borders the left side. Image appears on page 69. Written on the boilers were:




                 SHANGHAI CHINA

                 c/o DOLLAR S.S. LINES

S.U.NO. 130                      REQ.NO.2053-1

HULL NO. 2028                S.I.NO.51834-B



Image of the Willamette Iron & Steel Works boilers being delivered to the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works in Shanghai. Per the original caption, the image shows the 75-ton shearlegs lifting a boiler from the hold of the Dollar steamship GRACE DOLLAR. Note the Chinese translation of the vessel’s name under the English spelling (Dollar standard practice). This image and the one below were hidden in a 'riveting' article entitled ‘Electricity vs. Fuel for Heating Rivets’ by F.C. Cheston discussing the merits of the new electric rivet heaters over the standard fuel burner method of the day. Oddly, the article makes no mention of the Willamette boilers produced for Kiangnan. From the June 1920 edition of the Pacific Marine Review, page 135. 

The image above shows the Willamette Iron & Steel Works boilers in the Kiangnan yard, which provides some scale with the various men and the buildings. This image and the one above were hidden in a 'riveting' article entitled ‘Electricity vs. Fuel for Heating Rivets’ by F.C. Cheston discussing the merits of the new electric rivet heaters over the standard fuel burner method of the day. Oddly, the article makes no mention of the Willamette boilers produced for Kiangnan. From the June 1920 edition of the Pacific Marine Review, page 135. 

As the work progressed it was described in an Article titled ‘Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works Shipbuilding Program And Some Remarks by a Chinese Engineer on the Growing Export and Import Trade from Szechuen Province Through the Gorges of the Yangtsze River’ in the December 1919 edition of the Pacific Marine Review, an edition which particularly focused on China and had a picture of a Chinese Junk on the cover, it states: 

SIXTEEN vessels, large and small, are at present under construction in the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works, Shanghai. These include four 10,000-ton deadweight steamers, contracted for the United States Shipping Board, and one shallow draft steamer for a local firm, to run between Ichang (a port in Hupeh province, about 400 miles up the Yangtsze River from Hankow) and Chungking- in Szechuen province, 400 miles further up from Ichang, to tap the vast resources of Szechuen. This is to state in a nut-shell the work the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works has at hand.” 

The article then focuses for several paragraphs on the import and export trade along the Yangtze River by the Chinese Engineer, who is never actually identified by name, before it continues to describe the work on the four sisters at Kiangnan: 

Of the vessels now under construction in the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works, by far the most important ones are the four 10,000-ton deadweight steamers for the United States Shipping Board. These are the largest steamers ever attempted in China. The keels of all four were laid this spring, but on account of transportation difficulties the work was held up by delays in the arrival of steel materials. The frames of the first ship are now up, and those of the second are in the process of erection, while work is progressing satisfactorily on the tank bottoms of the other two. Good progress is also being made in the marine engines and auxiliary machinery -- in fact, practically all the auxiliary machinery is completed. 

These four ships will be named Mandarin, Celestial, Oriental and Cathay, according to the decision of the United States Shipping Board, to denote the place of their construction. In them America will see for the first time ships constructed in China in accordance with modern science and practice. 

The foregoing is in the main the amount and kind of work the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works is doing. The schedule is a heavy one, but then the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works has recently greatly enlarged and improved its plant, thus doubling its producing capacity, and so it is more than able to handle the work at hand.

The steamers are designed as cargo carriers, each with a deadweight of 10,000 tons and a displacement of 14,306 tons. The dimensions are: 429 feet between perpendiculars, 55 feet breadth molded, and 37 feet 11-1/2 inches depth to shelter deck, with a speed of 10-1/2 knots [Ed: they were later known to make 13 knots]. They are driven by triple-expansion engines of 2600 I. H. P., supplied with superheated steam from three large Scotch boilers.

The work is in full swing. With at least 60 per cent of the raw materials already here, the dockyard has no fear of being forced to slow down on account of lack of materials. And the weather has also relented, and will most probably stay clear for a good stretch of time ahead.

In the meantime, satisfactory progress is being made in the construction of the engines, parts of which are now being assembled. On the other hand, most of the auxiliary machinery has been finished and is ready for installation any time the vessels are launched. It is conservatively estimated that 45 per cent of the propelling machinery is completed.

Another factor which will materially assist dispatch in the construction of the vessels is the extension and improvement of the dockyard by the erection of several new shops and the installation of the latest labor-saving machines from America. On this account, the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works may lay claim to being one of the most modernly equipped shipyards in China. From America the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works have bought air compressors, pneumatic tools, electric furnaces, plate rollers, punching and shearing machines, traveling cranes, lathes, drilling and milling machines, etc., which are now filling up the new shops erected to house them.

Original caption: “Rolls for a steel rolling mill at the shops of the Pacific Marine Iron Works, Portland, Oregon, ready for shipment to Shanghai.” Written on the protective wooden outer casing is:


c/o Robt. Dollar Steamship Co.

Seattle Washington

From: Pacific Marine Iron Works

Portland, Oregon U.S.A.

These were most likely originally used in the manufacturing of steel components for the four sisters. From the December 1919 edition of the Pacific Marine Review.

Finally, mention may be made of the excellent relations existing between the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works and the special representative of the United States Shipping Board in the Far East, John A. McGregor, whose headquarters are located in Yokohama, Japan. His technical adviser, J. L. Luckenbach, makes visits to the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works to watch the progress and construction. With permanent offices at the dockyard, the local surveyor of the American "Lloyds" is surveying the ships as the construction progresses.

Without doubt, the construction of these four steamers has greatly strengthened the friendship of the two republics on the Pacific. Enlightened people are speaking of it as a concrete example of Sino-American co-operation, which is much desired by them. When these ships, with their Oriental names on their bows, are commissioned, sailing in and out of American harbors, it is to be hoped that they will awaken American interest in China and in Chinese industries, which are emerging into importance in the life of this country. -- Millard's Review.

Based on the attribution at the end, the Pacific Marine Review article appears to have been provided by American journalist Thomas Franklin Fairfax Millard, or directly copied from his weekly; ‘Millard's Review of the Far East’.

I later found that the Shipping Board members worked out of Robert Dollars building in Shanghai, emphasizing once again his intimate involvement in the project. 

Mandarin was launched June 3rd, 1920 and christened by Cornelia Workman Smith-Crane, the wife of America’s Minister to China (March 22, 1920, to July 2, 1921), Charles Richard Crane

I was very fortunate to find a series of photographs showing the sequence of Mandarin’s launching, which of course, would also apply to her three sisters, including the Celestial, which had a cameo in one of the photographs. I stumbled across the pictures while scrolling through photographs of old Shanghai on the Virtual Shanghai website in March of 2016. I was hoping to find a few images on the Kiangnan yard to include with this story. As I scrolled through the images I came across several generically labeled and dated images of a ship being launched. It took me a second or two to realize what I was looking at, but then it struck me. 

I immediately reached out to the University of Bristol's Historical Photographs of China Collection which was noted as the source. The next day I had a response from Jamie Carstairs, Project Manager/Co-ordinator/Digitisation Officer, Department of History (Historical Studies) with the University of Bristol and we worked through the details. 

The photographs, as it turned out, came from a photo album provided to the University by a man named Jeremy Johns, whose grandfather, Thomas Joseph Rowett Johns (1882-1947) served in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (from 1903 to 1937), in revenue cruisers, and most likely took the photos. Jamie was able to pass this information back to Mr. Johns as well as Christian Henriot from Aix-Marseille Université, Département d'Etudes Asiatiques, who administers the Virtual Shanghai website.

I highly recommend you visit the two websites noted above as they provide a remarkable glimpse into the lives of the people of Shanghai during this period.

Robert Dollar's high-rise office building in Shanghai. The building still stands to this day. From Robert Dollar's memoir.

Dockyard view of the SS MANDARIN slipping down the ways into the Whangpoo (Huangpo) crowded with hundreds if not thousands of onlookers on June 3rd, 1920. In the ways to the left of the 'Mandarin' is Yard No. 318 and the SS CELESTIAL, still in scaffolding, providing an observation deck for the onlookers. Note the American flags in the foreground and on the bow of the Mandarin. Image courtesy of Virtual Cities Project (Institut d’Asie Orientale).Virtual Shanghai reference number: 1770

Riverview of the SS MANDARIN preparing to launch at the Chinese Government's Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works Yard No. 317, at the south side of Shanghai, on June 3rd, 1920.  In the ways to the right of the 'Mandarin' is Yard No. 318 and the SS CELESTIAL, still in scaffolding, which would be launched in August of 1921. The smaller vessel to the left may be the riverboat Alice Dollar, which was built for Robert Dollar for use on the Yangtze River at this time as well. Images courtesy of Jeremy Johns and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol. From the photo album of Jeremy Johns' grandfather, Thomas Joseph Rowett Johns (1882-1947), who served in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (from 1903 to 1937), in revenue cruisers.  It is likely that TJRJ took the ship launching photographs. Historical Photographs of China reference number: Jo02-61. Virtual Shanghai reference number: 27259 

© 2011 Jeremy Rowett Johns

The SS MANDARIN slipping down the ways into the Whangpoo (Huangpo) crowded with onlookers on June 3rd, 1920. Note that you can see straight through the doorways of the unfinished afterdeck house. What would ordinarily be considered a  large passenger riverboat docked quayside on the right of the image is dwarfed by size of the Mandarin. Images courtesy of Jeremy Johns and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol. From the photo album of Jeremy Johns' grandfather, Thomas Joseph Rowett Johns (1882-1947), who served in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (from 1903 to 1937), in revenue cruisers.  It is likely that TJRJ took the ship launching photographs. Historical Photographs of China reference number: Jo02-63. Virtual Shanghai reference number: 27261

© 2011 Jeremy Rowett Johns

The SS MANDARIN floating freely in the Whangpoo (Huangpo) shortly after launching on June 3rd, 1920. You can clearly see the elegant curved upsweep in the sides of the hull at the base of the unfinished deckhouse, fore and aft with the three prominent scupper holes to help drain the external walkways. Images courtesy of Jeremy Johns and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol. From the photo album of Jeremy Johns' grandfather, Thomas Joseph Rowett Johns (1882-1947), who served in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (from 1903 to 1937), in revenue cruisers.  It is likely that TJRJ took the ship launching photographs. Historical Photographs of China reference number: Jo02-62. Virtual Shanghai reference number: 27260

© 2011 Jeremy Rowett Johns

Mandarin sailed from Shanghai shortly after February 4th, 1921 under the command of American Master Howard Horace Rees (1876-1939), and arrived in San Francisco on March 25th, 1921. 

Rees appears to have been working for the Shipping Board at this time delivering ships. Before the war he was the Master of the old steamship Portland with the Kerr Steamship Line and during the war he commanded Westbrook and Western Spirit with the United States Naval Reserve Force as a Lieutenant Commander. 

Celestial was launched August 3rd, 1920 and christened by the wife of U.S.S.B. Inspector for Shanghai M.A. Perry. 

The event was described in the periodical ‘The Far Eastern Republic’;

The launching ceremony of the Celestial was brief. A gathering of distinguished individuals, including consular, municipal, and Chinese officials, had been invited and from the raised platform witnessed the ship slipping down the ways into the yellow flood of the Wangpoo. A detachment of Chinese troops stood at attention while the launching took place. Among those invited by the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Company to witness the ceremony were Edwin S. Cunningham, United States Consul-General; A.D. Eberhardt, United States Consul-General at large; Captain Eisler and S.L. Ware, representatives of the United States Shipping Board; Colonel T.D. Sun, representing the military Governor at Shanghai; Hon. S.C. Hsu, former Minister of Justice; K. Yamasaki, Japanese Consul-General, and J. Harold Dollar of the Robert Dollar Company, president of the American Chamber of Commerce.

Captain Howard H. Rees circa 1916 from his passport application photo via

John Harold Dollar Sr. (1887-1936) was Robert Dollar’s youngest son. He controlled all of the company’s interests in China at this time, based out their impressive office building in Shanghai. All four of his children were born in Shanghai between 1912 and 1922.

Not much is known of M. A. Perry and his wife at this time. The ‘Far Eastern Republic’ account notes his name as A.M. Perry, but multiple other sources show it as M.A. Perry. What little is known is from various trade and newspaper articles here and there. Prior to his Shipping Board assignment, Perry was an Engineer with the Fore River Shipbuilding Company in Massachusetts. Perry and his supervisors were originally based in Yokohama, Japan. When the contracts in Japan were completed, MacGregor and Luckenbach moved back to America, Perry moved to Shanghai, and took over the supervisory responsibilities for the completion of the four sisters on April 17th, 1920. His work was considered complete by January 15th, 1922, at which time he moved back to America. In all he spent three years in Asia.

Of the four names assigned to the sisters, ‘Celestial’ stood out to me. All the other names; Mandarin, Oriental and Cathay, all had a clear connection to China. Searching on just the word 'celestial' resulted in the expected references to the heavens and the stars. Searching on celestial in combination with China revealed that China was called the Celestial Empire in the past. According to 

The Celestial Empire was a name used to refer to China. It was a translation of Tianchao (Chinese: 天朝; pinyin: Tiāncháo), a name for China. Accordingly, the name "Celestial" was used to refer to Chinese emigrants to the United States, Canada, and Australia during the 19th century. Both terms were widely used in the English-language popular mass media of the day, but have fallen into disuse later on.” 

At one point, the name 'Palanquin' was considered for the fourth vessel, until the name Cathay won out. A Palanquin is a type of covered sedan chair carried by bearers used in China at the time.

It would take another nine months after her launching before Celestial was completed. In May 1921 she made her first successful trial outside Woosung. Below is a wonderful picture I obtained of Celestial from the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA. This is most likely during those sea trials off Woosung. Note the awning over her full width Flying Bridge, the number and size of the lifeboats, and the crew that can be seen in various places along the deck.

SS Celestial, circa 1921, likely on her sea trials. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA - Robert Dollar & Co. Papers Collection.

Celestial sailed from Shanghai on or about May 21st, 1921 and arrived in San Francisco on June 19th, 1921, where delivery was described as being “made by the Robert Dollar Company, representing the builder.” She sailed under the command of American Master, Fred E. Anderson, with a complement of six American and one Scottish officer* (an engineer, naturally) and 52 Chinese crew, as follows:

Celestial First Crew

Unlike Master Rees of the Mandarin, Master Anderson was an employee of Dollar Steamship Company, and I’ve provided a brief summary of his life and career here

Celestial was the first of the four sisters to make a voyage after delivery. “She sailed from San Francisco on September 24th, 1921 for Antwerp and other European ports laden with wheat, barley and other Pacific freights.”, making her the first of the four sisters to transit the Panama Canal and sail the Atlantic. This is the voyage on which she was operated by Williams, Dimond and Company, and while her Master is not known (Anderson was committed elsewhere), I did find a largely intact crew list which revealed that she interestingly also sailed with an American staff of officers and a Chinese crew. Celestial returned to San Francisco on April 20th, 1922 via Baltimore and San Pedro.

According to another article I found in the April 1922 edition of ‘The Weekly Review of the Far East – Formerly Millard’s Review’ on the Cathay, all four of the sisters eventually made a around-the-world tour. The route was described as leaving San Francisco then heading West across the Pacific with stops in Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, then across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean through Gibraltar, into the North Atlantic and North Sea (perhaps even the Baltic Sea) where they made several stops in Europe before heading back across the Atlantic to Baltimore down the east coast into the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal up the coast to San Pedro and eventually returning back to San Francisco. 

Due to Robert Dollar’s involvement in the project, one would have thought he would have been there for the launching of the first vessel. According to his diary, however, this does not appear to be the case. His memoir is somewhat difficult to follow as he rambles quite a bit and he does not date very many events. During the spring and summer of 1920 when Mandarin and Celestial were launched he appears to have been on a trip to the U.K. visiting, among several places, his ancestral home of Falkirk, Scotland. 

Robert Dollar was actually in China in the summer of 1921 (Most likely June – he and his wife departed San Francisco on April 2nd, 1921 for Seattle) as the Oriental and Cathay were nearing completion, escorting a delegation of American businessmen. He wrote 

I had planned to sail on one of the Dollar Company steamers from Vancouver to Japan; but received so many requests from various quarters to accompany the Commercial Commission from the Pacific Northwest on the Shipping Board steamer Wenatchee, that I finally decide to go with the Commission as far as Shanghai, and from there continue my journey on the Robert Dollar II.” 

Dollar noted that the Commission filed a formal report upon their return, which read in part;

Captain Robert Dollar, as a member of the visiting delegation and yet as a leader and pioneer in the development of American business at Shanghai and throughout China, spoke as one at home and at the same time as a guest. He reviewed what has been done in a few years, and urged the earnest effort of all to develop the full possibilities of trade between China and America, based on fair dealing and mutual respect.

Captain Dollar extended an invitation to all those at the luncheon who cared to do so, to join the Pacific Northwest delegation on a trip on one of the Dollar Company boats along the entire Shanghai waterfront, leaving the customs jetty at 2:30. Among those who accompanied the party on this river trip were Captain Dollar and his son, J. Harold Dollar, in charge of the business in the Orient; Julean Arnold, American commercial attaché; Captain W.J. Eisler, representative of the United States Shipping Board; Dr. Frederic Lee, American economist consul; W.A. Chapman, secretary of the American Chamber of Commerce; Paul P. Whitman, and others.

The river trip was one of the most interesting experiences at Shanghai, and in China. The boat went up the Whangpoo (Huangpo) River skirting the shore, passing innumerable river craft at landings and in the stream, and running close to the Government shipyards at Kiangnan, where four freight vessels for the United States Shipping Board were turned out. Two of them were about completed.” 

Robert Dollar's office on the left and warehouse (aka Go-down) on the right at their dock on the Wangpo. Note the broad ramps to the second floor on the go-down used by porters, typical of the Shanghai style. You can also see the American flag flying over the warehouse and just barely make out the "$" symbol over the center doorway. Note also the stacks of lumber in the foreground and to the right. From Robert Dollar's memoir.

Oriental was the third vessel completed and sailed from Shanghai on or about September 30th, 1921, also under the command of Master Fred E. Anderson.

Cathay’s keel was laid April 5th, 1919 (all the keels were laid that spring) and she was launched May 26th, 1921. Cathay, as the last of the four sisters completed in Shanghai, was to be the last freighter delivered to the United States Shipping Board on the West Coast and departed Shanghai on December 22nd, 1921, yet again under the command of Master Fred E. Anderson.

Cathay arrived in San Francisco on January 18th, 1922, however, Oriental had cracked a cylinder on her voyage from Shanghai to San Francisco, and while making it to port earlier on October 22nd, 1921, the damage prevented her from being accepted until repaired, so Cathay became the third vessel officially delivered.

According to the Oriental’s crew list, a portion of her Chinese crew returned to China as passengers on the SS Golden State on November 5th, 1921 and the remainder left on the SS China on December 10th, 1921. Besides Master Anderson, many of the Chinese sailors also sailed on several of the previous deliveries.

Image of one of the completed vessels, likely from a local newspaper article circa 1921 . The caption reads: “美國運輸艦四艘排水量一萬四千七百五十噸為本所今年最重大之工程  (U.S.S. Mandarin, Celestial, Oriental, Cathay)” - Translation: American transport ship of 14,750 tons of displacement. Largest achievement of the arsenal this year) Pinyin: (Meiguo yunshujian si so paishuiliang ge yiwan siqian qibai wushi dun wei bensuo jinnian zui zhongda zhi gongcheng). Image courtesy of Virtual Cities Project (Institut d’Asie Orientale). Virtual Shanghai reference number: 1047

All this was happening while China slowly started to spiral out of control. Shanghai was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ in the 1920’s. But her rapid growth was not without consequences as the different cultures mixed. Much of the wealth was contained in the western concessions, while many of the Chinese residents on the outskirts of the city lived in abject poverty. Shanghai was actually the birthplace of Chinese communism back in 1921. The first session of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China began on July 23rd, 1921 in Shanghai’s Bo Wen Girl’s School that was closed for the summer. This was just two months after the Cathay was launched and the Celestial had sailed for San Francisco. One of the 13 delegates was a 28-year-old revolutionary named Mao Zedong.

In the United States there was actually quite a bit of controversy when the ships were delivered, as although the contracts were awarded in 1918 and the keels laid in 1919, they were delivered after the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (also known as the Jones Act, as it was introduced by Senator Wesley Jones). The Jones Act was a protectionist piece of legislation designed to safeguard the U.S. Shipbuilding Industry. According to Wikipedia: 

Section 27 of the Jones Act, deals with cabotage (i.e., coastal shipping) and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents.

The four sisters (as well as their Japanese cousins) obviously failed point number two. This caused a group of attorney’s to claim that the vessels should only be used in foreign trade. The fact that the steel and most major components were supplied by the United States, that they were built on behalf of the U.S. Government during a time of war and that their keels were laid before the Act was passed eventually seemed to prevail. Robert Dollar’s influence probably did not hurt as well as he was keen to get his hands on what were widely reported to be the four finest steamers built during this period and for decades thereafter. To be fair, Dollar did intend to use them primarily in his transpacific trade, but the Shipping Board did certify them for use in the coastwise trade as well. As you can see below from their Dollar Line service, Dollar required both. Although his vessels sailed transpacific voyages they also ran coastwise voyages up and down various ports on the west coast dropping off finished goods from China and picking up raw material for their eventual return to China. Dollar was one of the primary sources of lumber for the Chinese shipbuilding and construction industries.

Despite the one voyage by the Celestial to Europe, she and her sisters suffered the same fate as hundreds of thousands of tons of other vessels produced during the war; sitting idle. The 1920’s were not so roaring for the shipping industry. Despite the building of some passenger vessels, tankers and other specialized vessels, and work to convert vessels back from wartime use to civilian, many shipyards closed and thousands of men were out of work.

For freighters, the supply had never been greater and the demand never lower (Until the end of WWII), despite opening the sale of the surplus vessels to the world-wide market. On several occasions during 1921 the Government tried to auction off the vessels. Below is an advertisement appearing of December 10th, 1921 in ‘The Nautical Gazette’. Note that the Cathay had not yet even been completed at this point.

Besides Mandarin, Celestial, Oriental and Cathay being bought by Dollar, Luckenbach, like Dollar with unique insight into the quality of the vessels, scooped up most of the large Japanese built vessels:

Southbend, Marica (mis-spelled in advert) and Edellyn were all sisters originally designed for Luckenbach (other than the stern, somewhat similar to the design of EFC 1133, ie; the Honolulan with its extra deck and multiple pairs of kingposts), were taken over by the War Department upon completion and actually served before war’s end. After the war, they were returned to Luckenbach Steamship Company, where they operated as J.L. Luckenbach (aka John Lewis), Lillian Luckenbach and Dorothy Luckenbach, respectively. All saw service in WWII as well.

Eastern Merchant became the Robert Luckenbach

Eastern Trader became the Horace Luckenbach

East Indian remained under that name, operated by the Ford Motor Company. It was sunk off Capetown in 1942.

Eastern Shore – was never sold and remained under US Shipping Board, Seattle, control and was laid up on the west coast, probably at either Tacoma or Olympia or Bremerton, which were all sites used by the Pacific Reserve Fleet. The ship was scrapped by Boston Iron and Metals, Baltimore and delivered in October 1935 .

Eastern Light became the Willkeno under Williams SS Co., and after A-H bought Williams, renamed first Isthmian then Illinioan.

Eastern Soldier became the Lena Luckenbach

Despite the slow-down in the U.S. shipping industry, and the withdrawal of the option to build eight more of the Mandarin design freighters, work continued at Kiangnan, just on a smaller scale. America kept its commitment to have Kiangnan build six river gunboats for the United States Navy’s Yangtze Patrol. These became the Guam (PG-43), Tutuila (PG-44), Panay (PG-45), Oahu (PG-46), Luzon (PG-47), and Mindanao (PG-48). Note: several of these links show the vessels being built at Kiangnan.

Turmoil in China at this time, however, and especially in Shanghai, resulted in many delays and these gunboats would not be completed until 1927-28. The story of these vessels is also a fascinating one and would one day be the backdrop for the 1966 classic film ‘The Sand Pebbles’ starring Steve McQueen. Too much to go into here, but I refer you to this website for the vessels fascinating real history.

As mentioned previously, Shanghai fell to the Japanese in November of 1937, and with it the Kiangnan yard. Large swaths of the city on the North side of the Soochow Creek were devastated, but the Kiangnan yard in the South appears to have survived largely intact. The Chinese had managed to evacuate their skilled shipyard employees further inland before the city fell.

The Japanese re-opened the yard in 1938 under the control of Mitsubishi Industries. Besides using it as a repair facility, they produced about 27 small vessels ranging from 435 to 3222 tons between 1941 and 1945, mainly small freighters. According to information I found on, Kiangnan was on the target list of the US Army Air Corps in June of 1945, but it’s unclear if it was ever actually hit before the Japanese surrendered in August.

After the Japanese were defeated, the US Navy used the yard for a time as a repair facility before handing it back to Chinese control. Only one vessel was known to be built in 1947 and one in 1949.The Chinese Civil War picked up right where it had left off and Shanghai fell to the communists in 1949. The Nationalists reportedly bombed the yard at that time, causing extensive damage.

Ten vessels were known to be produced there between 1958 and 1968. It was not until 1965, nearly 45 years after the four sisters, that Kiangnan launched a ship exceeding their scale, the 13,488 DWT Dong Feng, followed by the 14465 DWT Chao Yang in 1968. At the time the yard was renamed Jiangnan. In 2009 production was shifted over the massive main Jiangnan yard on Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, north of Shanghai city. The original yard shifted back to more of a dry dock and repair facility and appears to still be in use today.

Aerial view of the old Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works as it appears today. The facility is apparently still used as a repair and maintenance facility for the People's Liberation Army Navy and one of their vessels is in dry dock to the right of center. Map is unfortunately not the typical interactive Google Maps I use on the site due to the off-set issue caused by the different coordinate system mandated by the Chinese government and is instead a screen shot from the domestic Chinese Baidu map service.

Dollar Line Service

Robert Dollar was a Scotsman that had immigrated with his family to Canada in 1858. Working his way up from nothing, he amassed a fortune in the lumber industry over the next 30 years, eventually relocating to the U.S. In 1895 he got into the shipping business to transport his own lumber products, and in 1901 established the Dollar Steamship Company which would become the main U.S. trans-Pacific shipping line of the early 20th century. 

According to his biography on the Falkirk Cultural Center website, 

In 1902 he began traveling to Asia to develop trade. He became a pioneer and leader in the China trade and in his seventies built the most important trading business between the United State and the Orient.” This trade would later earn him the title of ‘The Grand Old Man of the Pacific’

In the February 18th, 1922 edition of ‘The Nautical Gazette’, which is a Saturday, they note Dollar bought the four ships ‘on Thursday of last week’, so it’s unclear if they meant February 16th or the 9th. Dollar was patient in acquiring the four sisters, and it paid off handsomely.

From his memoirs Captain Dollar apparently learned of the ships availability in a Government dispatch dated December 12th, 1921, which read as follows:

“Twenty-eight cargo vessels of various types have been ordered sold by the United States Shipping Board, effective December 28. The price of the vessels will be on par with world tonnage prices, according to information received in San Francisco shipping circles." 

Keep in mind that Dollar's company was headquartered in San Francisco.

Captain Robert Dollar

Dollar notes that “Previously the Board had held that in the sale of ships the replacement and initial cost must be considered.

“The change indicates that the Government will accept the price at which vessels of corresponding type of construction of foreign registry may be acquired."

“Five of the steamers to be sold are the Eastern Merchant, 12,500 dead weight tons, which was built in the Asano shipyards in Japan; the steamers Oriental, Mandarin, Celestial and Cathay. The last four named steamers are of 10,500 tons dead weight, and were built at the Kiangnan Dock and Engine Works in China. The Cathay is nearing completion in the Orient at present, but the other three vessels have been delivered.

“The Mandarin has been tied up here since last March and the Oriental is now at the Moore yards undergoing repairs. These two vessels have never carried a pound of cargo. The Celestial is in Europe for the Williams, Dimond & Company." 

Apparently that sale never went through.

According to the same article in ‘The Nautical Gazette’ above, when it was all said and done, the American taxpayer paid roughly $200 per dead weight ton for each of the 10,000 d.w.t. vessels or $2,000,000 each. Dollar bought them for $30 per dead weight ton for each, or $300,000 each, an astonishing 85% discount. Adjusted for inflation (1922 to 2016), Dollar paid $4.2MM a piece rather than $28.2MM.

The purchase raised a few eyebrows. In the March 1922 edition of the Pacific Marine Review in a sub-section titled ‘The Dollar Purchase’ under a regular article titled ‘Deep-Sea Shipping‘ they wrote: 

While this enormous fleet is being offered, Captain Robert Dollar has created more than a little stir by purchasing the four 10,000 deadweight ton freighters, Cathay, Oriental, Mandarin and Celestial, built for the Shipping Board by the Kiangnan yard, Shanghai. In this purchase Captain Dollar, who is generally regarded as the shrewdest of all American shipowners, has paid a high complement to the Chinese builder. Others join him in praising the vessels. They are second to none in quality of workmanship, partly because they were not built under stress of war but also because of the truly immense amount of hand labor that went into them. Captain Dollar knew full well what the vessels were, because his company acted as agent of the Kiangnan yard in its dealings with the government and in delivering the vessels. Three have been delivered, the Cathay having been turned over to the board by the Dollar Company February 1 and almost immediately turned back to the Dollar interests; one, the Oriental, cracked a cylinder on her voyage to the United States and is at the Moore yard, Oakland, for repairs. She, therefore, and not the Cathay, will be the last of all cargo vessels to be delivered to the board. The four will remain under the United States flag.

Although the Shipping Board has not disclosed the price, report has it that Captain Dollar paid $32 a deadweight ton. When the quality of the vessels is considered, there is no doubt that he got a real bargain.”   

In a brief article in the April 1922 edition of the ‘Pacific Marine Review’ titled ‘U.S.S.B. Work Nears End’:

One substantial support of shipbuilding during the lean year of 1921 is about to disappear. The Shipping Board program is nearing an end. On the Pacific Coast the one vessel that remained to be delivered at the middle of March was the Chinese-built freighter Oriental, which cracked a cylinder on her voyage to San Francisco and could not be accepted by the board until the damage was repaired. When the Moore Shipbuilding Company has completed the work the Robert Dollar Company, acting as agent of the Kiangnan yard, the builder, will solemnly hand the vessel over to the Shipping Board, which quite as solemnly will accept her; and when a decent interval of a few minutes has elapsed, the board will hand the vessel back to the Robert Dollar Company in its capacity as purchaser. Thus the amenities will be preserved.

The Mandarin, Celestial, Oriental and Cathay were soon renamed the Stuart Dollar, Margaret Dollar, Melville Dollar and Diana Dollar, respectively, and were put use transporting lumber and other goods for the Dollar Steamship Company.

I believe the Margaret Dollar was named after Robert's wife, Margaret Proudfoot Dollar.  

Below is an image I purchased from the Vancouver Maritime Museum. It shows Margaret Dollar early in her working career loading lumber from barges. The men handling the lumber on the barge help give the picture some scale. 

SS Margaret Dollar - Vancouver, British Columbia, June 25th, 1923. Courtesy of the Vancouver Maritime Museum 

Margaret Dollar was apparently used exclusively in the Pacific, sailing a great triangular trade route between San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest and the Orient. To date I have been able to locate 20 crew lists, spanning from May of 1923 through June of 1934.

Pacific Northwest ports included Portland Oregon, the Washington State ports of Aberdeen, Bellingham, Everett, Port Angeles, Seattle, and Tacoma and the British Columbia ports of New Westminster, Port Alice and of course Vancouver.

Ports in the Orient included Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, Osaka and Yokohama in Japan, and Manila in the Philippines. You can zoom in and explore the various ports on the map below, which includes the known dates Margaret Dollar was at each port.

The crew lists also provided some interesting insight into the structure of the crews and how they changed over time. Margaret Dollar consistently sailed with 4 Deck Officers (Master and 3 Mates), 4 Engineering Officers (Chief and 3 Assistant Engineers), a Radio or Wireless Operator who often split duties as the Purser, a Carpenter, and a Bosun. From there things varied quite a bit.

The 3 voyages in 1923 each used 4 Quartermasters. This position had been around for a long time and was somewhere in between the Deck Officers and the Bosun. At sea the Quartermasters were responsible for steering the vessel, and maintenance around the bridge and boat deck. In port they typically stood watch and were responsible for security. They dined with the officers, but bunked with the crew. Around 1924 this position was eliminated and additional seamen were added in their place.

Deck crew were made up of a mix of Able Bodied Seamen (A.B.), Seamen, Ordinary Seamen (O.S.), and sometimes a combination of all three. She sailed with anywhere between 5 and 10, but averaged about 8. Starting in 1925 she also carried 2 to 3 cadets. Engineering crew were made up of the usual mix of Oilers, Firemen and Wipers, and also averaged about 8. Occasionally several engineering cadets were carried. 

Up until the fall of 1928 the size of Margaret Dollar’s crew averaged about 37, her “modern” average. The majority of them were American with a handful of foreign nationals, mainly from Western Europe. Starting in the spring of 1928 they started using Chinese for the service positions (Cooks, Stewards, Messmen, etc…) on two voyages. These men signed on in Hong Kong.

At the end of 1928 there was a drastic change and the crew skyrocketed to 76 with an American Officer corps and everyone from the Bosun on down Chinese. It appears they basically doubled the number of men for each deck and engineering position, which necessitated doubling the service personnel as well. Where they all slept, I don’t know. They even had a copper-smith on board. The Chinese men used in the deck and engineering positions actually signed on in San Francisco, and the men from the service positions came once again from Hong Kong.

Beginning in 1929 they adjusted to a more reasonable 48, still with a mix of American officers and Chinese crew. The 4 Quartermaster positions were brought back and a Fitter and 2 Storekeepers were added (staffed by Chinese). Most if not all of the Chinese crew signed on in Shanghai.

By the end of 1933 they had gone back to using an all American crew with an average size of 35, and the Quartermaster positions were eliminated for good.

From 1923 through 1932 Herman T. Payne was the Master of Margaret Dollar on most of these voyages, with Lauritz A. Byberg serving as his Chief Mate with first William D. Ross then starting in 1928 Thomas H. Vivian as Chief Engineer. After that it appears that Master Albert Wilson took command with Emil A. Hefty as his Chief Mate and George A. Snyder as his Chief Engineer.

The company became heavily indebted while trying to expand in late 1920s and could not recover once the Great Depression set in. Robert Dollar passed away in 1932 and the line was bought out by the US Government in 1938 and the assets were then used to establish American President Lines. This line is still in business today and is known as "APL".

The curious case of the Ryo Yei Maru

While researching the Margaret Dollar I came across a bizarre story about her finding an abandoned Japanese fishing vessel. It's quite a tangent from the main topic of this site, but it is part of the ships history so I decided to include some details here. There are a number of sites that briefly mention it, but mostly with sensational terms: "ghost ship" or "bone ship".

I'll stick to the facts here, which are based on a letter the Bancroft Library had from a D.E. Gould written to Mr. R. Stanley Dollar, Jr. on January 10th, 1966. It concerns a "port" and two framed pictures, one showing the deck and the other the stern of the Ryo Yei Maru, that Mr. Gould was sending to Mr. Dollar. The Bancroft has these two pictures in their collection, and though tempting, I decided not to purchase copies of them at this time.

The letter included some details I hadn't seen on any other sites, so I've included them here; The Ryo Yei Maru sailed from Japan on December 5th, 1926 with a crew of 12 men to fish off the Japanese Coast. She broke down shortly thereafter and drifted for eleven months across the Pacific. The Margaret Dollar found her drifting on October 31st, 1927 (what are the odds - Halloween) off Umatilla Reef, Cape Flattery, Washington (Noted on map above).

The Ryo Yei Maru was apparently towed back to Seattle where Gould, a P.R. Rep for American Mail Lines named Clifton Pease, and the press boarded her. It was apparent that the crew all died of starvation and the partially mummified remains of the captain and one crew member were the only ones left on board. According to the ships log they had run out of provisions on March 6th, 1927.

At the request of the Japanese Consul, the Ryo Yei Maru was burned on Richmond Beach, Seattle on December 28th, 1927.

Pacific Northwest folk singer J.W. Sparrow was inspired to write a song about the Ryo Yei Maru. You can listen to John's poignant song, read his connection to the story and see a picture of the vessel here.

 American-Hawaiian Service

The four sisters together in American-Hawaiian service during the late 1930's. Clockwise from upper left; ALABAMAN - April 3rd, 1939, ARKANSAN - November 15th, 1938, FLORIDIAN - undated, but believed to be taken during the same timeframe, and finally CAROLINIAN - January 17th, 1939 (note snow on roof). Note that ARKANSAN's paint scheme was unique from her three sisters in that her bowsprit was not painted white and the black hull paint was extended up to the bottom of the deckhouse external walkway. Note also that the other three ships had their flying bridges shortened by this point, but ARKANSAN did not yet. Francis Palmer photographer. From the private collection of artist Dave Boone, All Rights Reserved.

In 1936 Margaret Dollar, along with her three sister ships, was bought by the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company. She was renamed Arkansan, which was in line with American-Hawaiian's usual naming convention. Her tonnage at this time was listed as 6,997 tons, and she was considered to be a medium sized freighter.

In a country still struggling to recover from The Great Depression, with unemployment rates still hovering around 10%, this was big news and helped provide hundreds if not thousands (including sub-contractors) of jobs in the west coast ship yards. The event warranted an article in the Pacific Marine Review magazine in their February 1937 edition:

"American-Hawaiian Augments Fleet

Four Fine Cargo Vessels of 40,000 Tons Aggregate Deadweight Capacity Added to Intercoastal Service

Last Year the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company purchased from the Dollar Steamship Company four sister ships. These four steamers were the Diana Dollar, the Margaret Dollar, the Melville Dollar, and the Stuart Dollar. All four were built for the United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation at the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works, Shanghai, China, and were respectively christened, when launched in 1921, the Cathay, the Celestial, the Oriental, and the Mandarin. Together with the ships of the former Williams Line, the acquisition of the four Dollar ships gives the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company a fleet of 33 vessels for intercoastal service and 8 vessels for the Oriental service, or 41 able cargo carriers under the one house flag.

To bring the four latest vessels up to American-Hawaiian standards, and to equip them under the revised rules of the U.S. Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, was one of the largest reconditioning contracts placed on the Pacific Coast in recent years. The total cost was between $450,000 and $500,000.

The Moore Dry Dock Company, of San Francisco and Oakland, California, was the principal contractor on three of the steamers [Diana Dollar/Alabaman, Margaret Dollar/Arkansan, and Melville Dollar/Carolinian], and the other [Stuart Dollar/Floridian] was overhauled at Todd Dry Dock, Seattle, Washington. The following description of the work involved and the equipment and material supplied is with particular reference to the three vessels reconditioned at the Moore Dry Dock Co.

Moore Dry Dock Company advertisement from Pacific Marine Review magazine, February 1937 showing Alabaman, Carolinian, Arkansan and a number of other non-American Hawaiian vessels.

"The hulls were, of course, the first consideration. In order to be sure of all rivets, seams, and plates the bottoms were not only scraped clear of all marine growths and loose paint, but they were sand blasted down to the clean steel wherever the slightest suspicion of pitting or looseness was in evidence. On one hull bottom 26,000 square feet of surface was sand blasted to clean steel. From fourteen to fifteen thousand rivets per ship were found to be needing attention, and these were tightened by welding.

On the decks, all composition covering was completely removed and the steel decks carefully examined for corrosion. Considerable areas in way of crew’s and officers’ quarters were renewed by welded patches, making the decks complete, as good as new.

The crew’s and officers’ quarters were virtually rebuilt to conform to the very high standard of American-Hawaiian in its care for marine personnel. On the general arrangement plan herewith it will be noted that the crew’s space is aft under the poop deck house. The entrance to these quarters is through a thwartship passage with companion stairs port and starboard. Two bathrooms and two lavatories open off the passageway.

Space, on the deck below, is arranged with a large central living room and eight bedrooms. Five of these rooms are fitted for two men each, and three for three men each. The rooms all have berth lights, mirror lights, fan outlets, and fans. They are all steam heated, and the walls and ceilings are covered with Case Plastic Cork, which not only insulates them from outside cold or heat, but also eliminates formation of moisture by sweating of the steel."

L.S. Case Inc. (who supplied several products to the four sister's upgrade) advertisement from Pacific Marine Review magazine, February 1937.

"The living room is well lighted and ventilated and is furnished with a large table, comfortable chairs, shelves for books, and other equipment calculated to make a long voyage comfortable. The floors in crew’s quarters are covered with Case Magnesite, a waterproof, elastic, fire and rust resistant product with great wearing quality. In the baths and lavatories the floors are covered with Case Tile. All of the weather decks on tops of superstructures are protected by Case Weather Decking of the new non-skid type. [An improvement on the original Case Weather Decking, with carborundum (aka Silicon carbide (SiC)) incorporated in its outer surface]. All of this flooring and weather decks were furnished and installed by L.S. Case Inc., San Francisco.

The entire machinery installation in each vessel was thoroughly overhauled, and much of the main steam piping was renewed. Many Crane cast steel valves were installed in this process. All of the original cargo winches were replaced by Lidgerwood 8 ½-inch x 8-inch steam winches. King posts were installed forward of the forward hatch, and two additional winches installed to serve the cargo booms on these posts. All winches were supplied through Thos. J. Baird, of San Francisco. Spare propeller shafts for each vessel were supplied by the General Engineering Company, of San Francisco. Spare hubs for propellers were cast and machined by the Moore Dry Dock Company."

Toumey Electric (who supplied several products to the four sister's upgrade) advertisement from Pacific Marine Review magazine, February 1937.

"All of the electric wiring, the electric fixtures, the generators, and the motors were completely overhauled by the Toumey Electric and Engineering Company, of San Francisco. All wiring was practically renewed, and many new fixtures and outlets installed. The lighting fixtures and ventilating fan outlets in crew’s quarters have already been mentioned. Other new outlets and lighting fixtures include: special deck lighting for safe working conditions; the installation of Kane lighting fixtures in the cargo holds; and many new lighting outlets in engine room, boiler room, and storeroom spaces. Toumey Electric and Engineering Company overhauled and rebuilt the mechanical engine room telegraph system and installed (to comply with the new rules of the U.S. Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation) a Bendix Sound Powered intercommunicating telephone system.

All of the ships were equipped with new lifeboats. Two boats are installed on each side of each vessel. Each pair of boats has ample capacity to take care of the entire normal personnel on the ship."

The article also included revised plans for the vessels:

Revised drawings for the four sisters from Pacific Marine Review magazine, February 1937.

Her first full year in American-Hawaiian service proved to be an exciting one. Arkansan's first arrival in San Francisco was heralded by reporter Jerry MacMullen as follows:

Sunday’s arrival was a break for the Arkansan’s people yesterday, with orders received for the big American-Hawaiian freighter not to start work until this morning.

The Arkansan, in from Baltimore via Norfolk and Charleston, is a big lump of a ship, with clean looking lines which rather conceal her 7030 gross tons register. And her skipper, believe it or not, boasts the fine old American seagoing name of Capt. Paul Jones.

Not always has the name Arkansan been on the steamer’s bows and fantail. Get the light on her bow plates from the correct angle, and you still can read Margaret Dollar, under the black paint. And before that she was the Celestial – a name which she came by honestly, for she was built, in 1921, by the Kiangnan Dock & Engine Works, at Shanghai. She has reciprocating machinery, a 3-cylinder triple-expansion engine which turns up 2600 horsepower.

American-Hawaiian purchased the ship recently from the Dollar interests, to augment their intercoastal fleet. Three of her deck officers are training-ship graduates; Capt. Jones and Chief Officer A.B. Wells [Albert B. Wells, MNS Class of 1927] were classmates in the Massachusetts state schoolship Nantucket, while third officer G.H. Blackett, whose home is in Sausalito, is a recent graduate of California’s own schoolship, the California State.

Within the year she would be involved in a dramatic rescue, which I detail later in the City of Baltimore Incident section and in a serious collision, which I detail later in the Knoxville City Incident section.

SS Arkansan, unknown date and location. This is a photo slug released by the San Francisco bureau of International News Photos to the press after the Arkansan was reported attacked in Suez in 1941, although it is believed that her flying bridge was shortened by that point.

Even though the picture above was released to the press at the time of the Suez attack, I believe this was earlier in her American-Hawaiian career since she still has a full width enclosed bridge. They had already added another pair of king posts forward, the ventilators just forward of the deck house had been modified and the aft lifeboat was removed by this stage. I had seen this exact picture used in several newspaper articles about the Suez attack, but there was no source provided as with the Associated Press photo below. The image from the PDF copies on were too small and of low quality to post on the site and I thought this was another dead-end. At the beginning of 2010 this photo slug was posted for sale on E-bay by a collector, so I snatched it up. Arkansan appears to be coming into an offshore anchorage. Her anchors are not released, but she appears to be making little head-way, and there is a rope ladder over the side just forward of the deck house with a group of people waiting at the rail, up the ladder to the boat deck, and along the exterior walkways of both the shelter deck and boat deck. I assume this was taken during warm weather or perhaps in the Canal Zone since her awning is in place on the flying bridge.

SS Arkansan, circa 1941 - Seattle, WA. © Copyright: Associated Press

The picture above is the Associated Press one I found through Since this article had the picture, the date, and the source included, I was able to contact AP and luckily they still had it in their archives. Note that the bridge seems to have been shortened since the International News Photo was taken, which necessitated relocating the main port and starboard navigation lights from above the bridge to below it. The paint job appears identical to the previous picture, but was a little different from the Arkansan picture on

This picture was labeled taken on September 13th, 1941 in Seattle, Washington, but Arkansan was attacked in Port Suez on the 11th, so I believe it was taken the previous year, in 1940. September would make sense, and would be in line with her Intercoastal schedule. Her color scheme in the picture was fairly typical for merchants during the pre-war period; red keel, black hull, white superstructure, and a colorful funnel. American-Hawaiian's funnel colors were a buff or pale yellow with a wide royal blue band. The company's flag was blue with a white "A-H" in block letters. Her masts don't look white, and look closer to the lighter color on her funnel. 

Another change American-Hawaiian made was to relocate the First Officer's (Chief Mate's) cabin from the boat deck where the Captain was berthed to the main, or shelter deck. These were the cabins originally designed for the ship's purser, who I assume moved to another open cabin on the shelter deck. According to former Arkansan officer Rodman Dickie:

"The Captain was the only occupant of the forward end of the boat deck. There were three spare rooms on that deck. The coastwise pilot (Captain Bamforth) used one. I was told that sometimes a passenger or two were carried or a company official. No doubt A-H moved the Chief Mate down to the main deck level as A-H wanted their mates to be working mates; rig cargo lights, run up and down hold ladders, keep cargo plans while loading, communicate with hatch bosses, watch moving cargo gear, mooring lines and many etc's."

Between the start of hostilities in Europe in September of 1939 and America officially joining the war in December of 1941 American ships were considered neutral vessels. Like other neutral countries many would have one or more large flags painted on the side of the ship to help identify it to belligerents. In some cases the name of the ship, shipping line, or country (i.e.; U.S.A.) was also painted in large white letters. Neutral vessels were also required to sail with their lights on at night and on a non-evasive course. I was curious whether Arkansan was ever painted in this manner. My research to date seems to indicate that this practice of painting flags, etc. on the hulls was not mandated by the government, and was a voluntary modification done by the owners and perhaps in some cases ordered by the captains themselves. As a result there does not appear to have been any "standard". I ran into an intriguing statement concerning flags on American-Hawaiian ships while reading "Iron Jaw: A Skipper Tells His Story - Captain Charles N. Bamforth (1895-1975)" (see Credits and Tools for more information on the book). On page 244 of the book, Bamforth describes returning to work in New York in September of 1939 after a two week vacation, and states: 

"Back on the job I found that the company had ordered crews to paint out the flags that had just been put on the sides of our company's ships. There had been controversy over the wisdom of having our ships so clearly identified." 

This seems to indicate that American-Hawaiian either overruled their captains, or reversed their own policy. Either way, it seems unlikely Arkansan ever sailed with these additional markings. Assuming the 1939 and 1940 schedules were the same, she would have been on her voyage back to the West Coast when the controversy occurred.

After hostilities started most merchant ships were painted a medium gray all over, and initially I had no documentation to show whether this was done by the time she was sunk or not. That was before I met Captain Rodman L. Dickie, former officer aboard the Arkansan, who I'll detail later in the 'Suez Incident' section below. Capt. Dickie was able to confirm for me that Arkansan was not re-painted before leaving New York for Suez, but as a result of the Suez incident she was partially painted there as you'll read.

Images created by Eric Stone

At one time I was concerned with the age of the Arkansan. The picture of her on makes her look pretty run down. Not knowing very much about ships, 21 years old seemed old to me and wondered whether that could have been a factor in the sinking. Upon further investigation I found that many of the ship's that were that age during the war, and survived (including two of her sister ships) went on for another twenty plus years of service before they were retired and scrapped.

As Capt. Dickie wrote about Arkansan in his as yet unpublished memoir: "Not much to look at, but a reliable old workhorse of the pre-World War II era."

After the war, in 1948, the liberty ship James D. Trask was acquired by Mount Steamship Corp. (an American-Hawaiian subsidiary) and briefly renamed Arkansan. The following year ownership was transferred to the parent company, and then in 1950 she was sold to Pantransit Steamship Co. and renamed Oregonian after another loss from the war. After several more changes in ownership she was eventually scrapped in Mukaishima, Japan in 1967.

The American-Hawaiian Steamship Company was acquired in a hostile takeover by billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig in 1955, who soon sold off the remaining ships and assets and eventually liquidated what was left in 1968 so I have no idea at this time what may have happened to any documentation they may have had.

City of Baltimore Incident

On the evening of July 29th, 1937 Arkansan was about to depart Chesapeake Bay when Master Jones noticed the nearby Chesapeake Steamship Company’s excursion steamer City of Baltimore (Not to be confused with the vessel by the same name operated by The Baltimore Mail Steamship Company) was on fire and raced to the rescue.

City of Baltimore lithograph courtesy of the Mariner's Museum

As described by reporter Jerry MacMullen in his article ‘BLAZING STEAMER LEAVES MARKS IN ARKANSAN’S SIDE’ – 

Struck by a steamer ablaze from stem to stern – a steamer heading aimlessly about Chesapeake Bay, and whose frantic people she was trying to rescue – was the experience of the American-Hawaiian’s big freighter Arkansas [sic], which arrived here yesterday afternoon.

Dented plates in the Arkansan’s starboard side told their own tale of her encounter with the flaming City of Baltimore, in which five persons perished [Note: later downgraded to three] the evening of July 29. The Arkansan, San Diego bound from New London, Conn. was only some 1500 feet from the City of Baltimore when the latter vessel burst into flames, and Capt.Paul Jones immediately headed for the doomed ship, now out of control and belching sheets of flame and smoke. Six minutes from the time the alarm was given, the Arkansan was close alongside, and one of her boats in charge of Fourth Officer F. Van Syckle of San Francisco, was in the water, seeking survivors who had jumped from the flaming excursion steamer. Five of those saved owe their lives to the alertness and daring of the Arkansan’s officers.

So close to the City of Baltimore did the Arkansan go that they could clearly see the terror-stricken faces of those huddled in the bow. Then, in some unknown manner, the burning vessel took a sheer toward them. Quick orders to the helmsman – jangling of bells below! The Arkansan tried to get out of her way, but was unsuccessful. The City of Baltimore crashed into her starboard side, almost below the bridge. The Arkansan’s huge bulk reeled from the blow, and the City of Baltimore slid away, to run aground on a mud bank.

Her rescue work ended – the bay now was swarming with smaller craft – the Arkansan went on to Norfolk. Here the inspectors ordered that a cement patch be placed behind the damaged plates before she was allowed to proceed to the west coast.

Quick work was made of the Arkansan’s cargo here. It was 4:30 in the afternoon when Capt. H.C. Meriwether, port pilot, put her alongside Pier 1, and she was reported as sailing at 10 for the north.

The City of Baltimore was a 297-1/2 foot long excursion steamer operated by the Chesapeake Steamship Company. There were 96 people aboard and according to modern day reporter Rafael Alvarez of the Baltimore Sun

The fire erupted about an hour out of Baltimore, off Anne Arundel County near Seven Mile Knoll and Bodkin Creek. Within three minutes, all of the steamship City of Baltimore was ablaze and passengers on a Summer of 1937 cruise down the Chesapeake were leaping into the bay. Most of the passengers were in the salon or the dining room when the fire was discovered by a 21-year-old kitchen helper named James Johnson. Buckets of galley water had no effect.

Alvarez also stated; 

An exact cause was never established, but investigators believed a lighted cigar or cigarette got caught under a load of 100-pound bags of sugar before the City of Baltimore left the Chesapeake Lines' Pier 19 terminal on Light Street. The ship's captain, Charles O. Brooks, had his license suspended because he failed to immediately sound a general alarm and was lax in getting passengers into lifeboats. Second Engineer Albert Neil was also found guilty of negligence for not using all available pumps to bring water on the fire. By midnight, the City of Baltimore lay grounded in 13 feet of water some 500 feet east of Bodkin Point, its hull still burning.” She burned to the waterline and you can see old videos taken at the time here.

The smoldering wreck of the City of Baltimore the following day. The only recognizable feature is her funnel surrounded by four ventilators. Original caption: "Here is the mass of twisted steel which was left after fire swept the ship, City of Baltimore, near Bodkin Point, Maryland, endangering the lives of nearly one hundred persons. Firemen are shown yesterday soaking the hulk with great streams of water. Two persons were known dead, two others were missing, while several person were injured. From 'The Leader-Republican' newspaper of Gloversville and Johnstown, NY via the New York State Digital Library at 

Knoxville City Incident

On the morning of September 19th, 1937, Arkansan, under the command of Paul Jones, entered San Pedro Harbor (Los Angeles) and proceeded slowly along a jetty. Suddenly they spotted another vessel, the Isthmian Lines Knoxville City, appear from a behind a group of anchored vessels moving in their direction at high speed. There was no time to react, and the Knoxville City sliced into the port bow of Arkansan, causing a massive amount of damage to both vessels. According to a newspaper article at the time, damage to the Arkansan was estimated at $100,000.00, and to the Knoxville at $60,000.00. Beyond the physical damage to each vessel there was also the matter of their cargo, both vessels being fully loaded.

Arkansan collision damage after tugs had towed her to the pier for unloading. Photo courtesy of the Blackett family.

It seemed like a pretty straightforward affair, excessive speed by the Knoxville City’s Master George Shanahan in the confines of the harbor resulted in the collision. Shanahan didn’t own up to his error, however, and made what would later be determined to be false claims about his own behavior and that of Jones. The whole affair ended up in the courts with everyone suing everyone else, and would last into the early 1940’s. Isthmian and Shanahan appear to have lost the initial case, then lost again on appeal on April 12, 1940 in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge William Denman presiding.

In the press the collision was described as follows: 

Colliding with a rending crash heard throughout the San Pedro waterfront, two freighters were badly damaged yesterday in the main ship channel of Los Angeles Harbor. All hands aboard both vessels escaped death or injury, and managed to dock their craft before inrushing water waterlogged the vessels.

Upper hull damage looking from slightly aft (left image) and straight on (right image). Note rivets in hull and severe amount of tearing of hull plates. Also note King Post structure passing through deck levels and 'ARKANSAN' name folded under. Photos courtesy of the Blackett family.

The ships are the Isthmian Line freighter Knoxville City, 3450 tons, bound for Yokohama, and the American-Hawaiian freighter Arkansan, 4319 net tons, from San Francisco. The collision occurred at sunrise almost exactly in the middle of the 2200 foot fairway entrance between the two Los Angeles Harbor breakwaters. The weather was clear.

Both ships were making approximately twelve knots [Note: not true, Knoxville City was making 12 knots (Shanahan said 8 knots), but Arkansan had already reduced speed to 3-4 knots] and approached on a collision course for several hundred yards without apparent attempts to change course or alter speed, eyewitnesses said [also not true based on evidence submitted in court].

Lower hull damage viewed from slightly forward (left image) and slightly aft (right image). Note water still draining from bottom of rupture and cargo visible. Photos courtesy of the Blackett family.

Two fortunate factors contributed to the fact that no lives were lost or injuries caused to the crews, waterfront observers said. One was that the crews’ quarters are located midships instead of in the bows. The other was that no one was on duty on the forecastle where full force of the impact was felt.

The Knoxville City’s sharp prow knifed through the port bow of the Arkansan, ripping and buckling huge steel plates and hull frames in a space thirty feet high and twenty feet wide. As the Knoxville City’s bow was withdrawn from the gapping hole, water poured into the Arkansan’s forward holds so rapidly that within a few minutes she had settled deeply by the bow.

Damage to the Knoxville City's bow. Photo courtesy of the Blackett family.

The Knoxville City also was leaking so badly it was believed she must be dry docked for repairs before officials will permit her to resume her trip to the Orient. The prompt arrival of tugs, which towed the Arkansan to a Long Beach wharf for discharge of cargo, prevented the ship from sinking in the harbor. The Knoxville City also was docked by tugs. Neither Capt. Paul R. Jones of the Arkansan nor Capt. George Shanahan of the Knoxville City would comment on cause of the crash.

As Judge Denman would state in his decision; 

This is a proceeding in admiralty in which are consolidated appeals from three decrees all based on a holding that the steamer Knoxville City was solely in fault for a collision with the steamer Arkansan. The collision was the result of maneuvers by the Knoxville City in navigating from her anchorage in the outer harbor of San Pedro to proceed to sea through the westerly opening of the San Pedro jetty and by the Arkansan which was steaming to pass through the opening to enter the harbor. The colliding point was inside the harbor to the northerly of the opening.

The Isthmian Steamship Company, owner of the Knoxville City, has three appeals, one from an interlocutory decree in favor of the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company, owner of the Arkansan; one from a final decree dismissing its libel against the Arkansan; and a third from an interlocutory decree in favor of libelants Aiken Country Stores and others owning cargo on the Arkansan, for its damage as a result of the collision. The only questions raised by the appeals are concerning claimed errors in navigation on the part of each of the steamers.

The testimony was given in part at the hearing and in part by depositions. The depositions exceeded the number of viva voce witnesses, but the two principal witnesses, the captains on each steamship, were heard by the court.

Damage to the Arkansan, looking straight out from upper tween deck (left image) and looking straight up at the folder and crushed 'ARKANSAN' name (right image). Note underside of shelter deck. Photos courtesy of the Blackett family.

The master of the Knoxville City in his testimony at the inquiry before the federal investigating body, the "B" board of the United States Steamship Inspection Service, gave an account of ship movements just before the collision highly favorable to his vessel. Their detail and significance are later considered. None of these movements occurred, as was shown by the Knoxville City's Sperry gyroscope recorder. His second officer then on the bridge testified before the B board to the identical non-existent maneuvers. Likewise did the helmsman both as to the orders given to him and executed by him. Other testimony before the B board fitted into the helpful misrepresentation. Obviously, such conduct throws doubt upon all the ship's nonmechanical records. There is no suggestion that any proctor participated in what occurred before the inspectors.

In the district court the proctors for the Knoxville City, faced with the alternative embarrassments, not infrequent in admiralty practice, of the strong inferences against the ship if those concerned in her navigation are not produced and of offering witnesses who have so testified in the federal administrative proceeding investigating the collision, chose the latter course. They attempted to show by other testimony that the claimed actual maneuvers, some of which her officers had misrepresented to the inspectors, demonstrated that the Arkansan was solely in fault.

We feel that the lower court was fully justified in rejecting the contentions of the witnesses from the Knoxville City. It considered the other evidence and properly accepted as true the testimony it heard from the captain of the Arkansan. This finds support in the Arkansan's log and in other viva voce testimony from witnesses not connected with either vessel, though differing from the testimony of other such witnesses.”

You can find a full transcript of the appeals verdict here.

Regardless of the lengthy legal proceedings, the false accusations by Master Shanahan against Master Jones, and Shanahan’s eventual guilt, neither career seems to have been affected by the incident. Repairs to each vessel were completed, and everyone moved on, each man remaining in command of their respective vessels.

Workers on scaffolding repairing Arkansan's hull with a pneumatic riveter. Photo courtesy of the Blackett family.

Looking at the photos of the damage, one can imagine the amount of damage that two torpedoes packed with over 600lbs. of high explosive had on Arkansan.

In an interesting coincidence, less than five years later both the Arkansan and Knoxville City, still commanded by Jones and Shanahan respectively, were sunk by U-boats in the Caribbean within days of each other. Shanahan’s Knoxville City was sunk June 2nd, 1942 with torpedoes and gunfire by U-158 (Erwin Rostin) about 50 miles southeast of Cape Corrientes, Cuba. Arkansan, of course, was sunk June 15th, 1942 by U-126 (Ernst Bauer) as described in the rest of this site.

Isthmian Lines steamer SS Knoxville City, May 10th, 1936. Photograph by Walter E. Frost, Ref. Code CVA 447-2383.2. Copyright City of Vancouver Archives 

Master George Phillip Shanahan survived the U-Boat attack and apparently the war, later serving on the Isthmian vessels Gutzon Borglum and Argonaut. Shanahan had been born in Ireland in 1879 and immigrated to the United States in 1902, becoming a citizen in 1915. According to his great nephew; 

"Captain Shanahan retired to Arkansas in 1946 before returning to his hometown of Durrus, Co Cork, Ireland.where he died on 14 Jun 1958."

Special thanks to the Blackett family for sharing their father's (Geoffrey Blackett) photos and newspaper clippings of the Knoxville City/Arkansan collision.

Suez Incident

As I mentioned on the 'Bernard Bio' page, I ran across an interesting piece of "trivia" years ago while searching for more information on the Arkansan. On the Newspaper Archive site I found that the Arkansan was previously damaged on September 11th, 1941 while in Suez, Egypt. This was during a German Luftwaffe bombing raid on the port. She was one of several ships that were in Suez re-supplying British forces in Egypt that were under extreme pressure from the Germans at this stage of the war in North Africa. The famed Afrika Korps commanded by General Erwin Rommel had pushed the British across North Africa where the British were putting up a last stand of sorts West of Cairo, Egypt.

I had no idea how interesting and non-trivial this story was until just recently. In fact, I wasn't even sure this was the same ship at first. Ships are traded all the time, and it's not unusual to have two or more ships with the same name in service around the world at any given time. Add to that the confusion caused by the names being recycled for newer ships replacing their obsolete predecessors.

From an Associated Press report I found in the Sunday, September 14th 1941 edition of The Helena Independent, Helena Montana of all places, I was able to find details on the Arkansan's sailing dates, her crew, as well as the damage. The sailing dates are noted on Bernard's page. Her crew at the time of the attack was listed as 38, which was comprised of 36 Americans, one Briton and one Dutchman. Their names were:

And this is where my search took an interesting twist. Shortly after launching the website I contacted Captain George W. Duffy who I met a few years ago. This was to inquire about his new book 'Ambushed under the Southern Cross' and ask him some questions about the Mass Nautical School. George had graduated there 10 years after Bernard had. I also invited Capt. Duffy to visit my site and let me know what he thought. While reviewing the site he comes across the crew list above and two names jump out at him: Rodman L. Dickie and John G. (aka: Jocko) Carlson. As it turns out George knows both of these men and they are both living here in New England. George and Rodman have been friends for some sixty years and George had no idea Rodman was aboard the Arkansan when she was bombed. George being George, he immediately got to work trying to organize a meeting. As luck would have it George and Rodman were having a regularly scheduled luncheon with a group of other former Merchant Mariners the following week and George cordially invited me and my wife as guests.

Starboard Bridge Wing of the SS Arkansan showing life ring. Man standing is believed to be John "Jocko" Carlson, 4th Mate on Arkansan's voyage to Suez. Photo courtesy of Rodman L. Dickie.

Needless to say we had a great time. As I mentioned in the section above, Rodman has been working on a book of his own, detailing his experiences aboard the Arkansan as well as subsequent action aboard the American-Hawaiian SS Samuel Chase as part of the infamous Convoy PQ-17 to Russia.

Rodman has generously permitted me to include a summary of his time aboard the Arkansan, which I present here:

"When Arkansan was on her way back to New York from the West coast they received word that the Arkansan had been chartered to the US Government to load “lend-lease” cargo. When they arrived in New York they found that most of the cargo was unknown except for a few identifiable vehicles and four twin-engine bombers. The aircraft were placed on top of Arkansan’s hatches, wheels chocked and lashed down to her decks. Soon after loading they found out they were headed for the Middle East.

Arkansan left New York for Cape Town South Africa on July 19th, 1941. Once there they dropped off a sick crew member (Englishman James McKee - diabetic issues), refueled and sailed within a few hours. They rounded the Cape of Good Hope, past Port Elizabeth, then Durbin, and then North past Madagascar.

They arrived in Port Sudan on September 5th. The port arranged to have an ancient steam powered crane on a barge pulled up alongside the Arkansan the next day to unload the aircraft. The first plane was lifted from Hatch #3, but the sling broke and the plane belly-flopped back down onto the deck. Luckily, no one was injured, and the Arkansan apparently sustained no serious damage. The bomber was ruined but at least it could be salvaged for spare parts. The other three planes were unloaded successfully once the new wire sling was rigged up. Arkansan left Port Sudan on September 8th for Port Tawfik, Suez, Egypt. The planes they had unloaded the day before flew over them and dipped their wings in thanks.

When they arrived in Port Tawfik they were warned about a possible air raid that night. It sounded like a routine event. The sirens sounded long after nightfall. 3rd Mate Dickie, Capt. Jones and seaman Joe Martin were on the open port bridge wing during the attack. There they caught an occasional glimpse of one the German planes in the search lights, watched the ack-ack (anti-aircraft fire) rise up, and the bombs falling and exploded throughout the port. Then, a cluster of 3 bombs bracketed the Arkansan. 2 exploded on the solid quay on their starboard side, and one exploded on the port side just when it made contact with the water. Shrapnel from this last bomb pierced the port side of the hull above the water line in several places. Joe Martin was slightly wounded on his hand, and they left to get him medical attention. It was a very close call for all three men. A repair gang patched the holes in the port side of the number 3 hold the next day.

Arkansan’s pre-war white Deck House stood out like a beacon during the raid. One hundred painters were hired the next day to paint all the white areas gray. The crew had a day or two to explore, some of them visiting the pyramids, and then Arkansan departed for India in ballast. They sailed past Mecca and made a brief stop at the Port of Aden for refueling. From there they continued Southeast and went through the passage between Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Southern tip of India. Next they docked at the port of Vizagapatam and loaded 3000 tons of Chromite ore. They planned to fill the ship with jute (bales of burlap) at Calcutta.

When they finally reached Calcutta no mooring was available, so they had to tie up to a large buoy. The crew had to disconnect the anchor and move about 90 feet of anchor chain to do this. Very difficult work, as each link weighed nearly 50 pounds. The next day when a dock opened up they had to reverse the whole process. As they were finishing, the anchor chain was accidentally dragged over Chief Mate Lewis’ feet, causing serious injury and requiring immediate hospitalization."

This last paragraph becomes the key to why Bernard ended up on the Arkansan. Bernard came on board in Calcutta to replace the injured Lewis. He transferred over from the Hawaiian, as detailed on the 'Bernard Bio' page.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dickie doesn’t remember Bernard at all. He had picked up a case of dysentery in Egypt, and while he managed to stand all his watches, he spent the rest of his time in his cabin.

George B. Eaton was added as 4th Asst. Engineer in Calcutta October 18th, 1941, followed by Bernard as Chief Mate on October 20th. Once I was able to locate a crew list for the Arkansan on the voyage she was lost on, I was able to determine only 7 men stayed with Arkansan after this voyage:

I have updated the crew list above with the positions they served based on information provided by Rodman, and have also updated the map below to include the extra details and ports of call from Rodman's story.

The same evening that the Arkansan is bombed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gives one of his most famous in a series of "fireside chats" over the radio to the American people. It concerned the attack on the USS Greer, an American destroyer that was fired upon by a German U-Boat off Iceland, as well as numerous other attacks on neutral American and Panamanian shipping, including the Robin Moor, Sessa, and Steel Seafarer. It builds the case for protecting our vessels by force if necessary and the freedom of the seas in general from an increasingly aggressive foe. It would informally become known as the "rattlesnake speech" for the analogy Roosevelt draws between the German U-Boat and a dangerous serpent that needs to be crushed before it can do harm. You can read a full transcript of the speech here and even listen to a 2 minute video/audio clip of the recording here.

The Steel Seafarer was another American ship that was traveling to Suez with supplies for the British. It was sunk by a German bomber equipped with torpedoes on the evening of September 5th in the Red Sea, while Arkansan was docked in Port Sudan, and along the route Arkansan would travel to Suez. I have noted the location on the map above with a yellow symbol.

As far as the newspaper article of the Suez attack, it states; 

"While the legation's communication spoke of the missiles striking the Arkansan as "shell fragments" officials here said the official who sent the message was not a military man and concluded that the vessel might have-been hit by fragments from a bomb, an anti-aircraft shell, an aerial torpedo, or from a shell fired by a cannon-carrying plane." They went on to say it was substantial enough to "pierce her plates".

From another article I discovered that two of the crew were injured slightly, although their names were not provided. I now know from the crew list that Rodman provided these were Able Bodied Seamen Joe Martin and Bill Lewis. Yet another search uncovered a lawsuit by Lewis charging that Captain Jones and American-Hawaiian were liable for his injuries because the ship was blacked out, and alleged that if the American flagged ship had only had its lights on to identify it as a "neutral", then it would not have been targeted. A charge the judge found laughable and so do I. Joe stayed on for the voyage home, but Bill Lewis was discharged in Suez. He was replaced by John Paenlo in Capetown on November 15th, 1941.

The Suez attack was carried out by the Luftwaffe's X Fliegerkorps Division, Unit III. / LG 1 operating from Derna in the eastern desert of Libya, known as Cyrenaica (see red symbol on map above). X Fliegerkorps was commanded by Lieutenant-General Hans Ferdinand Geisler at this time. The planes involved were most likely Junkers JU-88 A-4/Tropical.

I also looked into the type of planes that Arkansan delivered to Port Sudan. Rodman could not recall which type, but thought perhaps B-25 Mitchells. However, a little research on my part discovered those weren't given to the British until a year later. After looking at all the other American aircraft that would fit the "twin-engine bomber" description, the Douglas DB-7/Boston III was my primary candidate. Again, while reading "Iron Jaw: A Skipper Tells His Story - Captain Charles N. Bamforth (1895-1975)" (see Credits and Tools for more information on the book) I found another clue. On page 266, Bamforth talks about his outbound voyage that following March on the Honolulan and states: 

"March 30, with the crew doing repairs to the running rigging aloft, one of them accidentally dropped a marlin spike, and it went through one of the nine partially-assembled Boston Bombers on deck." and then later "On the seventh we docked and started discharging the nine Boston Bombers via a floating crane and then discharged grain to the dock." 

He then goes on to tell an amusing story about a little graffiti performed on the planes by one of the crew members. Again, no guarantee, but an example that another American-Hawaiian ship delivered Douglas Bostons from New York to British forces in the Middle East around the same time.

As a result of the Suez attack, the Arkansan was thrust into another conflict, this one political, as there was much impassioned debate at this time as to whether we should arm our merchant ships to protect them. I came across several newspaper articles citing the Arkansan attack as further evidence that we needed to arm and defend our ships: