M. S. Bloemfontein

M. S. Bloemfontein

Jacques Jansen van Vuuren
Jacques Jansen van Vuuren

May 25th, 2009, 8:56 am #1

I've been following the career of the motorship Bloemfontein.(named after my home town in South Africa) She was built in 1934 as a passenger/cargo liner for the Holland Africa Line, making regular sailings from Europe to Southern Africa. I have record of voyages on this run up to March 1939 but after that things got blurry. She was reported somewhere to be working in the East Indies during 1940 and I know that she was leased to the U.S. Army sometime towards the end of 1941.
On December 3rd 1942, the Bloemfontein left San Diego with 4000 Marines on board bound for Espritu Santo. The voyage was apparently less than memorable but what I found amusing is that the Marines from VMD-154, in their newsletter of April 2000 referred to her as a "converted ice breaker"! Fact is that she had a Maierform bow - built for improved speed and seaworthiness but not for breaking ice.
My questions follow:
1. It is not likely that her voyages to South Africa ended in March 1939. Has anyone got any information about her career from that date onwards?
2. The website ww2pacific.com places her in the company of the "Pensacola Convoy",at sea and passing through the Phoenix Islands on December 7th 1941. If the Pensacola Convoy were on their way to Manila, what were they doing so far south?
Regards,
Jacques.
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Nelson
Nelson

May 25th, 2009, 2:14 pm #2

Jacques,

The short version of events is this:

MS BLOEMFONTEIN was part of a convoy of eight vessels sailing for Manila ("Plum"), escorted by heavy cruiser USS PENSACOLA (CA 24). These ships consisted of two naval transports, two U.S. Army transports, three chartered merchantmen (including BLOEMFONTEIN), and the former gunboat NIAGARA (PG 52), now an auxiliary. The army transports and one navy transport carried four battalions of field artillery, standard armament 48 modernized French 75mm guns, as well as 48 non-organic (without gun crews), high-speeded British 75mm guns (M1917AI), a number of A-24 dive bombers, and a great many USAAF personnel, all intended to augment the Philippines garrison. The second navy transport carried replacements and naval supplies for various navy and marine insular outposts in the mid-Pacific Ocean and in the Philippines. The merchant vessels were transporting military gear of various kinds and a substantial amount of drummed gasoline and lubricants.

What became known as the Pensacola convoy sailed from the Hawaiian Islands on November 29, 1941; it was in mid-ocean when receiving word of the air attack on Pearl Harbor. After some indecision, the convoy was diverted to Australia. It arrived at Suva in the Fiji Islands on December 13 and departed there, minus NIAGARA, the following day. The convoy, now additionally escorted by Australian warships, arrived Brisbane on December 22.

BLOEMFONTEIN and a few other vessels originally with the Pensacola convoy stood out from Brisbane in late December and reached Darwin on January 1, 1942. She left Darwin on January 5, carrying air force personnel, one artillery unit--2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery (formerly Texas National Guard, now federalized)--its 12 organic artillery pieces, and either 45 or 48 non-organic 75mm guns (original records differ). BLOEMFONTEIN arrived Soerabaja on January 11, 1942. The artillery battalion was sent to Singosari Airfield in the mountains near Malang, there both to defend the airfield and to otherwise assist the 19th Bombardment Group (B-17 aircraft). Eventually the battalion, after seeing some combat, was captured with other Allied soldiery and put into PW camp, suffering an appreciable number of deaths therefrom by war's end.

Nelson
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Jacques
Jacques

May 25th, 2009, 3:39 pm #3

Thanks Nelson,
This confirms that she did make it all the way to Surabaya but the question remains:If the Pensacola Convoy was making for Manila, why the detour via the Phoenix Islands? Surely going this far south would have added days,if not weeks to the voyage?
Regards,
Jacques
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Felix
Felix

May 25th, 2009, 5:15 pm #4

That answer would go to the root of the question, why were they diverted in the first place? I think Nelson described the voyage fairly. From Hawaii, by way of Suva to Brisbane. The Phoenix Island would lie more or less in the path enroute to Suva. The reasoning behind the diversion order seems unclear. Perhaps they expected submarine or raiding activity between Hawaii and the Philipines.
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Nelson
Nelson

May 25th, 2009, 5:17 pm #5

Thanks Nelson,
This confirms that she did make it all the way to Surabaya but the question remains:If the Pensacola Convoy was making for Manila, why the detour via the Phoenix Islands? Surely going this far south would have added days,if not weeks to the voyage?
Regards,
Jacques
Jacques,

In the months and weeks before the coming of war in the Pacific, the U.S. ran a number of escorted convoys to Manila in order to reinforce its army and navy elements there, but primarily the army's garrison in the Philippines. The U.S. Army fervently hoped for war to be delayed long enough so that it could build up sufficient reinforcements in order to mount a fierce defense, at least of the Island of Luzon.

The U.S. Navy had the final word in the routing of these cruiser-escorted convoys (though with consultation with the army, to be sure), and in so doing attempted not to display predictable habits in their sailings. Some convoys were routed directly west, past the U.S. possession of Guam in the Marianas Islands. For example, the convoy just prior to the Pensacola convoy, escorted by light cruiser USS BOISE (CL 47), ran the Mandates gauntlet, arriving just before the outbreak of war. But as time approached that ignition point, other convoys and more and more merchantmen sailing independently were sent by the southern route: SW and W to and through Torres Strait between Cape York, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, continuing west, and lastly north to Manila Bay. The Pensacola convoy was slated to take that southern route, thus its presence among the Phoenix Islands, and it was not that much of a stretch to be diverted to Brisbane (with the approval of the Australians, of course, but one assumes that was readily given, considering the speed and proximity of the Japanese advance).

Nelson
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Joined: January 1st, 2008, 10:52 am

May 28th, 2009, 10:50 am #6

I've been following the career of the motorship Bloemfontein.(named after my home town in South Africa) She was built in 1934 as a passenger/cargo liner for the Holland Africa Line, making regular sailings from Europe to Southern Africa. I have record of voyages on this run up to March 1939 but after that things got blurry. She was reported somewhere to be working in the East Indies during 1940 and I know that she was leased to the U.S. Army sometime towards the end of 1941.
On December 3rd 1942, the Bloemfontein left San Diego with 4000 Marines on board bound for Espritu Santo. The voyage was apparently less than memorable but what I found amusing is that the Marines from VMD-154, in their newsletter of April 2000 referred to her as a "converted ice breaker"! Fact is that she had a Maierform bow - built for improved speed and seaworthiness but not for breaking ice.
My questions follow:
1. It is not likely that her voyages to South Africa ended in March 1939. Has anyone got any information about her career from that date onwards?
2. The website ww2pacific.com places her in the company of the "Pensacola Convoy",at sea and passing through the Phoenix Islands on December 7th 1941. If the Pensacola Convoy were on their way to Manila, what were they doing so far south?
Regards,
Jacques.
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Nelson
Nelson

May 28th, 2009, 4:34 pm #7

Peter,

The information on BLOEMFONTEIN is most useful, for certain. I'm able to speak only for the period just prewar and immediately after the commencement of hostilities, but the history has a couple of serious errors, IMO. Note that the week's voyage commencing November 21, 1941, has no destination given (although it's clear from the next line down that the destination was Honolulu). I think, however, that absence is the cause for the subsequent confusion. The Honolulu-to-Darwin voyage, specified as "Independent", is the double-error, as BLOEMFONTEIN was of course part of the Pensacola convoy, which did not sail to Darwin, but rather to Brisbane, arriving there December 22, 1941. Then we--or more to the point, I--get into murkier water.

I am in no manner an authority on maritime law, but before the outbreak of the actual shooting war, BLOEMFONTEIN was--I believe--under simple bare-boat charter to carry military equipment to Manila. With the subsequent outbreak of war and the convoy's diversion to Brisbane, the rules under which she sailed changed. The Americans wanted her to participate in a smaller convoy of fast ships from Brisbane to Manila Bay to succor the American forces fighting on Luzon, but the ship's captain protested and sought counsel from the government in Java. In consequence she sailed late from Brisbane, catching up with the smaller convoy after it had been diverted to Darwin on the order of Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, who thought the entire notion a suicide effort, given the IJN's command of sea and air around and over most of the Philippines. [Brett would be strongly criticized by some for this absolutely correct decision, and eventually would be shelved by the inimitable MacArthur as his air chief.]

After BLOEMFONTEIN had arrived at Darwin, there apparently was further argument about who and what could be unloaded there. Some have suggested that 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, intended with its organic armament, and the non-organic 45 or 48 British-style 75mm guns, to go to Luzon, was hijacked to Java for political purposes. I don't buy this theory at present, because if the Yanks really wanted to off-load this battalion at Darwin, they would have done so pronto, captain's protests or no. Also aboard BLOEMFONTEIN was a field artillery brigade headquarters of 100+ men, commanded by soon-to-be Colonel Albert Searle, around which a full brigade was to be built once this nucleus had reached Luzon. The idea that the battalion and the extra field guns were initially meant to defend Java is not true either, as the intention was to transship them to the Philippines by smaller coastal (inter-island) steamers--a notion the Americans were quickly disabused of once they had arrived in Java, only to learn those vessels were simply not available for such a forlorn-hope venture.

But back to BLOEMFONTEIN, the correct version of events is (a) in convoy, Honolulu to Brisbane; (b) partly independent, partly in convoy, Brisbane to Darwin; (c) in convoy, Darwin to Soerabaja. Thereafter--I THINK--she was fully leased to the United States, and no more appeals to or interventions by the Dutch government-in-exile.

I WELCOME corrections to any errors or misinterpretations in the account given above.

Nelson
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Jacques
Jacques

May 28th, 2009, 6:14 pm #8

Thanks Peter,
Your website information is very helpful.I found it interesting that up to 1943, around 50% of U.S.troops were transported by Dutch vessels - Is my understanding correct?
The convoy information, although incomplete shows that the Bloemfontein certainly got around - from Pearl Harbour shortly before the war to Java,the Solomons,the Philipines,the Marianas and even Iwo Jima before ending the war back in Pearl harbour on VJ Day.
The wartime picture show the Bloemfontein's forward armament.
Any idea on how she would have been armed?
Jacques
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Wynnum B Graham
Wynnum B Graham

May 29th, 2009, 8:04 am #9

Peter,

The information on BLOEMFONTEIN is most useful, for certain. I'm able to speak only for the period just prewar and immediately after the commencement of hostilities, but the history has a couple of serious errors, IMO. Note that the week's voyage commencing November 21, 1941, has no destination given (although it's clear from the next line down that the destination was Honolulu). I think, however, that absence is the cause for the subsequent confusion. The Honolulu-to-Darwin voyage, specified as "Independent", is the double-error, as BLOEMFONTEIN was of course part of the Pensacola convoy, which did not sail to Darwin, but rather to Brisbane, arriving there December 22, 1941. Then we--or more to the point, I--get into murkier water.

I am in no manner an authority on maritime law, but before the outbreak of the actual shooting war, BLOEMFONTEIN was--I believe--under simple bare-boat charter to carry military equipment to Manila. With the subsequent outbreak of war and the convoy's diversion to Brisbane, the rules under which she sailed changed. The Americans wanted her to participate in a smaller convoy of fast ships from Brisbane to Manila Bay to succor the American forces fighting on Luzon, but the ship's captain protested and sought counsel from the government in Java. In consequence she sailed late from Brisbane, catching up with the smaller convoy after it had been diverted to Darwin on the order of Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, who thought the entire notion a suicide effort, given the IJN's command of sea and air around and over most of the Philippines. [Brett would be strongly criticized by some for this absolutely correct decision, and eventually would be shelved by the inimitable MacArthur as his air chief.]

After BLOEMFONTEIN had arrived at Darwin, there apparently was further argument about who and what could be unloaded there. Some have suggested that 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, intended with its organic armament, and the non-organic 45 or 48 British-style 75mm guns, to go to Luzon, was hijacked to Java for political purposes. I don't buy this theory at present, because if the Yanks really wanted to off-load this battalion at Darwin, they would have done so pronto, captain's protests or no. Also aboard BLOEMFONTEIN was a field artillery brigade headquarters of 100+ men, commanded by soon-to-be Colonel Albert Searle, around which a full brigade was to be built once this nucleus had reached Luzon. The idea that the battalion and the extra field guns were initially meant to defend Java is not true either, as the intention was to transship them to the Philippines by smaller coastal (inter-island) steamers--a notion the Americans were quickly disabused of once they had arrived in Java, only to learn those vessels were simply not available for such a forlorn-hope venture.

But back to BLOEMFONTEIN, the correct version of events is (a) in convoy, Honolulu to Brisbane; (b) partly independent, partly in convoy, Brisbane to Darwin; (c) in convoy, Darwin to Soerabaja. Thereafter--I THINK--she was fully leased to the United States, and no more appeals to or interventions by the Dutch government-in-exile.

I WELCOME corrections to any errors or misinterpretations in the account given above.

Nelson
Nelson, a bit extra as you ask
Disclaimer this is how I have it - I have read references in many different books, and not too many agree on very many things.

After Brisbane, PENSACOLA escorted some (only MEIGS and CHAUMONT of the original eight were in this convoy) ships to Torres Strait, turned back at Thursday Island, and escort duties were taken over by ;
Houston cruiser
Peary destroyer, four funnel.
Langley seaplane tender.
This convoy now goes to Darwin, having also been joined by BLOEMFONTEIN & HOLBROOK

Back to Brisbane - -
REPUBLIC went from Brisbane to Sydney, didnt go to north 26th Art Brigade HQ & 2nd Batt, 131st Field Artillery debarked REPUBLIC and embarked BLOEMFONTEIN.
The 147th and 148th Field Artillary Regiments were on HOLBROOK.

BLOEMFONTEIN & HOLBROOK departed Brisbane 28Dec41 independent of PENSACOLA, to take relief supplies to Philippines.
On reaching Torres Strait 01Jan42, orders were received to divert to Darwin, which they reached 03Jan42, escorted by HOUSTON.

Cheers, Wynnum.
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Nelson
Nelson

May 29th, 2009, 4:23 pm #10

Wynnum,

Thanks for yours, in which you preface your remarks with:

< I have read references in many different books, and not too many agree on very many things. >

Oh, too true. I fear I did not help either, in relying for a quick reference on Frank Fujita's 1993 FOO: A JAPANESE-AMERICAN PRISONER OF THE RISING SUN. Fujita was a sergeant with 2/131st F.A. and specifies January 1, 1942, for BLOEMFONTEIN's arrival at Darwin, whereas the deck logs for various warships indicate arrival there on January 5. More on dates as we continue. Before I go on, reliance must be placed on naval deck logs, because in one of the major tragedies of American archival history, the decision was made many years ago by some senior army officer to destroy the logs of all U.S. Army transports seeing service in WWII. That reality has been confirmed, sadly, by research specialists at both the U.S. National Archives and the Center for Military History.

< After Brisbane, PENSACOLA escorted some (only MEIGS and CHAUMONT of the original eight were in this convoy) ships to Torres Strait, turned back at Thursday Island, and escort duties were taken over by HOUSTON, PEARY, and LANGLEY. This convoy now goes to Darwin, having also been joined by BLOEMFONTEIN and HOLBROOK. >

Not according to PENSACOLA's deck log, which specifies only USS CHAUMONT and USAT HOLBROOK as the two vessels departing Brisbane on December 28, 1941 (and in addition to BLOEMFONTEIN, the two ships tapped to make the high speed--and likely suicidal--run to Manila Bay). MEIGS was NOT one of the vessels that went at that time to Darwin (and read below). On January 2, 1942, this small convoy was joined by BLOEMFONTEIN, apparently only after assurances had been made to the Dutch in Java that she would not be steaming to Manila Bay. EDSALL joined them on January 3, prior to passage through the minefield protecting the Goode Island anchorage. [I think a small island near Thursday Island, but the only Goode Island I can find in Australia is near Melbourne, so this log ID may be in error.]

HOUSTON's log for January 3, 1942, also confirms the convoy's consist as USS CHAUMONT, USAT HOLBROOK, and SS (sic) BLOEMFONTEIN. By the by, the log of no warship present reports the presence of destroyer PEARY or seaplane tender LANGLEY. Both warships were already at Darwin with the major portion of the Asiatic Fleet.

USAT MEIGS was a slow (10-knot) vessel and was therefore not selected for the run to Manila Bay. She eventually made her way to Darwin, became part of the armed convoy to reinforce Timor in February 1942, and was sunk by IJN aircraft in the devastating raid of February 19, having just returned from that unsuccessful attempt. She had been the subject of a strongly worded memo penned by the usually mild-mannered BGen Dwight Eisenhower, then deputy head of the U.S. Army's War Plans Division, who wished to know why in heaven's name the 27th Bombardment Group had been sent to Luzon on a fast transport, while their A-24 dive bombers followed on a slow boat (bad ol' MEIGS, of course part of the Pensacola convoy that never made it to Manila), when the crisis in the Far East suggested speed was of the essence in getting bomber aircraft to the Philippines. So, your source declaring that MEIGS was part of the smaller convoy to Darwin in late December 1941/early January 1942 is simply incorrect.

To complete cruiser PENSACOLA's role in all of this, she returned immediately to Brisbane, January 3-7, 1942, and turned around there at once as well, en route to Pearl Harbor on the 7th.

< REPUBLIC went from Brisbane to Sydney, didn't go to north. 26th Arty Brigade HQ & 2nd Batt, 131st Field Artillery debarked REPUBLIC and embarked BLOEMFONTEIN. The 147th and 148th Field Artillery Regiments were on HOLBROOK. >

Correct for the most part. USS (formerly USAT) REPUBLIC went into drydock on Cockatoo Island, Sydney, January 2-7, 1942, to remove extensive marine growth, as the antifouling paint she had previously was either (or both) of poor quality or inexpertly applied. She was back in San Francisco, via Wellington, on February 7. For the newcomer to this forum, 148th F.A. Regiment was less its 2nd Battalion, that having in essence been replaced by 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, soon to be on the sharp end in Java.

< BLOEMFONTEIN & HOLBROOK departed Brisbane 28Dec41 independent of PENSACOLA, to take relief supplies to Philippines. >

Again, true of only HOLBROOK, BLOEMFONTEIN having belatedly joined on January 2, 1942, the convoy escorted from the outset by PENSACOLA. And again, add naval transport CHAUMONT, which carried the naval cargo and a lot of personnel as replacements for the Asiatic Fleet, to that intended fast convoy. [But given that most of the fleet was already at Darwin, it is doubtful that in the end she would have made the run to Manila Bay.] CHAUMONT, too, soon passed out of the picture. After spending 17 days in Darwin, unloading cargo and transferring drafts of replacements to many Asiatic Fleet units, including the newly "recruited" MARECHAL JOFFRE, she stood out on January 18, 1942, en route to Brisbane, Sydney, and Wellington. She arrived Balboa on the Pacific end of the Panama Canal on March 19.

< On reaching Torres Strait 01Jan42, orders were received to divert to Darwin, which they reached 03Jan42, escorted by HOUSTON. >

The order to divert had been issued by LtGen Brett on December 31, 1941, and apparently reached the convoy the following day. The convoy escort by HOUSTON did not begin until after anchorage at Thursday (or Goode??) Island on January 3, 1942, when she relieved PENSACOLA of that task. The HOUSTON leg of the convoy did not reach Darwin until January 5. Do NOT read Goode Island as a correction, as PENSACOLA's log may have erred in that identification.

Finally, BOISE's deck log is of interest, as she escorted the Soerabaja-bound convoy, which included BLOEMFONTEIN. She arrived Darwin on January 6, 1942, and with warships MARBLEHEAD, BARKER, BULMER, PARROT, POPE, and STEWART stood out of that port on January 8. MARBLEHEAD, BULMER, and STEWART left the convoy before it entered Lombok Strait. At the entrance to Soerabaja harbor on January 11, the convoy met JOHN D. FORD and PILLSBURY. BOISE did not linger there after taking aboard RAdm William Glassford as task force commander, but departed at once with FORD and PILLSBURY providing A/S protection. The destroyers she had arrived with clearly needed to replenish their fuel bunkers.

These various logs must be treated as the most reliable primary source documents. I regret not using them at once, rather than cutting corners for the sake of time in using the Fujita book for that one date--i.e., the convoy reached Darwin on January 5, 1942, and BLOEMFONTEIN did NOT depart for Soerabaja on that date.

Nelson
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