USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas
For Actions on July 25, 1956
Gallant Ship Award citation:
“Responding unhesitatingly to an SOS from the sinking Andrea Doria off Nantucket Island in the North Atlantic on the night of July 25, 1956, the Private William H. Thomas raced to the scene of the disaster, arriving there within two hours of receiving the first SOS. Holding a position close to the sinking vessel, Private William H. Thomas launched two lifeboats, which in a series of trips brought back to the ship a total of one hundred and fifty-nine victims of the disaster. All were taken safely aboard, contributing to one of the greatest marine rescues in history.
The courage, resourcefulness, sound seamanship and teamwork of her master, officers and crew in successfully completing an extraordinary rescue operation caused the name of the Private William H. Thomas to be perpetuated as a Gallant ship.”
Originally named Alcoa Cruiser, USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas was laid down on August 6, 1941 by Moore Dry Dock Co. in Oakland California. The ship was originally designed to transport bauxite and passengers for the Alcoa Steamship Company. However, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. Navy requisitioned the ship and commissioned it as USS Rixey (APH-3), a casualty evacuation ship, on December 30, 1941. After further fitting-out on the West Coast, Rixey was assigned to the South Pacific, where the ship assisted in evacuating injured troops from field hospitals to more permanent facilities in Noumea, New Caledonia, and Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand. On return trips, the vessel also carried service units and replacement troops.
Rixey continued transporting casualties and troops throughout the Pacific until the end of the war. Afterward, the vessel made two round trips between Okinawa and San Francisco, carrying replacement troops east and returning troops west. The Navy decommissioned Rixey on March 27, 1946.
On August 30, 1946, Rixey was transferred to the Army Transportation Service, which renamed the vessel USAT Pvt. William H. Thomas to honor U.S. Army Private William H. Thomas who received the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his heroic actions on April 22, 1945, while serving with the 149th Infantry Regiment, 38th Infantry Division, in action at Zambales Mountains, Luzon, Philippine Islands. After the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS)1 was established in 1949, the vessel was transferred to the MSTS (essentially returning it to the U.S. Navy) on March 1, 1950. USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas retained its army name, but was assigned U.S. Navy hull number, T-AP-185.
On July 25 and 26, 1956, while carrying a full load of returning U.S. troops and military dependents from Europe to New York, Pvt. William H. Thomas responded to one of the worst disasters in modern maritime history. Late in the evening of July 25, the cruise ships SS Andrea Doria and MS Stockholm collided in heavy fog south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Stockholm’s bow struck Andrea Doria’s side, tearing a large hole in the Italian ship, which immediately developed a severe list. Within half an hour of impact, the master of Andrea Doria ordered that all abandon ship; however, the list prevented Andrea Doria’s crew from accessing the ship’s port-side lifeboats. Even the starboard-side lifeboats could not be loaded until they had been lowered into the water, and Andrea Doria put out an urgent call for more lifeboats from any nearby vessels.
Pvt. William H. Thomas was one of several ships that responded to the distress call and one of the first to arrive on scene and assist in the rescue, along with SS Cape Ann, a U.S.-flag break-bulk cargo ship. Although the crew of the troop transport launched its two motor lifeboats and began rescuing survivors, the on-scene ships were overwhelmed until the arrival of SS Ile de France, a large French-flag passenger liner. In total, Pvt. William H. Thomas rescued 159 passengers. The vessel remained on scene to direct radio traffic related to the multi-vessel rescue operation until the U.S. Coast Guard relieved the ship on the morning of July 26.
The Navy struck Pvt. William H. Thomas from the Naval Vessel Register and transferred it to the Maritime Administration (MARAD) on December 27, 1957. MARAD berthed the vessel at its Hudson River Reserve Fleet anchorage off Stony Point, New York, where it remained until the agency sold it for scrap to the Tung Ho Steel Enterprise Co. on August 28, 1970. Pvt. William H. Thomas departed the reserve fleet on January 2, 1971, and was later dismantled in Taiwan.
1. MSTS was a post-World War II combination of four predecessor government agencies that handled similar sealift functions. These included the Navy’s Naval Transportation Service and Fleet Support Service, the Army Transport Service, and the War Shipping Administration of the United States Maritime Commission. In 1970, MSTS was renamed the Military Sealift Command.