Mar 12

They Became Banana Boats

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 12:01 AM

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Shortly after the cessation of hostilities of World War I, the United States found itself with a number of obsolete craft from the beginning of the era of the all-steel Navy. Now no longer needed, U.S. Navy disposed of its original torpedo boat destroyers that had entered service shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War. The three boats Truxtun class were bought by private shipping interests. The Truxtun (DD-14) and her sisters Whipple (DD-15) and Worden (DD-16) were refitted with diesel engines for the first experiment in making small, fast, shallow draft banana carriers. As Commander John D. Alden, U.S. Navy (Retired) recounts below, they were only the first.

In general, a warship makes about the worst freighter one can imagine, and destroyers are probably more ill-fitted for merchant service than anything except a submarine. Their hulls are shaped for extreme speed, not capacity. Their bulkheads are designed to resist flooding, not to facilitate the stowage of cargo, and their entire mode of construction is uneconomical by commercial standards.

For the banana trade in the 1920s and 1930s, however, there was a logical rationale for the use of destroyer hulls. They were big enough to carry a cargo of 25,000 stems of fruit and small enough to be operated by a crew of 19. (As warships they had carried upwards of 120 men.) Their fine hull lines permitted a speed of 16 knots even with a small, inexpensive diesel plant, and their shallow draft was suitable for navigating up Central American rivers, thus saving on rail transportation. Their speed was just enough to dispense with artificial refrigeration. Instead, a flow of air was forced into the holds through the big ventilators, and the combination worked out just right for the run from one of the Caribbean banana ports to New Orleans, Norfolk, or Miami. The fruit, when it was unloaded, had ripened just enough to make it ready for shipment to the retail market.

Practically all of those retired were sold to the shipbreakers, and their scrap steel went, as likely as not, to the gulping mills of Japan. Four of these “flush-deckers” however, were stripped down to bare hulls, sold to the Standard Fruit Company, given economical diesel engines in place of their original 26,000-h.p. steam turbines, and converted to banana carriers.

So the Standard Fruit Company knew exactly what it was doing when it converted four worn-out destroyers to banana boats. The Worden (DD-288) became the Tabasco, the Dale (DD-290) was renamed Masaya, and the Osborne (DD-295) was rechristened Matagalpa. Year after year the four quietly hauled their bananas. Although they tended to roll heavily at sea, they made good speed and were always on schedule. In 1933, the Tabasco piled up on a reef in the Gulf of Mexico, but the other three continued to toil away in obscurity until World War II.

SS Matagalpa, ex-USS Osborne (DD-295), docked in New York near the Brooklyn Bridge

SS Matagalpa, ex-USS Osborne (DD-295), docked in New York near the Brooklyn Bridge (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Few people who lived through the days of 1941 and 1942 will ever forget the atmosphere of desperation that prevailed when it appeared that we were losing the war on all fronts. While German U-boats sank tankers up and down the Atlantic coast, our forces in the Pacific were mobilizing every rust bucket afloat in what seemed to be a futile effort to stop the Japanese advance through the Southwest Pacific. In the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur’s troops inched backward down the Bataan peninsula. As supply lines from Australia and the Netherlands Indies were severed one by one, MacArthur pleaded that aid be sent at any cost, by blockade runners direct from the United States if necessary. Shipping rosters were scoured for suitable craft, and soon the ignominious Standard Fruit banana boats were the subject of intense scrutiny by General George C. Marshall and President Franklin Roosevelt himself. The Army had requisitioned the three survivors for its Transportation Corps, and Major General Brehon Somervell, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-4, reported that they would make ideal blockade runners.

Taken over as Army transports on bareboat charter, hurriedly furnished with Army gun crews and a motley array of armament, they were loaded with supplies of the highest priority under conditions of stringent secrecy. The first to leave, the Masaya, (ex-Dale), departed New Orleans on 3 March 1942, with a cargo of ammunition, avgas, medical supplies, and mail. The Matagalpa, (ex-Osborne), followed with a load of rifles, machine guns, mortars, anti-tank mines, ammunition, serum, and cigarettes. The Teapa, (ex-Putnam), was last, with a nearly identical cargo. Slowly they made their way through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific coast to San Pedro, California. Engine repairs and restowage of cargo wasted precious days, and the defenders of Bataan were forced to surrender before the ships were ready to sail. By the time the ships reached Honolulu, the situation of the few American forces remaining in the Philippines was hopeless.

The Masaya was diverted from the Philippines to Australia where she was remanned with an Aussie crew as an interisland transport for MacArthur’s forces. On 28 March 1943, she was jumped by five Japanese dive bombers and sunk at Oro Bay, New Guinea, with the loss of two lives.

The Matagalpa, too, was ordered to the Southwest Pacific, but soon after arriving at Sydney, Australia, she was gutted by fire in her berth on 27 June 1942, and was subsequently scrapped.

Banana boat MV Teapa, ex-USS Putnam (DD-287), loading bananas in Miami

Banana boat MV Teapa, ex-USS Putnam (DD-287), loading bananas in Miami (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Thus, only the Teapa survived the war. After being held in Honolulu for repairs, she was returned to Seattle, Washington, to join the Alaska run. Departing from Puget Sound with a cargo of beans, sugar, canned pineapple, cornstarch, and U. S. mail, she lay off Seward, Alaska, waiting for pier space to become available. On 28 November 1942, while at anchor in Thumb Cove, Resurrection Bay, fire, caused by oil from a leaking donkey boiler, broke out in Number 3 hold. When the flames were finally extinguished by Army and Navy firefighting teams from Seward, her decks and wiring were found to be severely damaged. In fact, the deck plates and frames were reported to be so badly corroded that patches could not be welded on safely. Since the ship was obviously in no shape for further service on the rough Alaska freight route, it was decided to refit her for limited use as a training ship for instructing Army, Navy, and Merchant Marine men in engine operation and anti-aircraft gun practice. This useful, if unheroic, duty was carried out faithfully and well, and the end of the war found the Teapa still serving in this humble capacity at Seattle.

With demobilization, the ship was returned to her former owners and, in 1947, came into the hands of the McCormack Shipping Corporation. Although almost 30 years of age and practically worn out from strenuous service, the Teapa went back to sea, carrying bananas from the Dominican Republic to Miami until 1950, when she was finally laid up. She was ultimately sold for scrap in 1955.


This article is adapted from the original which appeared in the April 1971 issue of Proceedings.