Although the United States was the western terminus of the highly competitive transatlantic passenger trade, and Americans constituted the largest share of passengers heading back and forth, US-based shipping lines were traditionally minor players on the Atlantic. European-flagged ships were generally thought of by American passengers as offering higher quality standards of food and service, while Prohibition certainly didn't help matters during the 1920s and early '30s, as the ability to drink once outside US territorial waters was also a big attraction for traveling on a foreign line. Also not helping was that United States Lines, the flag carrier set up in the early 1920s to make use of the large amount of new transport vessels constructed for WWI and of the German ships taken in reparations, never had the right fleet to offer a regular weekly express service. The only large, fast ship under US registry was the ex-German Vaterland, which went for scrap in the 1930s.
Part of President Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to lift the country out of the Great Depression was a shipbuilding initiative under the US Maritime Commission, offering low interest loans, direct subsidies, and loan guarantees for companies ordering ships from US shipyards. Eager to replace the old Leviathan/Vaterland with an equally grand, but more modern and economical ship, United States Lines submitted their application for assistance, and received the first contract under the new program in 1936.
Design work for the new ship was entrusted to the New York-based firm of Gibbs & Cox, lead by America's foremost naval architect, William Francis Gibbs (who, interestingly enough, was actually self taught in the profession). Gibbs was passionately interested in safety, above all else, believing it was not the job of an architect to merely give their clients what they asked for, but that he also had a moral obligation to do whatever he could to make his ships as safe as possible for the passengers and crew who would sail in them. The loss of Titanic in 1912 affected him greatly, and caused Gibbs to focus on the importance of structural redundancy and compartmentalization, but it was the loss of Morro Castle in 1934 that had an even greater impact. That American-flagged liner caught fire en route to Cuba, and the burning hulk drifted ashore, running aground on the beach of Asbury Park, New Jersey, with 135 souls dead in the inferno. The wreckage became something of a morbid tourist attraction,and Gibbs traveled down from New York to view it himself, and became even more conscious than ever of the dangers of fire at sea, as a far greater threat than collisions. For the remainder of his career, he would be known for his focus, really zealousness, to fire safety above all else. The new United States Lines liner was the first major new contract he received after the Morro Castle fire, and would be his first major chance to put his fire safety concepts into practice.
However, United States Lines was insistent that their new flagship should be a proper rival to European liners, which meant suitably lavish and luxurious Art Deco interiors, which meant some limits on what Gibbs could do, the ship had to be a viable commercial enterprise, after all. Interior design was handled by an all-female team from Smyth, Urquhart, & Marckwald – lead by Dorothy Marckwald and Anne Urquhart, who worked closely with Gibbs to ensure that they maintained a single, unified vision for the ship.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co in Newport News, Virginia to christen the new ship America in 1939, and fitting out was completed in 1940. America measured 26,454 gross tons and 723 ft long – only about 1/3 the size of the big British and French liners, but still fairly large for the era, and enough to make her the largest passenger ship under US flag at the time. She featured a set of 37,500hp steam turbines driving twin screws for a speed of 22.5 knots. As built, there were accommodations for 1,202 passengers – 543 in Cabin Class, 418 in Tourist Class, and 241 in Third.
As WWII in Europe was well underway by the time America was ready for service in August, 1940, the planned transatlantic service from New York-Bremerhaven via Le Havre and Southampton was not going to happen. Instead, United States Lines used her to open a novel New York-Los Angeles route via the Panama Canal. It at least brought in some revenue, but was obviously far slower than train, and, especially, the nascent airline industry, and was not terribly popular. Between 1940-1941, America was also used on frequent leisure cruises in the Caribbean, in between liner voyages. During 1941, several crew members were discovered to be part of a German spy ring – reporting on Allied and US ship movements in the Caribbean and Pacific and studying Panama Canal defenses. Also, her aft funnel (the only functional one) was found to be too short, resulting in too much soot accumulation on the upper decks, so both funnels were raised during the Fall of 1940.
Finally, as part of the ongoing US military buildup in preparation for direct involvement in the war, America was requisitioned by the US Navy in July, 1941, and renamed West Point for conversion into a troop transport vessel. Refitted to carry 7,678 troops at a time, West Point spent 1941-1946 in Naval service, carrying both American and Commonwealth forces to and from Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Southeast Asia, steaming 550,000 miles and transporting over 500,000 troops.
West Point was handed back to United States Lines in 1946, after completing postwar repatriation voyages, and was renamed back to America and thoroughly restored to prewar configuration, finally entering transatlantic service to Bremerhaven in November, 1946. After 1952, she was partnered with the much larger, and significantly faster, United States on the route.
Airline competition from 1958 onward began siphoning off passengers, and United States Lines started deploying America on more and more frequent cruises to Bermuda and the Caribbean from 1960 onward, with frequent periods of lay-up. Finally, United States Lines pulled her from service in November, 1964, and offered her for sale.
The buyer was Chandris Lines of Greece, who renamed her Australis, and gave her an extensive refit – adding air conditioning throughout, an outdoor pool, and increasing passenger capacity to 2,258. After completion of the refit in 1965, Australis was remeasured at over 30,000 gross tons, and entered service on the Britain-Australia route, primarily carrying immigrants heading south from Europe, on one of the increasingly few routes where ocean liners could still operate profitably against airline competition. Between 1965-1977, Australis made 62 round trip voyages from Europe-Australia and carried over 300,000 new residents to the latter country. Eventually, airlines caught up on that route as well, and Chandris pulled Australis from service and laid her up in New Zealand until 1978, when she was sold to Venture Cruise Lines of New York.
Under Venture ownership, Australis was renamed back to America, registered in Panama, and refitted for Caribbean cruises from New York. The refit was a hasty, low budget job, and was not fully completed when America sailed on her first cruise for Venture – with leaking pipes, backed up toilets, and furniture and construction debris piled up in the halls. Passengers mutinied, and forced the captain to turn back to port. On her second cruise, America was scored 6/100 in her US Public Health Service inspection, and was arrested on arrival in Nova Scotia, due to creditor claims of $2.5 million.
America was repurchased by Chandris for $1 million, renamed Italis, and plans were announced for a major rebuilding and modernization, however, the only major change made was removal of the corroded forward dummy funnel. Italis ran a few Mediterranean cruises for Chandris from 1978-1979, and, following a charter as a hotel ship for an Organization of African Unity conference, was laid up in Greece.
Italis was sold to the Intercommerce Corporation in 1980 and renamed Noga, for rebuilding as a private prison ship to be moored in Beirut, under contract to the Lebanese government, but funding never materialized.
Intercommerce ultimately sold her to Saudi Arabian-based Silver Moon Ferries in 1984, who renamed her Alferdoss, with plans on reactivating her to carry religious pilgrims for the Haj, but, again, nothing was done, the ship continued to sit rusting and decaying in Piraeus. In 1988, Alferdoss was sold to a scrap metal company for $2 million, who proceeded to demolish the lifeboats and davits, before defaulting on half their payments. Finally, in 1992, Alferdoss was purchased by an investment consortium from Thailand, with plans to convert her into a luxury hotel moored in Phuket. The ship was drydocked, and discovered to be in excellent structural condition, despite over a decade with basically zero maintenance. The hull was cleaned and painted, the funnel spruced up, and the now renamed American Star left under tow for Thailand in December, 1993.
For reasons that are still unclear, the decision was made to sail via Gibraltar instead of Suez. On January 17th, 1994, American Star broke her tow rope in a gale off the coast of the Canary Islands and washed up on Playa de Garcey, on Fuerteventura. The ship sat beached for nearly 6 months while her owners, insurance company, and towing company bickered over a salvage plan, until on July 6, 1994, when the pounding wave action finally caused her to crack in two just aft of the funnel, causing American Star to be declared a total loss.
The 344ft stern section took the brunt of the weather, and collapsed into the sea in 1996, but the bow remained intact and upright, until deterioration began accelerating during 2005, leading to a complete collapse in 2007. During her time as a beached wreck, American Star was heavily looted by islanders, almost all salvageable furniture, artwork, and fittings were gradually removed from the bow, and there is apparently a bar near the beach decorated almost entirely with items salvaged from the ship.