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Capt. Jere C. Austin « North Carolina's WWII ExperienceNorth Carolina's WWII Experience

Capt. Jere C. Austin

Hometown: Salisbury, NC
Branch of Service:
Navy, Amphibious Forces
Location of Service:
Europe, Pacific & Africa

My first naval ship was the USS Alcyone. She began life as a merchantman, a diesel-powered freighter, operated by Moore-McCormack lines between east coast ports of North and South America. She was a state-of-the-art modern merchant ship when she was launched in 1939 as MS/Mormacgull in the Sun Shipbuilding yard. She was requisitioned by the Navy in 1941, converted, commissioned and designated AK-24, an auxiliary cargo ship.

I was assigned to her as Assistant Engineer Officer by the Navy in October, 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor. I was not yet 21, too young to vote and not old enough to register for the draft. But I had three plus years of maritime and naval reserve training and held a full time job as Third Engineer on another, steam-powered, merchant ship with both Moore-McCormack and the American Gulf and West Indies Line. When the Navy requisitioned that ship, I was unemployed for a few days until the Navy requisitioned me. They needed an engineer for Alcyone, which was diesel-powered and I had a diesel “ticket” that authorized me to operate any sized motor ship afloat. I had enough naval reserve training and experience plus a federal license to operate steam and diesel ships of any size and horsepower to qualify me, in Navy eyes, for a commission.

William F. “Bull” Halsey issued my orders for active duty in the Navy. He was not yet Admiral “Bull” Halsey of WWII carrier fame. At that time, two months before Pearl Harbor, he was Captain Halsey, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, the Navy’s personnel department.

During the early months of WWII, before and after Pearl Harbor, USS Alcyone buckled down to her new job of supplying existing Naval Facilities in the Caribbean as well as new ones that were quickly coming into existence to protect the Panama Canal.

Havana, San Juan, Guantanamo Bay, the US Submarine Base at Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, and Trinidad were familiar names. There were new Naval facilities coming on line at Antigua and others of the Windward and Leeward Islands as the result of an agreement made by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. The British gave us permission to use certain islands in return for 50-mothballed WWI destroyers.

Alcyone was unloading cargo at Kingston, Jamaica on the Sunday afternoon when the news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor. After that, there were Navy dependents to be evacuated from St. Lucia and Martinique. Vieques Island, off of Puerto Rico, became a US Navy practice gunnery range.

And up and down the entire Atlantic coast of the US, and throughout the Caribbean islands, enemy submarines hunted and were hunted, but were succeeding in sinking our shipping boats at a faster rate than they could be replaced.

A Free French Aircraft Carrier had escaped occupied France and was interned in the Harbor at Fort-de-France, Martinique, her flight deck loaded with US-made fighter planes. Axis submarines lurked outside the harbor waiting the chance to sink the carrier and insure that it would not see action again.

On the home front, sugar was one of the staples of everyday living that was being rationed. There was plenty of Cuban and Puerto Rican sugar, but ships were being sunk too fast to maintain a normal supply.

Alcyone was carrying military cargo on her outbound voyages from the States, and returning with empty cargo holds. Carrying civilian or commercial cargo in a military vessel was not heard of, but somehow someone in authority made the decision and cleared the legal or regulatory obstacles that stood in the way of having a US Navy ship of war bring home a much needed load of civilian, commercial, Puerto-Rican sugar.

That voyage from San Juan to New York was memorable, not so much for the four days and nights of running the enemy submarine gauntlet, as it was for the days and nights of living completely immersed in a cloying atmosphere that smelled of raw molasses. Operating under conditions of combat readiness, all of the ship’s openings, doors and portholes, were closed and sealed.  At nighttime no lights were to show through any opening. The ship was an airtight and light tight container. The ship’s mechanical ventilation systems were no match for the vapors that emanated from 6000 tons of raw sugar.  The vapors concentrated in a thick miasma that made it difficult to breath and pushed even the strongest stomachs to the verge of seasickness.

But Alcyone brought home the sugar. There was no fan-fare, no news headlines. And she was not destined to continue her career as a plodding cargo carrier. There were other urgent plans in the offing.

Alcyone went on to become part of what was to be the Amphibious Landing Forces.  She was re-designated AKA-7, Attack Cargo ship. She was equipped to carry and launch a fleet of landing boats designed to put troops, trucks, tanks and all the implements of war ashore on enemy beaches. She began her new assignment by carrying US Marines to the beaches of the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, where they took the first territory back from Japan, and she carried on until V-J Day marked “The End” for the Axis powers.

By wars end, Alcyone took part in eight campaigns that involved action against the enemy, in Pacific and European waters. The Solomon Islands, the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall islands, Saipan, Guam, Leyte and Luzon in the Pilippine Islands. In between, she took US Army units to North Africa and landed them on the beaches of Sicily.

I was with her for five of the campaigns before I left her in San Pedro in 1944.

Looking back, there are other memories of small events, like the Sugar Run, that stand out amidst the larger events of WWII. For instance, there was the time at Great Lakes when…but that’s another story.