A ship by the name of White Falcon was delivered to the U.S. Maritime Commission in 1944. While operated by American Export Lines, the ship provided sealift during World War II. After a short layup, the Wilmington, N.C.-built C-2-type cargo ship was purchased by Grace Line in 1947 and renamed Santa Eliana.
For 13 years, the Santa Eliana traded to South American ports before being selected for conversion to a containership. By 1960, most of the big liner companies, such as U.S. Lines, Lykes, Moore-McCormack, Hapag and NYK, were still building fleets of breakbulk ships. Although some U.S. companies employed containerships in coastal trades, none were yet employed in international services.
The Santa Eliana, as originally built, sailing under the Oakland Bay Bridge.
The Santa Eliana proceeded to the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Baltimore for its conversion work, which included lengthening the ship with a 45-foot midsection and widening it 11 feet with the addition of two 5.5-foot sponsons. The tween decks were removed, along with the cargo gear. Hatch openings were widened and three gantry cranes on tracks were fitted. Cellular guides were installed to accommodate 476 containers, of which 382 were stowed below deck and 94 were on deck.
Grace Line ordered 1,500 containers, each measuring 17 feet in length and eight feet wide and eight feet high. They were built of aluminum with steel strength members, and unlike the containers of today were manufactured in the U.S.
The Santa Eliana after conversion to a Grace Line containership.
After two and a half years in layup, an agreement was reached and, on Oct. 26, 1962, the Santa Eliana commenced voyage No. 2, followed by the Santa Leonor one week later. However, by this time, cargo expectations were dismal, and after a few voyages Grace Line decided to end the service and sell both ships.
Ultimately, the containerships were sold to Sea-Land Service, which immediately modified them to carry its 35-foot containers. The Santa Eliana was temporarily named the Sea and the Santa Leonor became the Land. Shortly after, the Santa Eliana was renamed again as the Mayaguez and the Santa Leonor became the Ponce. The ships were employed on the U.S. coastwise and Puerto Rican trades.
The Mayaguez sails with a full load of 35-foot containers.
As the Vietnam War escalated in the late 1960s, the two sisters became Far East feeder ships.
On May 12, 1975, two weeks after the fall of Saigon, while on a voyage from Hong Kong to Sattahip, Thailand, about 60 miles off the Cambodian coast, a Cambodian gunboat fired at the Mayaguez and then boarded and seized the ship. This was the first time in more than 100 years that a U.S.-flag merchant ship had been boarded and seized at sea.
The Mayaguez, after rescue, working cargo with cranes in use.
Thus, the last battle of the Vietnam War was fought not in Vietnam but off the Cambodian coast in this rescue. The Mayaguez continued trading in the Far East until being scrapped in Kaohsiung in 1979.
It should be noted that in recent times there have been two other U.S.-flag containerships named the Mayaguez. One of those was an ex-1945-built troop transport converted to a containership and operated from 1975 to 1982, while the other was a U.S. Lines Lancer-class containership built in 1968 and serving from 1988 to 2004. Both were operated by the Puerto Rico Maritime Shipping Authority.
McNamara, who is retired as president of the National Cargo Bureau, currently serves as chairman of the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler, N.Y., and remains active in the maritime industry.