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FreightWaves Classics: Naval cargo ship with a unique history

This coming Sunday, September 26, a rather unique anniversary will occur. It will be the 77th anniversary of the launch of the U.S. Navy cargo ship USS Beltrami. 

Construction on the ship began on July 18, 1944. The Beltrami was launched on September 26, 1944, about two and a half months after D-Day, the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The Allies were on the offensive, but there was still plenty of fighting to come in Europe and in the Pacific. 

Some of the women welders at Ingalls Shipbuilding Corp., in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1943.  (Photo: Spencer Beebe/National Archives)
Some of the women welders at Ingalls Shipbuilding Corp., in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1943.
(Photo: Spencer Beebe/National Archives)

The USS Beltrami was one of hundreds of ships of its type built at shipyards across the United States during World War II. It was built at the Richmond, California shipyards of the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company. The ship was named after a county in northwestern Minnesota.

So why write about the Beltrami? What made it different from the other cargo ships that were built, launched and saw service during the war? 

A tribute to women

The USS Beltrami was launched at Kaiser’s Richmond Shipyard Number 4. What made it unique (particularly for that time in history) was because the launch was conducted only by women as “a tribute to women in industry and the armed forces,” according to a news article in the Berkeley Daily Gazette. “The evening ceremony opened with a presentation of the colors by a guard composed of servicewomen from both the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and the U.S. Naval Reserve, Women’s Reserve (the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES).”

Women welders hard at work. (Photo: National Park Service)
Women welders hard at work. (Photo: National Park Service)

As part of the ceremony, Dollie Thrash christened the Beltrami. Thrash was the ship’s sponsor, as well as a 40-year-old grandmother and former schoolteacher. Like millions of other women during World War II, Thrash worked building the armaments needed by the Allies to defeat the Axis powers. She worked at the Richmond shipyards – as did her husband. In 1942 Dollie Thrash became the first certified female shipfitter in the United States. Because of this pioneering role, as well as the fact that she helped assemble various parts of Beltrami, Thrash was chosen to be the sponsor of the new ship.

In another first, during a key part of the ceremony two other women shipyard workers use acetylene torches to burn through the large steel plates that kept the Beltrami in place, so that the ship could slide into the water after it was christened. This was the first launch of a U.S. Navy vessel that women performed that particular responsibility.

Norman Rockwell's version of Rosie the Riveter on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. (Image from the author's collection)
Norman Rockwell’s version of Rosie the Riveter on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. (Image from the author’s collection)

While many of us of a certain age recognize the term “Rosie the Riveter” from World War II, the launch ceremony was a real-time celebration for all the “Rosies” who worked at defense plants across the United States.

Service in World War II

The USS Beltrami was commissioned as a U.S. Navy ship on January 4, 1945 (AK-162). Her first commander was Lieutenant Gerald W. Rahill, USNR. She and her officers and crew began their first deployment transporting frozen food to Longview, Washington and then Washington lumber to Hawaii. 

The USS Beltrami was assigned to the Service Force, Pacific Fleet. Its primary mission was to help supply the various U.S. military bases strung across the south Pacific. The Beltrami had sailed to the western region of the Pacific Ocean by March 1945 to assist with wartime operations. It provided freight service to destinations such as “the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, the Admiralty Islands, the Philippines, the Mariana Islands and Guam. Beltrami also provided logistical support for U.S. troops fighting in the Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater during World War II.”

The USS Beltrami underway. (Photo:
The USS Beltrami underway. (Photo:

Beltrami sailed back to the Philippines in late August 1945, providing passenger and cargo service to the U.S. forces ashore. About two months after the Japanese surrender, the Beltrami was ordered to sail from San Pedro Bay (the body of water where the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are located) to support the American occupation forces in China. The Beltrami arrived in Shanghai on November 16, 1945. The ship and its crew carried out various duties there until it was ordered to sail to San Francisco in late January 1946.

Post-war service

After the end of World War II the USS Beltrami continued its service for almost another 10 years. The ship and its crew were ordered to the U.S. East Coast. The Beltrami left San Francisco on March 15, 1946, passed through the Panama Canal on March 28th, and arrived at the U.S. Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 8.

An interesting chapter in the Beltrami’s history occurred during Operation Nanook in 1946. “This naval mission was part of a large-scale effort to set up a series of weather stations in the Arctic regions of the Western Hemisphere.” 

The USS Beltrami. (Photo:
The USS Beltrami. (Photo:

The USS Beltrami sailed from Norfolk in April 1946, stopping at the ports of Baltimore and Philadelphia to take on cold weather gear and to receive “equipment modifications for extended sub-zero operations.” Following these stops the ship sailed to New York, taking on landing craft and picket boats in early May. It then moved up the coast to Boston, where a detachment of U.S. Marines came aboard. Beltrami sailed northward from there on July 15, 1946. 

The Beltrami sailed through the Labrador Sea and the Davis Strait, rendezvousing with the icebreaker Northwind in Lancaster Sound (well above the Arctic Circle) on July 25. The ships entered Dundas Harbor at Devon Island, to disembark the Marines, who went ashore and established a temporary camp at the base of a glacier.

Beltrami then sailed to Thule, Greenland. Once there, she joined the seaplane tender Norton Sound, net-laying ship Whitewood and sister cargo ship Alcona in Task Force 68. The Beltrami’s crew unloaded the ship’s cargo and the heavy equipment that was used to construct a weather station and an emergency airstrip. 

U.S. East Coast cargo operations 

During 1947-48, the Beltrami sailed in the Atlantic coastal waters of North America. It delivered general cargo from Bayonne, New Jersey, and Norfolk to U.S. naval stations as far south as the Panama Canal Zone and as far north as Argentia, Newfoundland. The ship also made regular resupply trips to the U.S. naval installations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; St. George, Bermuda; and Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.

USS Beltrami patch.
USS Beltrami patch.

Sixth Fleet Service 

The U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet was established in 1948. In February 1949, the Beltrami began the first of three voyages from Norfolk to the Mediterranean Sea. She called at naval installations in Casablanca, Morocco; Athens, Greece; and Haifa, Israel; returning to Norfolk in mid-April. The ship and its crew made return voyages to the Mediterranean between October 8 and December 2, 1949 and between mid-June and early August 1951. The ship also sailed to the British ports of Gibraltar, Plymouth and Londonderry in the period of July-September 1950.

Final operations

For the remainder of her U.S. Navy service, the Beltrami operated out of Earle, New Jersey, and Norfolk. She primarily serviced Navy ports and installations in the West Indies. The most common duty was shuttling passengers and cargo between Guantánamo Bay, Roosevelt Roads and Trinidad. 

Like other cargo ships built before and during World War II, the Beltrami became obsolete as larger and faster cargo ships came online. Moreover, the advent of intermodal containers was just beginning, and hundreds of ships that carried breakbulk cargo would be refitted or retired over the next decade. 

The USS Beltrami sailed from Norfolk to Charleston, South Carolina, in late July 1955, arriving at the Navy Yard there on the 29th. Placed in reserve on August 1, 1955, the ship was towed to Savannah on August 28, and was decommissioned on November 10, 1955. She remained there until 1960. 

Decommissioned U.S. Navy ships are "mothballed." (Photo: Encyclopedia of Alabama)
Decommissioned U.S. Navy ships are “mothballed.” (Photo: Encyclopedia of Alabama)

The Beltrami’s name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on April 1, 1960, and she was transferred to the Maritime Administration on June 21, 1960. She was sold for scrap on August 29, 1960.

The Beltrami and her crews actively served the U.S. Navy for a decade. She is remembered, however, more for her construction and christening, which made history and honored the women who served our nation during World War II.

To all the men and women who served the United States – at war and on the home front – thank you for your service!

Women at work building another ship for service during World War II. (Photo: National World War II Museum)
Women at work building another ship for service during World War II. (Photo: National World War II Museum)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.