Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth in San Francisco in 1942

HMT Queen Elizabeth at Pier 35 in San Francisco in March 1942

In early March of 1942, painted in her war-time colours, the RMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in San Francisco Bay.  She was biggest ship to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge during World War 2.  She was 75’ longer than an Essex-class aircraft carrier and 150’ longer than an Iowa-class battleship.

Escape from Scotland

Launched at the John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank (Glasgow) Scotland in 1938, she was built to share weekly trans-Atlantic crossings with RMS Queen Mary, her Cunard-White Star Line sister ship.  At the time she was the largest passenger ship ever built, a title she would hold for 58 years. Moved to the John Brown fitting out dock, her first trip was scheduled for April 1940.  German spies in Glasgow were tracking her progress, so a false story was created that she was to move to Southampton.  Painted war-time gray, she sailed on March 3, 1941, on one of only two spring tides that year that made it deep enough for the ship to leave the Firth of Clyde.  The ship was met by a King’s Messenger who gave the captain orders to sail directly to New York.  The Southampton harbor pilot who was aboard was not even let off.  Later that day, at the time she was due to arrive in Southampton, that city was bombed by the Luftwaffe.  

Queen Elizabeth arrived six days later in New York where she docked on the north side of Pier 90. Queen Mary was docked on the south side where she had been since war broke out in September 1939.  The French Line ship, SS Normandie, was docked on the north side of Pier 88 where she had been interned by the U.S. government at the start of the war.  This is the only time the three largest ships in the world were together. 

In the South Pacific

There were only a five dry docks in the world capable of handling the ship.  Two of those were in Europe and subject to being attacked, while the third, in Bayonne, NJ, but could not conduct war work as the United States was a neutral nation, so Queen Elizabeth sailed for Singapore by way of Cape Town, South Africa.  5000 berths and other facilities to carry troops were added in Singapore.  In April 1941, she met up with Queen Mary in Sydney as both ships embarked thousands of Australian troops to bolster British operations in Egypt.  She continued to transport troops to North Africa and bring the wounded and prisoners of war back to Australia.

Queen Elizabeth was in Sydney when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, and needing a bottom cleaning, the Admiralty sent her to Esquimalt, near Victoria, BC, the only other large enough dry dock. The British Admiralty strategically located these large dry docks around the world-one in the UK, one in Asia and one in Canada.  By this time two were in the middle of the theaters of war.


Arriving on 23 February, the ship knocked over some of the keel blocks as she entered the dry dock.  The ship had to leave the dock which was pumped out, the blocks fixed and then reflooded. The ship spent 13 days in the dry dock as 1000 shipyard and Navy personnel cleaned, painted, strengthened throught-the-hull valves for underwater explosions, and added 3000 berths and galley space.

Transporting GIs

She then sailed for San Francisco where she briefly ran aground before entering the Bay and docking at Pier 35.  In five days the Americans removed the Australian hammocks and bunks and replaced them with fold-down “Standee” beds made of tubular steel and canvas webbing. These bunks were stacked two to five high, providing very little room for the soldiers.

8000 troops of the 41st Division from Ft. Lewis, WA, boarded the ship.  The  group, consisting of Division Headquarters, the 163rd Infantry, 41st Signal Company, 116th Engineer Battalion, 167th Field Artillery Battalion, 116th Medical Battalion, and 116th Quartermaster Battalion, embarked from San Francisco on 19 March in a small convoy. Three days later another convoy left San Francisco carrying the 32nd infantry Division.  Among the ships in that convoy were the Matson liners Lurline, Matsonia and Monterey. Because Melbourne could not accommodate the Queen Elizabeth, it offloaded at Sydney and the troops and cargo were moved to Melbourne by rail and smaller Dutch ships.  American troops were being sent to defend against a Japanese invasion of Australia because much of the Australian Army was already deployed in North Africa.  

Queen Elizabeth in wartime gray livery.

This was the only time HMT Queen Elizabeth was in San Francisco as she was relocated to the Atlantic, where she ferried hundreds of thousands of US and Canadian troops, both to Europe to fight and then home after V-E Day.  She always sailed with a Cunard crew and was returned to the company in 1946. 

Post World War 2

On October 16, 1946 she finally made her first Atlantic crossing carrying paying passengers.  She continued in that role, and as a short-lived cruise ship, until 1968 when she was retired.

A number of people expressed an interest in converting the ship.  In 1967 when the Queen Mary was sold to Long Beach, Peter Tamaras, the President of the SF Board of Supervisors suggesting buying Queen Elizabeth further suggesting it be docked at Alcatraz which was not yet open to the public.

After failing as a hotel and tourist attraction in Ft. Lauderdale, she was sold to the Hong Kong shipping tycoon Tung  Chao Yung, who wanted to convert her to a floating university for what become the Semester at Sea program.  The ship caught fire in 1972 and capsized while undergoing renovations in Hong Kong.  Part of it was scrapped and the remainder left on the bottom of the harbor.  It had since been covered with landfill for Container Terminal #9.


The current Cunard ship, MS Queen Elizabeth periodically calls in San Francisco when operating on the West Coast.  The new Queen Elizabeth is 66’ feet shorter than the old Queen Elizabeth but is about 8000 tons heavier.  Cunard’s penchant for naming their ships after queens can be confusing for commoners.  This RMS Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Elizabeth 2 (1969-2008) were named for the wife of King George VI.  She was the mother of the recently-deceased  Queen Elizabeth II and was known as the Queen Mother until her death in 2002.  The current Cunard ship MS Queen Elizabeth is named for Elizabeth II.  The RMS Queen Mary and current RMS Queen Mary 2 are named for the wife of King George V, the grandmother of Elizabeth II.  

Equally confusing are the letters that proceed the name.  RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship and was used for ships that carried the mail and received large subsidies from the British government.  RMS Queen Mary 2, the current flagship of Cunard, was allowed to use RMS as an homage to her predecessor even though she received no subsidiy from the British government (Cunard is now an American-owned company) and does not carry mail.  Cunard had to obtain the rights to the Queen Mary name from the owners of the ship in Long Beach.  HMT stood for His Majesty’s Transport or Troopship and was only used during the time the ships were used for that purpose.  HMS is used for ships of the Royal Navy and stood for HIs/Her Majesty’s Ship just as USS (United States Ship) is used for American Naval vessels.  SS (Steamship), MS (Motorship) and TS (Turbine Ship) refer to the type of propulsion.

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