USNS Private William H. Thomas (T-AP-185)

aka: SS Alcoa Cruiser
aka: USS Rixey (AHP-3)

The USNS Private William H. Thomas was a Tryon-class evacuation transport built in 1941 that was renamed in 1946 for a Wynne (Cross County) native who received a Medal of Honor during World War II.

William H. Thomas was born in Wynne on January 13, 1923. He was serving as a Browning Automatic Rifle gunner on Luzon in the Philippine Islands on April 22, 1945, when a Japanese satchel charge blew off both of his legs beneath the knee. Refusing medical attention, Thomas continued fighting until his weapon was disabled and he ran out of grenades. Thomas died of his wounds, and he received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his valor.

The Private William H. Thomas originated as the SS Alcoa Cruiser and was to transport passengers and bauxite for the Alcoa Steamship Company. The vessel’s hull was laid down on August 6, 1941, at the Moore Dry Dock Company in Oakland, California. It was requisitioned by the U.S. Navy following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and commissioned the USS Rixey (AHP-3) exactly one year later. Named for a former surgeon general of the Navy, the Rixey served in the South Pacific as a casualty evacuation ship while also transporting replacement troops. The 7,100-ton vessel was 450 feet long and sixty-two feet wide, reaching speeds of eighteen knots. Crewed by forty officers and 409 enlisted men, the Rixey had hospital wards for sixty-two officers and 1,221 enlisted men. It was decommissioned on March 27, 1946, having earned four battle stars during the war.

The U.S. Army Transportation Service acquired the vessel on September 10, 1946, and commissioned it as the USAT Private William H. Thomas. That organization operated the Thomas in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, then turned it over to the Military Sea Transportation Service on March 1, 1950. It was reinstated on the navy list as the USNS Private William H. Thomas (T-AP-185) and, operated by a civilian crew, made runs in the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Caribbean seas. The Thomas was carrying a load of U.S. troops and military dependents back to the States when on the night of July 25, 1956, it received a distress call from the SS Andrea Doria, which had collided with another ship in heavy fog off Nantucket, Massachusetts. The Thomas was one of the first ships on the scene and rescued 159 passengers with its motor lifeboats.

The Private William H. Thomas was struck from the navy list on December 27, 1957, and transferred to the Maritime Administration, which placed the vessel in the National Reserve Fleet anchorage on the Hudson River at Stony Point, New York. On August 28, 1970, it was sold for scrap to the Tung Ho Steel Enterprise Company and was towed from the Hudson River on January 2, 1971, to be dismantled in Taiwan.

For additional information:
Rixey.” Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. Naval History and Heritage Command. (accessed December 4, 2018).

“USNS Private William H. Thomas (T-AP-185).” (accessed December 4, 2018).

“USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas.” Maritime Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. (accessed December 4, 2018)

Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas


    I sailed on the Private Thomas in February 1955 from New York to Bremerhaven, Germany. It was cold, and the sea was rough. I returned home two years later on the General Darby. When we got into Brooklyn, on the other side of the pier was the Private Thomas, and as you can imagine the difference in rank certainly bore testimony to the difference in size of the ships.

    Raymond Gehringer Omaha, NE

    In 1952, when I was ten years of age, my mother, younger brother, and I travelled on the Thomas from New York to Leghorn, Italy, where we proceeded to Salzburg, Austria, to join my father, who was an officer in U.S. Army.

    Charles Baxter Argyle, Texas

    When I was a young man in 1956, I sailed with my family to Germany in late winter. It must have been on the return journey that the USNS Private William H. Thomas rescued the passengers in the bay. Interesting.

    William Andersen