Many Nevadans are familiar with the remarkable histories of the battleship USS Nevada and the patrol frigate USS Carson City, which were among the nearly two dozen warships bearing Nevada-related names that served in combat during World War II.
The USS Nevada, for example, is memorialized in an extensive, permanent exhibit at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. And the USS Carson City also occupies a special place of honor in the capital city, where its bell, wartime history and photos of the ship are displayed in the foyer of city hall.
But nowhere can be found recognition of the highly-decorated USS Ormsby, a WWII attack transport which was launched 75 years ago this month, bore three names during its 27 years at sea and was named for pioneer Nevadan MAJ. William Matthew Ormsby.
Of equal importance, the major’s name also was given to Ormsby County, one of the first counties created by the Nevada Territorial Legislature in 1861, which had Carson City as its county seat. In 1969, however, Ormsby County and Carson City were consolidated into a single city-county government named Carson City, and the 108-year-old Ormsby County was wiped off the map forever.
William Ormsby, though, unlike the ship that was to carry his name, has not escaped he attention of historians.
Born in 1814 in Pennsylvania, where he gained the title “major” that reflected his service in the state’s militia, he migrated in 1857 to the tiny settlement of Genoa in then-Utah Territory, became the local agent for a stage line, built the Ormsby House hotel in nearby Carson City in 1860 and, along with several other distinguished Northern Nevadans, pressed President James Buchanan to declare what is now Nevada a separate U.S. territory. Congress and Buchanan eventually did so, and on March 2, 1861, Buchanan’s last day in office, he signed the measure into law. Three years later, Nevada became the nation’s 36th state.
But 14 months before Nevada achieved territorial status, Ormsby, who many believed could have become a Nevada governor or U.S. senator, met death at the age of 46 while leading a force of Nevada volunteers who, on May 12, 1860, rode from Carson City to an area near present-day Silver Springs to avenge the killing of five settlers by Paiute warriors who had charged them with kidnapping and abusing two Indian girls. Including Ormsby, 75 of his men were killed and 46 wounded. A handful of Indians were killed and injured in that Pyramid Lake War which UNR historian James Hulse writes is “the most bloody slaughter in Nevada history.”
Twelve days later, more than 200 soldiers from Fort Churchill and 500 volunteers from Carson City, Virginia City and Silver City sought out and defeated the Indians. Nearly 160 Indians and three or four white men were killed in this second confrontation.
As for the history of the USS Ormsby County:
The 493-foot ship was launched on July 21, 1942, by the Moore Dry Dock Corporation in Oakland as a civilian cargo ship named the SS Twilight. A year later, the ship was acquired by the U.S. Navy, reconfigured into an attack transport and renamed the USS Ormsby. It was the first of three ships to be built in the “Ormsby Class,” and the other two were named USS Pierce and USS Sheridan.
The Ormsby carried a complement of 46 officers and 478 enlisted personnel, was capable of reaching a speed of 17 knots and was armed with two 5-inch guns, two 40-mm guns and 18 20-mm guns. And, like most of the other WWII ships with Nevada geographical names, its wartime service was confined to the Pacific, where it supported amphibious landings and invasions on Japanese-held islands. During its commissioned service, the Ormsby also transported thousands of troops and their equipment to and from front lines throughout scores of islands in the Pacific theater. The ship was in the thick of things at landings on Tarawa, Guam, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, New Guinea, Leyte and the allied landings at ports in China.
The Ormsby earned six Battle Stars and the Asiatic-Pacific Area Medal as well as the Navy Occupation Service Medal and the China Service Medal. She suffered her only casualties of war while participating in the Guam landings, where one officer and two enlisted men were killed when a Japanese shell struck it in the bow.
After three years of Navy service in the Pacific, the USS Ormsby was decommissioned in 1946 and sold by the government to the United States Line, which refigured it into a commercial cargo ship and gave the vessel its third name, the SS American Producer.
For 23 years, the SS American Producer plied the Pacific, carrying a wide assortment of civilian cargo as well as U.S. military vehicles, heavy weapons, ammunition and building materials headed to U.S. installations in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
But in March of 1969, when setting out from the West Coast while carrying bombs bound for Da Nang, South Vietnam, it was seriously damaged after hitting a pier in San Francisco. Because repairs were deemed too expensive for the 27-year-old ship, it was sold later that year by the United States Lines to a scrapper in Taiwan, where the ship that had three names, the SS Twilight, USS Ormsby and SS American Producer, was torn asunder and turned into scrap metal which eventually became razor blades and automobiles.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.