Camp Lejeune's Historic Morning Bell

Originally published in January 1987 Leatherneck Magazine
Story and photos by Joseph Baneth Allen

Retrieved from a German passenger liner/warship/raider, the bell was aboard the ship when it became the transport, USS Lejeune.

Five minutes before eight o'clock on weekday mornings, four young, ramrod-straight Marines step outside of the double glass doors of Camp Lejeune's Marine Corps Base Headquarters Building and silently assume their positions in formation at the bottom of the concrete steps.

Once the four Marines have assembled, the leader gives the order to go forward and they silently march across the semi-circular driveway and up the brick walkway leading to the building's flagstaff. Standing at attention, the four Marines surround the flagstaff and wait for the correct time to hoist the flag. The leader checks his watch approximately every 30 seconds.

When the watch has inched its way up to eight o'clock, he gives the word and the American flag is attached to the flagstaff's halyards. Eight bells is struck on the large ship's bell mounted on the flagstaff, and the flag is hoisted smartly.

Walking up to the 280-pound brass bell mounted on the pole after Morning Colors, the inscription, USS LEJEUNE 1944, may be read. The bold letters and numbers of the inscription lead one to believe that the bell came from the naval transport USS Lejeune that was commissioned on April 15, 1944--that is, until the bell's inboard inscription is read.

An examination of that side of the weather-worn brass bell reveals the single faded inscription: WINDHUK.

Camp Lejeune's morning bell was first the bell of the German warship Windhuk. The SS Windhuk, (pronounced Vent Hook), was completed at the shipyards in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936. She was originally a large passenger liner that operated principally between the Hamburg shipyards and South African ports, under the ownership of the Deutsche-Afrika Linien. Her reign as a high-class passenger liner didn't last long.

Germany's need for raiders brought an end to the use of the Windhuk as a luxury liner. German raiders were warships modified with fake panels to resemble passenger or noncombatant vessels. The Windhuk was the perfect ship for the budding German navy to use as a raider.

Flying the flag of a friendly nation, the converted Windhuk would approach an Allied ship until in range. Hidden guns were then uncovered and the tricked Allied ship was either sunk or captured. In addition to her duties as a raider, the Windhuk was a supply ship for Axis submarines and the German battleship, Graf Spee. Nothing much is known about the armament or battle record of the Windhuk due to the scant records kept on her by the German navy.

Information about the Windhuk can be found in the Lloyd's of London Register. The register lists the German raider as displacing 16,662 tons, and being 577 feet in length, 72 feet wide and 31½ feet deep. The SS Pretoria, the Windhuk's sister ship, is also listed in the Lloyd's of London Register. The Pretoria was a Nazi hospital ship during the final phases of World War II.

Service under the German navy came to an end for the Windhuk December 1939 when she sailed into a Brazilian port with the Graf Spee. Both ships were interned and attempts were made by their crews to scuttle them. While the crew of the Graf Spee was successful in their scuttling attempt, the crew of the Windhuk managed only to fill the turbines of their ship with concrete before capture. She and her crew were moved to Rio de Janeiro.

For three years following its capture, the Windhuk remained at Rio de Janeiro until the United States purchased the ship for an undisclosed sum from Brazil in May 1942.

The United States Navy immediately went to work to make the newest ship in the U.S. Fleet ready for sea duty.

With a diesel engine and other essential equipment, 200 officers and enlisted personnel went down to Rio to make the Windhuk shipshape. In February 1943, their task completed, they sailed the refitted Windhuk from Rio through waters infested with enemy submarines to Norfolk, Va. The voyage took 30 days.

In Norfolk, the Windhuk was re named USS Lejeune after former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General John A. Lejeune. The newly renamed USS Lejeune was given hull number (AP-74) and was commissioned as a transport of the Navy Transportation Service on April 15, 1944. The ship's bell was engraved with its new name and the year.

Wartime service began on June 15, 1944, when she left New York in a convoy for Glasgow, Scotland. She transported 4,460 Army passengers for duty in war weary Europe. Later on, Lejeune was equipped to carry 5,100 men, including the ship's company of 450 officers and men.

Lejeune's wartime service in the Atlantic Ocean included carrying one of the largest number of people to ever cross that body of water by transport. She sailed from New York in July 1944 for Glasgow, with 207 officers and 4,307 naval personnel as part of a program for controlling the continental seaports taken by Allied forces. In December 1944, she made another major Atlantic crossing when she carried elements of the 69th Infantry Division to Glasgow. The 69th Infantry Division later linked fronts with the Soviet armies at Torgau on the Elbe on April 25, 1945.

When she finished war duty in the Atlantic, Lejeune sailed for the Pacific theater. In the Pacific, she earned the Navy Occupation Medal and the China Service Medal.

Before her decommissioning in February 1948, Lejeune was reported to have carried over 100,000 troops across the two oceans.

Lejeune was scrapped at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Only the bell remained and it was put into storage at a warehouse and was almost totally forgotten.

For 13 years, Lejeune's bell gathered dust.

In 1971, Camp Lejeune's Base SgtMaj John Steely was looking for a way to honor and remember those who had trained at Camp Lejeune during World War II and those who had died in the war. He remembered that the bell from the USS Lejeune still existed in storage somewhere:

Searching through records, Steely discovered the bell's location and through months of paperwork, he was able to obtain the bell for Camp Lejeune in November 1971. Before Christmas 1971, Lejeune's bell was mounted on the flagstaff at Camp Lejeune's Marine Corps Base Headquarters.

Since then, Camp Lejeune's historic bell has sounded Morning Colors for 15 years, and will continue to do so until the seasons totally wear down the proud bell.