Built in 1933 as the spacious liner 'SS Washington' and operated by the United States Lines, "SS Washington" was acquired by the Navy on 16th June, 1941. With the Axis powers overrunning Europe and the Far East situation getting worse by the day, Navy planners had been forced to draft all available ships for conversion to troop transports in order that war should not approach USA shores.
Upon being acquired by the Navy, the ship was renamed 'SS Mount Vernon', after the famous home of George Washington. She was immediately put into the Philadelphia Navy Yard where her 100 dollar a day suites were stripped and replaced with many steel bunks to take care of the countless passengers she was to carry for the next four years.
On 16th June, 1941, 'USS Mount Vernon' was put into commission with Captain D. B. Beary assuming command. After conversion was completed, "Mount Vernon" sailed for the North Carolina coast for manoeuvres. Many long hours were spent there testing the efficiency of men and machinery. In late August 1941, after a layover in Hampton Roads, 'Mount Vernon' sailed to Boston, where her armour was installed.
'Mount Vernon' got underway from Boston to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she joined a convoy en route for Trinidad. From Trinidad, AP 22 sailed eastward for Cape Town, South Africa. Unknown to her crew at that time, was the fact that she was actually on an around-the-world cruise. Whilst she was cruising from Trinidad to Cape Town, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States was now at war.
After a brief stay at Cape Town, 'Mount Vernon' skirted around the Cape of Good Hope, the tip of South Africa and set course north for Mombasa on the east coast of Africa. She arrived on Christmas Day and instead of finding the traditional snow and Christmas Tree, liberty parties found jungle colours in the over abundant orchids, with gardeners, basket weavers all at work in the streets. Animals were cheap and began appearing aboard ship. While one officer was standing his "officer-of-the-deck" watch, a monkey appeared on the quarter deck. Trying to be friendly, the OOD offered his hand only to see the monkey suddenly grab the hand with both fists and his teeth. However, the OOD didn't have time for disciplinary action as his sentry appeared with a horrified look on his face, pointing towards the dock. Upon looking down the OOD saw a sailor serenely ambling towards the ship leading his newest pet, a gigantic elephant. Divested of her monkeys, elephants and other pets, 'Mount Vernon' sailed eastwards once again putting in at the Maldive Islands group situated on the equator. The stay there was brief however and the ship continued on for Singapore.
Whilst transitting the Johore Straits, 'Mount Vernon' narrowly missed a floating mine and shortly afterwards the radio picked up an air raid warning. The Japs were coming, but upon coming into visual range, rain clouds blew over and a heavy rain squall screened the ship from view. The planes could be heard overhead searching for the ship. About forty planes appeared in all but the weather prevented an attack.
At Singapore 'Mount Vernon' moored to a pier to disembark British troops. A British tanker came alongside to fuel her. The tanker boasted as being a jinx for all ships she had fuelled in the past three weeks had been sunk. However, 'Mount Vernon' ruined her record by staying afloat. Dogfights between British and Japanese planes became common place while at Singapore and several raids sent the crew to their battle stations. However the worst scare came on 15th January, 1942, when at 09.45 an air raid alarm sent 'Mount Vernon' to battle stations. All morning, tense with excitement, the ship waited with gun crews, aware that the ship's guns were not enough. Though it was still cloudy, all the city lay in complete silence. By 12.30 half the crew had been sent to chow and the chow line had grown from the after-mess hall out on to the fan tail. Suddenly a Jap plane swooped in and dropped six bombs. All landed in a field about a hundred yards away from the ship. The ominous sight was their pattern, the exact length of the ship. This one action caused the gunner's mates to keep the guns ready for action for the next four years though, as it turned out, this was the only occasion for their use.
The following day 'Mount Vernon' sailed for Aden. Arabia proved to be a mystifying country to her sailors. The first liberty parties were met by a swarm of taxi drivers, money changers and jewellery merchants. Mothers even offered their children for sale. The crews agreed that Aden was the choice training grounds for all pawnbrokers.