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The following is an article printed from the January 1979 issue of
 SEA CLASSICS, by Hugh M. Heckman, Contributing Editor.


ON BROADWAY, IN THE NOVEL AND ON THE GIANT SCREEN, SHE WAS KNOWN AS USS RELUCTANT. BUT IN THE REAL LIFE OF WAR.

"MR. ROBERTS" SHIP WAS THE REAL USS VIRGO (AKA-20)

By Hugh M. Heckman
The U.S. Navy attack transport USS Virgo (AKA-20) was just like any of the multitude of identical and anonymous supply ships that served the Navy's fighting task forces in the Pacific during World War II, hauling Marines and soldiers and their gear from island beach to island beach and making sure the mail got through.

Yes, the Virgo was a totally unremarkable ship, except for one thing: she led a double life. You see, the Virgo was also the AKA601, the USS Reluctant, the ship that carried its wacky captain and crew over history's horizon as the setting of the novel, play and then movie, "Mr. Roberts."

Until Lieutenant Thomas Heggen (in whose imagination "Mr. Roberts" came to life) reported onboard at Eniwetok in the Marshalls on 12 July 1944, the Virgo was only the Virgo, doing an unspectacular job that kept her hopscotching around the western Pacific, but which never the less often took tier only a whisker from harm's way.

Constructed in New Jersey, Virgo was commissioned on 15 July 1943. She displaced almost 14,000 tons along an overall length of 459 feet, and she had five cargo holds to carry the articles of her trade: weapons, vehicles, ammunition and anything else that port directors wanted, 350,000 cubic feet worth. To move her cargo ashore, Virgo came with eight 50-foot LCM's and seventeen LCVP's, which were 36-foot personnel boats.

Virgo's baptismal assignment was to carry Marine Corps equipment to New Zealand, arriving on 6 October, and becoming a unit of the Fifth Amphibious Force to prepare for the Gilbert Islands invasion. She took on Marines and arrived off Tarawa Atoll on 20 November, and on that day had the stomach-churning experience of being straddled by shells lobbed by Japanese shore batteries. But she landed her men on Betio Island and stood by to evacuate wounded, taking them to safety at Pearl Harbor and arriving on the second anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack.

After loading more supplies and Army troops, Virgo received her next orders, to Kwajalein Atoll, also in the Marshalls. She arrived on 30 January 1944. Virgo's next few months were hectic ones, as she ferried troops and supplies and rehearsed amphibious landing techniques at places like Bougainville in the Solomons, New Guinea, and Guadalcanal.

When Saipan in the Marianas was: invaded on 15 June, Virgo was offshore, her troops held in reserve., Although her Marines weren't needed, the stiff Japanese resistance pushed the Guam invasion schedule way off schedule. So she went to Eniwetok to wait, and it was there that Thomas Heggen reported as assistant communications officer, and where Virgo began its transformation into the Reluctant.

Heggen was no stranger to the service fleet, but had never been so close to the combat front. He'd joined the Navy a few days after Pearl Harbor, serving as a yeoman on the battleship South Dakota as she fitted out at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He went from there to an officer program at Notre Dame and received orders to the tanker USS Sallinas (AO-19), which was assigned to the North Atlantic run. After a fight with a fellow officer that put him in the hospital for six months with an injured hand, Heggen had a new shiponce again failing to find a combat billet. This time it was another tanker, the USS Agawam, and he found himself on the run between New Orleans and the Caribbean refineries on Aruba. Then, his request for transfer was approved, and he headed for his new ship in the far Pacific, where gunfire was in the plan-ofthe-day.

With Heggen installed, Virgo sent her Marines ashore on Guam and returned to Eniwetok before heading out again for rehearsals for the imminent Palau Islands operations. It was during this period, on 10 August, when another person reported onboard, a person who was to unknowingly play a leading role in the birth of "Mr. Roberts." In fact, he reported and then took command of AKA-20 Lieut. Cmdr. Herbert Randall, USNR, an unpolished merchant marine officer who didn't take kindly to Navy ways.

Randall conned Virgo to Peleliu Island in the Palaus, carrying Marines and Navy men. She remained off Peleliu from 15 September through 4 October, acting as a casualty station and repair base for small boats. There followed a long stay back in the States; Virgo, with hundreds of eager returning veterans embarked, left Tulagi Island in the Solomons for San Francisco and an overhaul that lasted from 29 October to 4 January 1945.

By the middle of February, she was off Iwo Jima, replenishing destroyers. After picking up construction equipment in the Philippines, Virgo made for Okinawa, where the skies were full of Japanese suicide planes. She anchored there for 15 days and went to general quarters 32 times for air raid alerts.

After another Pacific odyssey to San Francisco, Virgo was heading back to the sprawling Navy base at Ulithi in the Carolinas when the war with Japan ended on 15 August. But she kept right on going, all the way to Tokyo Bay, and stayed there until 10 April 1946 as a store ship. On 18 September 1945, however, Heggen was detached and left for the West Coast on a tanker going that way.

Packed in his seabag were pages he'd typed in his Virgo stateroom, which were stories he called collectively "The Iron-Bound Bucket" (the crew's fond nickname for Virgo) but which would later come to be known, in an edited form, as "Mr. Roberts." Virgo's World War 11 campaign was over; the Reluctant's was just beginning.

As assistant communications officer, Heggen had found himself with considerable free time on his hands. And he used it writing stories based on what he saw, heard, felt and did on Virgo, as she steamed from "Tedium to Apathy and back again-with an occasional side-trip to Monotony," as Heggen later put it.

It can safely be said that, if Heggen and Virgo had not crossed ways, there never would have been a "Mr. Roberts." Almost every funny incident in the story had its root in something that really happened on the AKA20, especially the behavior of Commanding Officer Randall. For most people who saw the play, or the movie starring James Cagney and Henry Fonda, the very symbol of the Reluctant were a couple of potted palm trees, the captain's personal property, on each side of the signal bridge. The trees were NOT a product of Heggen's creativity.

 

In the play, Mr. Roberts (who was really Thomas Heggen, with one large exception) threw the trees over the side as an act of defiance. 

On Virgo, Heggen did the same thing, not once, but twice. The captain had ordered working parties ashore in the Leyte Gulf to bring back some palm trees he'd seen on the beach. He potted them in five-gallon paint cans and set them in places of honor on his bridge. 

After the first trees were dumped, CO Randall even posted Marine guards over the next pair; but Heggen outwitted the Marines to lure them away from their charges and, presto, these trees were "deep-sixed" too. On another occasion, when Virgo sailed into San Francisco in late 1944, Captain Randall refused to allow liberty the first few days back. Heggen the author turned this incident into one of the play's most hilarious scenes, when the entire crew of the Reluctant goes ashore for a rousing liberty on the fictional paradise island of Elysium. Yet another humorous "Mr. Roberts" scene was vintage Virgo stuff, when the women-starved crewmen turn voyeurs and trained their binoculars on showering nurses ashore. Heggen did that too, except he looked through the cross-hairs of the sighting telescope on Virgo's 5-inch gun. (She also mounted four 3" 50 caliber guns.) 

Thomas Heggen the person and Doug Roberts the fictional character had one thing in common: they both though they were getting a raw deal by not being sent to fighting ships, and both put in countless requests for transfer. In the play, it is only because Roberts agrees to withdraw his latest request that the Captain grants the infamous Elysium liberty for the. Reluctant crew.

The one exception I mentioned earlier is this: while Heggen never got past Virgo, Roberts does, when a crewman forges the Captain's approval on another transfer request. He goes on to a destroyer in the thick of the action, and is killed in a Kamikaze attack.

As for Thomas Heggen, he survived Doug Roberts, but not for long. His novel "Mr. Roberts" was the rage of 1946, and then followed the play (written in collaboration with Joshua Logan) which opened to rave reviews on Broadway on 18 February 1948. Then the creative well dried up, and a despondent Heggen took his own life the following year, not even thirty years old.

But thirty is old for a ship, and that's how long Virgo lived, the ship that started it all. After the war, she made numerous trips between the West Coast and American Pacific bases. When the Korean War broke out, she made three round trips to that theater, carrying mostly ammunition for ships bombarding the Korean coast, including the carrier Valley Forge (CV-45) and the cruisers Juneau (CA-119) and Saint Paul (CA-73).

From 1954 through 1961, Virgo was a Pacific workhorse, based at Guam. Deactivated in 1961, she came back into service in 1965, but with a change she lost her attack cargo designation and became an ammunition ship, AE30. The Virgo went to Taiwan scrap yard in 1973. That's a place the USS Reluctant will never go.

 

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