J. Franklin Bell was laid down in 1918 as an Army transport and completed on 1 March 1921 as a passenger and cargo ship named Keystone State. Turned over to the Pacific Steamship Co on 28 May and renamed President McKinley on 9 June 1922. Transferred to the Admiral Oriental Line on 21 December to operate in the Pacific until laid up in Seattle in 1938. The Army purchased her on 26 October 1940, renamed her J. Franklin Bell, and converted her into a military transport.
The ship was transferred to the Navy on 26 December.
Commissioned in full at San Francisco on 2 April and after a shakedown round-trip voyage to Pearl Harbor, began over two months of amphibious training along the California coast. J. Franklin Bell, carrying some 1,500 troops and a full load of cargo, sailed from San Francisco on 13 August and headed via Kodiak, Alaska, for Adak to strengthen American defenses in the Aleutians. Upon returning to San Diego on 29 September, J. Franklin Bell resumed coastal operations and amphibious training in preparation for taking the offensive in the Aleutians by recapturing Attu Island.
Reclassified as APA-16 on 1 February, she continued rehearsals until sailing to San Francisco on 16 April to embark troops and their war gear. She got under way 24 April for Cold Bay, Alaska and though hampered by heavy seas, her task force arrived off Attu on 11 May in a dense fog. J. Franklin Bell began landing operations but submerged rocks, pea soup weather, and narrow, rocky beaches permitted only two or three boats to be unloaded at a time. Two days later she started unloading around the clock, enabling her to finish the task, embark casualties, and head for home by 16 May. After training throughout June, she embarked some 1,750 soldiers and, following two weeks of landing rehearsals, departed San Diego on 29 July for Adak. At the end of a week of weather and terrain conditioning there, she steamed for Kiska on 13 August. She sent her landing boats ashore through rough surf only to find the enemy had fled. Unloading operations completed in two days, she embarked 600 troops and sailed for San Francisco on the 20th. At San Francisco she discharged the troops and embarked naval passengers for Wellington, New Zealand, where she arrived on 30 September. After embarking 1,800 marines, she sailed on 1 November for final landing rehearsals before departing on 13 November to invade Tarawa. During midwatch on 20 November, J. Franklin Bell took her assigned place off Betio, the most formidable Japanese garrison on Tarawa Atoll. Heavy naval bombardment began at 0515; and the enemy responded with scattered fire at the transports. Straddled, J. Franklin Bell retired out of range and, while the deadly battle raged on ashore, awaited orders to land her troops. The next day she sailed to Bairiki Island and landed her marines. Finding dead enemies only, they boarded landing boats and moved from island to island along the atoll. Meanwhile, after the Bairiki landings, J. Franklin Bell began sending cargo ashore. The marines secured Betio on the 23rd and the entire atoll on 27 November. J. Franklin Bell then departed with marines embarked for Pearl Harbor.
After a month of training in Hawaii, the transport embarked more than 1,500 soldiers and sailed for Kwajalein Atoll. Upon arriving on 31 January, she found fire support ships pounding enemy shore installations in preparation for landings the following day. J. Franklin Bell entered the lagoon on 2 February to unload supplies and to receive casualties. On the 5th, her landing boats assaulted Gugegwe Island. Two days later the atoll was secured and the transport departed on 8 February for Pearl Harbor carrying over 2,000 soldiers. Putting into Pearl on 15 February, she made two round trips to the United States mainland before embarking soldiers and setting course for the Marianas. J. Franklin Bell arrived off Saipan on 16 June, the day after the initial landings, and debarked her troops on the 17th. After unloading needed supplies, she retired some 100 miles northeast of Saipan to await the outcome of the Battle of the Philippine Sea from 19 to 21 June. Upon learning of the American naval victory, she returned to Saipan on 25 June; completed unloading; embarked casualties; sailed for Eniwetok to load more cargo; and then headed, via Saipan to embark marines, for the assault on nearby Tinian. Departing on 24 July, J. Franklin Bell joined in a diversionary demonstration at the southern end of Tinian. Under cover of a fierce bombardment, the transport feigned two landings to divert enemy attention while the real landings were made at the northern end of the island. Following this successful subterfuge, she sailed to the actual beachheads; landed her troops; embarked casualties the next afternoon; and returned to Saipan on the 27th. The next day, carrying 438 Japanese prisoners, she sailed for Pearl Harbor and arrived on 10 August. J. Franklin Bell then returned to the Western Pacific, putting into Manus, Admiralties, on 3 October to embark 1,600 assault troops for the invasion of the Philippines. She headed for Leyte Gulf on 14 October and arrived off Dulag, Leyte, on 20 October. After quickly debarking her troops, she began unloading supplies and receiving casualties. Defying repeated air attacks, she unloaded supplies into LCTs throughout the day and night completing the task shortly after noon the next day. She then got under way for Manus and arrived the 27th. Following a voyage to New Guinea, J. Franklin Bell departed Manus for San Francisco and arrived on 27 November.
Heading back to the war zone on 28 February, the veteran transport arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia on 18 April. After landing exercises and embarking Seabees and their equipment, she headed for Okinawa via Eniwetok and Ulithi. She dropped anchor at Hagushi on 17 June to debark her Seabees. Subjected to frequent air alerts, she completed her unloading under cover of a smoke screen late the following afternoon. The transport then departed on the 22nd carrying 862 casualties to Saipan before proceeding to Espiritu Santo and Noumea to embark homebound casualties. Departing Noumea on 11 July with over 1,700 passengers, she steamed for San Francisco and arrived the 27th. When the war ended, J. Franklin Bell sailed on 21 September for the Western Pacific, carrying troops to Eniwetok, Okinawa, and Leyte. After boarding homebound passengers at Leyte, she sailed on 27 October and reached Seattle on 12 November. She began coastal operations on the 22nd shuttling between Washington and California ports.
The ship arrived at Suisun Bay, CA on 20 March and was decommissioned on the same day.
Transferred to the WSA for disposal, J. Franklin Bell was sold for scrap on 3 April to Boston Metals Co., Baltimore, MD.
J. Franklin Bell (US Army Transport)