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Dangerous Crossings

By (July 1, 2017) No Comment

The Great Rescue: American Heroes, An Iconic Ship, and the Race to Save Europe in WWI
By Peter Hernon
HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.

The historiography of World War One includes studies of the causes and origins of the war, unit histories, diaries, letters, memoirs, and biographies of participants, and an array of books on specific battles, armies, navies, weapons, and aircraft. Now author Peter Hernon gives us something out of the ordinary: a biography, or “unit history,” of a single ship, the USS Leviathan. To be sure, in 1919 the Leviathan’s crew members published a “cruise book,” a wartime history of the vessel, and in 1972 Frank D. Braynard wrote a six-volume history of the ship, with only one volume devoted to the war years. Hernon’s book builds on these efforts by combing other sources to give a full picture of the Leviathan’s war service.

Interspersed with the accounts of each of the Leviathan’s wartime cruises, Hernon has sprinkled stories of some of the many thousands of passengers and crew who sailed on her. It is this aspect of the book that gives it an interesting twist; the focus is on the ship, certainly, but without losing the central point: the revamped ship was designed to bring troops to France to stem the German threat and help win the war.

The Leviathan began life as the German liner Vaterland, part of the Hamburg-American Line. Built in early 1914 for transatlantic travel, the vessel accommodated first-, second-, and third-class as well as steerage passengers. She was the largest ship afloat at 950 feet long with eleven decks that “soared twelve stories above sea level…” The ship was tied to a pier in Hoboken, New Jersey, halfway through her fourth round trip from Hamburg when, in early August 1914, Germany found herself at war against Britain and France. Fearful that British and French warships would seize or attack the ship, Berlin ordered the Vaterland to wait in port. And there she remained until April 5, 1917, when, only hours before the US entered the war, American officials boarded and impounded her. The Vaterland was destined to become part of the US Navy’s fleet, to be used against her former masters.

Her German crew had performed acts of sabotage on the vessel, and American naval engineers and workers had their hands full with the monumental task of repairing the ship to get her ready for troop carrying duties. She was also armed and refitted to carry thousands of troops and her crew. With so many people aboard, other adaptations were necessary:

Space also was found for the prodigious quantities of food that would be needed for each round trip: 200,000 pounds of flour; 60,000 pounds of tinned meets; 120,000 pounds of smoked meats, 260,000 pounds of fresh meats, 25,000 pounds of turkey and fowl, 30,000 dozen eggs, 175,000 fresh fruits, and thousands of pounds of other stores—enough food to feed 10,000 troops and 1,400 crewmen for twenty-five days.

Rechristened the USS Leviathan and placed under the command of Captain Joseph Oman, US Navy, she set forth on her shakedown cruise in November 1917. Although World War I was a modern war, readers are reminded that sailing a ship such as the Leviathan still required strenuous manual labor. Hernon’s description of the captain’s effort to push the ship to its limits on its shakedown cruise is an example:

The “firemen’s crew” picked up their back breaking cadence of shoveling coal into the Leviathan’s boilers, and the entire ship started to shake as engines capable of 90,400 horsepower drove her forward, the vibrations rattling plates and cups in the galleys…. Gulping 138 shovelfuls of coal every three minutes, the Leviathan was doing 22.5 knots, a speed she held for well over two hours…

After the shakedown cruise, the Leviathan left Hoboken destined for France with “a record-breaking number of soldiers and crew members,” nearly 10,000 personnel. Indeed, each of the Leviathan’s subsequent wartime cruises would set a record for the number of people carried aboard a single vessel. The ship struck horrible weather halfway across the ocean, and she missed a rendezvous with escorting US destroyers by one day, forcing the destroyers to loiter an extra day in the danger zone in hazardous weather, awaiting the troopship. The destroyers’ commander, S. W. Bryant, filed a complaint against Captain Oman, and he was reassigned after his return to the United States. Captain Henry Bryan, another veteran Navy officer, replaced Oman. Bryan remained in command of the ship for the next few round trips. During its subsequent voyages, the vessel carried a number of noteworthy passengers to or from France.

Army nurse Elizabeth Weaver left the US aboard the Leviathan in April 1918. Weaver had adapted well to Army life while in training; in France she would experience firsthand the horrors of war. While working in one of the wards at Base Hospital 18 where the victims of gas attacks were treated, Weaver took care of soldiers who had been exposed to chlorine or phosgene gas, which attacked the respiratory system: “It was devastating to witness the racked breathing and choking of phosgene victims, who coughed up as much as four pints of yellow-colored fluid an hour.” After her return to the US in August 1919, Weaver worked at a veterans’ hospital in Tacoma.

American journalist Irvin Cobb returned to the US aboard the Leviathan in June 1918. Cobb, who had been in Belgium in August 1914 and had reported upon the early terrifying stages of the war, had just finished reporting on the heroic exploits of the African American 371st Infantry Regiment. Cobb had the noteworthy experience of witnessing an unsuccessful U-boat attack upon the ship, an experience that left him shaken.

United States Congressman Royal Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, was another noteworthy passenger. Johnson, who had voted against declaring war, took leave from Congress and enlisted in the Army. He sailed aboard the ship in June 1918 as a member of the 79th Division. Johnson was eventually commissioned and was seriously wounded in action. After the war the decorated veteran returned to the US and continued to serve in Congress, a strong advocate for veterans’ rights.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, visited Europe in the summer of 1918; he returned to the US aboard the Leviathan in September. According to Hernon:

Pershing [General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces] had little time or inclination to play host to Roosevelt, who was in Europe conducting a frenetic series of inspections, tours, and frat-boy partying. The general often found such visitors a nuisance, even when they were VIPs who showed up “with his party eager for a tour of the front. ‘Like everybody else,’ commented an observer, “‘they wanted to get shot at with a guarantee against a hit and smell dead men and horses.’”

On his return trip to the US, Roosevelt became seriously ill with influenza and was close to death. Upon arrival at the pier in Hoboken, he was taken off the ship on a stretcher and driven in an ambulance to his mother’s house where he spent weeks recovering.

Although the US Navy developed the convoy system to protect ships as they sailed, the Leviathan could count on her impressive speed—as fast as twenty-four knots—to enable her to sail alone (which she often did) until she entered the war zone, at which time destroyers met and escorted her to her dock. The Germans, of course, recognized the material and symbolic value of the Leviathan. Many U-boats set out to target her: “indeed, [the Kaiser] had personally offered a handsome reward—nearly a quarter-million dollars in today’s currency—to the U-boat crew that sank her.” This pressure weighed heavily on each of her captains: “The thought of the Leviathan taking a torpedo hit while carrying ten thousand soldiers was too ghastly to imagine.”

There was danger even close to the United States, with U-boats prowling the coastal waters. During one July 1918 trip, barely one day out of New York, Captain Bryan was called to the bridge:

They were nearing an expansive field of floating debris, the wreckage of a freighter that either had been hit by a torpedo or struck a mine—pieces of plywood and timbering, crates, even chunks of metal, but no sign of lifeboats or bodies. So many ships had been sunk over the previous few weeks up and down the Atlantic seaboard that it was impossible to say what ship this may have been or when it had been torpedoed. From the quantity of debris, Bryan figured it was probably a good-sized freighter. There was no way of knowing how many had been on board or whether there were any survivors.

U-boats were not the only hazard plaguing wartime transports. On one voyage the Leviathan was accompanied by two other speedy transports, the USS Northern Pacific and the USS Great Northern, both of which were, like the Leviathan, converted passenger liners. One morning two men from the Northern Pacific fell overboard. Although ships in convoy were ordered not to stop and conduct rescue operations for any reason, the vessels disobeyed orders and began what turned out to be a fruitless search:

The three ships slammed back and forth for nearly two hours. Bryan knew it was hopeless, as did everyone else on the bridge. No one could live in that ocean, and it was beyond anyone’s faculties to try to imagine the horror of someone out there alone, riding up and down in the big waves, maybe catching a glimpse of the ship pulling away. The Great Northern and Northern Pacific, both struggling, kept at it until Bryan decided they’d had enough.

The influenza epidemic that struck the world in the autumn of 1918 visited the Leviathan with a vengeance. The 57th Pioneer Infantry Regiment (roughly the equivalent of an engineer unit in today’s Army) began to board the vessel at Hoboken pier on September 27. Earlier that day, while on the march to the pier, the regiment, almost as a body, was stricken with the flu. As the men “began stumbling up to the ship,” Captain William Phelps, then skipper of the ship, and his officers started to worry:

This was far worse than anything Phelps had expected, and the Leviathan hadn’t even shoved off yet. Many of these men couldn’t even stagger up the gangways, and some of those who’d boarded were already being carried back down to the pier on stretchers as ambulances started to arrive. The captain and the ship’s medical officers had to have known this was only the beginning. Help was coming with the arrival of nearly two hundred nurses from two base hospitals, but how many of them would be sick?

About two hundred soldiers and nurses were taken ill while or shortly after boarding, and they were removed from the vessel. According to Hernon:

Several hundred other flu cases also should have been taken off the ship, but time ran out and they were stuck there. The Leviathan was under strict orders to sail on time, and when the mooring lines were cast off under clear skies at 1:40 p.m. on the afternoon of September 29, Captain Phelps understood the chilling dimensions of the disaster he faced.

During the crossing, the “disaster” unfolded. Hernon’s description of the terrors faced by the soldiers and ship’s crew is vivid and evocative. As many as 2,000 of the soldiers had influenza.

Most of them lay in their bunks unable to lift themselves up, even to relieve themselves, which meant the scenes belowdecks were appalling—hundreds of men leaning over the sides of their bunks, spitting and vomiting, drenching those in the bunks below them. Many had “severe nasal hemorrhages” and pools of blood mixed with the rinds of lemons and oranges given to the men to help them quench their thirst were scattered throughout the troop compartments. The decks were slippery with all the pulp and bodily fluids. Added to the scene where the constant moans of the dangerously ill and dying. “The groans and cries of the terrified sick added to the confusion of the clamoring applicants for treatment, and altogether a true inferno reigned supreme.”

Upon arrival at Brest, France, all of the sick men and most of the dead were taken off the ship. The removal of the dead proceeded slowly; soon time came to set sail to return to the US, so many of the dead were buried at sea on that return voyage.

The armistice on November 11, 1918, found the Leviathan undergoing repairs in dry dock in Liverpool. With the war over, the Leviathan turned her efforts to bringing back some of the nearly 2,000,000 US soldiers in France. Traveling abroad her on her first peacetime trip from the US in January 1919 was nineteen-year-old Navy seaman Humphrey Bogart, the future award-winning actor. Bogart made only one round trip before transferring to another ship. Also aboard the vessel on this return trip was the 371st Infantry Regiment, the African American unit whose exploits Irvin Cobb had written about.

Early arrivals in Hoboken were met with throngs of crowds cheering the returning soldiers. By the time General Douglas MacArthur returned to the US aboard the Leviathan on April 25, 1919, the reception was somewhat muted. Upon disembarking, MacArthur was greeted by a lone little boy who asked if he’d been to France. MacArthur later wrote: “There was no welcome for the fighting men—no one wanted us to parade—no one even seemed to have heard of the war.”

Perhaps fittingly, General Pershing returned to the US aboard the Leviathan on her last trip as a war vessel in September 1919. After completing her military duties in October 1919 the Leviathan was refitted for passenger service and served as “America’s largest and fastest luxury liner” until 1938 when she was sold to an English company to be cut up for scrap.

Hernon elaborates more fully on many of the people featured in this review, as this is only a sampling. His approach serves to show the impact of the vessel on the American war effort, giving information above the raw numbers of troops carried and supplies delivered. Fifteen photographs enhance the text; Hernon also supplies helpful endnotes and a select bibliography.

This book is more than a fine history of an important and historic troopship; it also is a chronicle of a vital time in world history, a time when speed was of the essence. The Leviathan, her crew, and her passengers rose to the occasion and helped the Allies achieve victory in the war.

Major Peter L. Belmonte, USAF (Ret.) is a military history book reviewer and the author of Italian Americans in World War II (2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The US 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November 1918 (2015), and Calabrian-Americans in the US Military During World War I (2017).