The admiral who relieved Grant in command of the submarines, S. S. Robinson, recognized the logic of Grant's recommendations, and all work suggested in Grant's letter was done before the vessels sailed. The K boats, around which centered most of the excitement, had their engines replaced by more reliable ones and did not sail until about the time Grant had reported they could be ready. I believe the K boats got no further than the Azores. However, the Department saved its "face," Grant was kicked upstairs, and I down. It was a certain satisfaction to know that we were proved right, but as Captain Little had told us at the War College, the Department had the last word.
The President Lincoln was a terrible sight when I viewed her for the first time. Nearly one thousand workmen were on board, getting in each other's way, as always seemed to happen under that vicious war system of cost plus. I found a Shipping Board captain and a guard of soldiers under a lieutenant. Then I came along to complicate still more the problem of responsibility and authority.
I made a visit to see the Commandant of the Navy Yard, Admiral Usher. I told him that in my opinion the ex‑German ships being converted under the present setup would never be completed until the war was over. I suggested that the ships all be placed in commission at once and the Navy crews assembled. There were seven or eight ships being handled in the same way p166 as the President Lincoln. All were commissioned immediately and men began to come on board. The ships were not habitable, and officers and men had to live in the city. The situation was none too comfortable for the personnel. I refused to fly the flag on board until the ship was thoroughly cleaned inside and out. With our people on hand to observe the work, things began to buck up at once. We cut the working force by half. That was not popular among the high-paid labor nor with the company who had been paid a percentage on all the men who were in enforced idleness due to crowding. I had brought with me from the Submarine Base an engineer officer, an ex‑machinist, then a lieutenant. His name was Briggs, and he was the best practical engineer I had ever known. He was always on the job and knew everything that was going on in the ship.
Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, in command of the Cruiser and Destroyer Force, was made the Commander of the Cruiser and Transport Force. A most logical arrangement, for it put under the same head the ships that carried the troops and the cruisers that gave them security on the seas.
Admiral Gleaves's flagship was an armored cruiser, in which he maintained his office; but, as the size of his organization grew, he moved his offices ashore, where he could have sufficient space to administer a force that in the end aggregated over 150 ships.
I was fortunate to be able to help the Admiral in other ways than just commanding a ship in his force. I undertook to write for him the Navy Transport Regulations, which were badly needed to prevent misunderstandings as to rank, precedence, and authority between the Army and Navy when embarked together in a transport. Very few of either service seemed to realize that a Navy transport is, in fact, a fully ship of the Navy.
Lots of amusing incidents occurred even after we had the Regulations, and Army officers commanding troops frequently got it into their heads that they were also in command of the transport as well. But finally it sunk in that these transports, partly, at least, manned by the regular Navy and always commanded by a Regular Naval officer of the rank of captain, were bona fide ships of war, and therefore all Army personnel on board were under the command of the transport captain, who was responsible for the safety of the ship and all her people and also for its proper conduct on the seas.
p167 The conversion of the insides of the ships from ordinary freight and passenger vessels to transports was simple compared to the repairs necessary to the machinery which had been most thoroughly sabotaged when we broke off diplomatic relations and before we seized the ships from their German crews. It would have required years to manufacture new parts for the parts that had been destroyed, even if blue-print plans had been available. Electric welding had been tried out and had been successful in small ways. Now it was decided to use it in a big way. It was a bold undertaking, almost an experiment, but it was the one chance to get the ships ready for service before the war was over. If successful with electric welding the ships could be ready in a few months.
I recall a day in early September, 1917, when all the transport captains were assembled on board Admiral Gleaves's flagship in the North River, in New York. The Army had been insisting that the Navy produce transports at once to take across the rapidly accumulating troops. Admiral Gleaves asked us all the direct question when each of us would be ready to take aboard troops and sail for France. We could only shake our heads. With electric welding of the broken‑up machinery be successful? If not, the ships never could be ready. Then out of a clear sky, Captain Sam Morton said quietly:
"Admiral, the President Grant will be ready to sail on October 13th."
We were all flabbergasted. But I was on the spot most for I had the sister ship to the Grant. They were alike as two peas. What did Morton knew that I did not? I believed my man Briggs was optimistic, although the last word from him was a shake of the head when I consulted him about a time to give the Admiral just before I left the ship to go to the conference. I could not let the Admiral down by giving him a date I could not meet.
Admiral Gleaves was looking my way; Morton's words had been the first bit of sunshine in a very black day for him.
"Stirling," he said, "you have the sister to Morton's ship; so I take it you too will be ready October 13th?"
I took a long breath and replied:
"I assure you the President Lincoln will be ready when the President Grant is ready."
In spite of the pounding he was getting from the Army in p168 Washington, the Admiral laughed loudly. I was deadly serious and had not intended being funny, but he saw the humor in my reply. I did not feel that I had committed myself to something I could not deliver. I was sure that Briggs could equal or better the performance of anyone else in reconditioning machinery.
It turned out that Sam Morton was a prophet. Both the President Grant and the President Lincoln sailed from Hoboken piers with troops for France on October 13th. Unfortunately Morton's ship had to return to New York after two days' steaming because of leaky boiler tubes which had been crystallized by being burned dry by the German crew.
I commanded the convoy. In it were two ex‑German ships. The troops were the Rainbow Division, about 20,000 men. General C. P. Summerall with his Artillery Brigade took passage with me in the Lincoln. I have always prized the letter he wrote us after we landed our soldiers at Saint Nazaire:
"Throughout the journey, your co‑operation in all that concerned the welfare of the troops, your methods of handling the ship, and the appliances for safety used, created the greatest confidence, and freed everyone from anxiety as to the dangers to which they may have been exposed."
On my return to the United States, I was detached from the Lincoln, for which I was sorry. I had become greatly attached to her. I was put in command of the auxiliary cruiser Von Steuben, formerly the Crown Prince Wilhelm. It was supposed to be a better command. This ship came up vividly in my memory from years ago and now I was to command her. I was officer of the deck of the cruiser Brooklyn in the morning watch off Nantucket Lightship in a dense fog. We were returning after taking a British Ambassador's body home to England. The captain's order book said: "We are in the track of ocean liners leaving New York yesterday noon. Be particularly vigilant in the morning watch."
I was drinking my morning coffee and no doubt anticipating our arrival in New York the next day, when suddenly I heard a deep-throated whistle, apparently from dead ahead. I stopped both engines immediately. Everyone on the bridge was at once keenly attentive. There is to me nothing more awesome in a fog than to have a steamer suddenly announce itself from a direction that you know menaces your ship. Something told me to change course a few degrees to the left, which actually was opposite to p169 what the rules of the road prescribed. I changed course to the left ten degrees. We had been steaming at twelve knots. Then out of the fog only a few hundred yards away and almost exactly ahead loomed a great liner with a big white bone in her teeth. It was enough to make one's heart stop beating. She slid by us, going all of twenty knots, on our starboard side. She was so close that the captain of the liner called out in almost an ordinary voice with a strong German accent: "Are there any more ships behind you?" thinking we might be leading a column of warships.
I replied: "No." It was the Crown Prince Wilhelm, now the Von Steuben. If we had not made that lucky change in our course, there would have been a terrible collision, head on. I was glad I had backed my hunch.
I was now a captain, or a four striper as they were called. I had been selected by the board of nine Admirals. I had taken my examination and was now wearing the uniform. Four stripes on one's sleeve was to me a wonderful achievement. I was forty-five years old and almost the youngest captain on the list. It had been twenty-five years since graduation from the Naval Academy.
My new command had been a German raider earlier in the war and had been interned at the Norfolk Navy Yard and later taken to Philadelphia to be converted into an auxiliary cruiser when we entered the war. Admiral Gleaves considered the new command a promotion. As an example of how vigilantly my Nemesis was following me, when my orders were made out in the Navy Department on Gleaves' request, they received the confirming signature only because it was intimated that the Von Steuben was a less desirable command than the larger President Lincoln. Politics never forgives.a
On our return trip from Europe in March, 1918, we encountered a succession of strong gales, and not having been able to obtain coal in France due to its scarcity, I was suddenly confronted with a coal shortage in the bunkers, and it became doubtful whether we could reach a port in the United States. I decided to stop at Bermuda for coal. I radioed Admiral Singer, the British commander of the naval base at Hamilton. His reply was to inquire the ship's draft.
When loaded, the ship drew •34 feet, bow and stern. When light of coal the ship trimmed very much by the stern. I answered p170 that our draft was 34 feet aft and 26 feet forward. The admiral refused to permit us to enter the harbor. We had to have coal, so I anchored outside, but it was too rough for effective work with lighters. The coal was all going in forward and in a half‑day our maximum draft was only •thirty feet. There was a Negro pilot on board; he was anxious to pilot the ship in. It would be a great feather in his cap, for she would be the largest ship at that time which had entered the harbor. It would have taken several more days coaling outside to obtain enough coal to take us to Norfolk. Admiral Singer had said that the channel was thirty feet. That was now our draft, so I had no hesitancy in entering the harbor. I decided not to ask the Admiral, fearing a refusal, for the pilot told me there were two British armored cruisers inside on the point of sailing to meet a British troop convoy from Canada. We encountered no difficulty; the least sounding was •thirty-five feet, but if we had stuck, the cruisers would have missed their rendezvous with the troopships. That was more important than the coaling of an American transport to Admiral singer, and from his greeting, I knew I was right in not asking him.
I went to the naval base in one of our subchasers, that was en route across the ocean, to call upon the Admiral. He was very cool at first when he learned we were inside, but after I had explained, he became most cordial, for after all I was in and his cruisers could not be blocked. An admiral continually has a lot of things on his mind, and it is sometimes hard to decide their relative importance. Singer had just arrived from service with the North Sea Blockading Force, and I thought he looked a bit careworn. I spent the day with him; he wanted to put me up for the night, but I was anxious to sail as early as possible after coaling. I remember distinctly how pessimistic he was about the German submarines starving out England.
In June of 1918, the large German submarines were operating clear across the Atlantic. We were making a round trip a month. Returning convoys separated at about longitude 20°. We steamed home at about seventeen knots. On the trip in question, we had on board sick and wounded from our armies, totally incapacitated cases, and a number of women and children, I think, families of our consular officers returning to the United States. With our crew of a thousand men, the ship was fairly crowded, and the presence of the women and children on board made me feel a p171 little concerned for their safety in case we encountered one of the big submarines whose guns could outrange our five-inch battery.
About 1 P.M. on the 18th of June, we sighted what appeared to be a number of small boats under sail ahead of us. The submarine war had done one thing: had prevented the carrying out of the age‑old custom and tradition of the sea, to stop and rescue shipwrecked mariners until it could be assured there were no submarines lurking in the vicinity. We were zigzagging. Many examined the boats with glasses to see if they were occupied or abandoned. They seemed to be empty.
Suddenly, when they were •about two miles away, I saw a dome of white water rise on our port beam and a small black object beyond, showing a feather of spray as it moved through the water. The object was a periscope, and the submarine had fired a torpedo at us. Then a white ribbon of water seemed to unroll in our direction. I had seen many torpedoes fired in practice from both submarines and destroyers. There was no need to tell me that this torpedo was a truly aimed shot, fired at a distance of not more than 700 yards. If the torpedo hit us anywhere, we would surely sink, for none of our bulkheads were watertight. We were nearly •nearly one thousand miles from our coast and •over three hundred miles from the nearest land, the island of Bermuda.
The lookout group on the upper bridge had seen the torpedo, and the alarms were sounding to bring everyone to their stations, the crew to their guns, and the passengers to the boats and life rafts. The forward five-inch was firing down the wake of the torpedo with diving shells. The firing was quite useless, but it relieved the tension while awaiting our doom. I saw the torpedo was maintaining a constant bearing and had to hit. I had ordered full right rudder, then I jumped to the engine-room telegraphs myself and rang up both engines for emergency full speed astern. The ship's engines have a pitch of •thirty-four feet. There was no mistaking when they were backing.
Everything had been done that could be done. All eyes were on the white wake of the torpedo as it approached with terrific speed. It was pointing ahead of us and our •700 feet of ship was going ahead to place itself in its path. At first it seemed the torpedo would hit under our waist gun. I waved the men back, but they were too occupied firing down the wake to obey. The ship pulsated p172 and seemed almost human in her labors to prevent crossing ahead of the oncoming menace and save herself from destruction. In even those tens of seconds, I pictured the terrible calamity: the sinking ship, spilling into the water sick, wounded, helpless women and children, too few boats for rescue work even if they were not splintered and rendered useless by the force of the explosion.
Now it seemed the torpedo would hit under the forward magazine. I could readily enough imagine the consequences of that. The torpedo-head explosion would be terrible enough, but the explosion also of tons of high explosive, would be horrible. The oncoming point of the white path was heading for a point now only a short distance ahead of the bow. The ship had been slowing but not fast enough. It could slow no more.
When I saw the leading end of the white ribbon at the bow, I unconsciously flinched as I watched it fascinated, bracing myself for the detonation. Thank God it would miss the magazine. Then I saw the white path made by the air bubbles escaping from the torpedo, suddenly appear on the opposite side of the bow, exactly as if the torpedo had gone through the bow of the ship without exploding. A miracle had happened. The ship was saved. I could have shouted for joy, but even then I felt I must maintain my dignity as the captain. Actually the torpedo had passed across the bow by a few feet only. The torpedo is about •fifty feet ahead of the bubbles.
I rang up full speed ahead. My thought then was: would the submarine fire a second torpedo? The ship's speed in the forty seconds it had taken the torpedo from the moment of firing until it had crossed harmlessly across our bow, the time actually snapped by the radio officer, a Naval Reserve, had been reduced from seventeen to about seven knots.
As soon as the ship's speed had increased sufficiently for safety, I ordered five depth charges to be let go from the stern, one at a time set for a depth to explode at •one hundred feet. The concussions shook the ship from keel to truck.
Again we examined the boats with spy glasses. They seemed quite empty, the sails flapping in the light breeze. An officer in the foretop reported the boats were camouflaged and appeared to be made of rubber or balloon material. Were they camouflaged submarines making passage across to operate on our coast? Was the attacking vessel sent to prevent our investigation and thus p173 warning shipping? In times like this the imagination is most active.
But actually several hours before the Von Steuben's appearance, a British merchant ship, the Dwinsk had been torpedoed by this German submarine, the U‑153, I think, and after the crew had left in their boats, the ship had been gunned and sunk. No radio had been sent because the explosion of the torpedo had rendered the radio inoperative. The submarine had been using the Dwinsk's boats as decoy. The captain of the Britisher ordered his crew to lie down in the bottom of their boats when we were sighted and the submarine had headed out to attack, to make it appear that the boats were abandoned. He said afterward that he was afraid we might believe there was no submarine present, and if they tried to signal us, we might believe it was safe to approach. It was a very gallant and intelligent thing for the captain to do and he contributed in great degree to saving us from disaster, for if I had seen men in the boats, I might not have been as much on my guard. I am glad to say the gallant captain and all his men were, one at a time, picked up without loss of life.
My Nemesis in Washington was still pursuing me. First they refused to believe my radio that a submarine was there and had fired a torpedo. Then, after the Dwinsk captain was landed, he was asked to go to Washington. He was questioned in the Navy Department. I read later the questions and answers. It was the evident intention to prove that my actions were not correct. He was asked if he did not think that the Von Steuben should have stopped or waited in the vicinity to rescue him and his men. The captain's reply was, that in the British navy, if she had, the captain would have been removed from his command for unnecessarily risking a valuable ship and its personnel, that would be difficult to replace.
Some years later, in 1927‑8, I think, when I was in China, a magazine was sent me that contained an article by the captain of the U‑boat that had attacked us. He described very minutely the attack. Our ship was at once recognized as the ex-Crown Prince Wilhelm, and the submarine captain was most eager to sink her and avenge German honor. He made a special effort to get close and did, within 600 yards, he said, when he fired the torpedo. He greatly regretted not having fired two with a spread. If he had, backing could not have saved us from more than one torpedo. He said he kept his periscope up long enough to be sure the shot p174 would be a hit amidships. Then he went down to •sixty feet, running slowly to pass well astern of his victim. When the explosion was not heard, the captain believed the torpedo had run wild. Shortly after, he heard the first depth charge and for a moment thought it was the torpedo explosion. The second depth charge explosion assured him that he was being attacked. The third, fourth, and fifth seemed to be alongside of him, and the concussion put out his lights and caused him to lose control of his ship. The crew were thrown into a panic, and he feared he would lose the ship. He lost control completely, and when he caught her she was at •400 feet. He blew tanks and came to the surface, but we had gone over the horizon.
When the Von Steuben arrived in New York, Admiral Gleaves came on board and personally congratulated the ship upon its escape. The crew were delighted and gave him a ringing cheer and another when he left us. The Admiral also wrote me a beautifully worded letter in which the following paragraph occurred:
"I congratulate you upon the happy result which could only have been achieved by your own skill and coolness and the promptness and ability with which the emergency was met by the entire ship's company."
I have never seen any mention of this torpedo incident in any of the official accounts given out by the Navy Department on the war. I have always supposed it was just ignored. I was still being punished for my rashness in telling the truth to the Naval Affairs Committee of Congress.
On June 30, the Von Steuben found herself in the biggest troop convoy yet to sail from the United States. It consisted of 15 large transports, carrying upwards of 50,000 of our soldiers. The principal escort was the armored cruiser Frederick, commanded by my lifelong friend Carey Cole. We were an escort too, acting as a flank ship.
This convoy would bring the number of troops dispatched from this country to France to date up to the one million mark. This magic number had been promised by our President to the Allies by that date. As luck would have it, the densest fog imaginable settled over the harbor of New York and the lower bay, where the troopships, after loading at the Hoboken piers were anchored, ready to sail after sundown. Fog or no fog, it was necessary for every last ship to be at Ambrose Light Ship before midnight. We were all there without a single exception.
p175 It was a magnificent sight for any sailor's eyes to see these great ships, loaded to the guards with our young soldiers, steaming in long parallel lines, the armored cruiser Frederick leading and the Von Steuben and Henderson with their gun batteries guarding the flanks. Two swift destroyers, their decks aft loaded with deadly depth charges, hung back ready to settle accounts with any attacking submarine.
The second day out from New York, the Henderson, loaded with marines and sailors to man the Navy's big railroad battery under Admiral C. P. Plunket, caught fire in her forehold. It was a bad fire, and the extreme heat weakened the structural strength of the ship. The hold had to be flooded, causing a dangerous list besides reducing the ship's stability.
Captain Cole signaled me from his cruiser: "How many of the Henderson's troops can you take to France? It is necessary that every man of this convoy arrive across."
I signaled back: "All." The two destroyers accompanying the convoy though the New York sea area were due to return to port that night. Cole directed me to take the Henderson's troops, using the destroyers to ferry them to us from the burning ship, and then to send the Henderson under destroyer escort to Norfolk.
We lay near the Henderson while the destroyers brought over to us 700 marines and 800 sailors, together with about seventy officers, with full equipment for all. We worked all night, using all manner of lights, in spite of the submarine menace. We would have been a rich haul for an enemy. In war rashness is prudence. By seven in the morning all were on board without casualty.
Meanwhile, while making the transfer, the convoy had gone on and now was •over a hundred and fifty miles ahead us. I had raised steam in all boilers and the Von Steuben was working up to twenty-three knots an hour. The convoy was slow, only fourteen knots. We had on board nearly six thousand souls. They would be stepping in each other's faces. The decks were so crowded that it was most difficult to man the battery. Also the food would probably not hold out for more than twelve days more, necessitating our provisioning in France for the return trip. Alone, the Von Steuben could make Brest in five days more. I radioed Cole suggesting we go on alone at best speed. He communicated with Washington, and we received orders to act independently. I steered a more northerly course than usual across the Grand Banks, preferring to take my chances with fog and p176 icebergs rather than meet two big submarines operating in mid‑Atlantic, along the usual convoy track. We were in a dense fog for three days. We did not blow our fog whistle but listened for others very closely. We took the temperature of the surface water constantly. Frequently it dropped to freezing, showing icebergs were near us. We had almost reached the coast of France when four destroyers met us. On arrival in Brest harbor the Prefect Maritime, a French Admiral, came on board in person to offer us every facility for the sick and injured. I thanked him and said there were no sick and no injured. He seemed surprised. I returned his call at once and again thanked him.
Admiral Gleaves issued a circular letter to his force on this incident which I shall quote:
"The Paul Jones and the Mayrant were under instructions to remain with the group until fuel requirements compelled their return to the Capes of the Chesapeake. The addition of these vessels to the escort of the group proved of utmost value, because of their subsequent service in connection with the transfer of the passengers of the Henderson to the Von Steuben, when the fire in the forehold of the former required her return to port under the escort of those two destroyers. But the attention of the Force Commander is invited to what was accomplished on this occasion under the able direction of Captain Yates Stirling. The details of this work are not known to the Group Commander, but to accomplish the transfer of 1600 men from a burning vessel in the open sea is no mean accomplishment in itself, and its performance permitted the accomplishment of the mission of the Group for the transportation overseas of the whole of the original number of men entrusted to the Group. This work by Captain Yates Stirling and the force under his command is recommended for favorable consideration by the Force Commander."
This was an extract from Captain Cole's report to Admiral Gleaves. The Admiral added the following:
"The Force Commander takes pleasure in commending the initiative of the Commanding Officer of the Frederick, the judgment exercised by the Commanding Officer of the Von Steuben and the skill of the Commanding Officers of the Mayrant and Paul Jones on this occasion."
The official account by the Navy Department mentioned the fire in the Henderson and the transfer of the troops, but as far as I have been able to find, omits the name of the ship that took p177 off the men and carried them to France. This may have been merely an oversight, but I have my doubts.
Just before I gave up command of the Von Steuben, I experienced in her the worst storm I had seen in over twenty‑six years of going to sea. It was a West Indian Hurricane. I had received little warning by radio of its approach, and when I recognized the signs, I was confident that with such a fast and powerful ship I could get across its path into the safe semicircle before it struck. The storm was of exceptional violence and approached at incredible speed. The center passed ahead of us and very close. The ship was light of coal and rolled, during the height of the storm, through an arc of nearly ninety degrees. The seas were •over fifty feet high and about the length of the ship, •700 feet. I kept the ship stern to sea and wind and in pitching one could see from the bridge the horizon over the main truck. During the storm's height, two sailors ventured on deck and were lost overboard. The storm lasted only six hours. If I needed more respect for these tropical twisters this experience gave it to me in full measure. The President's son-in‑law, , was a passenger.
Not that my record was any better than other transport captains, but I do feel a certain amount of satisfaction in it. I had made one trip with the President Lincoln carrying 5000 troops, when I changed to the Von Steuben. She had been in collision on the trip before I took her, due to a complicated maneuver prescribed by the Group Commander, most confusing to the captains. The other ship's injuries were slight but the Von Steuben's bow was badly crumpled up. The moment I arrived aboard at Newport News we sailed with a regiment of Marines for Guantanamo, where we landed them and then sailed for the Canal. We docked at Balboa and remained a month undergoing repairs. After that I made in her six trips to France with troops and most of them as Group Commander. I carried in ships that I commanded nearly 25,000 men and escorted over 125,000 men.
The duty of Convoy or Group Commander of troopships doubtless takes a heavy toll on some nerves. I can recall vividly many of my sensations during those trips across the Atlantic. For a large part of the way there were no destroyers to guard the ships against submarine attacks and rescue the troops in case of being torpedoed. That question of rescue was ever in my mind, and I never found a solution. It was a terrible responsibility to p178 be accepted, with little power to fulfill it. I early made up my mind I would lay the Von Steuben alongside the stricken ship, holding her there with her engines, until as many men as possible could cross over to us before the torpedoed ship sank from under them. The risk of receiving during the operation a mortal blow by the same submarine had to be taken. We could not sail away and let thousands drown without a heroic attempt to save them. Of course in time destroyers could arrive for rescue work, but meanwhile the human contents of the sunken ship or ships would be adrift at sea in cold water, being kept afloat only by life preservers and life rafts. There never were sufficient boats on board transports to hold even a fraction of those on board.
I remember one clear morning, on the bridge of the Von Steuben, where I slept and had all my meals, I was watching my charges appear, one after another out of the gloom of the night. The ships were all camouflaged. The white colors were visible first and the last were the grays. It was an awe‑inspiring spectacle when one realized the thousands of men in those ships were going to war and that enemy submarines by the score were seeking to destroy them and their ships, and that you, unimportant you, as Group Commander, were being entrusted with their safety. It was a responsibility calculated to make one feel gravely inadequate. This particular convoy consisted of ten great ships, holding nearly 25,000 men. The money value of the ships was upwards of $35,000,000. And I an impecunious naval officer, whose salary from the Government was only $600 a month! I suppose we must believe that for such service there is more than money as the compensating weight to cause the scales to balance.
I cannot resist the temptation, before I leave the subject of trooping to tell of an episode concerning the safety of our soldiers. While in France on one of my first trips, the Antilles, a transport, had been torpedoed while returning to this country, about a day out of Brest. The survivors were brought to that port. Their accounts were that the pillow type of life preserver being furnished by the Navy to the points in the transports were most ineffective. Men from the sunken Antilles had been picked up out of the sea drowned with their life preservers on, but improperly tied or not tied at all. The result was that the two pillows of kapok floated with the man's head between them, but held so close to the water that he had drowned from the incessant wash of the waves in his face. He was unable to keep his head high p179 enough above the water's surface. We had this type of life preserver in all our transports. I knew it was almost impossible in my ship to depend upon the men to keep the tie‑ties secured about their waists. In an emergency it was certain that they would not be tied, even thought about, until too late, or the ties would slip or become unfastened. Also, the pillow type was most uncomfortable to wear on board ship, and I had found it well-nigh impossible to force men to wear them at all times at sea, which was expected. The loss of life in the Antilles disaster proved the utter worthlessness of the pillow type.
On arrival in New York, I gave my story at once to Admiral Gleaves. He directed me to go to the navy yards at once and tell the story to the Naval Constructor and to say I had the Admiral's full approval to use every possible means and effort to have this dangerous life preserved condemned and discarded.
I saw the Naval Constructor, Captain H. T. Wright, whom I knew well, and told him the tale. He was tremendously interested. He called Washington on the telephone immediately and was promptly told that nothing could be done. That it was too late, because a contract for millions of the pillow type, which had been approved by a Navy Board of officers after thorough test, already had been signed.
I had advocated to both Admiral Gleaves and Captain Wright jacket or vest type of kapok life preserver. These, I knew from personal experience before the war in submarines and in my own ship, were efficient and could be worn by the men in comfort all the time at sea. They were like a vest and gave both warmth and security, and could be kept tied; and even if untied, they had a far better buoyant effect than the other. I had seen men work with the vest type on with no discomfort. We had some in my ship, and they were in great demand. Wright was like a bulldog. He was absolutely convinced and determined to go to the very top for results. Now he had the Chief Constructor himself on the phone. I heard Wright say:
"We must cancel that contract at once and stand the financial loss. These reports are authentic and prove that the pillow type is a menace to life. The Navy wants the jacket type now. They may cost twice as much but cost is of no concern. The new type must be rushed. What we want to do is to save men not drown them."
He turned to me finally after hanging up the telephone, sticking p180 out his strong chin. He was a small man in physical stature, but in energy, fortitude, and will power, he was a giant. He said:
"That's a good morning's work. Let's go out to lunch." He told me the Bureau had agreed to cancel and condemn the pillow type and would at once sign contracts for immediate delivery for millions of the jackets.
The jackets proved their worth and are in use in the Navy today and have saved many lives. It was, as Wright said, a good morning's work.
It is often queer while one is writing of the past how thoughts pop into one's head and will not be denied expression. When I returned to this country after the Von Steuben's lucky escape from a torpedo in mid‑Atlantic, I said to a friend:
"I felt that I never again need be concerned whether I'm giving money's worth to the Navy. I saved a five-million-dollar-ship for the Navy's use and that represents more value in money than I would receive in pay in 695 years of service."
Early in September 1918, I completed the full year designated for commanding a transport. The work was supposed to be nerve-racking, whether I thought it so or not. I was ordered to the Third Naval District at New York, as Chief of Staff to the Commandant, Admiral N. R. Usher. Early in the war Admiral Sims had asked for me to be sent to London for duty under him. The Chief of Bureau of Navigation, Admiral L. C. Palmer, who as a lieutenant had served with me on my father's staff in China, told me there was no chance of such orders being given me. Of course I understood the reason. My Nemesis was still pursuing. Why I was given this new duty in New York, I do not know, unless Palmer intimated to the Secretary that the duty was undesirable, which it was not by any means.
I relieved Captain Louis R. de Steiguer, who energetically had built up the district forces to a size almost greater than our whole naval personnel before the war. Also, I was in command of the forces afloat of the district. This was a Navy in itself. There were under my personal direction, as the Admiral's Chief of Staff, a number of activities. There was a mine-sweeper force of the large tug type, totaling from fifteen to twenty vessels. Their base was at Staten Island, and they kept the channels swept clear of mines and maintained a cleared course to the entrance to the harbor. Then there were a half-dozen or more destroyers that came and went and were used to escort convoys through our sea p181 areas. About fifty‑odd subchasers, with their base at Bay Ridge, and I have lost count of the number of small converted yachts, acting as patrol vessels. Besides there were three air stations; at Rockaway, on the North Shore of Long Island Sound, and at the tip end of Long Island, near Montauk. There were big naval barracks and training stations, repair basins for small vessels, and every useful activity required. The Coast Guard was under the Navy Department, and its personnel formed part of the Navy. The District had full jurisdiction over the harbor of New York. It was a grand detail and had its possibilities coming when the U‑boats would come to this side in numbers, as we were all expecting they would. It was a twenty-four-hour job. I could never be out of touch by telephone or radio. There was a direct line from my office to my room at home. There was but one thing missing to make it complete. There was no motor car with the job. I soon obtained one. It was a gift car to the Government, and I appropriated it for my use, cruelly and ruthlessly, from a young commanding officer of an air station. It was a sport model, good for •eighty miles an hour, which was speed with a capital S in 1918.
Our most important work was to safeguard shipping entering and leaving New York harbor and protecting convoys of troops and supplies constantly sailing for France. I found a splendid organization under me and a marvelous man to serve with in Admiral Usher. I admired him greatly. He was a dashing officer of the old school.
My services in carrying troops across stood me in good stead. It prevented me from acquiring a rather unaccountable timidity, which seemed to be evident among many of those who had not served in the war zone in Europe. People over there became callous and possibly too careless of danger. On this side it seemed the other way. I remember almost being fired out of the Office of Naval Operations for asking where the war was being fought, over here or over there. I found them all most sensitive.
As an example of many things being done on this side, which, after my frequent trips through the war zone, seemed to me senseless and often idiotic, I recall one time I was returning from France in the Von Steuben and bound for Newport News for coal, then for Philadelphia for a load of marines. We arrived at the Capes of the Chesapeake several hours before daylight, intending to go right one. A small yacht met us, and its commanding p182 officer hailed and said: "You can't enter until sunrise." I asked why. The answer came back quite frankly from a young reserve officer with a sense of humor: "Because those are our orders. There are imaginary contact mines in the channel, a constructive submarine boom and net across it, and the make-believe gate doesn't open until sunrise. Now that you know the worst, you can use your discretion, but don't say I didn't warn you." The young officer did his best to appear serious for the benefit of his crew and pretended to be offended at me because I laughed at his description of our harbor protection measures.
The Von Steuben recently had lain in Quiberon Bay in France awaiting escort to sea. There were all lights burning and the entrance was navigable for submarines, with no mines, no net, and no gate. Yet here, three thousand miles away from the war, all these foolish, time-consuming, camouflaged precautions were being taken. Meanwhile, if I had obeyed these idiotic instructions, my ship would have lain outside, stopped, and an easy target for a submarine that might happen along. The mines, net, and bomb were fictitious but the submarine might not be. I told the officer I would stand the chances and we went inside.
One day, while chief of staff in New York, I was inspecting the communications set up in the Whitehall building near the Battery. District Headquarters and my office were in the Stewart building at 280 Broadway. I was handed a radio from a merchant ship outside the harbor. It read: "Sighted enemy submarine •five miles south of the Ambrose Light Ship." I did not believe its accuracy, and anyway I felt there was nothing to be done by me. It would be taken care of automatically by my subordinates, and reports made as to the movements of mine sweepers, subchasers, yachts, flying boats, and blimps. A few minutes later I received a phone message to come to the Admiral's office at once. I used my traffic pass and made a quick trip up crowded Broadway. This sailing through traffic without a stop makes one appear important and superior.
When I reached the office, I found the Admiral there, pacing up and down rather nervously. He exclaimed:
"Did you see this?" waving the radio in his hand.
I answered that I had. Then I saw my assistant for operation, Commander H. A. Pearson, trying to get my attention. I could see by Pearson's face that the Admiral had ordered something of which he did not approve. Pearson was a top officer. He kept track p183 of every move afloat, merchant ships and warships, and made all the details for escort duty. He was quiet, efficient, and thorough, and in his office all the time. I do not know when he slept.
"Well," said the Admiral, "there were three convoys sailing today, as you know. One at three, a merchant one, and two troop convoys, one at six and one at seven. I have ordered all sailings stopped."
"My God," slipped out before I could cut it.
The Admiral regarded me rather fiercely. "Well, what would you?" he snapped.
"Start them again," I replied as calmly as I could.
The admiral glared at me for an instant and then at Pearson. He seemed to see in Pearson's honest face that he was in accord with me.
"Do it," the Admiral exclaimed and walked out of the office.
The Admiral was no different from many who had not been in the war zones abroad. You learn there that you cannot play safe; if you do, you will lose. It was necessary that these troops and supplies get to France promptly. The merchant convoy to sail consisted of over seventy-five ships, loaded with war supplies of all kinds and foods. The troop convoys, one a British, contained from forty to fifty thousand men. Holding these up even an hour or so is a victory for the submarine. As a matter of fact the U‑boat turned out to be one of our own •110‑foot chasers. The wireless of all merchant ships in port were sealed and word had to be sent around by subchaser that convoys would be delayed two hours each. I went outside in my flagship, a yacht, and saw the convoys clear. All were out by midnight.
As Chief of Staff, I frequently had to consult with New York City officials. Our office had considerable business from time to time with Mayor Hylan. Grover Whalen was then the Mayor's secretary, and I found him a most expeditious person with whom to do business. One could always get action from Whalen. I met him also frequently among mutual friends and even then realized that he was a politician who would go places. I doubt if he has yet reached his ceiling.
Even during war the politicians maintain control, and the military and naval men must know how to win politics on their side. I have two officers in mind that during the war played politics to the great advantage of the Navy. I am telling this because it seems typical, but it happened far from New York.
p184 In war a man's character seems to develop quickly. Almost invariably it is the man who does not fear to accept responsibility that reaches the top. One of the men in question was Captain W. A. , afterwards an admiral and head of our Department of Aeronautics. When war began, Moffett was in charge of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, near Chicago. Moffett visioned a great training station there with all the middle west to draw upon for naval recruits. The Navy Department was reluctant to spend the money. It could not see eye to eye with Moffett. However, there was one man that could. That was Admiral Leigh Palmer, Chief of Bureau of Navigation in the Navy Department, under whose administration training stations came. Moffett went to Palmer, so the story goes, and Palmer accepted the full responsibility and told Moffett to build his station as he had planned it.
Moffett was not unaware of the need of using politics and surrounded himself with a staff of men to whom he gave commissions in the Naval Reserve, to advise and help him in making his dream come true. These men knew the political game. One of this staff is today a great editor of one of our best magazines, Sumner Blossom of the American Magazine, and his account of the creation of that station during the war reads like a romance. With such men to help him, things got under way promptly. Moffett himself was a born promoter and knew how to turn the spotlight on what he was doing. He was a spectacular character, which he proved at Vera Cruz when our sailors found themselves under a heavy fire from Mexicans concealed in houses in the city, especially from the Mexican Naval Academy. Moffett brought his cruiser, the Chester, into the inner harbor, mooring alongside the Plaza sea wall, and with its guns silenced much of the opposition. For this he received a medal of honor.
When the new training station was finished, his friends in Chicago arranged a big banquet, at which the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, was the guest of honor. The orator of the occasion spoke eloquently of the great station which he attributed to the vision and the patriotism of the guest of honor. I am told the Secretary was game enough then to accept the high tribute to him and made a great speech praising Moffett and the station. When he saw what he had heard so eloquently described, he was only too glad, being a politician first and an administrator second, which is only natural, to sign the blank check, making p185 everyone happy. The guiding hand, of course, was Palmer's, and the Secretary was wise enough to know that Palmer would not let the Navy down. The station was a monument to both Moffett and Palmer.
Playing politics in the Navy also has been a game that many play to their advantage. Few men singly can rise to great prominence in the Navy. They must, as in politics, acquire a following. Naval officers of rank have often combined to promote each other's interests. The lone wolf, no matter how good an officer he may be, seldom rises to great heights by his own efforts alone. I recall, after I was promoted to rear admiral, officers came to me and suggested that I combine and play for a certain position in the Department, which once obtained put me in line for a high position in the Fleet. I am afraid I seemed lukewarm over that method. I did not follow the well-meant advice. The men were my friends and believed in me. Maybe I am not the type to become a good politician. It just was not in me. I certainly never have approved of the method.
When the armistice was signed, I felt myself a most unhappy and disappointed man. The saying has it that war is hell after it is over. While the war was on, the work I was doing was both interesting and exciting. When it ended, red tape took charge again. I saw that I had been caught in a highly onerous job of retrenchment. My penchant was expansion, with the sky the limit. That was easy. The New York Naval District, the most important in the country, had expanded in a year from a small chicken, hardly hatched, to a full-sized young rooster. Now, under Admiral Usher, I would find myself at the head of an administration soon to be given the stupendous task, a Houdini trick, of putting that rooster back into its egg shell, and I hated the thought of doing it.
When the crowds on Broadway went wild with delight, I was a ghost at the feast. I remember meeting Mrs. William Randolph Hearst on that street near the district office building. She was smiling gaily, surrounded by a host of Naval officers and ladies. When I appeared looking as if I had lost my best friend, she called to me:
"Isn't it wonderful!"
"What?" I asked.
"The armistice of course. The war's over," she laughed.
"Yes, but what is going to become of all this?" I asked with an expressive wave of the hand. "We saw it all build up and then p186 we saw it work, and just when the U‑boats are starting to come over and give us a chance to get at them on this side, someone pulls an armistice on us. Think how we shall have to shrink almost to nothing."
She laughed heartily at my long face.
Probably without giving thought to the easing of the horrible suffering on the battlefields, I had dwelt too much on the wonderful possibilities of fighting the U‑boats on this side of the ocean, and now that dream was finished.
After starting the task of retrenchment and getting it running slowly, but apparently smoothly, I was relieved by a classmate, Captain Powers Symington, and took command of the Connecticut, the battleship in which I had made the World Cruise in 1908. I sailed for France to bring home some of our troops. We were utilizing even our old battleships for this service. While in Brest I made a tour by motor car to the battlefields, and after that I was no longer sorry for the armistice.
With all my frank disappointment because of the armistice, I was in no sense a militarist. I am convinced that naval officers are more practical in their desire for peace than all the pacifists. The pacifist leaves the nation unarmed at the mercy of every bully nation. The naval officer's receipt for maintaining peace is to provide an effective navy and air force relatively so great that no power would dare engage us in war, and a regular army and reserve, in size and training commensurate to our wealth and population to guard our soil from being invaded. That is the only way known so far to keep us out of some other man's war.
On this visit to France, I was told by our Naval Attaché in Paris, Admiral A. T. Long, that the French Government had offered to Admiral Gleaves, who already had been decorated with the Legion of Honor himself, five others of the same decoration for the officers of his Cruiser and Transport Force, and that Admiral Gleaves had put my name down for one of the five. It was a distinct honor, and naturally I was highly elated at my good fortune. I received the coveted decoration of the Cross of the Legion of Honor from the hand of the French Ambassador in Washington a few months later.
a Captain Stirling's Nemesis was a kind one. On May 31, 1918, six months after he left its command, the President Lincoln was sunk by a German U‑boat, with the loss of twenty-six lives, and one officer taken prisoner.
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