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Alcedo Sunk by Torpedo - 1917

The Converted Yacht USS Alcedo SP-166, Sunk by German Submarine UC-71, 75 Miles Southwest of Brest, France.

The Converted Yacht USS Alcedo SP-166, Sunk by German Submarine UC-71, 75 Miles Southwest of Brest, France. GGA Image ID # 1976e38272

On November 5, 1917, the converted yacht Alcedo (SP 166), which had been on almost constant escort duty and had rescued 117 survivors of the Antilles when that vessel was torpedoed, was sunk by enemy submarine while escorting a convoy from Quiberon. The night was dark, the weather hazy, and even the convoy's ships were not visible.

One officer and twenty men of the crew were lost. Commander W. T. Conn, Jr., the commanding officer, having written his night orders, had left the bridge and turned in when the torpedo struck. He gave this personal account of the sinking of the vessel:

"At or about 1:45 A. M., November 5, while sleeping in an emergency cabin, immediately under the upper bridge, I was awakened by a commotion and immediately received a report from some man unknown, 'Submarine, captain.' 

I jumped out of bed and went to the upper bridge, and the officer of the deck, Lieutenant Paul, stated he had sounded 'general quarters,' had seen submarine on the surface about 300 yards on the port bow, and the submarine had fired a torpedo, which was approaching.

I took station on the upper bridge's port wing and saw a torpedo approaching about 200 feet distant. Lieutenant Paul had put the full rudder right before I arrived on the bridge, hoping to avoid the torpedo. 

The ship answered slowly to her helm, however, and before any other action could be taken, the torpedo I saw struck the ship's side immediately under the port forward chainplates, the detonation occurring instantly. I was thrown down and for a few seconds dazed by falling debris and water.

Submarine Alarm Sounded

"Upon regaining my feet, I sounded the submarine alarm on the siren, to call all hands if they had not heard the general alarm gong, and to direct the attention of the convoy and other escorting vessels. Called to the forward gun crews to see if at stations, but by this time realized that the topgallant forecastle was practically awash. The foremast had fallen, carrying away radio aerial. I called out to abandon ship.

"I then left the upper bridge and went into the chart house to obtain the ship's position from the chart, but, as there was no light, could not see. I went out of the chart house and met the navigator, Lieutenant Leonard, and asked him if he had sent any radio, and he replied 'No.' I directed him and accompanied him to the main deck and told him to take charge of cutting away forward dories and life rafts.

"I then proceeded along starboard gangway and found a man lying face down in gangway. I stooped and rolled him over and spoke to him but received no reply and was unable to learn his identity, owing to the darkness. It is my opinion that this man was dead.

"I continued to the after the end of the ship, took station on after-gun platform. I realized that the ship was filling rapidly, and her bulwarks amidships were level with the water. I directed the after dories and life rafts to be cut away and thrown overboard and ordered the men in the immediate vicinity to jump over the side, intending to follow them.

Captain Carried Down by Ship's Suction

"Before I could jump, however, the ship listed heavily to port, plunging by the head, and sank, carrying me down with the suction. However, I experienced no difficulty in getting clear, and when I came to the surface, I swam a few yards to a life raft, to which were clinging three men. We climbed on board this raft and, upon looking around, observed Doyle, chief boatswain's mate, and one other man in the whaleboat. We paddled to the whaleboat and embarked from the life raft.

"The whaleboat was about half full of water, and we immediately started bailing and then to rescue men from the wreckage, and quickly filled the whaleboat to more than its maximum capacity, so that no others could be taken aboard. We then picked up two overturned dories which were nested together, separated them, and righted them, only to find out that their sterns had been broken.

We then located another nest of dories, which were separated and righted and found to be seaworthy. Transferred some men from the whaleboat into these dories and proceeded to pick up other men from wreckage. 

During this time, cries were heard from two men in the water some distance away who were holding on to wreckage and calling for assistance. It is believed that these men were Ernest M. Harrison, mess attendant, and John Winne, Jr., seaman. As soon as the dories were available, we proceeded to where they were last seen but could find no trace of them.

Submarine Appeared Among Life Boats

"About this time, which was probably an hour after the ship sank, a German submarine approached the scene of torpedoing and lay to near some of the dories and life rafts. She was in the light condition, and from my observation of her, I am of the opinion that she was of the U-27-31 type.

This has been confirmed by having a number of men and officers check the silhouette book. The submarine was probably 100 yards distant from my whaleboat, and I heard no remarks from anyone on the submarine, although I observed three persons standing on top of the conning tower.

After laying on the surface for about half an hour, the submarine steered off and submerged.

"I then proceeded with the whaleboat and two dories searching through the wreckage to make sure that no survivors were left in the water. No other people being seen; at 4:30 A. M., we started away from the scene of the disaster.

"The Alcedo was sunk, as near as I can estimate, 75 miles west true of the north end of Belle Ile. The torpedo struck the ship at 1:46 by the deck's watch officer, and the same watch stopped at 1:54 A. M., November 5, this showing that the ship remained afloat eight minutes.

Men in Boats Rowed for Many Hours

"The flare of Penmark Light was visible, and I headed for it and ascertained the course by Polaris to be approximately northeast. We rowed until 1:15 when Penmark Lighthouse was sighted. Continued rowing until 5:15 P. M., when Pen-mark Lighthouse was distant about 2 ½ miles.

We were then picked up by French torpedo boat 275, and upon going on board, I requested the commanding officer to radio immediately to Brest reporting the fact of torpedoing and that 3 officers and 40 men were proceeding to Brest.

The French gave all assistance possible for the comfort of the survivors. We arrived at Brest about 11 P. M. Those requiring medical attention were sent to the hospital, and the others were sent off to the Panther to be quartered.

"Upon arrival at Brest, I was informed that two other dories containing Lieutenant H. R. Leonard, Lieutenant H. A. Peterson, Passed Assistant Surgeon Paul 0. M. Andreae and 25 men had landed at Pen March Point. This was my first information that these officers and men had been saved, as they had not been seen by any of my party at the scene of torpedoing."

Extensive System Established on French Coast

Rear Admiral (now Vice Admiral) Henry B. Wilson, on November 1, 1917, took command of all U. S. Naval Forces Operating in French waters. 

Rear Admiral Fletcher had been detached from command of the Patrol Squadrons on October 20, turning over Captain T. P. Magruder's command.

Admiral Wilson put into effect a comprehensive system which embraced not only the patrol and escort ships operating in French waters but also the Navy's activities in French ports, whose facilities had to be greatly enlarged to accommodate a large number of American troops and the immense quantities of supplies and munitions arriving. 

A number of aviation bases were also established on the French Coast.

Captain Hutch I. Cone was made "Commander U. S. Naval Aviation Forces, Foreign Service," and exercised general supervision over our aviation activities in England, as well as France. 

Admiral Wilson built up a notably efficient organization which, working in close connection with the French Navy, soon curtailed submarine activities in that region and made comparatively safe the French ports at which American troops were landed.

John Wilber Jenkins, Our Navy's Part in the Great War, New York: John H. Eggers Company, Inc., 1919, pp. 19-21.

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