Summary of Transport Operations During World War 1
Group of Sailors on the Transport Ship "Princess Matoika" a Few Days Before Reaching France, 13 May 1919. GGA Image ID # 18cf9ee099
Previous to 1917 the idea of a United States overseas expeditionary force numbered by millions was regarded as a remote if not impossible contingency. Consequently no extensive peace-time preparations had been made for such an undertaking.
The declaration of war with Germany found the United States without a transport fleet and without a merchant marine capable of supplying ships for transporting a large military expedition. At this time the Cruiser and Transport Force had not been developed.
Of the twenty-four cruisers later gathered together for war service in this command, some were in the Atlantic Fleet, some on special duty, some unassigned, while still others were in the navy yards in reserve, manned by reduced complements.
Out of the forty-eight naval transports engaged in carrying troops abroad only two were then in the naval service. These were the Henderson, still under construction, but nearing completion, and the Hancock, an old vessel of slow speed, later withdrawn from overseas transport duty because of her unseaworthy condition. The Army had a few transports, but they were not suitable or ready for trans-Atlantic service.
Thus it was that our Navy entered a new field of operations. Without warning, the Navy Department and the War Department were confronted with the problem of sending to Europe hundreds of thousands of soldiers —how many, no one could tell.
Joffre, in an interview with the Secretary of War in May 1917, said that he thought that 400,000 would be our limit, and that one French port would be sufficient to receive them. How amazed he would have been could he have looked into the crystal and seen what this country transported to France in men and material during the next eighteen months.
It is a remarkable and noteworthy example of American ingenuity and zeal that, starting with almost nothing at the beginning of the war, a United States naval transport service was built up which carried almost a million soldiers to Europe.
In spite of the determined efforts of submarines to prevent it, their numerous attempts were frustrated, and these troops were landed in Europe. This was accomplished without the loss of a single soldier by the hand of the enemy.
The splendid cooperation of the Army made this possible. The Army organized and developed an efficient system for loading and unloading the ships at the terminal points. The Navy transported the troops and safeguarded them en route.
General Ludendorff’s book reveals the promises made by the German naval chiefs that their submarines would prevent the transportation of United States troops.
When the soldiers began to arrive the German people and the German press began to complain bitterly that these promises had not been kept. In spite of renewed promises and redoubled efforts our transports continued to arrive without losses while East-bound.
This resulted in the fall of von Capelle. His successor, Admiral von Mann, was equally unsuccessful, although for a time submarines were diverted from trade routes to concentrate their efforts against our transports.
When the British steamer Justicia was sunk the German Admiralty officially announced that it was the Leviathan loaded with American soldiers.
The consequent jubilation in the German press, followed by depression when the truth was ascertained, is an indication of how eagerly the enemy sought to revive the morale of the people by successful operations against our troopships.
On homeward-bound voyages, however, the Navy was not so fortunate. In a measure this was due to need of concentrating maximum naval escort protection on troop-laden convoys.
Frequently this necessitated lighter escort for the ships returning, and it was on these homeward-bound vessels that the submarines scored their successes.
The United States Transports Antilles, President Lincoln, and Covington were torpedoed and sunk. The Finland and Mount Vernon were torpedoed but were able to reach port for repairs. The United States armored cruiser San Diego struck a mine laid by a German submarine and was sunk.
The service was not without hazard, as is shown by the fact that more than half of the war casualties in the United States Navy were suffered in the Cruiser and Transport Force. This was to be expected because the large deep draft ships were the chief prey sought by the enemy U-boats.
Nor were the enemy guns and torpedoes the only menace—danger from fire and internal damage was enhanced by the machinations of enemy secret agents, and the likelihood of collision was increased by the necessity of maneuvering without lights in convoy formation vessels manned for the most part by inexperienced crews.
On November 11, 1918, when the Armistice was signed, the Cruiser and Transport Force of the United States Fleet numbered twenty-four cruisers and forty- two transports, manned, exclusive of troops carried, by about 3,000 officers and 42,000 men. This is in addition to the 453 cargo ships which the Navy maimed and operated with 5,000 officers and 45,000 enlisted men.
After the signing of the Armistice the United States Transport Fleet expanded still more and developed into a fleet of 149 ships manned by 4,238 officers and 59,030 men, with the gratifying result that 86,7 per cent of our overseas army was brought home under the Stars and Stripes.
The return movement began immediately after the Armistice and continued at a much more rapid rate than was attained in going over. In June 1919, our Naval transports, which had been increased in number by seventy-one ships, brought back in 115 ships 314,167 combatant troops, while foreign ships carried an additional 26,825.
The maximum number transported during the war—by all ships in one month—was 311,359. From November 1918 to July 1919, a total of 1,493,626 had been returned to the United States.
The older battleships and armored cruisers were also used in the repatriation of our soldiers. The United States Navy alone transported across the Atlantic a grand total of 2,511,047 soldiers.
The scope of this book is a brief narrative of the adventures and achievements of the United States Cruiser and Transport Force compiled from the official files with such explanatory notes and summaries as appear necessary for reason of coherence and dearness.
It has been authoritatively said that the best way to write history is to let those who made it tell their own story in their own words. In the following pages it has been attempted to use this method and they are made up largely of quotations from those who took part in the operations.
Vice Admiral Albert Gleves, USN, "Summary of Transport Operations," in A History of the Transport Service: Adventures and Experiences of United States Transports and Cruisers in the World War, New York: George H. Doran Company, 1921, pp. 28-31.