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FreightWaves Classics: Yachts and motorboats helped defend the United States in World War I

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Background 

World War I began in August 1914. The United States remained neutral in the war until Congress declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917.

On May 18, 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which authorized the federal government to temporarily expand the military through conscription (a draft). The act eventually required all men between the ages of 21 to 45 to register for military service. Under the Selective Service Act, approximately 24 million men registered for the draft. Of the total U.S. troops sent to Europe, 2.8 million men were drafted, and two million men volunteered. 

To relieve its British and European allies already on the battlefront, the United States Navy was tasked with transporting millions of American soldiers and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean to France. 

The battleship USS New York. (Photo: navy.mil)

Immediately following the declaration of war, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ordered the fleet to mobilize. “The U.S. Navy, however, was unprepared for action. Every associated function in regard to naval warfare had to be planned before placed into execution, such as the planning of overseas bases (construction and placement) and the ability to transport troops (employing millions in a matter of months).” It began deploying whatever ships were available on convoy duty and arming merchant ships with small naval guns manned by armed guard detachments. It then began a crash effort to build new warships, munitions, airships and other articles of war.

To help meet its new obligations, a number of privately owned yachts and large motorboats were commissioned as naval vessels. The yachts were large enough for trans-Atlantic crossings and duty; the motor boats were used in coastal areas of the Atlantic Ocean and harbors on the Eastern Seaboard. Once commissioned, these ships were crewed by Navy personnel and played a key role in naval operations. Most of the yachts sailed to Europe for service; the smaller motorboats were used for harbor and coastal patrol and defense. 

On April 2, 1917 (prior to the U.S. declaration of war), the Navy Department ordered the appointment of a Board of Appraisal under Captain Alexander S. Halstead to appraise and set values on civilian vessels that the department considered acquiring by purchase or charter for military use.

Three days later, on April 5, President Woodrow Wilson issued Executive Order 2584, which  established defensive sea areas and regulations for selected areas of the U.S. coastline.

On April 28 the U.S. Navy acquired the yacht Kanawha II from John Borden and commissioned the ship on the same day. It became the USS Kanawha (SP-130), with Lieutenant Commander John Borden commanding. The Kanawha was renamed USS Piqua.

USS Piqua (formerly USS Kanawha) dressed with flags on July 4, 1918, as flagship of the U.S. District Commander at Lorient, France. (Photo: wikiwand.com)
USS Piqua (formerly USS Kanawha) dressed with flags on July 4, 1918, as flagship of the U.S. District Commander at Lorient, France. (Photo: wikiwand.com)

USS Riete

On August 5, 1917, 105 years ago today, and some four months after the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allied Powers, a motorboat named Riette was commissioned into the U.S. Navy at the New York Navy Yard. (That shipyard was later named the Brooklyn Navy Yard.) 

The Riette as a private motorboat in 1916 or 1917. (Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center)
The Riette as a private motorboat in 1916 or 1917. (Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Riette was built in 1916 by the New York-based Twentieth Century Yacht, Launch, and Engine Company. Originally named Amalia III, the boat was renamed Temegan II and then renamed again as Riette. The motorboat had been owned by Dr. George G. Shelton of Ridgefield, Connecticut. The Navy had acquired Riette from him on May 19.

Once commissioned into the Navy the Riette became USS Riette (SP-107). Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joseph McCaffrey became the boat’s commander. During the course of her wartime service as a patrol vessel, USS Riette patrolled near the present-day village of Port Jefferson on the north shore of Long Island; the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Iona Island within the part of the Hudson River in New York’s Rockland County. Riette was also stationed at the New York Navy Yard.

Riette continued to serve in the Navy for several months after the end of war. She was decommissioned on August 14, 1919. On October 30 of that year, she was sold to a private party. As confirmed by subsequent yacht registers, Riette remained in service as a civilian motorboat up until at least 1958.

A massive smoke cloud rises into the sky moments after the Halifax harbor explosion. (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)
A massive smoke cloud rises into the sky moments after the Halifax harbor explosion. (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

A huge explosion

In a war full of tragedies and human misery, an incident in Halifax, Nova Scotia was among the worst. On the morning of December 6, 1917, a tremendous blast ripped through the town. The explosion “destroyed 3,000 dwellings, killed more than 1,600 people and injured 9,000. Many of the dead were children.” 

What was the cause of this deadly disaster? Earlier that morning the French freighter Mont Blanc, which had a cargo of 5,000 tons of TNT, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian steamship, in Halifax’s outer harbor. 

Part of the destruction is seen in this photo. (Photo: canadianencyclopedia.ca)
Part of the destruction in Halifax. (Photo: canadianencyclopedia.ca)

After the collision, a fire began aboard the Mont Blanc. The ship’s crew tried to extinguish the fire, rather than scuttle the ship. However, when the fire reached the TNT, an explosion equal to a small nuclear blast occurred. “The Mont Blanc virtually disappeared, and the shock waves threw the Imo ashore.” 

The Mont Blanc disaster in Halifax harbor ranks as one of the worst maritime tragedies in history. The ship had sailed from New York on its way to Europe, one of hundreds that loaded extremely explosive cargoes in New York bound for the war in Europe. 

Halifax residents dig through rubble five days after the explosion. (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)
Halifax residents dig through rubble five days after the explosion. (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

It was the Halifax disaster that caused American leaders to empower the Coast Guard to ensure that a similar incident never happened in the United States.

The USCG Cutter McCullough. (Photo: sanctuaries.noaa.gov)
The USCG Cutter McCullough. (Photo: sanctuaries.noaa.gov)

The U.S. Coast Guard

After the U.S. declaration of war, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) became a part of the Department of the Navy. A coded dispatch was transmitted from Washington to every Coast Guard cutter and shore station. Officers and enlisted men, vessels and units, were transferred to the operational control of the Navy. Therefore, the Navy was augmented by 223 commissioned officers, approximately 4,500 enlisted men, 47 vessels of all types, and 279 stations scattered along the entire U.S. coastline. Many of the men and vessels of the USCG were transferred over time to Europe or the Caribbean. 

Crew members of the USCGC Tampa. On September 26th, 1918, the cutter was torpedoed by a U-boat. The cutter sank killing all 131 persons on board. (Photo: history.uscg.mil)
Crew members of the USCGC Tampa. On September 26th, 1918, the cutter was torpedoed by a U-boat. The cutter sank killing all 131 persons on board. (Photo: history.uscg.mil)

During World War I, the Coast Guard continued to enforce the various rules and regulations that governed the anchorage and movements of vessels in U.S. harbors and territorial waters. The Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, gave the Coast Guard further power to protect merchant shipping from sabotage. This act included “the safeguarding of waterfront property, supervision of vessel movements, establishment of anchorages and restricted areas, and the right to control and remove people aboard ships.”

Troops, munitions, vehicles, supplies and other war materiel sailed primarily from the nation’s  East Coast ports. The majority of the nation’s munitions shipments left from New York’s harbor. For one and a half years, more than 1,600 vessels, carrying more than 345 million tons of explosives, sailed from New York harbor. 

In 1918, the USCG division in charge of the Port of New York was the largest single command in the Coast Guard. It was made up of over 1,400 officers and men, four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tugboats and five harbor cutters.

The USS Arizona in New York Harbor during World War I. (Photo: westchestermagazine.com)
The USS Arizona in New York Harbor during World War I. (Photo: westchestermagazine.com)

Action along the Eastern Seaboard

While attacks by German raiders and U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico were much heavier during World War II, there were isolated incidents that took place off the East Coast of the United States. They served as deadly reminders of why patrols were necessary.

The Imperial German Ensign and U.S. media coverage of the Attack on Orleans. (Image: Public Domain)
The Imperial German Ensign and U.S. media coverage of the Attack on Orleans. (Image: Public Domain)

On the morning of July 21, 1918, German submarine U-156, was attempting to cut the trans-Atlantic communications cable from Orleans to Brest, France. The submarine crew became aware of the tugboat Perth Amboy towing three barges and the three-masted schooner Lansford. 

U-156 surfaced about three miles off Orleans and fired its two deck guns at the tug and the barges and ship in tow. Perth Amboy was heavily damaged, while the schooner and barges were sunk.

Alerted by the firing, two Curtiss HS-2L flying boats from the recently completed Naval Air Station Chatham dropped bombs aimed at the U-156; however, the bombs failed to explode – whether due to technical problems or because the airmen were inexperienced at arming the bombs. In retaliation, U-156 elevated its guns to fire at the aircraft. Those shells missed, but some landed in a deserted marsh and on Nauset Beach. This action gave the town of Orleans the distinction of being the only location in the United States that received enemy fire during World War I. 

Station No. 40 of the United States Coast Guard launched a surfboat under enemy shellfire; the crew rowed out to rescue the 32 sailors trapped aboard the tug and barges. After firing 147 shells in the hour-long engagement, U-156 submerged, headed north and subsequently attacked other Allied ships. 

Newspapers dubbed the engagement the “Battle of Orleans” and offered a reward for the discovery of German submarine supply bases in the Bay of Fundy. The “attack” on Orleans was the only Central Powers attack on the contiguous United States during World War I. It was also the first time that the United States was shelled by artillery of an external power since the Siege of Fort Texas in 1846.

On July 22, 1918 – the day after the “Battle of Orleans” – the armored cruiser USS San Diego suffered an explosion while heading from the Portsmouth Naval Yard to New York City. The ship was northeast of Fire Island when an explosion occurred on her port side below the waterline at the engine room. The explosion prevented a watertight hatch from closing, which led the engine room and a fire room to flood in minutes. 

The USS San Diego in 1916. (Photo: naval-history.net)
The USS San Diego in 1915. (Photo: naval-history.net)

The San Diego’s captain ordered his men to battle stations, and the ship began firing but had no real target(s). The ship continued to take on water; It was soon evident that the ship would sink and the order to abandon ship was given. Only 28 minutes following the explosion, San Diego sank, taking six crewmen with her. No U-boat was reported in the area by any other source. Eventually, the sinking was blamed on a sea mine that may have been laid by U-156. USS San Diego was the only U.S. Navy capital ship lost during World War I.

Diamond Shoals Lightship. (Photo: mycg.uscg.mil)
Diamond Shoals Lightship. (Photo: mycg.uscg.mil)

The only lightship lost in combat during World War I was Diamond Shoal Lightship No. 71. On August 6, 1918, the ship was on patrol off North Carolina’s Diamond Shoals. The lightship encountered the SS Merak, a cargo ship that was sinking because of U-140. The survivors were rescued; LV-71 sent a warning to friendly ships that a U-boat was in the area. The U-boat heard the message and returned. Upon arrival, she surfaced and the U-boat’s crew demanded the Americans abandon the lightship. Because the ship was unarmed, her crew had no choice but to row ashore. U-140 destroyed the ship with its deck gun. 

A World War I convoy of ships. Among their other duties, commissioned yachts helped protect convoys within a few hundred miles  of their European destinations. (Photo: history.navy.mil)
A World War I convoy of ships. Among their other duties, commissioned yachts helped protect convoys within a few hundred miles of their European destinations. (Photo: history.navy.mil)

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.