Warship Wednesday, July 12, 2017: Woodrow’s biggest German

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, July 12, 2017: Woodrow’s biggest German

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 71

Here we see the armed troop transport USS Leviathan (Shore Patrol vessel #1326) in harbor, with tugs in attendance at her starboard bow, 1918. Note her distinctive dazzle camouflage scheme which she would wear throughout the Great War, in U.S. service anyway. At the time, she was billed as the biggest ship in the World.

Built by Blohm & Voss at Hamburg as SS Vaterland for Germany’s Hamburg America Line (HAPAG), she was the largest passenger ship in the world upon her completion, superseding her near-sister SS Imperator (who was 44 feet shorter), but later being superseded in turn by the last ship of her class, SS Bismarck (who was six feet longer).

How big was she? Some 950-feet overall and 54,000-tons displacement. Capable of carrying 4,234 passengers (908 first class, 592 second, 962 third, and 1,772 steerage), she could make 24+ knots on her eight massive Parsons steam turbines powered by 46 (!) boilers. As such, she required almost 1,200 stokers, stewards, attendants and other crew to keep her running.

Her maiden voyage was on 14 May 1914, just six weeks before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed and the lights began to go out across Europe.

Caught at sea in the North Atlantic too far away from Hamburg to make it home if the balloon went up, the brand-new ocean liner put into New York, then a neutral safe haven.

S.S. Vaterland, German Passenger Liner, arriving at New York City on 29 July 1914, three days before Germany’s declaration of war on Russia began World War I. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation, Washington, D.C. Collection of Captain Cyrus R. Miller, USN. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 103156

There she sat at Hoboken, N.J until 1 August when, though Vaterland had booked 720 first class, 420 second class, and 2,500 third class and steerage passengers leaving for Germany that day (including many German reservists on the way back home), they were canceled and the ship ordered by HAPAG to stay in port, taking a $500,000 loss in bookings.

Her crew, left largely without funds as the war began, took to moving ashore and taking other jobs in between organizing moonlight excursion trips up the Hudson (turn arounds) and a bazaar in Madison Square Garden where her crew sold handicrafts. Vaterland was reportedly a hotbed of German spy activity as well, and some took leave back to Europe via ships bound for other neutrals such as Spain.

Vaterland was seized by the United States Shipping Board at 4 a.m. on April 6 on the eve of the United States entering World War I, along with 90 other German ships in various ports across the country. Only 300 of her crew were aboard and they gave up the ship without bloodshed, being marched first ashore and then taken to Fort Oglethorpe, Ga for internment. Some 20 freight cars of expensive furnishings and paintings, including $150,000 worth of silver, were removed and stored ashore.

The big liner was placed under guard by 60 officers of the NYPD’s 37th Precinct, who were later relieved by a New Jersey Naval Militia force in July. Reports state that “Several attempts to smuggle small bombs and explosives into the coal chutes from the coal barges alongside were frustrated by the guards.”

Her plans and documents had been burned by the ship’s officers, but a spare set of drawings was later found in the safe at HAPAG’s New York office.

However, most of the brand-new ship was filled with years of trash and junk, and some machinery was left inoperable. The Germans had sabotaged numerous water lines installed behind the interior paneling of the ship and when the water was first turned on numerous floods were caused throughout the vessel, with the entire forward section of the ship’s officers’ rooms on the starboard side was flooded with about 14 inches of water, for example.

On 25 July 1917, Vaterland was turned over to the Navy Department and regularly commissioned as a Naval vessel and assigned to transport duty under the command of Vice- Admiral Albert Cleaves, U. S. Navy, Commander of the Cruiser and Transport Force, United States Atlantic Fleet. On September 6th the name of the German ship Vaterland was changed by order of the Secretary of the Navy, without ceremony, to USS Leviathan. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly chose the name.

Leviathan was made ready to transport up to 14,000 men on each crossing to Europe, with life rafts for 17,000 added. She was painted in dazzle camouflage, and her appointments drastically changed.

All the staterooms on the lower decks of the ship were ripped out to make room for open iron frame-work beds with canvas bunk bottoms, good enough for troops. The main theater and ball room were converted into a hospital for troops and crew during transatlantic voyages with an isolation ward established in the gymnasium on “A” Deck for contagious cases. The ship’s doctor’s office was used as a sick call station and dispensary for troops and crew. The portholes were painted black and dogged shut.

She was also given a formidable armament including a battery of eight 6″ guns for protection against surface raiders , as well as two “Y” guns which hurled depth bombs loaded with TNT to scare off U-boats, making her an auxiliary cruiser in all but name. A pair of 1-pounders for saluting and another couple of Colt machine guns for pier side protection were added as well. According to reports, she was attacked several times “by the undersea pirates and according to officers of the vessel one attacking sub was sunk by a shell from one of the six-inch guns” though this is perhaps not supported by post-war analysis.

Gun crew preparing to load one of the ship’s six-inch guns, circa 1918. Photographed by Zimmer. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41707

Her crew more than doubled from the German’s 1,200 to some 2,400 in U.S. service, including a young 18-year-old Quartermaster by the name of Humphrey DeForest Bogart.

Humphrey D. Bogart_s enlistment form from his Official Military Personnel File, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 40910835)

She was still impressive, despite the warpaint.

Halftone reproduction of a photograph showing the ship moored to a buoy in 1918. She is painted in dazzle camouflage. The original photograph was taken by Enrique Muller, New York. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 51396

Halftone reproduction of a photograph of the interior of the ship’s bridge, taken circa 1919. Note engine order telegraphs, chart table and steering wheel. This image was published in 1919 as one of ten photographs in a Souvenir Folder of views concerning USS Leviathan, many of which are detailed below. Donation of Dr. Mark Kulikowski, 2007. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 104693

Halftone reproduction of a photograph of the ship’s main dining room, taken circa 1919. Catalog #: NH 104689

Halftone reproduction of a photograph of the troops’ mess hall on board the ship, taken circa 1919. Note the fancy decor of this space, left over from her time as the German passenger liner Vaterland. Catalog #: NH 104690

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken in the ship’s sick bay, circa 1919. Note the elegant doorway and windows, left over from her time as the German passenger liner Vaterland. Catalog #: NH 104695

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken in 1919, showing one of the ship’s troop berthing compartments. Catalog #: NH 103201

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken in 1919, showing cooks making chow by the barrel in a galley. Catalog #: NH 103203

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken in 1919, showing the ship’s huge and richly decorated officers’ dining room. Catalog #: NH 103202

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken in 1919, showing the operating board for the ship’s main propulsion steam turbines. Catalog #: NH 103204

At 7.34 A. M., 15 December 1917, Leviathan left her pier in Hoboken for her first trip across the Atlantic, with 7,254 troops and 2,000 sailors on board. Making over 21-knots and outpacing her escorts, her crew spent liberty in Liverpool by Christmas. Operating between Hoboken and Brest/Liverpool, she completed 10 round trips, carrying 119,215 fighting men Eastward before the armistice on 11 November 1918. Of the men of the AEF who made it to Europe, one in 20 went on Leviathan.

The front side of a Troop Billet card used circa 1917-1919, while the ship was transporting service personnel between the United States and Europe. See Photo # NH 104240-A-KN for the reverse side of this card. Donation of Dr. Mark Kulikowski, 2006. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 104240-KN

Pershing himself crossed back to the states on her 19th trip, westbound, along with his famous composite regiment selected from the entire A. E. F. Assistant SECNAV Franklin Roosevelt and his party returned from France on her.

Lot-8836-9: WWI – American Expeditionary Forces. General John J. Pershing on board USS Leviathan (ID 1326). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Her fastest round trip, from the U.S. to Europe and back, was 14 days and 21 hours, though they typically ran 26 days, accounting for loading and unloading of up to 14,300 men and their accompanying supplies and equipment.

As noted by SECNAV “Cup of Joe” Secretary Daniels in the most interesting tome of her WWI career:

“Although the Leviathan did not participate in any great naval engagement, although the battle flags never flew proudly at her mastheads as she swept into the tempest of a modern naval engagement, her achievement in carrying across the sea more than three divisions of American soldiers entitles the gallant ship’s name to a place forever in the hall of American naval fame.”

Tragically, on one crossing in late 1918, 2,000 of her passengers and crew took ill with Spanish Influenza while underway, and she arrived in Brest carrying 96 dead and dying.

Once the war was over, she completed another nine trips home from Europe, bringing the Americans back from “Over There.”

Decommissioned 29 October 1919, she was turned back over to the Shipping Board and she was retained as a war trophy.

Seeing use for her in future conflicts– after all, she could carry a whole division at a time and outrun any submarine– she was reconditioned with a new oil-fired plant and apportionments and put at the disposal of the United States Lines who used her as an ocean liner from 1923 onward.

S.S. Leviathan in drydock at Boston, Massachusetts, in 1923. She is undergoing preparations for her maiden voyage under the United States Lines flag, which commenced on 4 July of that year. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 43035

S.S. Leviathan Steaming out of New York Harbor, circa the mid-1920s. The Manhattan skyline is in the background. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 43553

S.S. Leviathan photographed from an aircraft, while underway at sea during the 1920s or 1930s. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41867

However, the now 60,000-ton vessel was an expensive giant too big to turn a profit and the line reportedly lost money on every voyage, especially during the dry days of Prohibition, with half of the cabins often empty. Although some 250,000 passengers booked on her in 13 years, the line went bankrupt and, with the agreement of the Shipping Board, she was sold for scrap in 1937. Had it not been for that, she certainly would have been used once more as a “trooper” in WWII.

Of her 301 documented voyages, just three were under a German flag.

As for her sisters, SS Imperator managed to spend WWI in Hamburg and was taken over by the U.S. Navy 5 May 1919 at Brest. Not really needing a second Leviathan, the Navy used her only briefly as a troop ship (USS Imperator) then sold her to the British Cunard Line who renamed the liner RMS Berengaria. Retired in 1938 in poor condition, she was scrapped after WWII.

The last of the line, SS Bismarck was incomplete at the time of the Great War and was seized by the British. Sailing in turn as RMS Majestic for the White Star Line and then RMS Caledonia under Cunard service, while being used by the Royal Navy as HMS Caledonia she caught fire and sank on 29 September 1939.

As for Leviathan, she is extensively remembered in maritime art.

“When the Leviathan went out” — “Seagate 1918” When the Leviathan went out Seagate 1918 Etching by Bernhardt Wall, 1918, depicting two children building a sand castle, as USS Leviathan (ID # 1326) steams past in the background. Courtesy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 1924

USS Leviathan (ID # 1326) Water depicting the ship on her maiden Navy voyage from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Liverpool, England, with troops on board, Christmas Eve, 24 December 1917. Courtesy of CWO2 John A. Steel, USN. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 51398-KN

“A Fast Convoy” painting by Burnell Poole, depicting USS Allen (Destroyer # 66) escorting USS Leviathan (ID # 1326) in the War Zone, 1918. The original painting measures 60 x 33. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 42690-KN

And in Hamburg, her place of birth and original home port, the Hamburg International Maritime Museum has a great collection of 1-1250 scale models show her as the SS Vaterland (in the back) USS Leviathan (in the middle, with dazzle camouflage painting) and SS Leviathan (in the front) on display.

Then, of course, this guy will live on forever.

Publicity shot for “High Sierra” (Raoul Walsh, 1941), with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. Note the 1911, which would have been standard for the time he was on Leviathan.


USS Leviathan Description: (ID # 1326) Plan of Dazzle camouflage intended for the ship, circa 1918. This design, for Leviathan’s starboard side (and port below), is like, but not the same as the camouflage scheme she received. Note the Office of Naval Intelligence Register Number in the upper left. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 51308 and 51389

(As troop ship)
Displacement: 58,000-tons
Length: 950 feet
Beam: 100 feet
Draft: 41 feet, 10 inches “when leaving New York with 10,000 troops”

“Place her on Fifth Avenue and she would spread from 42d Street across 45th Street. Stand her on end alongside the Woolworth Building, and she would overtop the Woolworth Building more than 50 feet.”

Crew: 2,400 including Engineering (12 officers and 950 men) and Commissary (7 officers and 350 men)
Engines: Parsons turbines, 46 boilers, 8,700 tons of coal (burns 900 per day at 26 knots sustained).
Armament: 8×6-inch, 2-1pdr, 2-Y guns, depth charge racks, 2 mg

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.