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
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in the world upon her completion, superseding her near-sister SS Imperator (who was 44 feet shorter), but later being superseded in turn by the last ship of her class, SS Bismarck (who was six feet longer).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.
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.
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.
She was still impressive, despite the warpaint.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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