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The Corsair in the war zone online

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and the warehouses. The bold prediction of an
American bridge of ships across the Atlantic was
rapidly becoming a reality and the German confi-



dence in ruthless submarine warfare was an empty
boast, thanks to the skill and courage of the Allied
naval forces.

In one of the American yachts, as a seaman, was
Joseph Husband, a trained writer who portrayed
the swift expansion of activity in such words as
these : l

The flag has come into its own again. In the bright
sunshine almost a hundred ships swing slowly at their
anchor chains, a vast floating island of steel hulls,
forested with slim, sparless masts and faintly smoking
stacks. Our anchor is lifted and the chain rumbles up
through the hawse-pipe. Slowly we steam past a wide
mile of vessels to our position.

Here are the flags of the nations of the world, but
by far the most numerous are the Stars and Stripes.
The red flag of the English merchantman is much in
evidence, and so are the crosses of Denmark, Sweden,
and Norway, and the Tri-Color of France. From a big
freighter flies the single star of Cuba. The red sun of
Japan and the green and yellow ensign of Brazil snap
smartly in the breeze. A few of the freighters are
painted a leaden gray, but for the most part they are
gay with camouflage. The spattered effects of the
earlier days are now replaced by broad bands of flat
colors. Black, white, blue, and gray are the favorites,
slanting to the bow or stern and carried across life-
rafts, boats, superstructures, and funnels. Some appear
to be sinking by the head, others at a distance seem to
be several vessels. It is a fancy dress carnival, a kaleido-
scope of color. One and all they are of heavy and ugly
lines. On forward and after decks the masts seem de-
1 A Year in the Navy. Houghton Mifflin Co.


signed only to lift the cargo booms and spread the
wireless. The oil-burners are even more unshiplike, for
a single small funnel is substituted for the balanced
stacks of coal-burning steamers.

Fore and aft on the gun-decks the long tubes of the
guns point out over bow and stern. Yankee gun crews,
baggy blue trousers slapping in the breeze, stand be-
side them and watch us pass. Blue-clad officers peer
down at us from the bridges. Aloft, hoists of gay signal
flags, red, yellow, white, and blue, flutter like confetti
in the air. From signal bridges bluejackets are sending
semaphore signals with red and yellow flags. A big
American ocean-going tug churns through the fleet.
On our right is a French mine-layer, long rows of mines
along her deck. Fast motor-boats slide in and out
among the vessels. Above, like dragonflies, three sea-
planes soar.

The outward-bound convoy of empty freighters is
ready. Bursts of steam from bows indicate that anchor
engines are lifting the big mud-hooks from the harbor's
floor. One by one the ships steam slowly out of port;
converted yachts and small French destroyers on either
side. Out where the entrance broadens to the open sea,
a big kite balloon tugs at the small steamer far beneath
it and seems to drag it by a slender cord of steel.

Instead of a few American naval officers ashore
in Brest, there were scores of them from transports,
supply ships, and the escort divisions. Their social
headquarters, which had become almost indis-
pensable, was the spacious building of the American
Naval Officers' Club on the Place du Chateau, con-
veniently near the water-front. The club had been
organized in September, 191 7, by a group of naval




officers among whom Lieutenant Robert E. Tod, of
the Corsair, was the most active in promoting its in-
terests and making it successful. Captain Fletcher,
later a rear admiral, was the first president and was
succeeded by Admiral Wilson when he arrived in
November. Lieutenant Milton Andrews served as
secretary, and a board of directors administered the
affairs of the club whose membership was strictly

The comfortable French mansion was well fur-
nished and equipped, with a restaurant, reading-
room, billiard-room, and bedrooms, and during
191 8 there were more than six hundred members
who enjoyed this haven when they came in weary
of the sea. The name was changed to the Naval
Officers' Mess, as more appropriate. The club-house
had been purchased by Lieutenant Tod personally,
in order to facilitate matters, and when the war was
over and the naval fleet was homeward bound, he
presented the building to the French Government
as a permanent club for the officers of the Allied
naval services. All members of the Naval Officers'
Mess were to retain their connection in this new
organization which is called "The Cercle Naval."

Here the officers of the Corsair foregathered when
they returned from Lisbon, to catch up with the
gossip of their trade. They found the club filled
with new members and visitors, the Regular Navy
enjoying reunions and swapping yarns of bygone
cruises on the China station or in the Mediter-



ranean, or of service in the Spanish War when these
sedate captains and rear admirals had been flighty
youngsters or consequential two-stripers. The cap-
tain of a huge transport fetching in ten thousand
doughboys sat in a corner with the skipper of a
little "fish boat" from Gloucester which was
trawling for German mines in the channels of the
Gironde or the Loire. The officers of the Reserve
Force met college chums or formed new friendships
and compared notes on the ways and means of
scuppering Fritz.

Admiral Wilson had perceived that with more
escort vessels at his command and an increasing
force promised, he could gain efficiency by dis-
tributing his ships at several bases along the French
coast, from Brest to Bordeaux, under district com-
manders. This would enable him to give better pro-
tection and to move the convoys more rapidly as
they went in and out of the other ports of Ameri-
can entry. In accordance with this plan, the Corsair
was detached from the Brest force and ordered to
make her headquarters on the river Gironde below
Bordeaux. The area was in the patrol district of
Rochefort which was in charge of Captain Newton
A. McCully, U.S.N., who was later made a rear
admiral. The Corsair found it highly satisfactory
to operate under this capable and energetic officer
who made two cruises in the yacht, in March^ when
she went out to meet laden troop convoys and
escorted them in to France. The cooperating



French naval force was directed from the station
ship Marthe Solange which was anchored at Verdon
on the Gironde.

After coaling ship at Brest, the Corsair started
for her new base on January 31st, escorting several
supply ships which were bound for Bordeaux and
loaded with aeroplane equipment and munitions.
How rumor flew about and was eagerly, solemnly
discussed is indicated in these bits from a sailor's

January 315/. Hauled out of Brest with our convoy
at three in the morning, proceeding at nine knots. At
Quiberon we picked up the rest of them and headed for
Bordeaux, the destroyers Warrington and Monaghan
with us. I understand that we are not to go all the way
up to Bordeaux, but will base at our own Navy avia-
tion camp some thirty miles down the river. Hear they
will work us to death. Hope we will have a chance to
run up and see the city.

February 1st. Steamed up the river and stopped at
aviation camp at Pauillac. Incidentally there are a
thousand sailors here and not one flying machine.
About five hundred Austrian prisoners and six hundred
Germans are helping build the camp. Got Bordeaux
liberty and arrived there after dark. The city is under
military law and there are all sorts of fussy Army rules
and regulations. We went to fourteen hotels before we
found a place to sleep. We could n't see the town, as it
was in darkness. Everybody has to be off the streets
at 10.30 p.m. The only criticism I have to make of the
town is that there are altogether too many soldiers
in it.

February \ih. Got another liberty to-day. Heard



some big news. The America, on her way over here and
loaded with troops, was torpedoed. She was not seri-
ously damaged and by dropping depth mines brought
the German submarine to the surface. The officers and
crew were captured alive and have been carried into
Brest, along with the submarine. Also, a few days ago
a U-boat came up and surrendered to the Dixie, the
crew having killed the captain. The submarine was
absolutely out of provisions and supplies and the men
were in bad shape. This is a fine omen. (Note: — / later
discovered that these stories are untrue.)

February 6th. More big news. A German submarine
came into Brest harbor flying a white flag, and sur-
rendered. We have her at a mooring buoy all intact and
fit for sea. They had run out of fuel oil and grub and
were fed up with the service. There was n't a chance
of getting back to Germany with the boat, so she sen-
sibly gave herself up. I hope they are all in the same
rotten bad shape. (Note: — This story of the submarine
surrendering at Brest is found to be all bunk.)

The yachts Wakiva and May now joined the Cor-
sair for escort duty and the Aphrodite and Nokomis
were added to the division force a little later. In
addition to the orders received from the American
commander of the naval district, the most explicit
instructions came from the French senior officer of
the "Division des Patrouille de Gascogne." With
the courtesy to be expected of him, he sent also
a translation in order to save trouble for his com-
rades of the American Navy. At times the English
phrasing had a Gallic twist, not enough to perplex
the Corsair whose officers had become adepts at



the French nautical lingo, but the effect was a trifle
confusing to the eye of a layman, as for instance:

Signals between convoy and escort are to be done
by the besides code. Do signals only if necessary. The
last ship in each line don't show any stern lights be
ready to show navigation lights if necessary.

Zigzags are to be done according to the orders of the
escort's do (see diagramms besides). All the ships show
the flag K. Manoeuvring is to be executed only when
the K is getting down all the ships do K, is to be taken
like the origin of the diagramm, which is to be sailed
by the beginning. Manoeuvre when the signal gets
down or when the least stations according to the regu-
lar numerotage.

By fog, and on order of the escort if necessary by
WT, each column will steer like a special line each
behind the escort ships on the same side. The right line
will then steer ten degrees right hand and the left line
five degrees left hand from the primitive curse of the

Escort and convoy ships are ordered not to bring
anything overboard. Burn all you can and if impossible
to burn, bring overboard rubbish altogether at once
in the beginning of night. All the rubbish spread over
the sea are precious indice for the submarine to know
the curse of the convoy.

During the rest of the winter and through the
spring of 191 8, the Corsair was with the convoys
and continued to base in the Gironde. The work
seemed humdrum and monotonous to the crews,
who pined for excitement and encounters, but this
very fact was proof that the Navy was achieving



the result expected of it, which was to keep the road
open to France. Submarines ran amuck now and
then and strafed a coastwise convoy of slow ships
or sank an empty transport homeward bound, but
never for a moment was the prodigious movement
of troops and material interfered with or delayed.
Grouping the steamers together and screening them
with escort vessels, as far as possible, had baffled the
high hopes of Von Tirpitz and his murderous gang.
The captains of these ships which moved deep-
laden through the war zone were learning the tricks
of the trade and intelligently adapting themselves
to the exactions of the convoy system. Admiral
Sims said of them:

The advantages of the convoy were so apparent to
me that, despite the pessimistic attitude of the mer-
chant captains, there were a number of officers in the
British navy who kept insisting that it should be tried.
In the discussion I took my stand emphatically on the
side of this school. From the beginning I had believed
in this method for combating the U-boat warfare.
Certain early experiences had led me to believe that
the merchant captains were wrong in underestimating
the quality of their own seamanship. These intelligent
and hardy men did not know what splendid ship
handlers they were. In my discussions with them they
had disclosed an exaggerated idea of the seamanly
ability of naval officers in manoeuvring their large
fleets. They attributed this to the superior training
of the men and the special qualities of the ships. "Naval
vessels are built so they can keep station and turn at
any angle at a moment's notice," they would say, "but



we have no men in our ships who can do such things."
They particularly rejected the idea that when in for-
mation they could manoeuvre their ships in fog or at
night without lights. They believed they would lose
more ships through collision than the submarines could

As a matter of fact, these men were entirely wrong
and I knew it. Their practical experience in handling
ships of all sizes, shapes, and speeds under a great
variety of conditions is in reality much more extensive
than naval officers could possibly enjoy. I was sure
that they could quickly pick up steaming and turning
in formation under the direction of naval officers, the
convoy commander being always a naval officer. In-
deed, one of my experienced destroyer commanders
reported afterwards that while he was escorting a con-
voy of twenty-eight ships of different sizes, shapes,
speeds, nationalities, and manoeuvring qualities, they
kept their stations quite as well as battleships. This
ability was displayed when the convoy executed two
fleet evolutions in order to avoid a submarine.

This well-earned tribute to the master mariners
who risked their lives and their ships, voyage after
voyage, finds confirmation in the records of the
Corsair. During the first cruise of February one
finds such entries as these:

At n.45 p.m. ran into a thick fog. During the mid
watch (February nth) the Munindies increased speed
and came up close under the stern of the Corsair.
Later on she passed and at 6 a.m. was about 700 yards
on port bow of Corsair. At daylight the fog lifted and
all ships were in sight but somewhat scattered. Convoy
reformed in good order and began to zigzag.



On the night of February 12th, about 1.50 A.M.,
sighted two boats on the port quarter, distance 1000
yards. Boats made signals with rockets and flash
lamps. About this time the escort vessel Wakiva
opened fire, the shells falling about 600 yards astern of
the Corsair. Signalled to Wakiva that she was firing at
survivors and ordered her to pick them up. The con-
voy stampeded, assuming a submarine attack, and was
reformed in good order about 3 a.m.

Running through fog and darkness, again startled
by the sound of guns, the steamers of this convoy
"reformed in good order" and steadily, pluckily
held on 'their blindfolded course. Only a sailor
could realize the immense difficulties of the job and
how well it was carried on by the plodding mer-
chantmen who won no glory. The convoys were
growing larger and more complex to handle as the
success of the system was demonstrated. Where
the Corsair had escorted two or three steamers in
a group, fifteen or twenty were now sent out to-
gether. Her next tour of sea duty in February was
a fair sample of the work which was to continue
through many wearisome weeks, with little more
diversion than a variety of uncomfortable weather.

In obedience to radio orders [runs the report] the
U.S.S. Corsair anchored at Verdon 11.45 p.m., Febru-
ary 1 6th. Upon arrival found the U.S.S. Aphrodite,
U.S.S. May, and French sloop Regulus for the same
duty. On the morning of February 17th was informed
that the convoy would be delayed one day on account
of the non-arrival of some of the ships. At 3 p.m. com-



manding officers of convoy and escort present reported
aboard the French station ship Marthe Solange for
orders and conference with the commanding officer
of the Sixth Patrol Squadron of the French Navy.
The additional escort, the French destroyer Aventurier f
arrived during the conference. Orders and information
sheets were given to all concerned and explained or
discussed with the convoy captains. It was decided to
show no stern lights.

On February 18th the Aphrodite got under way, fol-
lowed by convoy vessels Numbers I to 6 inclusive, in
column. The Regulus preceded the Aphrodite as pilot
vessel. At 7.30 a.m. the Corsair got under way, followed
by convoy vessels Numbers 9-10-11-12 in column,
and when clear the May followed with convoy vessels
Numbers 13-14-15. Number 16, the American steamer
Camaguey, did not arrive to join the convoy. When
the Aphrodite cleared the net she proceeded at six
knots and convoy formed in double columns — ships
1-2-3-4 — May — 13-14-15 in left column, and ships
5-6-7-8 — Corsair — 9-10-11-12 in right column.
After passing the last buoy of Matelier Channel, con-
voy formed in four columns and took up speed eight
knots. Aphrodite (chief of escort) patrolled ahead;
Corsair and Aventurier on starboard flank; May and
Regulus on port flank. A motor patrol boat escorted
until about 3 p.m. and then turned back. The sortie was
preceded by French aeroplanes.

Zigzagged until dark, then convoy steered base
course. Fine weather, heavy swell running from NW
which did not retard the eight knot ships.

February 19th, convoy zigzagged during daylight.
Good weather for convoy operations.

February 20th, steamed with convoy until 10 a.m.,
then dispersed as per orders. The Aphrodite, Corsair,



and May returned to Pauillac for coal and the French
escort shaped course for Brest.

In the search for incident during this long period
of hard work and few thrills, one must have re-
course to the letters and diaries of the Corsair's
crew and pick out bits here and there. These hardy
young salts were playing the game in a fashion
something like this:

On a run one night in March (to La Pallice) after
leaving a Verdon convoy, the Corsair and Aphrodite
ran into a pretty stiff blow. We were doing about four-
teen knots or better with the wind and sea a little on
the port bow. A good-sized sea slapped into the port
side forward, by the petty officers* quarters, smashing
in one of the deadlights of that compartment. The
crash was tremendous. Everybody asleep down there
woke up with visions of the ship torpedoed, and out of
the hatch they boiled on the jump, mostly arrayed in
the costume which Nature provides for sailors. All
were dazed and excited. One of them no sooner hit the
deck than a wave lifted our bow and he skidded aft,
nearly half the length of the ship, on the seat of his
trousers or where his trousers should have been. It
was fortunate for that sailor that our executive officer
kept the decks smooth and well-cared-for. The outfit
could n't see the humor of the situation, being soaking
wet and unable to dope out what had happened.

March ^th. The ship was a mad-house to-day. They
told us there would be admiral's inspection and we
had to turn to on everything from the bilges to the
crow's-nest. Every stitch of clothing in our boxes had
to be stowed somewhere. I was never so bored in my
life. We sat around from noon to four o'clock waiting



for the blinkin' admiral, but, of course, he never showed
up. These admiral's inspections always give me a pain
in the eye. We have made ready several times and it 's
always a false alarm.

March 10th. The Aphrodite spotted a floating Ger-
man mine and opened fire on it. She fired thirty-five
shots and never hit it. We turned around and sunk it
on the third shot. It did not explode, but filled with
water and went down after a hole was put through it.

April 4th, Picked up our convoy consisting of the
troop-ships Powhatan, Martha Washington, and El
Occidente, all packed with Yankee soldiers. There are
six destroyers with the escort, including the Caldwell,
one of the new flush-deckers. At 1 p.m. the Occidente
sighted a periscope. We at once started submarine
tactics, screening the convoy while the Winslow and
Sampson went back to look for the sub. They dropped
eighteen depth charges. Fritz must have been shaken
up some. He did not get a chance to shoot a torpedo,
for the destroyers were too alert.

April $th. Captain Porter left the ship, going back
to America on leave. The rumor is that he will not
return to this ship. It would certainly be a big loss to
us, as he is one fine seaman and navigator as well as a
splendid character of a man. We gave him three cheers
when he shoved off, and it seemed to touch him con-
siderably. He stood at salute in the boat until out of

April 6th. This is the first anniversary of our entry
into the war. In consequence, all the American vessels
had to dress ship. We coaled all day and will finish
to-morrow. In again, out again, coal again, Finnegan!
The Martha Washington discharged her troops. They
were cavalry and nigger infantry. They were held up
for several hours and the darkies had us rocking all



the time. They claimed they saw four submarines sunk
the other day after being attacked by eleven or nine.

April gth. I got in trouble to-day. In the storm last
night an American ship came in and anchored four
miles off. I was on signal watch and read her flag hoist
as LDBC, the Rangely, and reported her as such. Dis-
covered to-day that she was the LDQC or Graster Hall.
I caught all the blame. The Q they had up was so ter-
ribly dirty that in the distance and bad light it could
not be taken for anything else than a B. There was no
alibi for me, however, and I don't know whether the
bawling out I got will be all of it or not. It was my
mistake, an unavoidable one, but in war-time that
makes no difference in this man's navy.

May loth. Captain Kittinger is to be transferred to
command a big transport and Commander Porter is
coming back to take this ship. I shall be glad to see
Captain Porter, but we are mighty sorry to see Skipper
"Bill" Kittinger go. The Wakiva dropped over one of
the new 300-pound depth bombs and pretty near blew
herself up. She busted several things in her engine-

May 22nd. Just as we came off watch at 4 a.m. in a
dense fog we got an S.O.S. from our old friend, the
Wakiva. She was rammed and sunk by the Wabash of
her convoy. She went down|rather deliberately and
only two men were lost. We are sorry to cross her off
the list, as she was a willing worker, although slow.
At 8 p.m. we met the largest convoy of troop-ships that
has come overseas. The first group of fourteen ships
carried forty-five thousand soldiers, to say nothing of
the naval crews aboard, and there were twelve destroy-
ers in the escort. The second group of nine ships had
twenty-five thousand troops. It was a great sight.
They will be landed at Brest.





May 2\£h. Hooray ! We have thirty- five German pris-
oners to shovel the coal from the lighters into the
buckets. And, by gosh, these square-heads went on
strike and the kindly French let 'em get away with it.
If any prisoners went on strike in Germany it's a
cinch they'd be shot full of holes. They don't treat 'em
rough enough in France.

After looking over several of these Corsair
diaries, Commander Kittinger had this shrewd and
good-humored comment to offer:

The impressions which these youngsters jotted down
were amusing and often inaccurate, but they caught
the spirit of the service and the day's work. When one
of them felt aggrieved because he was "bawled out,"
he never stopped to take an inventory of his profes-
sional qualifications and the duties thrust upon him
as well as upon other untrained and unseasoned lads.
Nor did he always realize that he was allowed to per-

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Online LibraryRalph Delahaye PaineThe Corsair in the war zone → online text (page 14 of 20)