Ralph Delahaye Paine.

The Corsair in the war zone online

. (page 16 of 20)
Online LibraryRalph Delahaye PaineThe Corsair in the war zone → online text (page 16 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to Heaven and cried in accents that could be heard
above the racket of the explosions, "O Lawd, O Lawd,
I 'se never gwine roll dem bones no mo\ Ah promise it.
Ah promise it absotively."

Another one decided that this method of imploring
grace was worth imitating in the terrible crisis, so he
rushed over and tried to get knee-room on the same
Bible. Shoving his comrade aside, he managed to find
a sacred anchorage and his supplication was, "Good
Lawd Jesus, lemme see jes' one green tree. Ah ain't
askin' you to send me back home across dis yere big
ocean till th' war is done. Ah '11 stay right where I is
put, but lemme see jes' one green tree befo' all dem
German su'marines gobble dis pore niggah like Jonah
an' th' whale."

Half an hour after the excitement was over, these
devout passengers were shooting dice as busily as ever.
There were negroes in another unit which we escorted
into France. In wandering about the port, they came
across some of their own race, black troopers from the
French African colonies. Negotiations were opened to
start a conversation going, but they could find no
common language until one of the bunch produced a
pair of dice. This, it seems, instantly broke down the
barrier, and they soon had going as fine a little game of
international craps as a man ever saw. Both sides
whooped and haw-hawed until traffic was blocked and
the police interfered.

The convoy work in which the Corsair took part
during the four months from February 15 to May



30, 19 1 8, comprised the following cruises, arranged
in the form of a summary so as to make the record
more complete and also to suggest the volume of
the shipping which was entrusted to the protection
of the yachts and destroyers in French waters :

Feb. 16-20. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in
convoy : Eugene Grozos, Mont Pelvoux, Kalfarli, Lenape,
Mariana, Lamertin, Mundiale, Bergdalen, Amphion,
Northern, Joseph Cudahy, Stensland, Ariadne, Lady of
Gaspe, Thibet.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, May, Regulus
(F), Aventurier (F).

Feb. 25-28. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in
convoy: El Occidente, Anglo Saxon, Erny, Borinquen,
Montanan, Aurelien Sholt, Appelus, Balti, Gusta

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, May, Cassiope

March 7-10. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in
convoy: Luckenbach, St. Stephen, Millnock, Munares t
Pearl Shell, Crecarne, Strathlone, Eschwick, Stellina,
Anglo Mexican, Pennsylvanian, Hilda, Frances L. Kin-
ney, Eagle, Felix Taussig, Dalblair, Camaguey, Oslang.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, Nokomis,
Rivoli (F), Cassiope (F).

March 16-19. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in
convoy: Charlton Hall, Santiago, Mont Ventoux, Pen-
march, Bay Douglas, New York, Dumfurland, Alf,
Beaverton, Cantal, W. Mace, Bay Nyassa, Wachusett,
El Oriente, Woonsocket, Augvald, Ionian.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, Nokomis,
Rivoli (F) Marne (F).

March 20-21. (Eastbound to Gironde.) Ships in*
convoy: Mercury, Tenadores.



(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Noma, destroyers Batch,
Winslow, Sampson, Porter, Drayton, Parker.

March 25-27. (Eastbound to Gironde.) Ship of con-
voy: Mallory. (Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Noma,
Wakiva, destroyers Rowan, Winslow, Benham.

April 3-4. (Eastbound to Gironde.) Ships in convoy:
Powhatan, Martha Washington, El Occidente.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Noma, destroyers Dun-
can, Caldwell, Sampson, Winslow, Parker, Connyng-

April 8-22. Corsair acting as communication ship,
at Verdon, and overhauling machinery at Bordeaux.

April 24-27. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in
convoy: Indiana, Clare, Alexander Kielland, Daphne,
Lyderhom, Peter H. Crowell, Canto, Kentuckian, Hun~
wood, Seattle, Oregon, Californian, Mocassin, Munin-
dies, Munaires, Lake Tahoe, Santa Rosalia, Drake,
Amphion, Oregonian, Newton.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, Nokomis,
Wakiva, Rivoli (F).

May 5-9. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in con-
voy: Mesopotamia, Jean, West Wind, Guantanamo,
Monticello, Cristobal, Margaret, American, Iroquois,
Chian, Artemis, Buenaventura, Sudbury, Lamertin,
Edith, Nyanza, Amiral Crouse, Ariadne.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, Wakiva,
Rivoli (F).

May 13-16. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in
convoy: El Capitan, Munsano, Castleman, Bergdalen,
Westerner, Clara, Vaarli, Lake Placid, Gusta Vigiland,
Winnebago, Luckenbach, Joseph Cudahy, Saxolin,
Robert H. Thomas, Quincy, Thorwald Hahorson, Andre.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, Nokomis,
Rivoli (F).

May 21-23. ((Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in



convoy: Matsonia, Powhatan, Martha Washington, El
Oriente, Minnesotan.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, destroyers Wadsworth,
Nicholson, Monaghan, Roe.

May 27-30. (Westbound from Verdon.) Ships in
convoy: Shoshonee, Crown of Seville, Walter Munson,
Tunica, West Arrow, East Gate, Charlton Hall, Luciline,
Absaroka, Westbridge, Corozal, Lorna, Westward, Pen-
sacola, Millinocket, Darnholm, Admiral Neilly, Elmore,
Sagua, Tamano, Texas, New York.

(Vessels in escort.) Corsair, Aphrodite, Nokomis
Aisne (F).

Industriously employed in this service with the
convoys, the Corsair encountered no slant of mis-
fortune until June. Then came the loss of the fine
cargo steamer Calif ornian with holds and decks full
of several million dollars worth of supplies for the
American Army in France. This disaster was not
the result of submarine attack. The ship was un-
lucky enough to bump a German mine about fifty
miles off the entrance of the Gironde River while
nearing port with the convoy and escort.

The Corsair stood by and made every possible
effort to save the precious Calif ornian endeavoring
to haul her along at the end of a tow-line, but the
damage was vital and salvage hopeless. It was one
of those numerous episodes of the warfare at sea, as
waged by the enemy, which seemed so enormously
wasteful, so impossible for" civilization to endure,
this senseless obliteration of property on a scale
without precedent in the whole history of mankind.






The Corsair found the convoy of eight ships in
the afternoon of June 20th and took position with
the other escort vessels, Aphrodite, May, Nokornis,
and two French patrol boats. They steamed toward
the coast at eleven knots without misadventure
until early in the morning of the 22d. Then the
Californian made a turn to the right, quitting the
formation, and slowed speed until she came to a
halt. Her crew could be seen jumping into the boats
and letting them drop from the davits. There was
no more ado about it than this, no sound of an
explosion nor any disturbance of the sea. It was an
uncanny, inexplicable thing to witness. From the
bridge of the Corsair it was easy to perceive that
the sailors of the Californian were proceeding,
earnestly and eagerly, to abandon ship. It was
done without disorder, but they were wasting no

The Corsair promptly swung to go near, at the
order of Lieutenant McGuire, who was the officer
of the deck. The yacht moved to the rescue with a
speed which surprised even the Californian, Al-
ready the long, deep-laden steamer was settling by
the head. One of the little French escort vessels
had also hastened to the scene, but as she rolled
in the trough of the ground swell, the sea slapped
across her deck and the first boat to pull away from
the Californian found so much difficulty in trying
to lay aboard that the men semaphored the Corsair:
''Will you please come and pick us up?" Presently



the master of the big steamer and many of his crew
were scrambling up the side of the Corsair, where
Commander Porter strongly urged that an attempt
be made to save the Calif ornian. He was ready to
tow if the water could be kept down in the flooded
compartments. It was a sporting chance, but better
than letting the ship drown before their eyes.

Cheered by this readiness to lend a hand, the
executive officer of the Californian, with sixteen
volunteers from their crew, returned on board and
a ten-inch manila hawser was passed from the Cor-
sair. Because the bow of the stricken ship had
filled so fast and was almost buried in the sea, the
hawser was made fast astern and the Corsair tried
to tow her wrong end to, as offering the least re-
sistance. The sluggish mass moved very slowly,
perhaps two knots, but it was impossible to steer
it. The plucky Corsair dug her toes in, as one might
say, and pulled like a thoroughbred horse harnessed
to a wagonload of stone.

When this first attempt proved futile, it was
decided to try towing by the bow, but while they
were dragging the hawser forward the engine-room
bulkheads collapsed with a roar and the sea rushed
in to fill the dying ship. She went down by the head,
the stern rearing higher and higher in air, until
the great hull towered in a vertical position, and
there it hung for an amazingly long time. It was
surmised that the bow had struck the bottom of
the sea. Then the stern slowly dropped and van-



ished while the crew of the Corsair watched and
wondered and felt very sad at heart.

No lives were lost; this was the redeeming fea-
ture, and the eighty-five officers and men of the
Calif ornian were all safely aboard the yacht where
they were as hospitably cared for as the crowded
quarters permitted. On the decks of the lost steamer
were hundreds of Army motor-trucks, and one of
the Corsair's men, for lack of anything better to
say, was heard to murmur as the sea swallowed
them up:

"There's some water in your carbureters this
trip, and that's no foolish jest."

The dog rescued from the Calif ornian remained
aboard the Corsair as a souvenir and mascot, but
the life in the Bay of Biscay was not to his taste, in
spite of the efforts of the crew to make him feel at
home. He was therefore detached and assigned to
the U.S.S. (Auxiliary) Balti and sent to the United
States, but fell down a hatch at Hoboken and was
a total loss. For an epitaph, Kipling's line seems
apt, "We're safer at sea again."

Commander Porter's official account of the loss
of the ship reads as follows:

June 22, 1918
From: Commanding Officer,
To: Commander U.S. Naval Forces in France,

Via District Commander, Rochefort.

At 4.50 a.m. observed the U.S.S. Californian stop,
turn to the eastward, and abandon ship. The Corsair



immediately went about and closed on the Calif ornian.
At 5.15 a.m. two boats from the Californian were along-
side and survivors came on board. I informed their
Executive Officer that we were close to land and sug-
gested that it might be possible to get the ship into
port. He immediately ordered his firemen into a boat
and returned to the Californian. The Corsair circled
about the ship.

At 7.05 a.m. all hands abandoned the Californian
and came on board the Corsair. The captain informed
me that he could do nothing as the engine-room was
filling with water. I told him that we would attempt
to tow. He returned to the Californian with a boat's
crew, taking the end of our tow-line with him. As the
Californian was down by the head and we had a fair
wind, our tow-line was made fast to the stern.

At 7.55 a.m. we started ahead. At 8.20 a.m. it was
found that we could not handle the ship by the stern ;
stopped and attempted to take the line forward. Before
it could be made fast, the ship settled so rapidly that
the crew was obliged to abandon her, and we hauled
the towline on board. At 8.54 a.m. the bow of the Cali-
fornian went down, apparently resting on bottom. At
9.04 a.m. the stern disappeared and Corsair proceeded.
While waiting we hoisted two of the Calif ornian' s boats
on board. During these operations one French de-
stroyer stood by.

It is believed by the Commanding Officer of^the
Californian that the damage was caused by a mine.
Nothing was seen. No radio message was sent as an-
tennae was disabled by the explosion. There were no

The lost ship was commanded by Lieutenant
Commander D. Mahlman, U.S.N.R.F., and was



under charter to the United States Government.
To the Board of Inquiry convened for the pur-
pose, he presented his own story of the disaster,
which was as follows:

At 4.50 a.m. felt an explosion amidships. Stopped
the ship and ordered all hands to stand by the boats.
The Engineer Officer reported water and oil leaking
into the forward stoke hold. Sounded bilges and found
three feet in No. 1 ; No. 2 full ; and Nos. 4 and 5 empty.
On examining the engine-room and stoke hold again,
I found the water over the floor plates, the engineers
meanwhile having the pumps working on the stoke
hold bilge. The water was steadily gaining so I ordered
the boats to be lowered and the ship abandoned.

Sent two boats away to the U.S.S. Corsair which
was standing by, while I remained on board with
Ensign Schwartz and boat's crew to investigate further
if it were possible to do anything to keep the ship
afloat, the pumps being worked to the full capacity
continually. Soon afterwards two boats from the Cor-
sair returned to the ship with some of the officers and

Extra efforts were made by the engineer force to
gain headway on the incoming water. When the water
had risen to the fire-boxes and continued to increase,
on the report of the Chief Engineer that the water was
beyond control, I ordered all hands to abandon ship.
Having gone aboard the Corsair, the Commanding
Officer asked me how long I thought the ship would
keep afloat, to which I replied four or five hours. He
then suggested towing, so I returned to the ship with
my Executive Officer and sixteen men, taking a tow-
line which was made fast to the stern, the best method
of towing uqder the existing circumstances. No results



were obtainable and an attempt was made to shift the
tow-line to the bow.

While the tow-line was being shifted forward, from
observations made by me in the engine-room it was
evident that the ship could not stay afloat much longer
as she was then rapidly settling by the head. I again
gave orders to abandon the ship, which was done, and
the Calif ornian soon began to sink rapidly, going down
bow first until the stern was almost perpendicular.
Later the ship slowly righted and the stern disappeared
entirely at 9.04 a.m. in Latitude 46 17' 15" North,
Longitude 2 10' 30" West.

The Corsair had tried and failed, which was ever
so much better than not trying at all, and as one of
her men mournfully observed, "With any sort of a
break in luck, we would have salvaged her and a
cargo that was so valuable that the Army organi-
zation was figuring out some way of raising it dur-
ing the summer."

This was the only ship lost out of a convoy with
which the Corsair operated during the long period
of this service in and out of the Gironde, from June
to November of 191 8. On several occasions steam-
ers were attacked and sunk or damaged just be-
fore joining or just after leaving the escort. These
included the Montanan, the Westbridge y the West-
ward Ho, the Cubore, and the French cruiser Du-
petit Thouars. When the S.O.S. calls came, the
Corsair hurried to stand by, but other naval vessels
happened to be nearer the scene and were able to
save the survivors, or the ship managed to remain


. ' ..


afloat, as in the case of the Westward Ho. A cruise
in August, beginning on the ill-omened 13th, turned
out to be anything but monotonous, from start
to finish. The air was full of tragic messages from
torpedoed ships. It was like a dying flurry of the
German submarine campaign.

The excitement began with this entry in the
Corsair's record:

S.S. Tivives (third ship in right-hand column) sig-
nalled "Torpedo just passed our stern from starboard.' '
This ship notified Aphrodite by radio. Went to general
quarters and searched but saw nothing except whales
and porpoises. Wind was light and sea smooth. French
destroyer Aisne, which was astern of us, apparently
intercepted radio as he was observed to be searching.

A little later in this voyage came the following
tale of disaster, as caught by the radio :

Intercepted from Marseilles, " Montanan torpedoed."
Intercepted from Noma, "Westbridge torpedoed."
Intercepted from Aphrodite, " Cubore torpedoed, 10
p.m. Friday."

The Corsair and Aphrodite had left their outward-
bound convoy at this time, according to orders, to
steer for the rendezvous and make contact with a
fleet of fourteen ships bound in for France. During
the night a green Very light flared against the
cloudy sky to the southward. The Corsair headed
for it at full speed, but could find no ship in distress
and it was later conjectured that the signal might



have come from the French destroyers which had
remained to pick up the survivors of the Cubore.

Soon after this, several lights were sighted close
to the water. It is hard to realize how unusual and
arresting was such a phenomenon as this upon an
ocean where ships had long shrouded themselves in
darkness, screening every ray and glimmer lest it
might betray them to a lurking enemy. The vision
of officers and lookouts had so adapted themselves
to these conditions that they were able to discern
a shadow of a ship a mile away. In this instance,
when vessels' lights, several of them, were boldly
displayed, the Corsair approached warily until it
was possible to make them out as showing aboard
a little flock of Breton fishermen. It was known
that a French submarine was operating in this
patrol area and the officers of the Corsair plau-
sibly assumed that the lights might be a decoy
for Fritz, so they concluded not to meddle with
the situation.

Next morning another bevy of fishing vessels was
seen, and the French submarine was with them,
while a steamer was also standing by. Meanwhile
the Corsair and Aphrodite had found the inbound
convoy which had also a destroyer escort, and one
of these, the Lamson, ran down to investigate the
startling picture of a submarine calmly loafing
about. The Frenchman promptly exploded a smoke
bomb as the proper recognition signal, for he was
taking no chances with a venomous Yankee de-



stroyer which was known to be exceedingly quick
on the trigger when a periscope or conning tower
was etched against the horizon. It was agreed that
there were much more healthy pursuits than to be
ranging the Bay of Biscay in a French submarine.
Fortune had been unkind when the Corsair tried
to pull the Calif ornian into port, but the story was
a happier one when next she had the opportunity
to snatch a good ship from the greedy maw of the
sea. How it was done is summarized in a letter
written by Vice- Admiral Wilson, after the event:

U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters

Forces in France

U.S.S. Prometheus, Flagship

Brest, France, 8 October 191 8

From: Commander U.S. Naval Forces in France.
To: Lieutenant Commander W. B. Porter,

Subject: Commendation.

The Commander U.S. Naval Forces in France takes
pleasure in commending the excellent seamanship and
judgment displayed by you in the salvage of the Nor-
wegian steamship Dagfin, as reported in your letter of
September 17, 191 8.

The Dagfin, a vessel of 2100 tons, loaded with gen-
eral supplies for the Italian Government, had been
totally disabled for six days with a broken shaft when
sighted by the Corsair on September 10th, in Latitude
45 3' North, Longitude 8° 03' West. The U.S.S.
Corsair under your command maintained touch with
the Dagfin until the heavy weather then prevailing
had moderated, and towed her into port, a distance of



three hundred miles through the submarine zone, ar-
riving at Verdon on September 14th.

( Signed) Wilson

The Corsair happened to find this helpless Dagfin
while scouting in search of a steamer of the convoy
which had somehow gone astray. Insistent radio
calls had failed to awaken a response from this
missing Macona. She appeared to have lost her
bearings and totally mislaid the rendezvous. The
Corsair was too courteous to express annoyance,
but her radio queries became more and more em-
phatic. The Macona was as elusive as a Flying
Dutchman. At length the yacht concluded that
she had done her honest duty and so turned in the
general direction of the destroyer rendezvous, still
keeping an eye lifted for the lost sheep of the

At 8.35 o'clock on the morning of September
10th, with the Macona still on her mind and the
quest continued, the Corsair descried a steamer
against the misty horizon and soon it was discov-
ered that she was in distress and making no head-
way. By way of precaution the Corsair's crew
scampered to general quarters, because nothing
could be taken for granted in war-time. Bearing
down, the yacht hovered close to a sea- worn, dingy
Norwegian tramp which wallowed inert and wore
an air of profound discouragement. The sailors of
the Dagfin flourished their caps and yelled with
delight. It was obvious that they yearned to be



plucked out of the submarine zone after six days
and nights of exposure as a stationary target to
any U-boat which might wander that way. Fritz
was too unsportsmanlike to hesitate to shoot at a
sitting bird.

The Corsair was willing to undertake a towing
job in order to save the forlorn Dagfin and her
cargo, but it was necessary to ask permission to
leave the duty already assigned, and a radio was
therefore sent to the Admiral at Brest. Meanwhile
the sea was too rough to undertake the ticklish
manoeuvre of hooking onto the melancholy Nor-
wegian and Commander Porter shouted through a
megaphone that he would return and stand by.
There was profound gratitude on the bridge of the
Dagfin, but some deep-sea curses along the rail.
To have rescue so near, and to behold the American
warship depart! It was too much like having the
cup of salvation snatched from one's lips. Were
they to be left at the mercy of the hell-begotten

Steering northward to take another look for the
Macona, Commander Porter changed course to
sweep a wider area and, after several hours, re-
ceived a radio reply from Brest, "Stand by Dagfin.
Tug will be sent when weather moderates" This order
was to be obeyed, blow high, blow low, and through
two stormy days the Corsair rolled and plunged
within sight or signalling distance of the Dagfin
before any attempt could be made to board her. It



was a furious gale, with squalls of snow and sleet,
and the Corsair was so knocked about while head-
ing into it that she had to turn and run before the
sea under steerageway of four knots. The water
came piling over the stern until the depth charges
had to be shifted amidships to change the trim of
the ship and lift the overhang a little. It was a
man's-size job, from beginning to end, this playing
friend in need to the Dagfin.

With a sea anchor out, the Dag fin had been lying
broadside to the waves, and this could not have in-
creased the comfort of her crew. She was swept and
drenched and miserable, and, at best, there is no
luxury in a two-thousand-ton Norwegian tramp.
At last the wind lost something of its evil temper
and the sea was less confused. On the morning of
September 12th the Corsair tried to get a line
aboard, after receiving another radio from Brest,
" Take Dagfin in tow when weather permits. 11 It was
still too rough to put a boat over, so Commander
Porter steamed to windward and attempted to
float a line, buoyed by empty boxes, to the Dagfin,
but the freighters drift was so much greater than
the yacht's that this scheme failed.

Nothing daunted, the skipper of the Corsair
hauled his own ship around to leeward and deftly
placed her where the line floated so close to the
Dagfin that it was caught and hauled up by a boat-
hook as she drifted upon it. To this light line the
Corsair secured one hundred and fifty fathoms of




ten-inch manila hawser, and the Dagfin heaved it
aboard with a turn about the winch. To the end of
the hawser the Norwegians bent fifty fathoms of
chain, for the longer the tow-line the easier the

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20

Online LibraryRalph Delahaye PaineThe Corsair in the war zone → online text (page 16 of 20)