Ralph Delahaye Paine.

The Corsair in the war zone online

. (page 6 of 20)
Online LibraryRalph Delahaye PaineThe Corsair in the war zone → online text (page 6 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

but until the Y.M.C.A. established its social centre
in the port there was not much else to do than eat
and loaf and drink white wine and red. Of the three
days in port, coaling ship consumed so much time
and energy that leisure hours ashore were brief.
There was no coaling machinery at this important
French naval base, and the American yachts had
the back-breaking job of filling baskets from barges
alongside and heaving the fuel aboard to be stowed
in the bunkers. The grimy slaves of the shovel
envied the Queenstown destroyers when these
smart, immaculate craft tarried to fill their fuel



tanks with oil by inserting a hose in the deck and
then fled back to their own base.

Among the songs inspired by the day's work it is
no wonder that the fo'castle or the " black gang"
quartets should have led the close harmony in
such stentorian plaints as the following:


Spells the old Corsair.
At home she used to be hard to coal,
And always made us swear;
But since we crossed the ocean
We have coaled at Saint-Nazaire!!
Spells the old Corsair.

(Tune of " Cheer for Old Amherst ")

Coal on the Corsair

Fill every bin,
We work like hell, boys,

Till it 's all in.

Boom, boom, boom!
We '11 never rest, boys,

When we 're in Brest, boys,

Corsair will coal to-day I

There were temptations enough, Heaven knows,
to live recklessly when the liberty boats hit the
beach, but the Corsair's record was excellent and
her officers were proud of it. During July and August
of 191 7, when the crew was new to the game and
the tendency to run wild was perhaps strongest, al-



most all the offenses for which the commander held
mast and which were passed upon by deck court-
martials comprised overstaying liberty by a narrow
margin of minutes and other small infractions of the
strict disciplinary code of the Navy. And it should
be mentioned that the enlisted force was permitted
to be ashore no later than nine-thirty o'clock in the
evening. During the whole sojourn of the Corsair
in foreign waters, not a member of her company
was punished by a general court-martial. By way
of indicating how naval justice was dispensed, the
entries in the log will be found to read like this:

20 minutes overtime from liberty. Lose pay amounting to $5.00

„_ 14 «« II <« II <( << << N

._ <( II (( M II <( << «< <<

Smoking below decks. " " " " "

Disorderly and creating a

disturbance after pipe down. u " " " "

Insubordination and insolence

to a warrant officer. Warned.
Not keeping an efficient lookout. "

Not making up bunk. "

Not relieving watch on time. Excused.

As was bound to happen, an occasional " drunk
and disorderly" was included in these lists, but
there were many kinds of men aboard and such
entries were amazingly infrequent when one con-
siders the circumstances. And the exiles of the
Corsair learned that there was possibly as much
truth as poetry in the jingle which ran through the
ships of the Breton Patrol: "The Guy that Rates
the Croix de Guerre":


) . 5 » » .

• I 114




'T is not the man who, single-handed,

Kills ten or fifteen raging Huns,
'T is not the man who safely landed

A bomb on Wilhelm's long-range guns;
'T is not the darling Red Cross sister

Who nursed the wounds in No Man's Land,
'T is not the ingenious mister

Who makes the lion lick his hand.
We must admit that all these guys are there.

But take the guy that crosses over

And lives in Brest a year,
The one who to a wife or lover

Returns with conscience clean and clear,
Who daily walks through Rue Guyot,

Gives icy stares to girlies wild,
And when approached, says, " Little Willie

Is mother's darling angel child."
Now he 's the Guy that rates the Croix de Guerre!


DURING the first three months of war duty,
June, July, and August, the Corsair steamed
11,738 miles, which was the greatest distance logged
by any of the yachts during the same period. There
was little time or opportunity for the grooming
and tinkering which a pleasure craft is presumed to
receive. Blow high, blow low, she went to sea at
the appointed hour and the fires were never dead
under the boilers. In her forward deck-house was a
couplet, carved on a panel of wood, which she was
living up to in full measure:

" North, East, South and West,
The Corsair sails and knows no rest"

The first cruise of August took the yacht to Saint-
Nazaire, on the 4th, in company with the Aphrodite,
Kanawha, and Noma, to escort a group of empty
transports to sea. This was safely accomplished,
and the Corsair returned to Brest where the Celtic
was waiting to be guarded through the danger zone.
For lack of destroyers it was the business of the
yachts to take the big ships out after they had dis-
charged their troops or supplies. Having parted
company with the Celtic at Fourteen West and
wished her good luck, the Corsair hastened back
for coal and further orders, which were to cruise



in the regular patrol area. The American steamer
Carolyn was expected, inbound and running alone,
and the Corsair searched a waste of waters until
the magic of the radio found the unseen ship and
whispered to her this comforting message:

I am thirty miles west of you. Pass north of Belle
Isle and I will intercept you at daylight, in time to
escort you into Quiberon Bay.

The skipper of the Carolyn had become a trifle
confused in his bearings and was glad to be led to
a safe anchorage where he could join a coastwise
convoy for Bordeaux and so reach his destination.

To the Corsair then fell the experience of protect-
ing a cargo steamer whose speed was so slow that
she crept through the dangerous stretch of sea like a
rheumatic snail and was a tempting target for any
prowling submarine. It was all in the day's work,
although a bit trying to the nerves, and Commander
Kittinger's report indicates the nature of the task:

The Corsair was assigned to escort duty with the
American steamer Manto bound from Saint-Nazaire,
France, to America. A conference was held with the
captain of the Manto at Saint-Nazaire on the evening
of August 22nd, the day before sailing. The Manto is
a small, low-powered steamer under charter by the
Navy Department. The captain stated that he could
make between eight and nine knots in favorable
weather, but with a head sea and a stiff breeze he
could not make more than six knots.

At 10.12 a.m., August 22nd, the Manto was ready
and got under way with Corsair escorting. The route



was laid through Chenal du Nord and into Quiberon
Bay at Croisic. During this time the Manto was able
to make about six knots on the course, not zigzagging
in these waters. After entering Quiberon Bay she was
able to make eight knots. The wind continued in force
from the west and at 3.55 p.m. the convoy and escort
anchored at Quiberon Peninsula to await more favor-
able weather.

The wind continued in force and direction during
the night, but to avoid further delay a start was made
at 5.23 a.m., August 24th. After clearing Teignouse
Passage, took up Base Course 275 . Convoy was un-
able to make more than five knots good into the rough
head sea and strong breeze from west. Escort steamed
at ten knots and zigzagged at 45 and 6o° on each side
of Base Course in order to keep position. This con-
tinued throughout the morning and at noon Penmarch
Point was still in sight.

During the afternoon the force of the wind dimin-
ished and the convoy made better headway. By noon,
August 24th, the wind became a light breeze and the
convoy was making about eight knots good on the
Base Course. After noon the barometer fell decidedly,
decreasing a half inch in eight hours, and with it the
wind increased to a strong breeze with an overcast sky
and driving rain squalls which reduced the visibility
to practically nil. The convoy dropped back to about
five knots.

Up to the time of darkness the convoy and escort
were making so little progress that a hostile submarine
would have been able to manoeuvre and attain any
position desired for attack. After darkness the lack of
visibility was the best protection that could be had. I
believe that the best scheme for getting a low speed
vessel of the Manto type through the danger zone from






Saint-Nazaire would be to have her proceed from
thence to the Brest rendezvous with the convoy using
the protected inshore waters. After arrival at Brest
she should await favorable weather so that she could
be escorted through the danger zone at her best speed.

By way of variety, the Corsair was next ordered
to the English Channel to pick out the American
supply ship Erny from a convoy escorted by H.M.S.
Devonshire and carry her into Saint-Nazaire. This
was the first taste of the Channel Patrol, of cruising
in those black and crowded waters where the numer-
ous routes of traffic crossed and converged, and
ships ran blind with no lights showing, and the risk
of collision was much greater than the chance of
submarine attack. The yachts regularly assigned
to this coastwise escort duty saw more of it than
the Corsair y but she learned to know the meaning
of that lusty chantey of the war zone, "On the
Channel Run":

" If promotion means nothing to you,

And comfort you can forswear,
And you 're willing to be forgotten,

And to work every day in the year;
If you 're fond of taking your chances,

And the praises of Admirals you shun,
Pick an eight-knot tramp of the N.R.F.

Carrying coal on the Channel Run.

11 The job is a stranger to honors,
It 's also a stranger to shame.
There 's naught to win and your life to lose
'Midst its dirt, its dangers, its damns;



But once you have laughed its laughter,
And the cynic has captured your soul,

You can smile at the rest as you do your best
To approach an illusive goal.

" My lad, there is nothing to it,

There's nothing, — and yet, — and yet,
It is something to strive for nothing;

That is something — don't you forget.
So if you are in for the game of it,

And you Ve got sufficient nerve,
Pick an eight-knot tramp on the Channel Run,

Of the U.S.N. Reserve."

The Corsair laid a course for the secret meeting-
place where she hoped to make contact with the
convoy and picked up the Lizard Light, cruising in
rough water for a day and a night until the flotilla
of merchant ships was sighted, when she signalled
the Erny to follow and so returned to France. This
errand brought the month of August to a close. It
would have seemed incredible to the crew, before
they sailed from home, that they could spend a
summer in the war zone and steam more than eleven
thousand miles without seeing a submarine or en-
joying the excitement of a torpedo attack. They
had passed large quantities of floating wreckage,
tragic evidence that the enemy was active, and the
S.O.S. calls of frightened ships had often come to
the radio-room, but this was all. One inference was
that the yachts had been of real service and that
the U-boats were learning to be wary of them and
their rapid-fire batteries.



The autumn was to be much more eventful. On
September 5th the Corsair stood out from Brest to
look for an American supply convoy which included
the valuable steamers Edward Luckeribach, Dakotan,
Montanan, and El Occidente. While steering for the
latitude and longitude named in the confidential
orders, a small boat under oars and sail was descried
from the bridge. A few minutes later a second boat
was sighted, and the Corsair bore down to save the
castaways who were frantically appealing for help.
They were in two dories, eleven men in all, who
were hauled aboard and made comfortable by the
crew of the yacht. They were from the French
fishing vessel Sadi Carnot which had been shelled
by a submarine while homeward bound from the
Grand Banks to Saint-Malo with a cargo of salted

Impassioned, with many gestures, weather-
beaten Breton sailors cursed the Germans who had
placed bombs under the hatches of their beloved
bark. The Corsair's men listened eagerly while they
cheered their weary guests with sandwiches and
coffee. Presently a hail from the bridge announced
that another boat was adrift to the westward, and
the mariners of the Sadi Carnot yelled vociferous
joy. Five more comrades of theirs were deftly
picked up, leaving three boats still unaccounted for,
and the Corsair searched for them in vain.

Another boat was discovered a little later, it is
true, but the men in it made no sign — four of



them, all corpses which washed about in the water
under the thwarts or were grotesquely doubled up
like bundles of old clothes. They were English sea-
men and the boat bore the name of the British
steamer Malda. As one of the Corsair's signal-men
wrote in his diary; "It was a ghastly sight. The
French fishermen we have on board were almost
starved and frozen. They could not have lived
more than another day or so. Imagine their feelings
when they saw the Malda 1 s boat with the dead men
and knew that this would soon have been their own

It was later reported in Brest that another ship
had picked up the Malda' s boat in passing and had
discovered that the bodies of the English sailors
were riddled with bullets from a machine gun, pre-
sumably after they had abandoned their steamer.

The Corsair kept on her way and had no trouble
in finding her convoy of four vessels with which she
started for Saint-Nazaire at thirteen knots. Off
Belle Isle, the Montanan developed a fit of hysterics
and opened fire on an imaginary flock of submarines
which turned out to be blackfish in a sportive mood.
The other merchant steamers promptly joined in
the bombardment and banged away for all they
were worth, at the same time stampeding most
zealously. They scattered over the sea like hunted
ducks and the indignant Corsair endeavored to re-
call and soothe them.

"We could see what they were shooting at,"



noted a quartermaster on the yacht, "but believed
it to be the splash of a big fish. However, they were
thoroughly convinced that Fritz was out to pull
some of his morning hate stuff. The ships of the
convoy were so excited that they shot all over the
ocean. One of their shells missed us by a hundred
yards or so and we got sore. I sent them a signal,
4 Cease firing at once and come within hail. 9 They
paid no attention, but we rounded up the bunch and
escorted them safely into port and then beat it out
to sea again. . . . We passed close to a submarine
last night, but could not find him. We got the smell
of his Diesel engines and I guess he was charging
his batteries and ducked under when he heard us."
The emotions of this startled convoy were not
easily calmed, for the commander of the Corsair re-
cords, an hour after the alarm, "Proceeding again
in close formation. The Edward Luckenbach fired
one shot at a flock of gulls on the water." Concern-
ing the general bombardment he officially observes:

The Montanan opened fire at a disturbance made by
a large fish, abeam and to port, distance about one
mile. The fish was clearly seen and observed from this
ship when it jumped from the water twice and then
swam away near the surface. A few minutes later a
school of porpoises appeared and all the transports
opened fire. The firing was widely dispersed and appar-
ently not aimed at any visible object. The shells from
the Montanan landed abreast of the Corsair. None of
them burst. The Oise f a French vessel of the escort,
attempted to investigate the splash made by the fish



but had to draw away when fire was opened at the

These false alarms happened often, and during
her next tour at sea the Corsair sounded the call to
battle stations on two different occasions, reported
as follows:

(i) Sighted an object which was believed to be a
submarine about four miles ahead. Two submarine
warnings were received, one before and one after sight-
ing object. Upon arriving at point where object had
been sighted, no evidence could be detected of the
presence of a submarine.

(2) Sighted object on starboard beam, distance 3000
yards, which appeared to be a periscope. Informed
convoy and headed for object. No. 1 gun crew opened
fire when object became visible in gun-sight telescopes,
followed by fire from convoy. When we approached
close to object it proved to be a black spar, riding about
vertical, six feet out of water. The heavy swell running
caused the spar to disappear at intervals, which gave
it the semblance of a submarine operating.

Until the merchant convoys became more accus-
tomed to the routine of their hazardous employ-
ment, they were a source of almost continual anxi-
ety to the yachts and other naval craft escorting
them, and the work was more harassing than may
appear on the surface. As a sample one may select
from the Corsair's daily experiences such an inci-
dent as the following, under date of September 5th :

Signalled French gun-boat Oise to take position on
port bow of leading transport. Corsair took position on





starboard bow. The El Occidente was rapidly gaining
position. Proceeded about five miles and El Occidente
turned out of formation and slowed down. I then
ordered Montanan to reduce speed until convoy had
caught up and then proceeded with the Corsair to
El Occidente. Found out that this steamer had sighted
the ship's boat of the S.S. Malda with four dead men
in it and had stopped to investigate. I ordered her to
rejoin immediately and cause no further delay, and
also to stop using her signal searchlight as evening
twilight had come on. On rejoining, found that the
transports had gotten in line abreast and were all
communicating with each other by signal searchlights.
By this time it was growing dark and it became neces-
sary to order them by radio to cease signalling with
lights. They paid no attention to signals to form col-
umn and continued the formation of line abreast cov-
ering about four miles front. About 9 p.m. the moon
rose so that all ships were visible. Went close to each
and ordered them to form column. By 10 p.m. succeeded
in getting them in column formation.

The Corsair's crew had been hoping to visit Eng-
land and the opportunity came, but not precisely
as they might have wished it. The yacht was ordered
to proceed to Devonport on September 13th to load
a cargo of depth charges for the other naval vessels
on the French coast. It was something like asking
a man to make a railway journey from New York
to Boston with a stick of dynamite in every pocket
of his clothes. With luck it might be done, but he
would feel painfully eager to avoid any more bump-
ing or jostling than could be helped. And as has



been said, the Channel was an extraordinarily
crowded and darkened thoroughfare. This was get-
ting on with the war, however, and the unterrified
Corsair duly anchored in Plymouth Harbor. In-
structed by Admiralty officers, she shifted to moor-
ings at a jetty of the British naval docks where a
lighter came alongside, and the Corsair bluejackets,
with gingerly care, hoisted in almost a hundred
"ash cans." This quick-tempered merchandise in-
cluded such items as these:

34 Depth Charges, Type D.
34 Depth Charges, Type G.
14 Boxes Gun Cotton, Dry.
68 Boxes First Fittings.

Of this trip to England, one of the petty officers
wrote in his little notebook:

Caught my first glimpse of John Bull's country early
this morning when we arrived at Plymouth, a very
beautiful spot. A British army camp is on the hill and
we are soon to have a base here. It sounds good to hear
the English language again. Rated liberty and had a
splendid time. I guess we will make some knots on our
way back to Brest, as we have enough TNT on board
to blow up the whole fleet. If a submarine hits us this
time — good-night ! I hope the luck of the Navy will
take care of the old ship this cruise.

September 15th. Got back to Brest at II A.M. Our
radio picked up two German submarines near us which
were talking with Zeebrugge. They were probably
looking for us and our cargo of mines, but we gave
them the slip. When we hauled out of Plymouth the



British jackies on their warships gave us cheer after
cheer — yells of "Hello, Hello, Yanks," "Hurrah for
the Corsair" and "Three cheers for Uncle Sam." They
handed us more cheers when we sailed and we gave
them as good as they sent. Plenty of excitement last
night. I noticed a rowboat with two men in it hovering
around the ship. I hailed them, but got no answer.
They left, but the same boat approached the gangway
an hour later. I threatened to shoot them and they
turned around and vamoosed. I can't imagine who or
what they were, but it was peculiar that they should
pick this night to hang about, when we had all those
mines aboard.

September 16th. I had a long talk with a couple of
British sailors off the Goshawk. One of them had been
in the Jutland battle. He tells me the Germans have
invented an artificial fog to hide behind, something
like our smoke screen, but better. The English are
experimenting with it. They got the fog all right, but
it nearly asphyxiated every man in the ship. ... I
don't know what has happened to all our officers. They
are so blamed disagreeable that there is no pleasing
them. They canned Copeland off the bridge and put
me back on signal watches. I wanted to know why I
had been rated a quartermaster. They said it was so I
could draw the extra pay. I darn near threw it in their
faces. If I can't hold the job I don't want the rate.

The Corsair was again assigned to the convoys
and the same chronicler has this to say of the re-
maining days of September:

21 st. Saw a very wonderful sight. Two submarines
were reported off Belle Isle, so we had an extra escort
of four seaplanes, four little fighting aeroplanes, one



seventy-five-foot chaser, and a big French dirigible.
They went out to help us carry some empties beyond
the war zone, the same ships we had taken in, Mon-
tanan, Dakotan, Luckenbach, and El Occidents The air
craft flew over us fifty miles offshore. The dirigible
made the signal, "Submarine below," but he was so
far off that he had submerged when we got there.
Another dirigible came out from Brest and looked us
over, but soon went back. This evening we passed the
body of a dead sailor, but did not pick it up; also an
empty dory. Aphrodite and Alcedo are with us.

The American Army had begun to move over-
seas in a swelling tide of khaki and the transports
came faster and faster. No sooner had the Corsair
seen the last of one group than another was waiting.
On September 28th she left port to seek contact
with the store-ships City of Atlanta, Willehad,
Artemus, and Florence Luckenbach, and a British
destroyer which was the senior vessel of the escort.
Having found them, the subsequent proceedings
were such as sprinkled gray hairs on the heads of
the commander and the officers of the Corsair. The
War Diary records it in this summary fashion:

September 29th. Noma signalled by blinker tube that
City of Atlanta, the last ship of the convoy, was having
engine trouble and could not keep position. Signalled
to Noma to stand by her. Noma and City of Atlanta
dropped astern and disappeared in the darkness.

3.32 a.m. Received radio from Alcedo, "I have been
rammed by convoy. Stand by" Headed back to look for
Alcedo and found the Willehad out of position and mak-
ing the best of her way to rejoin. Communicated with


5 '*•••*■, "»»? > >

■Bapf A 1

|9 Bj^Hv' 4P^ ^yit.^.

fcl fey

1 ; .•>• ■

pHEH^^ J" fy J^^ff^




the Willehad by megaphone and was informed that she

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryRalph Delahaye PaineThe Corsair in the war zone → online text (page 6 of 20)