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through the Raz de Sein and was safely anchored
in Morgat Bay, beyond reach of submarines.
Next morning her escort led her into Brest Harbor
and the Finland, Smith, and Corsair, three weary
ships, rested at the mooring buoys. The Corsair
courteously signalled the Finland:

The officers and men of the Corsair express their admi-
ration of the spirit shown by your officers and men in
sticking by their ship and bringing her safely into port.

The Finland gratefully signalled back to the

Thank you. I congratulate the spirit and efficiency
of your command and thank you for the personal
assistance in a trying time.

Ships and men are much alike. Some are tena-
cious, hard to knock out, standing punishment,



and gallant in adversity. Others crumple under
defeat and surrender at one blow. The Finland had
a long record of faithful and successful service as
one of the favorite passenger steamers of the Red
Star Line between New York and Antwerp. She
had the reputation of having lived up to the expec-
tations of her builders. They had tried to make her
a staunch ship that would hang together. When the
cruel test came, the bulkheads stood fast, the
water-tight doors did their duty, and the concus-
sion failed to start the engines from the bed-plates.
The Finland was placed in dry-dock in France,
but mechanics were scarce and the work dragged.
Thereupon the American Army was called upon,
and from the ranks came riveters, structural work-
ers, machinists, who turned to and repaired the ship
in record time. The Corsair had been spared the
unhappiness of seeing this fine ship lost while under
her protection. And of all the ships which went in
and out while the Corsair was engaged in convoy
duty, it was her good fortune to behold only the
Antilles sunk by torpedo attack.


DURING all this time the fleet of yachts had
gone clear of misfortune. In fog and mist and
blackness they were banging up and down the rock-
bound Breton coast amid ragged reefs and pinna-
cles, through crooked passages, and over German
mine-fields. Offshore they dodged collisions by a
hair or steered where the " Alio, Alio," of the wire-
less submarine warnings indicated that the enemy
was active. Good luck and good seamanship had
saved them from disaster. It seemed as though these
yachts bore charmed lives, but the pitcher can go
too often to the well and the Alcedo was fated to be
the victim. She had often cruised with the Corsair
on escort duty, and between them there was bound
to be a feeling of companionship. In port the officers
and men had become acquainted, either visiting
aboard or meeting ashore. And together they had
stood by to aid the people of the Antilles and the
Finland at the risk of destruction by torpedo

The Alcedo left Quiberon Bay in the afternoon of
November 4th with a convoy bound to the United
States. In the middle of that same night, with
murky weather, the yacht was fairly blown to
pieces and twenty men were killed or drowned with



no chance to try to save themselves. It was assumed
by the survivors, and quite plausibly, that in the
darkness the yacht might have been mistaken for
one of the transports by the commander of the
U-boat, who, if he knew his business, would have
preferred to pot one of the big troop-ships rather
than a small escort vessel.

Commander W. T. Conn, Jr., of the Alcedo, was
carried down with his ship, but somehow came to
the surface and fought his way clear of the suction
and the fearful confusion of debris and agitated
water. He described the disaster as almost instan-
taneous, a disintegration of the yacht whose frames,
bulkheads, and plates must have been ripped apart
from end to end as though they were so much card-

While asleep in the emergency cabin immediately
under the upper bridge [said he], I was awakened by
a commotion and received a report from some man un-
known, "A submarine, sir. 11 I jumped out of the bunk
and went to the upper bridge where the officer of the
deck, Lieutenant Drexel Paul, informed me that he
had sounded general quarters at sighting a submarine
on the surface about three hundred yards on the port
bow, and that a torpedo had been fired. From the
port wing of the bridge I was in time to see the white
wake of the torpedo as it drove straight for the ship.
Lieutenant Paul had put the rudder full right before I
arrived, hoping to avoid the blow. The ship answered
slowly to her helm, however, and before any other
action could be taken I saw the torpedo strike the
ship's side just under the forward port chain plates.



I was thrown down and dazed, for a few seconds, by
falling wreckage and torrents of water. On regaining
my feet, I sounded the submarine alarm on the siren
to call all hands if they had not heard the general alarm
gong, and to direct the attention of the convoy and
the other escorting vessels. I shouted to the forward
gun crews to see if they were at their stations, but by
this time the forecastle was awash. The foremast had
fallen, carrying away the radio aerial. I passed the
word to abandon ship.

I then left the bridge and went into the chart-house
to obtain the ship's position from the chart, but the
lights had gone out and I was unable to see. Stepping
out of the chart-house, I met the Navigator, Lieuten-
ant Leonard, and asked him if he had been able to
send a radio and he said, "No." I then went with him
to the main deck and told him to take charge of cutting
away the forward dories and life-rafts.

At the starboard gangway I stumbled over a man
lying face down. I rolled him over and spoke to him,
but received no reply and was unable to make out who
he was, as we were all in darkness. It is my opinion
that he was already dead. Moving to the after end of
the ship, I took station on a gun platform. The ship
was filling rapidly and her bulwarks amidships were
level with the water. I sung out to cut away the after
dories and life-rafts and throw them in the water, and
told the men near me to jump over the side.

Before I could follow them, however, the ship listed
heavily to port, plunging down by the head and sink-
ing. I was dragged down with her, but came up again
and swam to a life-raft to which three men were cling-
ing. We managed to lift ourselves upon it, and then,
looking around, I observed Doyle, chief boatswain's
mate, and one other man in the whaleboat. We pad-



died over to them and crawled into the boat. It was
half-filled with water and we started to bale and to
rescue survivors from the wreckage. The whaleboat
was quickly crowded to capacity and no more could
be taken aboard. We then picked up two overturned
dories which were nested together, separated and
righted them only to find that their sterns had been
smashed. Precontly we discovered another nest of
dories which were found to be seaworthy. We shifted
some of the men into them from the whaleboat and
proceeded to pick more men from the wreckage. Dur-
ing this time, cries of distress were heard from others
adrift who had floated some distance away. Two of
them were believed to be Ernest M. Harrison, mess
attendant, and John Winne, seaman. We proceeded
to where they were last seen, but could find no trace of

About this time, which was probably an hour after
the ship sank, a German submarine approached the
scene of the torpedoing and lay to near some of the
dories and life-rafts. No effort was made to assist the
men freezing in the water. Three Germans, presum-
ably the officers, were visible upon the top of the con-
ning tower as they stood and watched us. The U-boat
remained on the surface about half an hour and then
steered off and submerged. I then made a further
search through the wreckage to be sure that none of
my men were left in the water. At 4.30 in the morning
we started away from the scene to attempt to make
the nearest land.

The flare of Penmarch Light was visible and I
headed for it, observing the star Polaris and reckoning
the light to be about northeast. We rowed the boats
all through the forenoon and sighted the Penmarch
Lighthouse at 1.15 p.m. Keeping steadily at the oars,



turn and turn about, we moved toward the coast until
5.15 in the afternoon when a French torpedo boat took
us aboard. There were three officers and forty men of
us, who were promptly carried into Brest, where I was
informed that two other dories, containing three offi-
cers and twenty- five men, had landed at Penmarch
Point. This was the first news that these had been
saved, for they had not been seen by any of my party
near the place of the disaster.

It was true of the Alcedo that in the moment of
gravest crisis the cohesion and discipline of the
Navy manifested itself. Orders were given and
obeyed while the shattered yacht was dropping
from under the feet of the young men and boys who
had worn the uniform only a few months. It was a
nightmare of an experience in which panic might
have been expected, but officers and bluejackets
were groping to find their stations or endeavoring
to cut away boats so that others might be saved.
Such behavior was fairly typical of the patrol fleet,
although no other yacht was doomed to such a fate
as this, but there was the stuff in the personnel to
stand the test and the spirit of fidelity burned like
a flame.

The yachts had been playing the game lone-
handed, hoping to be reinforced by enough destroy-
ers to move the American convoys which were sub-
jected to long and costly delays in the French ports
for lack of escort vessels to carry them out through
the danger zone. The news that the United States
proposed to build two hundred destroyers sounded



prodigious, but it failed to fit the immediate occa-
sion. To the Queenstown base were assigned the
up-to-date oil-burning destroyers as fast as more of
them could be diverted from home, and they were
doing superb and indispensable service in cruising
a thousand miles offshore to meet and escort the
troop convoys in to France, but they could not
tarry to take the ships out again nor to protect the
slower supply convoys and undertake the other
work of the Breton Patrol.

The French coast was compelled to do the best
it could with the cards that were dealt. There was
no such thing as discouragement in the Corsair or
her sister ships, but the feeling grew that the job
was vastly bigger than the resources. It was singu-
larly cheering, therefore, when the flotilla of veteran
coal-burning destroyers came storming in from the
Azores, all stripped and taut and ready for business,
looking for trouble and unhappy until they could
find it. They became close kindred of the yachts,
sharing the rough weather cruises with the convoys
and, when in port, taking their doses of the dirty,
back-breaking work of eternally shovelling coal in
little baskets. And by the same token, their men
wore the common mark of the trade, the shadows
of grime beneath the eyes which soap and water
could never entirely remove. Yachts and destroy-
ers took orders from each other at sea and seldom
disagreed. The authority depended upon which
commander held the senior naval rank to qualify



him to direct the movements of the patrol divi-

Reid, Smithy Flusser, Lamson y and Preston, they
were rated as no longer young and in size were
lightly referred to as the "flivver" class when
compared with the thousand-ton destroyers oper-
ating out of Queenstown, while bets were made
that a winter in the Bay of Biscay would be too
much for them. But they stood the gaff and sailed
home again after the war, while the unterrified
crews bragged of the merits of their sturdy boats
and forgot all the hardships. Like the yachts they
had a sprinkling of college rookies among the blue-
jackets, and of Reserve officers on the bridge, while
the Regular Navy leavened the lump.

When the November winds began to show their
temper, blowing strong from the west and north,
the Corsair had a foretaste of what the winter
service would be like. There happened to be no
one aboard who took the trouble to set down on
paper, in diaries or letters home, just what the life
was in the crowded compartments below decks
when the ship was bucking and rolling five hundred
miles offshore and the combers toppled green over
the bows. In the Reid destroyer, however, was a
young lawyer from Wisconsin, Timothy Brown,
who was not only a very able seaman, but also
something of an artist with a pen, and he managed
to convey very adequately what all these young
mariners put up with in order to make the seas safe



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for democracy. Almost word for word, he might
have been writing of the Corsair:

A wave suddenly lifted us and I went down on my
right hip, sustaining severe contusions and abrasions,
not to mention a general shaking up. Our chief phar-
macist's mate rushed up with a tourniquet, iodiform
gauze, and sticking plaster and asked me what I needed
worst. Thanking him, I made my way below and
moored to a stanchion for chow. I call attention to the
stanchions because our tureens, containing food and
silverware, were hitched to them while the rest of the
food was in aluminum platters which the mess cooks
surrounded as best they could with their feet and
knees. Occasionally a platter would get away from our
inexperienced mess cook of the Reserve Force and he
would dive across the compartment to nab it, only to
lose other dishes which he was safeguarding. The hun-
gry sailors would assemble the chow again, whereupon
each man would help himself and eat under whatever
endurable circumstances he could find.

Gentle reader, imagine yourself perched upon a
camp-stool with your face to port and your back to
starboard, at the seamen's dining-table, trying to steer
a bowl of soup safely into your face. The ship rolls
forty-five degrees and your stool and soup bowl begin
to slide at the same time. You hold the edge of the
table with your left hand, clamp your spoon down
hard into the bottom of the bowl to secure it, then
cautiously push yourself to your feet, for the stool
threatens to carry you across the compartment in a
jiffy. The angle of the bowl now being constant with
the relation it bears to the table, the angle described
by the ship's lurch spills half your soup. You quickly
release your grip on the table edge and take the soup



in both hands to steady it. This leaves the soup sus-
pended perfectly between zenith and nadir, fixed in its
relation to the bowl, if you don't weaken. Your spoon
and slice of bread have been sliding all over the table,
kept from hitting the wet deck only by a wooden
flange. Before you can plan a campaign to absorb the
soup, your feet begin to slip and ere you can blink an
eye you have slid four yards across to the starboard
mess table, your feet tangled with a stool, and you
bump into a shipmate who turns loose his own soup
so that it fits perfectly down the back of your neck.

The other day a tureen of canned salmon skidded
off a near-by locker and landed under the starboard
table. The mess cook plunged after it, but missed it
by a hair. The tureen bounded into the lap of our
Irish oiler, who shouted gleefully, as he clutched it
with both hands, "I've got the bloody thing." I was
reminded of a fat football player receiving the ball on
the kick-off in his centre of gravity and not knowing
what to do with it. The ship's swing back upset our
hero and the salmon slipped away from him, landing
on the locker of a gunner's mate and spoiling a brand-
new suit of liberty blues.

I had the misfortune, at this sad moment, to let a
ration of stew get away from me to the deck. There
was no use in staying below to hear the mess cook
rave, so I seized a cold potato between my teeth and
followed it madly all the way to the chart-house where
I feasted in peace. I was thankful to be alive, thankful
that I had a slippery deck to skate on, a speaking-tube
to cling to, and an oilskin coat which fitted so snugly
about my neck that not more than a quart of briny
water seeped into it every time our good ship did a
courtesy to the waves. Only a third arm could have
made me happier. Every sailor needs one in his business.



The deck continued to be a sort of good-natured
joggling board which playfully teased you, smashed
you, and tried to exterminate you. In another hour I
had contracted decorations on my knees that stuck
out like hens' eggs, slivers of skin had been peeled off
my shins, and pains of various kinds convinced me
that, although my heart, lungs, and diaphragm were
still working, they had shifted from their accustomed
places. I had grown so feeble from underfeeding and
excitement that you could have knocked me flat with
a dried herring. It would have been an advantage to
go below and try to sleep, but the ship was as unsteady
down there and the stifling air was not tempting.

When it was time to go below, a sudden encounter
with a wave sent, me to my hands and knees. Bethle-
hem steel is hard, so I crawled the distance to the lad-
der and fell to the quarter-deck, then fell down the
other ladder to the head of my bunk. Only one light
was burning and it was all wrapped up in black cotton
socks so the submarines could n't see us. I groped my
way into the bunk and removed my shoes, this being
an old custom with sailors, to rest the feet. Then I
stretched out and was ready for a few hours of slumber.
However, the waves continued to pound us and made
the night hideous. The machinery creaked and groaned
and a leaky steam-pipe kept whistling like a peanut
roaster. To stay in my bunk it was necessary to run
my arms beneath an elastic strap that goes over the
middle of the mattress and under the metal frame.

In this position I remained doggedly silent until
midnight when our watch was called again. I was so
sleepy that I remembered little of what happened dur-
ing the next four hours, except that at the end of it I
noticed a radio man swinging around a smokestack in
an effort to snag our flying wireless apparatus and put



it to rights again. After two or three hours more of
misery in the bunk, breakfast time came, with beans
and loaf bread on the menu, and I felt sure that I
would be lucky if I could stomach a single bean. Beans
did n't look a bit good to me, yet I was forced to eat
something or I could n't stand another watch.

At the table we did not waste much time on eti-
quette. To wash your face for breakfast during a gale
was considered a decided economic disutility, and we
did n't care what place we occupied just so we got a
mouthful of grub. But one thing was always insisted
on, and that was for a man to remove his head-gear
at meals. It did n't make any difference whether a fel-
low had any pants on or not, but he must not presume
to wear a white hat or a watch-cap. All hands would
howl him out of the compartment.

The foregoing fragment of a deep-sea idyll is
included in a war story of the Reid destroyer as
deftly compiled by George M. Beatty, Jr., one of
that dashing crew, and published with the title,
''Seventy Thousand Miles on a Submarine De-
stroyer." This young man was heartless enough to
print in the volume a ballad of his own devising
which had such things as these to say of the author
of this chronicle of the Corsair:

" Grim Father Neptune has his throne

In the Bay of Biscay, all alone,
And on the day of which we speak,

He served out weather rough and bleak;
He sent us hail and he sent us rain,

And 't was not long ere Ralph D. Paine
Did hie himself to the skipper's bunk

And swear the writing game was punk."



Soon after the flotilla of coal-burners came to
Brest, the whole scheme of American naval opera-
tions in France took on a new aspect with the
arrival of Rear- Admiral Henry B. Wilson. He was
the man to perceive the vital need of expansion and
to create the organization so urgently required.
Outspoken yet tactful, with the hearty affability
of a sailor and the energy of a captain of industry,
Admiral Wilson proceeded to build upon the sur-
mise that the war might last three years and de-
mand an American army of four million men. The
pulse of the service quickened and the response
was loyal and instant.

It was not long before the executive offices of
the Admiral and his staff, in a tall building of Brest,
resembled the headquarters of a busy firm in Wall
Street. It was the centre of a network of communi-
cation by wire and radio with the entire shore-line
of France, from Dunkirk to the edge of Spain, and
with the Allied naval chiefs of Paris, London, and

The Corsair received her orders and did as she
was told, but guiding her movements was the com-
plex and far-flung activity of th£ secret intelligences
which revealed only the deductions and the results.
The Admiral's changing charts were dotted with
tiny flags and lines of red ink which recorded, hour
by hour, the track of every German submarine that
stole seaward from Zeebrugge, and the plodding
courses of every Allied convoy that steered in hopes



of a safe haven. The decoding room unravelled the
messages that whispered by day and night from a
hundred sources, or caught and read the German
ciphers that were sent to the U-boat skippers far
out at sea.

Bit by bit was put together an organization of
equipment and personnel which extended from
Brest to a dozen other bases and separate patrol
divisions, each with its own subordinate com-
mander. Gradually it came to embrace such a list
of departments and responsibilities as these:

Coastal convoy escorts Yard Boatswain's Office

Harbor tug fleet Radio repair shop

Naval Port Officer Naval magazine

Marine Superintendent Naval hospitals

Supply office Shore patrol

Repair shops Docks

Repair ship Canteens

Barracks Oiling stations

Personnel Coastal stations

Pay Office Coaling stations
Public Works.

All this was not set in motion in a week or a
month. Admiral Wilson had to build almost from
the foundation. The French organization was de-
pleted and worn. Vice-Admiral Moreau and Rear-
Admiral Grout achieved everything in their power
to assist the American undertaking, with men,
ships, and material, but it was unfair to expect too
much of them. When the Queenstown destroyers
came into Brest and the officers found time to go





ashore, you might have heard them boast, in the
most gentlemanly terms, of the splendid efficiency
of their own base and the extraordinary ability of
Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, who directed their opera-
tions. At this, an officer from the Corsair was likely
to fling back that the Queenstown outfit ought to
get on, with the vast resources of the British
Admiralty at its disposal and a base that had
nothing much more than a fleet of destroyers on its
mind. The whole French coast was cluttered up with
transports and cargo boats, from Brest to Bordeaux,
and it was some job to keep them moving, not to
mention chasing Fritz. And as for Admiral Sir Lewis
Bayly, K.C.B., he was said to be a fine old bird,
but he wasn't the only two-fisted, "iron-bellied"
admiral in the war zone, and the doctrine of the
Breton Patrol was " Wilson, that's all." In such
manner was voiced the spirit of friendly rivalry
between the Navy men of Brest and Queenstown
and it was the kind of loyalty which you might

French opinion of the work of the American naval
forces found expression in the newspapers. Admiral
Wilson was held in the highest regard, personally
and officially, and U Illustration said of him:

The indomitable will of our Allies is represented by
Admiral Wilson. He has a physiognomy which you
never forget. His quick manner of shaking your hand
while looking you squarely in the face, the smile which,
I dare say, follows up the orders he gives, his brief



and concise speech, denote a great firmness of charac-
ter. He knows what he is here for and what to do, and

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Online LibraryRalph Delahaye PaineThe Corsair in the war zone → online text (page 9 of 20)