by Alexander F. Barnes
Transporting the American Expeditionary Force
In his book, The Services of Supply; A Memoir of the Great War (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927), General Johnson Hagood wrote about WWI, “At the beginning, the problem was ships.” There was a very good reason why he would say that ships were the problem.
By late 1917, the U.S. Government was rapidly beginning to recruit, equip, and train a large modern army. It would take time and a lot of ships to move it across the Atlantic to France, however.
Unfortunately, as the US Army started to round into size and shape, much of the Allied transportation capability needed to move the force was littering the bottom of the ocean. The German Navy’s surface raiders and submarine fleet had ravaged the shipping fleets of the Allied and Neutral countries to the point that they could not replace half of their losses, even with a massive shipbuilding program.
By July 1917, British Admiral Lord Charles Beresford expressed his fears quite clearly by reporting he was “distressed at the fact that it appears...impossible to provide enough ships to bring the American Army over… and, after they are brought over, to supply the enormous amount of shipping which will be required to keep them full up with munition, food and equipment.”
The German General Staff agreed completely. In their opinion, the American Army would not be able to cross the ocean in sufficient numbers or in time to impact the fighting on the Western Front.
What was to be done? On the positive side, the US Navy gave assurance that their warships could protect the troop transport ships, should they become available, through the use of convoys and vigorous ant-submarine tactics,
The Navy proved as good as their word. It transferred the majority of the American fleet to the Atlantic seaboard. It also coordinated carefully with the British fleet to maximize the number of anti-submarine vessels assigned to convoy protection. It helped that the Navy had begun conducting “refueling at sea” operations just a few months earlier. It as now able to extend the sailing distance of the newer ships in the destroyer fleet.
But the problem remained. The Americans needed more ships than were readily available from the US Merchant fleet or from the Allies. Where could they find these ships?
Secretary of War, Newton Baker decided that German ships that had been interned in U.S. ports since the outset of war could be used as troopships. At first, this solution turned out to be more of a challenge than expected.
Fearing that their vessels would be used against their Fatherland, the German captains and crews of the captive ships carried out a program of deliberate sabotage. They underestimated American skills with ship repair and electro-welding, however.
Most of the deliberate damage had been to the vessels’ engines. The American shipyards quickly set to work, either creating new parts or welding the old parts back into place. Working around the clock, seven days a week, the American repair crews brought the ships back on line and made them seaworthy.
By the time they were finished, the Americans had repaired and placed back into commission eighteen German ships. In most cases, on completion of repair work the ships were renamed. The repaired vessels were:
Original Name / New Name
- Großer Kurfürst / Aeolus
- Kaiser Wilhelm II / Agamemnon
- Amerika / America
- Neckar / Antigone
- Cincinnati / Covington
- Prinz Eitel / Friedrich De Kalb
- George Washington / George Washington
- Friedrich der Große / Huron
- Vaterland / Leviathan
- Koenig Wilhelm / Madawaska
- Barbarossa / Mercury
- Kronprinzessin / Cecile Mount Vernon
- Princess Irene / Pocahontas
- Hamburg / Powhatan
- President Grant / President Grant
- President Lincoln / President Lincoln
- Rhein / Susquehanna
- Kronprinz / Wilhelm Von Steuben
Particularly important were to the Navy’s program were the Leviathan (noted as the largest ship in the world at the time); the President Grant; and the George Washington.
Two other ships were also quite interesting because they hadpreviously hunted the water as surface raiders earlier in the war: the Prince Eitel Friedrich and the Kronprinz Wilhelm. Early in the war, these two former passenger liners had taken refuge in the Hampton Roads port complex in Virginia. The captains of each ship relied on US neutrality to protect their crews and ships them from the British fleet. The 600 officers and crewmen of the two ships had enjoyed almost celebrity status in the Virginian ports until they were transferred, along with their ships, to Philadelphia. Later, under their new names, De Kalb and Von Steuben,the ships would contribute to transporting troops — this time, American Doughboys to France. The former German crewmembers were dispatched to POW camps in the United States.
Of the twelve ships noted for carrying the most American soldiers to France, the top six were former German vessels. The number of soldiers they transported is staggering: Leviathan carried 119,000 soldiers in 9 trips, George Washington 48,373 in 9 trips, President Grant 39,974 in 8 trips, America 39,768 in 9 trips, Agamemnon 36,097 in 10 trips, and Mount Vernon 33,692 in 9 trips. These six ships delivered the equivalent of fourteen of Pershing‘s forty-two 28,000-man divisions. Only two US-owned ships, ironically both named for United States railroads, were in the top 12: Great Northern 28,248 troops in 9 trips and Northern Pacific 20,711 in 9 trips.
COLLECTING THE TRANSPORTS
For militaria collectors, these ships, whether German, Allied, or American, provide a large field of collectible items. Everything from individual soldier’s billet/ticket and meal card, ships’ newspapers and photographs, to the souvenirs kept by the US sailors crewing the ships are readily available. Best of all, most are reasonably priced. The ever-popular “Ship that brought me home” photographs can be found for almost every vessel used and make a great display.
Accompanying this article are just a few samples of the many possible items that could make an interesting display and be used to tell the fascinating story of the German ships that carried an American Army to war. Whether the collector is focusing on one particular vessel or seeking an item from each, the hunt is rewarding and tells a unique history, particularly for the impounded/recycled German ships.
Alexander F. Barnes is the author of several military history books for Schiffer Publishing and is currently serving as the Virginia National Guard Command Historian.