100 Years Ago: Rappahannock County men ship overseas to fight the Germans

Part 3 of a series

Rappahannock County men in the 318th Infantry Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division at Camp Lee outside of Petersburg finally knew in early May 1918 that they were heading overseas to France to fight in the trenches against the Germans.

Orders had been received to prepare to move out on short notice. The regiment’s commander made sure all men were fully equipped for overseas duty; and the unit’s property had been carefully packed, marked, and labeled.

Then at 1 p.m. in warm weather on Monday, May 20, the 318th Infantry Regiment left Camp Lee by train, in five sections, fifteen minutes apart. The next morning they got off in Jersey City, N.J., and marched to a number of waiting ferryboats.

Once on board, the ferry boats started up the Hudson River in a heavy rain and pulled into a pier formerly owned by the North German Lloyd line. The troops disembarked, and next sat around inside a reception building until 2:30 p.m. That was when they were informed they were to going to France on board the USS Leviathan.

What incredible luck for the 318th. Launched in Germany in 1914, the Leviathan was formerly the biggest, fastest, and most luxurious of German ocean liners, and had been originally named “Vaterland.” It had been seized at Hoboken, N.J., by the United States on April 5, 1917 at the start of WW1 and converted into a troop carrier.

It now had a U.S. Navy crew of over 2,000 men, and it had enough lifeboats and life rafts to handle 17,000 individuals. It could sustain a speed of 20 knots (23 mph) and make a round trip across the Atlantic Ocean in about 17 days. It traveled so fast it needed no convoy. It traveled alone.

The main dining room of the luxury liner had been converted into a mess hall, the swimming pool became a baggage room, the main theater and ballroom became the ship’s hospital, and the gymnasium became an isolation ward.

Large caliber guns were mounted on deck fore and aft and a depth charge chute was placed on the stern. It is important to know that on its first trip across the Atlantic as a troop ship, on Dec. 15, 1917, it stopped at Liverpool, England, to disembark its troops there and not in France. There was a reason

A ‘Dazzle’ ship.

It was in England that the Leviathan received its unique “Dazzle” camouflage. This was a British innovation. By painting a ship black and white in giant stripes, arcs, and other geometric shapes a German submarine commander at his periscope could not tell the size, shape, movement direction, speed, or how far away a “Dazzle” ship might be. As a result a torpedo would not be aimed correctly, or not be fired at all. Thus when the 318th went on board the USS Leviathan on May 21, 1918, for the ship’s 4th trip across the Atlantic, they were aboard a troop ship that was so fast and so camouflaged that it likely could either outrun or confuse any German U-boats. It carried about 10,500 troops, including 300 nurses. It also carried Major General Adelbert Cronkhite, Commanding Officer of the 80th Infantry Division.

The USS Leviathan, which carried Rappahannock County soldiers to the European battlefields, was painted in “Dazzle” camouflage that proved effective in tricking German submarines. Navy History and Heritage Command

Once on board, the 318th Infantry Regiment was assigned to F, G, and H decks, about halfway between the top and the bottom decks of the ship, near where the water line was located. Bunks were numbered and arranged in tiers of three, and on boarding each man had received a card bearing his deck and bunk number.

A history of the 318th described some initial chaotic conditions on board the Leviathan. For example, companies and one officer boarded by one gangplank, other officers and first sergeants on a different gangplank. The result was they could not locate each other. This was further compounded as mess call was sounded about the same time that certain watertight doors on the ship had been closed, so that it took five hours to get everyone fed and to their proper sleeping quarters.

It wasn’t until 3 p.m. the following day, Wednesday, that three heavy-duty tugs guided the Leviathan as it backed out of its slip and into the Hudson River. All troops were kept below deck so as to not tip off any German spies that a troop ship was underway. Thus no troops saw the Statue of Liberty.

On troopships in general the double-use of space was emphasized. In a document entitled “The Road to France II, The Transportation of Troops and Military Supplies 1917-1918” by Crowell and Wilson, published in 1921, for troop ships it notes “mess halls were large, bare rooms, used only during the three meal hours each day, the men standing as they ate the food served from kettles brought from the galleys.”

Thus, to make double use of a ship’s mess hall, foldable bunks were installed on the walls. On the Leviathan, a description is given of how all enlisted troops on the ship ate in one giant mess hall that had previously been the main dining room for first-class passengers.

Entering the mess hall in an orderly manner from each end of the ship, the troops descended a grand staircase and lined up before twelve serving stations. The men, using their mess kits, received their food and ate it as they stood about. At the other end of the mess hall there were “great tanks, certain of which were filled with hot soapy water and the others with hot clear water. Here they washed and rinsed their mess gear; then they returned to their compartments by established routes.”

It was a precise operation. The document notes that in this manner, 9,000 men on the Leviathan could be served in 67 minutes.

U-boat encounter

Another publication about the Leviathan, published by the “Brooklyn Eagle” newspaper in 1919, contains a wealth of information about the trip across the Atlantic. For the next few days after departing New York City on Wednesday, May 22, 1918, there was clear weather and blue skies. Then, a week later, on the morning of Wednesday, May 29th, the Leviathan picked up its destroyer escort, aligned ahead of and behind the giant ship as it sailed on into a clear, moonlit night.

The next day, about noon on Thursday, May 30th, they were off Brest, France, and a pilot from a pilot destroyer was to guide the Leviathan into the port. At his point, a German U-boat’s periscope was spotted and the Leviathan’s guns fired at it. Over the next hour a sub was spotted twice again and guns were fired. Finally, the Leviathan made port safely, but it may have run of cordon of German U-boats, with the Germans planning to celebrate Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) the German way, by sinking the best troop ship the United States had.

The history of the 318th Infantry Regiment relates a similar story. There was no excitement except for the last day. For the trip across, some troops were detailed to become guards, mess assistants, etc. There were “abandon ship” drills daily. The bands of the units on board gave concerts each day. The history also tells the story of the encounters with the above-noted German U-boats, with troops on deck cheering the Leviathan’s gunners on. Because of its gigantic size, the Leviathan dropped anchor in mid-harbor at Brest, France at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30th, and the 318th Infantry Regiment disembarked on lighters the next morning, Friday, May 31, 1918. Once on shore, they marched three miles to a camp called Pontanezen Barracks, a “rest area.”

The 318th Infantry Regiment was housed in the Pontanezen Barracks, near Brest, France. The Pontanezen Barracks was an ancient French military garrison where Napoleon in the 1820s planned to launch part of his invasion of England. Library of Congress

They were finally in France, but Pontanezen Barracks was anything but a “rest area.” It was made up of six stone buildings two stories high with little ventilation. The structures were part of an ancient French military garrison where Napoleon had planned to launch part of his invasion of England around the early 1800s.

Both water and cooking facilities were minimal. Further bad news was that all of the 318th barracks bags with field boots, personal items, etc., had been sent on ahead to Calais, France, over 300 miles to the northeast. Troops soon found their garrison shoes were worn out after almost a week of daily hikes on hard roads, plus from assignments on Brest’s loading docks, guard duty, etc. But this was balanced by forays for strawberries in the area, being charmed by young French women, and discovering red and white wines. Soon, though, they moved on to more war-like experiences.

Bogart on board?

Although having nothing to do with Rappahannock County men crossing the Atlantic to France, it is of interest that Humphrey Bogart, later an award-winning movie star in Hollywood, was a seaman second class on board the Leviathan from November 1918 to February 1919. It was during this time that Bogart had a prisoner in his custody and the man hit Bogart in the face with one of his handcuffs.

Later, Bogart saw a doctor, but a scar had already formed on a cut on the right corner of his upper lip, thus causing his famous lisp.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 28 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.