Primary Documents - Charles C. Gill on the Role of the U.S. Navy's Transport Service During World War I, November 1918
Reproduced below is the text of Commander Charles C. Gill's semi-official report - approved by transport department head Rear-Admiral Albert Gleaves - detailing the role of the U.S. Navy's transport service during World War One.
Commander Charles C. Gill's Report on the U.S. Navy's Transport Service During Wartime
Previous to 1916 the idea of a United States overseas expeditionary force numbered by millions would have been generally regarded as a remote if not impossible contingency.
Consequently no extensive peace-time preparations had been made for such an undertaking. The task of providing a transport fleet was, therefore, a pioneer work. Ships had to be obtained, officers and crews enrolled and trained.
It was necessary to provide docks, storehouses, lighters and tugs, coaling equipment, repair facilities, and all the varied machinery for operating and maintaining a large transportation service. An efficient administrative organization had to be developed.
Such, in brief, was the problem confronting Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, then Commander of the Destroyer Force of the Atlantic Fleet, when, on May 29, 1917, he received orders designating him Commander of United States Convoy Operations in the Atlantic in addition to his other duties.
The work of the navy in connection with the transportation of troops to France constitutes a distinct phase of the present war. The attending political and military circumstances incident to the collapse of Russia, the critical situation on the Western front, and the threat of the German submarine combined to make this phase of special significance.
Throughout the year following the entry of the United States into the war the military and naval developments were such that the safe transportation across the Atlantic of troops and supplies became a problem of more and more pressing importance.
The United States Army in France was a decisive factor in obtaining speedy victory. The transportation of this army overseas under naval protection was, therefore, a major operation of first importance. A large share of this urgent mission devolved on the United States Navy, and its successful accomplishment in the face of great difficulties is another page to the record of the service in keeping with its past history and traditions.
Much confusion of thought has existed as to just how the vast work of transporting a United States Army numbering 2,079,880 souls to Europe has been accomplished. It is unfortunate that misinformation should be disseminated respecting an operation in which the different organizations concerned performed their respective functions in utmost harmony and cooperation. All have done their allotted parts splendidly and efficiently. All share in the satisfaction resulting from the successful accomplishment of a difficult and urgent undertaking.
At the time the United States entered the war the enormous toll of shipping gathered by the U-boat in the East Atlantic and the boast of von Hindenburg that the submarine blockade of England would starve her out and win the war, indicate the seriousness of the naval situation in those waters at that time.
Inasmuch as the principal field of British naval activities was the North Sea and English Channel, the task of breaking the U-boat blockade in the Atlantic naturally became the immediate mission of the United States Navy. The prompt dispatching of destroyers, yachts, and all other available craft of a type useful against the submarine to the East Atlantic, and the splendid work these vessels and others later sent to augment their strength have done in cleaning up these waters of U-boat devastation is a matter of record, the importance of which in winning the war is conceded from all quarters. This was the first step in preparation for sending the United States Army overseas.
The next step was the development of the transport service and the convoy and escort system. In this work the Cruiser and Transport Force cooperated with the destroyers and other anti-submarine craft abroad. In addition, Great Britain, France, and Italy supplied troopships. As would be expected from Great Britain's enormous merchant marine, she was able to supply the greatest carrying capacity.
She had the ships ready for this use, and 48.25 per cent of the American Army was transported in British steamers; 2.5 per cent were carried in French ships, and 3 per cent in Italian. The remaining 46.25 per cent were carried in United States ships, and all but 2.5 per cent of these sailed in United States naval transports.
All the troops carried in United States ships were escorted by United States men-of-war; that is, cruisers, destroyers, converted yachts, and other anti-submarine craft. Also for the most part the troops carried in British, French, and Italian ships were given safe conduct through the danger zones by United States destroyers.
Roughly, 82.75 per cent of the maximum strength of the naval escorts provided incident to the transportation of United States troops across the Atlantic was supplied by the United States Navy, 14 per cent by the British Navy, and 3 per cent by the French Navy.
The declaration of war with Germany found the United States without a transport fleet and without a merchant marine capable of supplying ships for transporting a large military expedition. It is a remarkable and noteworthy example of American ingenuity and zeal that, starting with almost nothing at the beginning of the war, a United States naval transport service has been built up which has carried almost a million soldiers to Europe. In spite of the determined efforts of submarines to prevent it this has been accomplished without the loss of a single soldier by the hand of the enemy.
The splendid cooperation of the army has made this possible. The army organized and developed an efficient system for loading and unloading the ships at the terminal ports. The navy transported the troops and safeguarded them en route.
On homeward-bound voyages, however, we have not been so fortunate. In a measure this has been due to need of concentrating maximum naval escort protection on troop-laden convoys. Frequently this necessitated lighter escort for the ships returning, and it was on these homeward-bound vessels that the submarines scored their successes.
The United States Naval Transports Antilles, President Lincoln, and Covington were torpedoed and sunk. The Finland and Mount Vernon were torpedoed, but were able to reach port for repairs. The United States armoured cruiser San Diego struck a mine laid by a German submarine and was sunk.
The service was not without hazard, as is shown by the fact that more than half of the war casualties in the United States Navy were suffered in the Cruiser and Transport Force. Nor were enemy guns and torpedoes the only menace - danger from fire and internal damage was enhanced by the machinations of enemy secret agents, and the likelihood of collision was increased by the necessity of manoeuvring without lights in convoy formation vessels manned for the most part by inexperienced crews.
In connection with the operation of the ships special mention should be made of the volunteer and reserve personnel, particularly the officers and men from the United States merchant marine service who enrolled in the navy for the period of the war. These have rendered splendid service, and the interests of the United States for the future require that the cordial relations of cooperation established between the merchant marine and the navy be maintained.
In the larger transports it was the policy of the department to have the Captains, executive officers, chief engineers, gunnery officers, senior medical officers, and senior supply officers detailed from the regular navy and the remainder of the officer complement filled from the various classes of reserve and volunteer officers. This worked very well, and too much credit cannot be given the latter for the loyal service rendered and the aptitude shown in adapting themselves to naval war conditions.
In special cases it was possible, after a certain amount of experience had been gained, to relieve heads of departments, originally assignments of regular naval officers, by reserve officers. For example, in the case of the Harrisburg, Louisville, Plattsburg, Manchuria, Mongolia, and Finland, after a few trips the reserve Captains took over command of the ships.
Credit is also due the navy yards, provisions and clothing depots, medical supply depots, and the ship repair plants which supplemented the navy yards in performing the work incident to making ready and keeping in service this large United States Naval Cruiser and Transport Force, commanded by Rear Admiral Gleaves, and numbering, at the time of the armistice, twenty-four cruisers and forty-two transports, manned, exclusive of troops carried, by about 3,000 officers and 42,000 men.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
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