Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare brought the United States into a war many Americans strongly opposed. Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1917, the United States Navy converted ocean liners to serve as troop transports, often rushing to move Soldiers and Marines to England and France. Invisible dangers threatened the ships: U-boats, saboteurs, lack of training, icebergs and a virus that would devastate the ranks of the military.
Those are some of the themes in this remarkable, well-paced book by Peter Hernon: "The Great Rescue: American Heroes, An Iconic Ship, and the Race to Save Europe in WWI" (HarperCollins 2017). Events and people intersect aboard USS Leviathan, a converted German liner.
Hernon follows some now-forgotten characters such as Corporal Freddie Stowers, Army Nurse Corps officer Emma Elizabeth Weaver, several Navy ship captains, and American journalist Irvin Cobb. One character, Congressman Royal Johnson of South Dakota, voted against entering the war out of loyalty to his constituents, but then he enlisted and distinguished himself in combat.
|Sailor Humphrey Bogart|
"The Leviathan was waiting for him out in the harbor, a gray monster with black coal smoke trailing from her tall stacks. By the time Roosevelt boarded her, he could barely stand. He'd been showing signs of illness for days. A week earlier, he'd run a 102-degree fever during a hair-raising all-night drive to Paris without headlights over crowded roads. He ignored the symptoms and refused to rest, pushing himself without letup. According to Roosevelt biographer Kenneth Davis, 'For weeks on end he had been driving his body beyond its capacity for self-renewal, using up every reserve of its strength in reckless disregard of the protests it made.' He was knotted up in pain when he was piped aboard the Leviathan and met Captain Bryan."One hundred years ago, a killer version of the flu swept through the world and hit the U.S. Navy. "The illness spread fast, and within the tight confines of a ship at sea it could explode like a bomb."
Desperate to bring reinforcements to Europe, the Leviathan knowingly brought aboard hundreds of already-sick troops aboard. Hernon's characters see the "sickness of war" either at sea or in the trenches, where Soldiers and Marines experienced hand-to-hand combat, grenade and machine gun attacks and chemical weapon horrors. And there were other challenges:
"Johnson had to get used to the chronic lack of sleep, especially at night, when staying awake was a matter of life and death for anyone on duty. This was true even in the rear shelters, which regularly came under shell fire. The trenches and dugouts were infested with rats, the big black variety the soldiers had to club to death, and no matter how much the men tried to stay clean and keep their hair cut short, the lice, or 'cooties,' were always with them, burrowing deep into their uniforms and blankets until they were scratching or picking nits nearly every waking moment. In the morning, tormented soldiers angrily ripped off their shirts, looking for the vermin that abounded in the collars and sleeves."
|Scenes aboard USS Leviathan|
"The Germans had had four years to add a devilish array of defenses to the already challenging landscape of hills, ravines, and woods – seemingly countless numbers of machine gun pillboxes, a network of trenches, and barbed wire in lines four and five deep and concealed over the years with lush vines and brush. Artillery was positioned to provide flanking fire on infantry trying to move between the Meuse and the Argonne.This masterpiece of interlocking, mutually supportive firepower was designed to defend a critical railroad in the rear, the Sedan-Mezieres line, the only escape route to Germany. If it were broken, the German army would be trapped, unable to be resupplied or reinforced. The war would end."The war did end, thanks to American presence and power. Hernon uses the battlefield and the sea as a stage for his characters, with USS Leviathan as a centerpiece, all to show an intimate history of World War I, thought to be a war to end all wars but which ended in a treaty described by MacArthur as "drastic ... more like a treaty of perpetual war than of perpetual peace."
USS Leviathan's work was not over after the treaty was signed. The ship joined other converted liners, commercial ships and war ships as part of a "massive logistical undertaking" to bring two million troops home from Europe.
We featured USS Leviathan in a Navy Reads post honoring the Statue of Liberty: According to the Naval Historical Center, "Leviathan (was) an appropriate name considering that she was then the largest ship in the U.S. Navy, and in the World. The Navy would not operate a bigger ship until 1945, when the slightly longer and heavier aircraft carrier Midway entered service."