United States Navy operations during World War I
Part of the War at Sea of World War I
Uss San Diego sinking.jpg

The Sinking of USS San Diego, Francis Muller
Result American victory
 United States  Germany
Commanders and leaders
William Sims
Austin Knight
Hugh Rodman
Reinhard Scheer
Franz von Hipper

United States Navy operations during World War I began on April 6, 1917, after the formal declaration of war on the German Empire. The American navy focused on countering enemy U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, while convoying men and supplies to France and Italy. Because of United States' late entry into the war, her capital ships never engaged the German fleet, and few decisive submarine actions occurred.[1]


Atlantic Ocean

The main theater of World War I was the Western Front. In order to relieve the British and European allies already on the battle front, the United States Navy was tasked with transporting millions of American soldiers and supplies across the Atlantic to France. The United States Navy was ill-prepared for war, and the only solution was to begin deploying whatever was available on convoy duty and arming merchantmen with small naval guns manned by armed guard detachments.

Congress declared war on April 6, 1917, which meant the United States Coast Guard automatically became a part of the Department of the Navy.[Note 1] Destroyers and similar escort warships were considered the most effective means of sinking enemy submarines and protecting merchantmen. Therefore, destroyer squadrons were based in the British Isles at major ports including Queenston, Ireland. The capital ships took up positions with the British Royal Navy in the North Sea for an uneventful blockade of the German High Seas Fleet that would last even after the armistice into 1919.[3]

The first victory for the United States Navy took place in the Atlantic on October 15, 1917. The destroyer USS Cassin, commanded by Lieutenant Commander W. N. Vernon, encountered U-61 off Mine Head, Ireland. After chasing the U-boat for an hour, U-61 turned around and fired a single torpedo, which struck Cassin to port. Gunner's Mate First Class Osmond Ingram noticed the torpedo just before it struck and alarmed the K-gun crew, who began firing depth charges. Cassin was heavily damaged, but her crew kept her afloat and continued firing. Ingram was killed and later was to receive the Medal of Honor, while nine others were wounded. Cassin struck U-61's conning tower, which forced her crew to disengage and retreat.[4]

German officers and crewmen evacuating the U-58 on November 17, 1917.
German officers and crewmen evacuating the U-58 on November 17, 1917.

On November 17, 1917, two destroyers became the first U.S. Navy ships to sink an enemy submarine. USS Fanning and USS Nicholson were escorting convoy OQ-20 eastbound, when a lookout sighted the periscope of U-58. The U-boat was forced to surface by depth charges and was subsequently defeated in a brief surface engagement. At least one shot from Nicholson struck the U-boat, killing two men and causing heavy damage. The thirty-nine survivors abandoned the sinking U-58 and were taken prisoner. Lieutenants Frank Berrien and Arthur S. Carpender both received the Navy Cross.[5]

Four United States Navy ships were lost during World War I, only two by enemy action, though six merchant ships with armed guards aboard were also destroyed. The first combat loss was USS Jacob Jones, a destroyer, which was sailing to Ireland in a zig-zag pattern with five other warships from Brest. On December 17, Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose of U-53 sighted the destroyer and attacked with a spread of torpedoes. One was spotted by the Americans, but despite taking evasive action, she was fatally damaged. Commander David W. Bagley ordered his crew to abandon ship, and as she sank the armed depth charges aboard began to detonate, adding to the already heavy casualties. Sixty-six of her crew were killed, and more injured; only thirty-eight survived. Jacob Jones was the first American destroyer ever lost in battle, and she went down within eight minutes.[6][7]

The largest loss of life for the U.S. Navy during the war was on the collier USS Cyclops in March 1918. She left Barbados on March 4, 1918 bound for Baltimore, Maryland, but was never seen again. She may have been sunk by a German submarine, but it is more likely that she capsized because of the shifting of her cargo of coal. Cyclops was lost with 236 crewmen and passengers.

Three United States Army and navy transports, USAT Henry R. Mallory, USAT Tenadores and USS Mercury, received credit for defeating a U-boat on April 4, 1918. Sailing back to the United States from France, a U-boat surfaced at 11:45 and fired her torpedoes at the Mallory. Lookouts spotted the tracks, and the ship was able to evade the torpedo. The submarine was then spotted, and all three ships opened fire with their main guns, hitting the U-boat as it submerged. The Americans began dropping depth charges, but the unknown U-boat was not seen again.[8]

USS Christabel's white star, the symbol for a U-boat kill.
USS Christabel's white star, the symbol for a U-boat kill.

The auxiliary yacht USS Christabel engaged on May 21 the UC-56 twice off the coast of Spain while escorting a British merchantman.[9] That afternoon an oil slick was spotted by Christabel's crew and later was spotted the wake of the submarine. Depth charges were dropped, but the submarine escaped, and returned to harass the convoy that night. At about 11:00 pm lookouts on Cristabel sighted a periscope and immediately maneuvered to fire depth charges. Several successive hits damaged the U-boat, but it escaped and had to cruise on the surface to Santander to prevent its sinking. The crew of UC-56 were interned by Spain, but the U-boat was scuttled rather than be handed over. During the action, a few depth charges became loose aboard Christabel, and at great personal risk Ensign Daniel Augustus Joseph Sullivan secured them, earning him the Medal of Honor.[10]

On June 6 the British ocean liner SS Dwinsk was attacked by U-151 about 400 miles east of the Bermudas. Twenty-two crewmen were lost, but the rest survived in the lifeboats. The U-boat remained in the area to use the lifeboats as bait for Allied ships. A few hours, later the auxiliary cruiser USS Von Steuben arrived and found the lifeboats. But before she reached, them a torpedo was spotted. Two guns opened fire, one on the incoming torpedo and the other on U-151's periscope. The cruiser also began evasive maneuvers and the torpedo missed her.[11]

U-156, under Richard Feldt, raided the port of Orleans, Massachusetts, on the morning of July 18. Feldt surfaced in the dark and positioned his boat off Nauset Beach. He then began shelling the civilian tugboat SS Perth Amboy and four wooden barges with his deck gun. All five targets were destroyed. A few shells missed and struck shore, becoming the first enemy shells on the continental United States since the 1846 Siege of Fort Texas at the beginning of the Mexican War. Nine Coast Guard Curtiss HS seaplanes spotted the U-boat and dropped bombs on her, but all failed to detonate.[12]

The following day, USS San Diego suffered an explosion while sailing from the Portsmouth Naval Yard to New York City. The armored cruiser was northeast of Fire Island when it was thought a torpedo struck her port side below the waterline at the engine room below. The damage prevented a water tight hatch from sealing and the engine room and fire room No. 9 both flooded in minutes. Captain Harley H. Christy was convinced he was under a U-boat attack and ordered his men to battle stations. They began firing at anything that even vaguely resembled a periscope. When it was clear the ship could not be saved, Captain Christy gave the order to abandon ship. Twenty-eight minutes after the explosion, San Diego slipped under the waves, taking six crewmen with her. There was later some controversy over the sinking, as no U-boat was reported in the area. Eventually, the sinking was blamed on a sea mine possibly laid by U-156. USS San Diego was the only U.S. Navy capital ship lost in the war.[13]

USS  Mount Vernon on September 5 after being torpedoed.
USS Mount Vernon on September 5 after being torpedoed.

The only lightvessel of the lost in combat was Diamond Shoal Lightship No. 71. On August 6, she was patrolling off North Carolina's Diamond Shoals when she encounter a sinking cargo ship, SS Merak, a victim of U-140. The survivors were rescued, and LV-71's captain, Master Walter Barnett, sent out a warning to friendly that a U-boat was in the area. "U-140" intercepted the message and returned. Upon arrival, she surfaced and Commander Waldemar Kophamel demanded the Americans abandon the lightship. As LV-71 was unarmed, her crew had no choice but to row ashore in their boat, while the U-boat destroyed ship with its deck gun. There were no casualties on either side.[14][15][16]

USS Mount Vernon was a German-owned ocean liner that was seized and armed by the United States Navy. On the morning of September 5, 1918, Mount Vernon was off the coast of France accompanied by four destroyers, when the periscope of U-82 was sighted. The auxiliary cruiser immediately opened fire with her main guns, damaging the submarine. However, U-82 managed to fire a torpedo. Mount Vernon tried to dodge the torpedo, but was unsuccessful. Thirty-six sailors were killed and thirteen wounded, but the ship was saved. USS Winslow, USS Conner, USS Wainwright and USS Nicholson all dropped depth charges, but the U-boat got safely away.[17]

North Sea

With the encouragement of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt,[18] the United States manufactured 100,000 naval mines for the North Sea Mine Barrage to prevent U-boats from reaching Atlantic shipping lanes. The United States North Sea Mine Force commanded by Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss aboard the Atlantic Fleet Mine Force flagship USS Black Hawk laid the new type of mine in deeper water than had ever before been mined.[19] Rear Admiral Lewis Clinton-Baker, commanding the Royal Navy minelaying force at the time, described the barrage as the "biggest mine planting stunt in the world's history." The official statistics on lost German submarines compiled on March 1, 1919 credited the North Sea mine barrage with the certain destruction of four U-boats, probable destruction of two more, and possible destruction of another two.[20] -

Four battleships of Battleship Division 9 (designated 6th Battle Squadron in the Grand Fleet) under Rear-Admiral Hugh Rodman, namely New York, Delaware, Wyoming and Florida arrived at Rosyth on the 7th December 1917 to reinforce the British blockade of the German fleet. Texas joined in February 1918 and Arkansas replaced Delaware in July.[21]

Mediterranean Sea

American naval operations in the Mediterranean took the form of escorting convoys and delivering supplies. The Mediterranean was not without enemies, Austro-Hungarian forces in northern Italy and the Ottoman Empire were two major threats though by 1917 their navies were mostly defeated or blockaded by ships of the Otranto Barrage. Other than the land Battle of Vittorio Veneto, the Americans engaged in only two memorable battles in the Mediterranean theater.[22]

The first was when USS Lydonia together with HMS Basilisk sank a U-boat off Algiers on May 8, 1918. Lydonia and Basilisk were steaming with a convoy from Bizerte to Gibraltar when they came across the German submarine UB-70. A coordinated depth charge attack ensued but the Germans were able to torpedo the British merchant ship SS Ingleside, which sank. After a fifteen-minute running battle, the depth charging was stopped and survivors of the Ingleside were rescued. Heavy seas prevented an immediate assessment of possible damage to the submarine but later evaluations credited USS Lydonia and HMS Basilisk with sinking UB-70 when she failed to show up at any port.[23]

HMS Britannia sinking after being torpedoed by UB-50 on November 9, 1918.
HMS Britannia sinking after being torpedoed by UB-50 on November 9, 1918.

Twelve American submarine chasers under Captain Charles P. Nelson were part of attack on the Austro-Hungarian held naval base at Durazzo, Albania. The battle began on October 11 with Italian and British aircraft bombarding Austro-Hungarian concentrations within the city while the allied fleet was still crossing the Adriatic Sea. When they arrived, the larger ships engaged shore batteries while the Americans plotted a path through a sea mine field and engaged two Austro-Hungarian submarines, U-29 and U-31. Two destroyers and a torpedo boat were also damaged by American and British ships with help from some Italian MAS boats and one merchant vessel was sunk. In the end no Americans were hurt in the battle and the naval base was left in ruins. For his leadership and courage at Durrazo Captain Nelson received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal as well as other foreign decorations.[24][25]

Coast Guard Captain Leroy Reinburg of USS Druid engaged enemy submarines near the Strait of Gibraltar in November 1918. The Druid was operating as part of the Gibraltar Barrage, a squadron of American and British ships assigned to keeping enemy U-boats from passing from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. On November 8, 1918, men aboard USS Druid sighted three surfaced submarines going through the strait. The weather was foul and the seas rough but the barrage squadron attacked anyway, first with gunfire and then with depth charges. HMS Privet reported that she shot a hole through one of the submarines' conning towers with a 4-inch (100 mm) gun but other than that no other damage was thought to have occurred. USS Druid and her compatriots were successful in defending the strait and on the following day the Americans helped rescue the British crew of the battleship HMS Britannia which had been torpedoed by UB-50 while passing through Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. The war ended three days later on November 11.[26]

Pacific Ocean

American naval forces in the Pacific Theater of World War I were far removed from the conflict with Germany and the other Central Powers. Although Imperial Germany possessed Pacific colonies at the beginning of the war, all of the isolated colonies had easily been conquered by the Allies by 1915. The only significant United States naval presence in the Pacific was a cruiser squadron under Admiral Austin M. Knight.[27]

There was only one engagement in the theater involving the United States, and it took place just one day after the United States declared war. In December 1914 the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cormoran was commerce raiding in the South Pacific, when her commander put in for provisions on the then neutral island of Guam, a United States territory. Captain Adalbert Zuckschwerdt needed coal, but there was little to be had. As a result, the ship was stranded and her crew were interned for the next three years. When the war with Germany finally began on April 6, 1917, the old schooner USS Supply was ordered to demand the Cormoran surrender or be sunk. Captain Zuckschwerdt refused to hand over his ship, knowing it would be used against his country. Instead, he ordered his men to scuttle her. In an attempt to prevent this, the captain of the USS Supply ordered the United States Marines on board to open fire on German crew. Nine German sailors would be killed, either by the rifle fire or the explosion that sank the Cormoran.[28]


See also


  1. ^ Under the January 28, 1915 act creating the Coast Guard from the merger of the United States Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life-Saving Service the Coast Guard comes under orders of the Secretary of the Navy when Congress declares war or when the President directs such an action to be taken. (U.S. Congress, "Act to Create the Coast Guard", Congressional Record, 63rd Congress, 3rd session, 1915, volume 2, part 2.)[2]
  1. ^ Morison, pp. 861–865.
  2. ^ Larzelere, pp 7–8
  3. ^ Morison, pp. 863–865.
  4. ^ "Cassin", DANFS, U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command
  5. ^ "TELLS WHOLE STORY OF SINKING U-BOAT; Destroyers Fanning and Nicholson Dropped Depth Charges, Bringing Submarine to Surface SANK IN A FEW MINUTES Four Officers and 35 sailors Surrender and Receive Chivalrous Treatment—British Praise. Overboard to Succor Prisoner. Praised by British Commander". The New York Times. December 30, 1917.
  6. ^ Feuer, p. 21.
  7. ^ "Jacob Jones", DANFS, U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command
  8. ^ Gleaves, p. 168.
  9. ^ "Christabel", DANFS, U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command
  10. ^ Lieutenant Commander Daniel A.J. Sullivan, USNRF, (1884–1941)", Online Library – People, U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command
  11. ^ "Von Steuben I". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command.
  12. ^ Larzelere, p 135
  13. ^ "California II". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command.
  14. ^ "Diamond Shoals Lightships". North Carolina's Outer Banks. Archived from the original on October 30, 2013.
  15. ^ "SS Merak (+1918)". Wrecksite.eu. Retrieved March 19, 2016.
  16. ^ Messimer, p. 124.
  17. ^ "Mount Vernon III". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command.
  18. ^ "Early Political Career". Roosevelt Institute. Archived from the original on January 15, 2015. Retrieved May 2, 2012.
  19. ^ "The North Sea Mine Barrage". The Great War Society. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
  20. ^ Belknap, Reginald Rowan The Yankee mining squadron; or, Laying the North Sea mining barrage (1920) United States Naval Institute pp.5,15,18-22,27-36,43-47,56,82-83,101&108
  21. ^ Faulknor, Marcus The Great War at Sea:A Naval Atlas 1914-1919, Seaforth Publishing 2015, p.143
  22. ^ Morison, p. 863.
  23. ^ "Lydonia". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command.
  24. ^ "Nelson DD-623". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command.
  25. ^ Morison, pp. 863-864.
  26. ^ Larzelere, p 117
  27. ^ Reynolds[page needed]
  28. ^ "Supply II". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command.

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.