One of the fascinating things about the first World War is the way it seems both modern and medieval. We think of that mostly in terms of the war on land, where men charged into the teeth of modern weaponry and were slaughtered by the thousands. It was also true on the water. In the days before satellites, ships could still get lost.
In April 1918, the USS Leviathan, a giant troop transport, was unable to get its bearings in thick fog and U-boat-infested waters off the coast of France. The captain reluctantly cut his engines. When an escort destroyer appeared out of the mist and pulled alongside, an ensign on the Leviathan’s bridge shouted through a megaphone. “We don’t know where we are. Do you?” The reply was curt. “No.”
The Leviathan was no ordinary transport. It had a past. It was once the German luxury liner SS Vaterland. The liner was in New York when the war broke out in Europe in 1914. It remained there, forbidden to leave, until the U.S. entered the war in 1917, at which time we commandeered and renamed it the USS Leviathan and transformed it into a troop transport.
That transformation, and the stories of the people the ship carried to and from the war, are the focus of Peter Hernon’s “The Great Rescue.”
This rescue of our allies was a much closer call than most of us realize now. By the time the U.S. entered the war, Russia was a dropout, and Germany was putting its entire effort into the Western Front. The allies needed reinforcements. Over there. Now.
In that time of need, there was the giant Vaterland. Calling the ship a luxury liner understates things. It had its own Ritz-Carlton restaurant. Artwork in another dining area included enormous paintings by 17th-century Flemish master Gerard de Lairesse. Reconfiguring such a ship into a troop transport seems as much an act of vandalism as an engineering feat.
Of course, getting it seaworthy was one thing. Getting it and 12,000 soldiers safely to Europe was another. As the largest troop transport in the fleet, it was a prize target for German submarines, the U-boats. The Germans had an active spy network in America — it’s interesting to recall a time when German immigrants were the ones under a cloud of suspicion — and there was no way to hide the departure of the Leviathan. Everybody knew U-boats would be waiting.
Also, perhaps, the Spanish flu.
Imagine 12,000 men, living in cramped quarters, often “hot-racking” (sleeping in shifts so as to share beds) during an influenza pandemic. I mean, really imagine it. Men leaning over their beds to vomit, soiling themselves. Nobody to clean up. Then comes a storm and high seas. Imagine it. Every trip carried that possibility.
In a ship at sea, one man could trigger an outbreak. Franklin Delano Roosevelt could have but didn’t.
This is not the FDR we remember from the next war. This is the youthful, hard-partying assistant secretary of the Navy. He took the Leviathan home after a visit to Europe. During the voyage, he became ill and nearly died. Fortunately, he had a private berth and the flu did not spread.
He was rushed to the hospital when the ship docked. While he was hospitalized, his wife, Eleanor, went through his luggage and discovered a stack of love letters written to him by her social secretary.
Hernon’s book is rich with such offbeat details.
FDR is just one of many famous people who come aboard this nonfiction look at the Great War. So do Gen. Jack Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Damon Runyon and Ty Cobb. Humphrey Bogart makes a cameo appearance as a sailor. But the scene-stealers are usually people we haven’t heard of. Like Royal Johnson, a young Republican congressman from South Dakota who voted against the war. When his side lost, he immediately joined the Army. As an enlisted man, he sailed to war aboard the Leviathan.
He is one of several people Hernon follows. The book jumps back and forth between the storylines — from the ocean and the dreaded sight of a U-boat periscope to the land and the horrific vision of a cloud of mustard gas floating toward the trenches.
Hernon is a former Globe-Democrat and Post-Dispatch reporter and Chicago Tribune editor. Along with fellow former Post-Dispatch reporter Terry Ganey, he co-wrote “Under the Influence,” the 1991 unauthorized biography of the Busch family. That New York Times best-seller was as meticulously researched as one would expect with an unauthorized family biography in these litigious times.
This book shows the same level of research. But the subject matter of “The Great Rescue” is more gripping. The Great War was the beginning of the new era and the end of the old.
On the centennial of the U.S. entrance into that war, this book is a great way to recall those times. It could be the beach book for the summer.
Bill McClellan • 314-340-8143
@Bill_McClellan on Twitter
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