Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
The Thirteenth Voyage of the USS Northern Pacific
Ground of the USS Northern Pacific off Fire Island, New York. Naval Historical Society
Carey V. Hodgson, Major, Engineer Corps, U. S. Army, Private Albert F. Litchner, Company G. 30thInfantry, Lt. Robert H. Wilson, Robert W. Thorp, and Joseph S. Logan Wilson were just a few of the soldiers who voyaged onthe USS Northern Pacificat different times in their service to their country and survived to tell war stories. TheNorthern Pacificherself survived 13 – in this case an unlucky 13- trips before it burned and sank on February 8, 1922.
Originally built to sail between Astoria, Oregon, and San Francisco, California, before World War I, the United States Navy drafted theSS Northern Pacificto serve in the Cruiser and Transport Squadron during World War I. The Navy operated the ship as theUSS Northern Pacificmaking a trans-Atlantic loop between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Brest, France. The ship made a total of thirteen trans-Atlantic trips, carrying troops and passengers back and forth between the United States and France.
The USSNorthern Pacificmade nine of her voyages before the November 11, 1918, Armistice that ended World War I. TheNorthern Pacifichad several brushes with death and danger during her war time service. On more than one voyage, lookouts reported spotting German U boats or torpedoes, but theNorthern Pacifichad the advantage of speed and she escaped being torpedoed.
Major Carey V. Hodgson, Engineer Corps, U.S. Army, was one of the hundreds of soldiers who traveled on the Northern Pacific during her seventh voyage. He began his career with the United States Coast and Geodic Survey as an engineer, and then he joined the U.S. Army in September 1917. In December 1917, he was assigned to the 104thEngineers, remaining with them during the entire war.
The 104thEngineers was attached for duty with the 29thDivision- a National Guard Division from New Jersey, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia. On June 14, 1918, the regiment traveled to Hoboken, New Jersey by train and directly boarded theNorthern Pacific. Major Hodgson managed to avoid the fall influenza epidemic aboard theNorthern Pacific.
On her eighth voyage,The Northern Pacificcouldn’t out steam the influenza virus. Theinfluenza epidemicthat ravaged the United States and the rest of the world with a “three day fever” prelude in the spring and a full fledged onslaught in the fall of 1918 didn’t spare theUSS Northern Pacific. When theNorthern Pacificmade her eighth voyage to France in late September 1918, influenza struck hundreds of crewmen and passengers. Crew members had to set up cots in the brig and in the ship’s open passageways to accommodate stricken soldiers. Seven people died on board and many more after they had disembarked in Brest.
A combination of influenza after effects and the end of World War I produced fewer passengers-only about 500- on theNorthern Pacific’sninth trip and below 2,000 on her tenth trip which began November 12, 1918, one day after the Armistice. After the Armistice, theNorthern Pacific’smission changed and she began bringing war veterans back to the United States.
An Eventful New Year’s Day-Wednesday, January 1, 1919
TheNorthern Pacificleft Brest, France, on December 25, 1918, on the westbound segment of her eleventh trans-Atlantic trip. She carried 2,508 passengers, some of them wounded veterans and others sound in mind and body and all eager to return home. Seventeen Navy Nurses were also aboard.
The New York Timesstory said that the Northern Pacific carried 3,000 people onboard. Out of the 3,000 people, 2,973 were in the military and a French officer accompanied them. The Americans consisted of the 5thAmerican Base Cemetery Sector , the 8thTrench Mortar Battery;48 casual officers belonging to the infantry and other services; 269 bed-ridden sick, and wounded men; 73 officers and 1402 men, sick and wounded but not requiring special attention; and 14 casuals including 8 men, 2 army field clerks, 2 civilians, and 2 naval officers.
On Wednesday, January 1, 1919, the weather welcomed the veterans with windy, rainy, and foggy conditions and Atlantic Ocean waves tossed theNorthern Pacificand continuously broke over her superstructure and smokestacks. As theNorthern Pacificapproached the port of New York traveling at a moderate rate of speed, she grounded on a sand bar off Fire Island about 2:00 a.m. Her efforts to back free were unsuccessful. Big waves continuously rolled in and washed away one of the Northern Pacific’s lifeboats from its position high on its superstructure.
According to theTrenton Evening Times, Captain L. Connelly, U.S.N. master of theNorthern Pacificsent an S.O.S. and U.S. Coastguardsmen soon arrived and shot a line out to the stricken ship. Naval wireless kept constant contact with theNorthern Pacificand Captain Connelly in one message to newspapers said: “Notify relatives of returning soldiers and crew they need have no fear for their safety.” Captain B.W. Blamer, chief of staff to Admiral Gleaves, constantly communicated with Captain Connelly by wireless and he directed the rescue operations from New York.
From 4:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. that New Year’s Day, several Navy ships arrived, including the salvage tug Resolute and several destroyers. The men from the Fire Island Life Saving Station tried to fire breeches buoys across the ship, but most of their attempts failed because the lashing of the waves parted the lines. Efforts to float theNorthern Pacificduring the morning high tide also failed.
At 10:30 a.m., the United States Weather Bureau issued official storm warnings that covered the Atlantic Coast from Jacksonville, Florida to Eastport, Maine. The Weather Bureau said that a storm of considerable intensity over the Great Lakes was moving eastward and would be attacked by southerly winds that afternoon and evening. The winds would be shifting to westward on Thursday.
At 11: 00 a.m. Captain Blamer announced that a lifeline had been fired across theNorthern Pacificby the men from theFire Island Life Saving Station. In the afternoon a flotilla of motor launches started from Bay Shore, Long Island, to rescue the stranded soldiers and nurses. The naval station was also expected to send out airplanes to carry new life lines over the Northern Pacific. A train with steam up was waiting near the scene of the wreck ready to rush the wounded men to hospitals.
That day despite the roiling ocean, a Coast Guard boat removed 254 soldiers.
A fleet of 23 rescue vessels stood by all night. This flotilla included the hospital shipSolace, the cruisersColumbiaandDes Moines, the transportMallory, eight destroyers, three lighthouse tenders, eight tugs and six submarine chasers. They kept their searchlights playing on theNorthern Pacific.
A story in theSheboygan Presssaid that the wind increased that night, piling up whirlpools of water all around the Northern Pacific. . For a time it seemed that she would break across the bar, but the wind later swung her around, drove her over the sand into deeper water and then jammed her broadside against the shelving beach.
The khaki clad Doughboys gathered on the decks and as darkness blotted out the ship, they were still facing the drenching spray, their faces turned toward home.
TheNorthern Pacific’sSecond Day on the Reef- Thursday, January 2, 1919
By 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 2, 1919, theNorthern Pacifichad been ashore for nearly thirty hours, but the spirits of the soldiers and nurses, even the bedridden wounded, were still high and their hearts hopeful. One of the messages they sent to their rescuers read: “We’re as comfortable as if we were at home.”
When the waves twirled a surf boat from the Fire Island Life Saving Station around like a matchstick, the Doughboys lined the rail of theNorthern Pacificand kidded the lifesavers.
The position of the 8,000 tonNorthern Pacifichad improved from the night before when heavy breakers had washed over her. During the night a stiff southeast wind drove her landward and now in the morning light she lay close to the beach in very shallow water at low tide.
The town of Bay Shore, nearest to the wrecked ship, was crowded with relief workers the morning of January 2, 1919. Residents opened their homes and the staff at the Ocean Beach Hotel prepared it for use as a temporary hospital.
Foster Williken, a New York millionaire, heard that his son, Foster Williken, Jr. of the 105thField Artillery was on the transport. He chartered a launch and went as close as possible to the stranded steamer, attempting to signal his son by waving a lantern.
TheSyracuse Heraldreported that a coastguard boat brought three officers and one soldier, all wounded, ashore on Fire Island just before noon on January 2, 1919. Private Albert Litchner, Company G., 30thInfantry of Buffalo, New York, came ashore first. He had been wounded in the Argonne on October 9, 1918. Next came Lt. Robert H. Wilson of Brooklyn who had been wounded on July 30, 1918, at Chateau Thierry; Robert W. Thorpe, 187thInfantry from Washington, Indiana, who had been wounded in the Argonne, and Joseph S. Logan Wilson, from Pennsylvania.
Soon after the first landing, four more lifeboats filled with soldiers arrived on Fire Island and four other boats filled with crew members left theNorthern Pacificfor other rescue vessels. Life boats and the coast guard boats began the immense task of carrying all of the soldiers off theNorthern Pacific. A total of 210 more soldiers were taken off theNorthern Pacificon January 2, 1919, with the only casualty being the cruiserColumbiawhich the waves swamped and threw ashore.
As soon as they landed on Fire Island, the soldiers were carried across the narrow island to the flotilla of small boats waiting to ferry them across Great South Bay to Bay Shore, seven miles away. Many of the soldiers boarded the transportMallorywhich was scheduled to dock in Hoboken, New Jersey the same afternoon.
Late in the day theResoluteand the minesweeperWidgeonfastened lines to theNorthern Pacific’sstern and began unsuccessful refloating efforts.
The Gettysburg Timespublished slightly different figures, saying that by the end of the day crews from nearly 20 naval craft had removed 17 navy nurses and 237 of the 2,480 soldiers off the NorthernPacific. Crews spread many barrels of oil on the waves, but the oil didn’t make the waters around theNorthern Pacificany calmer and naval officers thought the conditions too hazardous to remove the “stretcher” cases.
TheNorthern Pacific’scommander Captain Connelly sent a message: “Northern Pacific resting easily, weather conditions favoring. Disembarked 237 army passengers, some ambulant wounded and also 17 Navy nurses using lifeguard boat and breeches buoy. Have requested services of more lifeboats for tomorrow. Ship in no danger. Expect to disembark many more troops tomorrow. Salvage operators will make attempt to float ship at high tide tomorrow.
The Rest of the Soldiers are Rescued and the Northern Pacific Resurrected
On Friday January 3, and Saturday, January 4, 1919, submarine chasers and small ships took the wounded men from theNorthern Pacificto the transportHenry R. Malloryand the hospital shipSolace, both standing by offshore. TheReno Evening Gazettereported that the transfer of the last of the wounded men was expected to be completed before noon.
After the decks were cleared of wounded men and half of the crew had received their shipping orders, wrecking barges and lighters with powerful winches converged on theNorthern Pacificready for the next flood tide when they would begin operations to free the ship from her berth in the sands of Fire Island.
Barges gathered around the beached liner, with crews removing her four six inch guns, life rafts, life boats, signal towers and other items to lighten her as much as possible. Three tugs hovered, ready to pull theNorthern Pacifictoward the ocean with every high tide. Inch by inch they edged theNorthern Pacificacross the sand and finally, shortly before 9 p.m. on the evening of January 18, 1919, she again floated in Atlantic Ocean waters. Tugs pulled theNorthern Pacificto New York Harbor and she anchored off Staten Island on the morning of January 20, 1919. Her bottom plating and broken rudder foretold months of repairs before she could return to the ocean.
The Northern Pacific underwent repairs from January to June 1919 and from late June to mid-August, 1919, she made her twelfth and thirteen trans-Atlantic crossings. She was decommissioned on August 20, 1919, and turned over to the War Department to be used as an Army transport. In 1921, the Army turned theNorthern Pacificover to the United States Shipping Board and on February 2, 1922, the Pacific Steamship Company purchased her. On February 8, 1922, while being towed to the Pacific Steamship Company’s yard at Chester, Pennsylvania, theNorthern Pacificcaught fire, burned, turned turtle and sank. The Northern Pacific which had carried so many soldiers home, found her own final home thirty miles south of Cape May, New Jersey, in 150 feet of water.
Trenton Evening Times, Wednesday, January 1, 1919.
Syracuse Herald, Thursday, January 2, 1919
Sheboygan Press, Thursday, January 2, 1919
Reno Evening Gazette, January 4, 1919
New York Times, January 1, 1919
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.