Jun 12

The Sinking of the USS President Lincoln, 31 May 1918

Tuesday, June 12, 2018 12:01 AM


31 May 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the troop transport USS President Lincoln. Formerly a German ocean liner of the Hamburg-America Line, she was commissioned by the Navy in 1917 to ferry young men and equipment to the Western Front. In 1918, her luck ran out when she was torpedoed by the German submarine SM U-90

In 1922, her commanding officer at the time of the sinking, Commander P. W. Foote, USN, wrote his remembrances of the fateful day for Proceedings. It is excerpted and illustrated here.

The crew of the ship was composed largely of young men who, a few months before, had been engaged in the various pursuits of civil life, but the work and experiences during the preceding winter months, when the ship had voyaged back and forth across the ocean, had been a good school, and under the guiding hand of the few officers and men of sea experience, this crew met the test in a way that was truly remarkable and the memory of their clock-like performance of duty will always fill with pride the heart of the commanding officer. Colonel Clopton, the commanding officer of the troops on board, afterward said that the scenes attending the sinking of the ship “seemed like a moving picture,” and it was difficult to believe the ship was really sinking.

We had made five trips to France, having transported about 25,000 soldiers to help “lick the Hun,” and we had almost come to believe that the ship bore a charmed life and that she would not be sunk—such is the way that the human mind adjusts itself to conditions imposed upon it.

President Lincoln Moored at Brest

The USS President Lincoln moored at Brest, France, on 25 May 1918, shortly before her final voyage. (Naval Institute Archive)

We left Brest, France, about dark on 29 May in company with three other naval transports, the Susquehanna, the Antigone, and the Ryndam, and we were escorted by American and French destroyers until dark on 30 May, when these boats left us to join a large convoy of ships bound for France. We hoped to pass safely through the remaining part of the war zone under the cover of darkness of that night.

On the afternoon of the 30th we had held Memorial Day services in honor of devoted Americans, dead on land and sea, and, in our safety, our hearts went out to those boys in the trenches and on the seas who still faced sudden danger and who might be, at that very hour, giving their lives for Liberty.

As the destroyers, one by one, disappeared in the darkness, we took up the duties of an added vigil, for we had on board many wounded heroes going back to “God’s country” to regain their strength, and the long night watches must be kept with diligence until we had passed safely through the remainder of the war zone. We trusted to the darkness as an added measure of safety, for, on the morrow, we would be clear of the U-boats’ hunting ground.

The morning of 31 May broke fine and clear; the sun shone brightly, and as we were then in about longitude 17 degrees west and about 500 miles from the coast of France, we felt that the worst dangers of another voyage through the war zone were over and that New York and home were only a little way before us. Satisfied that all was well, a few minutes before nine o’clock I went into the cabin under the bridge, entered my stateroom for a wash, and then walked into the cabin again for breakfast. At that instant there came a terrific crash and a loud explosion, and I noticed that most of the furniture in the stateroom and cabin was wrecked and tossed about.

Starting for the companion way, I was met at the door by the messenger from the bridge, Seaman Leslie Lowenstein, who reported, “Sir, the officer of the deck says we are hit.”

Once on the bridge, I found the fact too true; we had been hit, not once, but thrice. The port side of our devoted ship was riddled. The U-90, a speedy German submarine commanded by Captain Remy, had haunted our wake since midnight for a chance to strike. With the dawn that chance had come, and, with hell-born aim, he sent us to our doom.

As I reached the bridge, I found that the officer of the deck, Lieutenant Martin, USNRF, had sounded the alarm and the call to “battle stations” and had stopped the engines. The gun crews had been on watch at the guns and were ready to fire, but there was nothing to shoot at. The submarine had only exposed his periscope long enough to get his aim, fire, and dive. The track of the torpedoes indicated he was near the ship on our left, the Ryndam, about 800 yards distant, when he fired. Afterward we found this to have been the case, and the Ryndam had tried to ram the submarine, but he was so close to the ship that she could not turn onto him before he dived out of sight.

The four ships were in line abreast, and the sub had picked the President Lincoln as she was much larger than the others.

All the officers and men and the army passengers went to their stations and the reports of readiness came to the bridge, quite in the usual way as had been done at drill.

Commander Percy W. Foote, USN

Commander Percy W. Foote, USN, in 1918. Library of Congress.

The engineer officer reported the engines and boilers “secured” and ready for orders. There was no undue hurrying or confusion. The carpenter’s repair parties went below decks and inspected the conditions of the bulkheads and the holds adjacent to the ones flooded with water. This was a dangerous duty, as if the bulkheads should suddenly give away the ship might sink so quickly that these men could not have escaped to the upper decks, but there was no flinching of these men, and I was kept informed of the condition of the holds and interior spaces.

It soon appeared that the ship was doomed, and orders were given to lower the boats and rafts into the water, and a little later all hands were ordered to “abandon ship.”

The method we had adopted required every one except the sick to go into the water and swim to the rafts and then to be picked up by the boats. This was done in order that the boats might be lowered practically empty, with only two men in each boat to handle the falls, so as to prevent spilling men from the boats as they were lowered, which, I had observed, generally occurred on occasions when ships have met with disaster. This plan worked splendidly, and it largely accounts for the comparatively small loss of life.

The discipline was perfect. With everyone at his station, I ordered the boats lowered, but as the boats were lowering the ship straightened up on nearly an even keel and I thought that it might not be necessary to leave her. I ordered “stop lowering,” but the escaping steam prevented the men from hearing the order. They could see me, however, and on a motion of my hand the boats stopped and were held on their falls. A little later, when it was evident that the ship was doomed, I gave the signal with my hands to lower the boats, and they were promptly lowered, but without undue haste.

. . . .

Standing orders required the gun crews to remain at their guns until special orders were given for them to “abandon ship,” as there might be a chance to fire on the enemy should he come up to take a look at the damage he had done and to gloat over his prey. He did not appear, but the guns were ordered to open fire in the direction in which he might be as it might prevent another immediate attack. When the guns began firing it was a thrilling and heartening thing to hear the cheers of the men in the water and on the rafts and boats around the ship. They felt that something was being done to “strike back” at the Hun who had, from his hidden position under the water, wounded us to death.

The ship settled gradually, nearly on an even keel, listed a little to starboard and down a little by the stern. It was hard to realize that she was actually sinking before our eyes and we could do nothing to save her.

The chief master-at-arms, Sam Rogers, a sailor man of the old school, devoted to the Navy, the ship, her officers and crew, reported to me that the decks were clear of the people. The main deck then being under water, the gun crews were ordered to jump overboard, and those of us left went down the ladders into the water and swam to the rafts about a hundred feet from the ship. A few minutes later the ocean seemed to engulf the ship. I noticed the bridge houses and structures crash down under the weight of the waves and then there was nothing except a little wreckage on the surface of the water. Our good ship had gone to her grave, 2,000 fathoms under the sea.

 Painting by Fred Dana Marsh, 1920, depicting the ship sinking after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-90 on 31 May 1918

Painting by Fred Dana Marsh, 1920, depicting the ship sinking after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-90 on 31 May 1918. Twenty-six lives were lost with her, and one officer was taken prisoner. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The flag was flying on the after-mast when she sank and her guns had been firing up to the last minute, which were fitting honors for the ship we loved so well, for we had all come to love the “Old President Lincoln,” and the hardships of the winter had bound men and ship into a team that loved to undertake difficult things.

It had been about 30 minutes from the time she was struck till the ship sank. The job then was to collect all rafts and boats together and wait—hoping that the destroyers might come to our rescue, in answer to the “S O S” sent by the other ships that were with us. I knew the destroyers were about 250 miles away with the other convoy, but I also knew that it was possible that the safety of that convoy might demand the presence of the destroyers, and in that case we should have to wait till they could come from Brest, 500 miles away. This would mean more than a day, and in that time the weather and sea might become so rough as to wash all those on the rafts into the sea. I felt confident of assistance from Admiral Wilson, however, if he had received the radio message, and this confidence proved to be fully warranted, for when Admiral Wilson received the radio reporting the sinking of the ship, he promptly detached one destroyer, the Warrington, and an hour later sent another, the Smith, from the cargo ships convoy to our rescue. In speaking of this afterward, Admiral Wilson said he fully realized the military necessity for protecting the supplies in those ships, which were vital to fill the needs of the army, but the thoughts of the crew of the President Lincoln adrift on the ocean 500 miles from land appealed to him above everything else and he promptly sent the destroyers to our assistance. The American Navy, thank God, has not yet reached the point where a bale of hay or a side of beef is worth more than a sailor’s life.

But the work of collecting the boats and rafts was soon interrupted, and about half an hour after the ship sank we saw what appeared to be a small sailboat approaching, but we knew this could not be and that it was the enemy’s submarine returning to look us over and probably take some prisoners. It was really hard to realize that we were at last to look the enemy in the face, but it was a bitter thing to know that we could no longer contend with him and were practically at his mercy.

German Submarine U-90

SM U-90 surfacing. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The sub very soon came among the boats and rafts searching for officers, particularly the commanding officer. He took one man, G. A. Anderson, aboard but later returned him to his boat. The U-boat commander asked Anderson many questions about the ship, but treated him kindly.

Most of the officers removed their coats and caps so as not to show the marks of their rank. The sub commander asked frequently for the commanding officer, but the men always replied that he had gone down with the ship. At one time the sub was within 30 yards of the boat I was in and the men seemed to enjoy very much telling him that “the captain went down with the ship.” By that time he had identified one officer, Lieutenant E. V. M. Isaacs, USN, and had taken him on board. When Isaacs was called from his boat, he said to his men, “Good-bye, men, it is all in the game.” This cheerful spirit of Isaacs was characteristic of the entire ship’s company, but the later experiences of Isaacs were to put this spirit to a severe test when he exerted himself to the utmost to escape from the German prisons and finally succeeded after the most thrilling and daring exploits.

[Note: Lieutenant Edouard Izac would be awarded the Medal of Honor for escaping the German prison camps so he could report on what he had learned about German submarine operations during his voyage on the U-90. Before he died in 1990, he had been the last living recipient of that honor from World War I.]

The sub remained near us about two hours and went away and returned for a short while, hoping probably that some of the ships that had been with us might return and that he would get a shot at them. This delayed our work, and the boats and rafts became widely separated. Although this contingency had been foreseen and many rafts had been lashed together, yet they had drifted apart in groups, and it was a hard job to tow them with the boats, which were heavily loaded with men, and this, with the choppy sea, made the rowing hard and we had great difficulty in assembling the boats and rafts.

There were about 450 men in the boats and 250 on the rafts. It was intended to change places at daylight so that those on the rafts could come into the boats, as they would be much exhausted after the night on the rafts.

Men and officers were put on watch in each boat and the others told to go to sleep. There was no moon and it became very dark. In the blackness and silence of the night, with the “slap” of the waves against the boats as we drifted before the wind, it was a time to try our courage and cheerfulness, and the light from our little “flare-up” torches seemed so futile in its effort to penetrate the blanket of darkness that covered the ocean.

About 11 o’clock someone in my boat thought he saw a light, but after looking eagerly for it without success, we were settling down in the bottom of the boat again, when, from another direction but almost over us, there suddenly appeared in that wall of darkness a “blinking” white light. There was no mistaking the light this time, and I thought of the Star of Bethlehem. The light flashed a few times, then darkness again—the enemy’s submarine may be lying in wait for the rescuing ship. Then a megaphone calls from the darkness, “Who is there?” and I reply, “The crew of the President Lincoln,” and “Who are you?” “The USS Warrington” is the reply. And then a cheer that rose from those men, literally from out of the ocean, broke the stillness of the night, and in its volume and strength this cheer not only expressed overwhelming joy at the arrival of this ship for our rescue, but to me it expressed a greater joy and feeling of thankfulness that those officers and men had met the crucial test and that they had fully measured up to the spirit and motto of our ship as well as to the tradition of our Navy.

Although we had been stabbed to death by an unseen enemy, yet we had at all times prepared for this and were always ready to battle with the enemy under just these circumstances, hoping that good fortune might give us a chance for striking an effective blow in return even though the odds were all against us.

The captain of the Warrington, Lieutenant Commander George W. Kenyon, USN, then asked, “How many boats have you?” To my great joy I replied, “All of them.”

Survivors of the President Lincoln on board the USS Warrington

Survivors of the President Lincoln on board the USS Warrington (Destroyer #30), June 1918. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

In speaking of this afterward Kenyon said he had dreaded to ask this question as he feared that the boats and rafts would be widely separated and adrift on the ocean, making it difficult, if not impossible, to find all of them. Such would have been the case had we not provided against this by lashing the rafts together in groups, and even then these groups would have been widely scattered but for the hard work and determination of the men, under the encouragement of the officers, who labored hard at the oars all that day, pulling the boats, which were heavily loaded with men, a great many of whom were weakened by seasickness. But these men stuck to the job, and I shall never forget their loyalty and willingness under these trying circumstances.

The Warrington reported that the destroyer Smith was also coming to our rescue, and she arrived about an hour afterward under the command of Lieutenant Commander J. H. Klein, U.S. Navy.

The transfer from the boats and rafts to the destroyers was promptly accomplished, the darkness causing some difficulty, but this also served as a protection against another attack from the submarine had he been waiting for this purpose.

We had about 450 men on the Warrington and 250 on the Smith. The Warrington was quite crowded, but the hot food and cordial welcome we found on those ships almost caused us to forget our troubles. I particularly remember two soldiers who were totally paralyzed and who had been tenderly cared for by our hospital corpsmen. They were placed in the officers’ beds, and it was a pleasure to see their smiles of cheerfulness and relief after the dangers they had passed through.

A muster showed that we had lost three officers and 23 men. Two of the officers, Lieutenant Commander Whiteside (M.C), the senior doctor, and Lieutenant Commander Mowat (P.C), the senior paymaster, were last seen on the after deck of the ship and for some unexplained reason failed to escape from the ship. The other officer, Ensign Johnson (P.C), the junior paymaster, was on a raft near the ship with another man but the raft was drawn under the water when the ship sank, and although the man escaped, Ensign Johnson lost his life. He had joined the ship just before we sailed from New York on our last trip, and I learned afterward that he had made especial efforts to be assigned to sea duty on a ship going through the war zone.

Seven of the men were at work in the forward compartment just above the place of the explosion of the two torpedoes, and they were either killed by the explosion or immediately drowned by the inrushing water. The other men were on rafts in the vicinity of the hole made by the third torpedo in the after part of the ship and in some way they were drawn under and did not escape.

The loss of the seven men could not be avoided as their fate was sealed when the torpedo exploded, but it is a cause for deeper sorrow and regret that the three officers and the 16 men did not escape, as they had a chance to do so. It is sad to remember that at one minute they were there on the decks of the ship cheerful and without fear, although the ship was rapidly sinking, and almost in the twinkling of an eye the scene had changed and they were engulfed by the sea. But when the many chances of death to those in the various parts of the ship are remembered, we are thankful that the loss was not greater.

Too much praise cannot be given to Kenyon of the Warrington for his skillful navigation when coming to our rescue. He ran a distance of 250 miles and he so correctly allowed for our drift from the position reported by radio from the other ship that he practically ran on top of us in our boats, a mere speck on the ocean, in the middle of a black night. And we had drifted 15 miles from the reported position.

At daylight on 1 June we searched the vicinity for other survivors and, finding none, we began the return trip to Brest. About 1:00 p.m. another suspicious looking “sail” was sighted and the destroyer Smith rushed to the spot, but the “sail” was an enemy submarine and she dropped 22 depth charges in the hope that she might get the U-boat. There was no further evidence of the sub and we were left to conjecture as to whether this “sail” had been a sub and, if so, whether our shipmate, Lieutenant Isaacs, was on board. We were not to know the answer until five months later when Lieutenant Isaacs escaped from the German prison camp after performing one of the most thrilling individual exploits of the war. Isaacs then established the fact that the Smith had attacked the U-90 and that the sub narrowly escaped destruction. The captain of the submarine had sighted the approaching destroyer and promptly dived to a considerable depth. The men at the hydrophones reported the sound of the destroyer’s propellers and then they heard the depth bombs explode, followed by others closer to the sub. One was so close as to violently shake the boat, and Isaacs thought the seams of the boat would open. Then the explosions appeared to be farther away and the danger was over.

We arrived at Brest about noon of that day, where we received a warm welcome from Admiral Wilson and our friends who had so recently wished us “good luck” for our voyage to America.

Our sister ship, the USS President Grant, was there and she sailed a few days later and we gave her our hearty cheers as she quietly put to sea to take her chances through the war zone and we wondered what fortune was awaiting her beyond the headlands of Brest.

. . . .

Our ship had the honor to belong to that great part of the Navy organized at the beginning of the war called the Cruiser and Transport Force of the Atlantic Fleet and which was under the command of Vice Admiral Albert Cleaves, USN. This force of ships was charged with the duty of transporting our army to Europe, and more than a million of our soldiers were transported by those ships under the command of Admiral Cleaves. It was to this force that all the former German ships converted into naval transports were assigned, as well as many other ships, and the records made by the Cruiser and Transport Force form one of the brilliant achievements of the war.

President Lincoln memorial plaque

Bronze plaque memorializing the men lost when the President Lincoln was sunk by the German submarine U-90 on 31 May 1918. The plaque was erected by the USS President Lincoln Club, 31 May 1921. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

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