Hollywood’s creative minds have churned out Navy comedies by the handful. They gave us pink submarines, talking mules, and Jack Lemmon tossing palm trees. But silver-screen writers never could have created as absurd and ludicrous an episode as the Suicide Fleet. Only Navy professionals could produce such a story.
World War I brought forth a terrifyingly successful technological innovation: the submarine. Silent and unseen, submarines frightened both civilian and military personnel alike. America was devoid of adequate antisubmarine ships. Destroyers were considered the primary defense, but their construction took too long.
Some genius posited that the civilian yacht fleet was just the answer. Newport, New York, and other Atlantic harbors hosted multitudes of wonderful yachts that could quickly be reconfigured and armed to fill this enormous gap.
Isaac Emerson, the CEO of Bromo-Seltzer, was a wealthy magnate who enjoyed the pleasures of a yacht, wining and dining his cohorts as the sun set on the gentle waters of a nice, safe harbor. His boat was all splendor and grace, built for hardly any other purpose than sitting at anchor. Possessing one of the finest wine galleys along the East Coast and noted for her exqusite dining area, the Margaret, as Emerson had named her, was worthy of her rich owner. The Navy, however, needed boats.
A steam yacht of 245 tons built by John Roach & Sons of Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1899, the vessel originally had been christened Eugenia. The original specifications provide some suspicion as to her quality. She was 176 feet in length (143 feet at the waterline) but possessed a beam of a mere 21 feet. It would take no maritime engineer or naval architect to see an extraordinarily tender vessel. At her best, she supposedly could make 12 knots with her vertical triple-expansion engine and pair of Almy boilers.
Over the Hill, but Called to Serve
Assessed at $94,000, the Margaret (or Maggie, as she was more affectionately known) was purchased by the Navy on 16 October 1917 for $104,000. The USS Margaret (SP-527) was an old lady past her prime, once rich and proud, now warped and fragile—a contradiction considering she was only 18 years old.
Workers sawed off the bowsprit, changed the wine storage into a shell compartment, and turned the beautiful dining room into a berthing area. The stately wooden masts were replaced with stubby but practical ones, and the boom disappeared. Already incredibly top-heavy, Maggie had a chart house, pilothouse, and bridge with wings supplemented to her topside. Added to this perversity of a boat were two 3-inch guns and racks for depth charges. Her severely cut-away stern now sagged greatly. Even in the gentle waters of the shipyard, her aft portholes were barely above the waterline. Not that it mattered. Maggie leaked like a sieve at joints, seams, and connections.
Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, a newly promoted lieutenant commander and recent recipient of a Medal of Honor for heroism at Vera Cruz, Mexico, sat depressed and frustrated. Frank Jack Fletcher, grandson of one of Iowa’s most powerful bankers and nephew of a Navy admiral, had been weaned on the art of pulling strings, supporting friends, and working the room for personal benefit. Fletcher was affable, highly sociable, and prone to make friends easily. It did not hurt that the young officer knew just about everybody who was anybody in the Navy.
Fletcher’s dilemma was of his own making. He had wrangled a position as flag secretary on the staff of his uncle, Admiral Friday Fletcher, to be at the center of action during the invasion of Mexico. But Vera Cruz quickly dissolved into a historical footnote as World War I erupted in Europe. Now, as friends and U.S. Naval Academy classmates were being thrust into mid-level officer positions on battleships and cruisers and being sent into the Atlantic, Frank Jack wallowed in the serene and peaceful waters of the Caribbean.
When he learned about the Navy’s attempt to create subchasers from old yachts, his heart must have leapt at the thought of commanding his own ship. Fletcher would be entitled to be addressed as “captain.” He would command seamen and officers in battle. He would build his career on heroic deeds. The world would be his oyster if only he could land such a wonderful assignment. No doubt he grinned gleefully thinking about his old Academy buddies Ray Spruance, Bill Halsey, and Chet Nimitz as they tried to get aboard anything headed to Europe. Fletcher’s wish was granted, and he was assigned to the Margaret.
The shock of actually seeing the yacht being reconfigured into a warship must have been dreadful; his initial reaction, however, has been lost to history. His officers were as green as grass and offered little to ameliorate his distress. Fletcher immediately ordered trials, and from the first, Maggie commenced the tricks from which her reputation would arise: She quickly lost power against the current, smacked into a pier, fouled her anchor, and tore out the anchor stanchion. She was a rock-and-roll vessel that could manage a meager top speed of 6 knots and was more likely to steam at 4 knots in calm seas—the tide ran faster than that. This warship sent to chase and destroy submarines could not even move as quickly as her targets, nor even get away from her own depth charges. Worse, Fletcher calculated that she needed an additional 35 tons of ballast but only had enough room for 5 tons.
The captain and his officers stood proudly at Maggie’s commissioning as they watched a seaman hoist the flag upside-down—the universal sign of trouble. Fletcher gave a “God, Country, and the Navy” speech to the crew before reading his orders to take the Margaret to the Azores by way of Bermuda. His newly minted officers were openly scared to death as they left the harbor along with several smaller craft. The older salts, without much ado, named this dismal armada “the Suicide Fleet.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Frank Jack Fletcher’s biggest asset was his reputation. As a lieutenant commander, Medal of Honor recipient, and combat-experienced officer, the skipper was held in the highest respect and admiration by the crew. His popularity alone probably saved his dog, Poilu, who was universally detested. A French bulldog noted for being a drooling, dirty, and generally irascible cur, Poilu was the subject of many crew plots involving tossing the mascot overboard; because the Old Man was held in such awe, those conspiracies never came to be.
On 4 November 1917, the Suicide Fleet went south. Maggie’s mission was to tow SC-317, recently given to the French, to Bermuda while the French crew learned about running the subchaser. The squadron of little vessels—including the flagship May, the Winona, the Helenita, the Utawana, and the supply ship Hannibal in addition to Fletcher’s craft—headed out.
The first day at sea Maggie drifted into a storm, causing such rolling that 59 of a crew of 61 reported as seasick and unable to perform their duties. Fletcher ordered all men not to sleep on deck for fear of being washed overboard. Water seeped in from the seams and coursed through the vessel, as the rolling shifted from compartment to compartment a putrid combination of vomit and seawater. The pumps, barely able to keep up with the inflow, worked 24 hours a day. The condenser died, as did the steerage gear. The helm was operated by a tiller and two ropes pulled by seasick seamen. Fletcher called on an ensign new to Navy blue to be in charge of repairs. His only experience was as a dry-goods salesman, and he was sicker than his men. This glorious day and night for Maggie and her sisters in the Suicide Fleet was their introduction to war.
Hardly out of port, Captain Fletcher attempted test-firings. The initial forward gun’s backrush blew out the forecastle locker door. The after gun blew out the stern rail, sprung 19 additional leaks in the hull, and totally flooded the enlisted men’s berthing area. Fletcher quietly ordered the gunnery officer never to fire the weapons again. Both guns showed that they had sprung themselves from the deck. So onward the gallant band of intrepid warriors sailed, knowing that firing a weapon at the enemy was probably going to do more damage to themselves than to the target.
A general lack of potable water forced Fletcher to ration it and deny baths to the crew. He also allowed everyone to grow beards, or some scraggly youthful variation thereof. (Fletcher himself grew a moustache.)
By the end of three days the Utawana was ordered to tow a drifting Maggie but could not because she, too, had broken down. Finally, a patched-up Maggie got under way but ran out of coal halfway to Bermuda. With no power, lights, pumps, or communications, Fletcher ordered his ship to be towed. He then ordered a bucket brigade to keep the ship from capsizing. She rolled so badly that her engine-room cowl was lost. During the tow, the line parted. Then the starboard anchor gave way, and Fletcher found 105 fathoms of chain hanging over Maggie’s side. The donkey engine broke down, so the crew had to bring aboard both the parted line and the anchor chain manually.
Eventually the Suicide Fleet, minus the Helenita, arrived in Bermuda. (The lost sister showed up two days later, having missed Bermuda thanks to the skills of the newly minted navigation officer.) Fletcher sent his dory over to the docks to get caulking material. The little dinghy broke down and had to be towed ashore. Dockyard officials took one look at the Margaret and her companions and refused materials of any kind, because virtually all duty officers and men on shore believed that anything sent to the Suicide Fleet was a total waste of goods.
Fletcher sent his ailing dory over to the Hannibal, and his request for supplies was again summarily denied. Haggling and begging, the dory crew did manage to “borrow” ten gallons of gasoline and some sewing thread, while Fletcher himself managed to wield his influence to get a caulking hammer and a small supply of oakum.
‘Nothing More Than a Piece of Junk’
Fletcher eventually received his orders for the Azores. The May, Winona, Rambler, and Hannibal joined the new boats: the Cythera, Artemis, and Lydonia. Experience had shown Fletcher that Maggie could not hold enough coal or water for the trip; therefore, he ordered two piles of soft coal to be dumped on deck, forcing everyone going forward or aft to crawl over the dirty, dusty piles. His pirates scrounged up a pair of bathtubs to be filled with fresh water and ensured that all lifeboats were to the gunwales with water. They also managed to find a large pile of lumber for the ship’s carpenter. This, too, was stored on the deck, making Maggie even more top-heavy.
Personally, Fletcher was in a deep funk. His superb plan for a command had dissolved into a Fleet-wide joke. Having used his extensive social resources to gain the Margaret, Fletcher now embarked on a campaign to leave her. Writing to his connections, he sought a transfer. His orders to the Azores merely postponed his plan to rid himself of Maggie.
One day, firing from the May signaled that an enemy steamer had been sighted. The humble fleet set about to chase and sink her. But the speed of the little yachts was so pathetic that the tramp merely headed on with alacrity, leaving the hapless boats in her wake.
Soon the squadron heard messages for help from another boat. The May and Winona separated from the fleet to rescue a comrade in arms from German subs. It was the luckless SC-317, manned by the French. In total frustration her crewmen found themselves yet again towed behind the Margaret.
In a chronic repeat of bad luck, Maggie ran out of coal and was again found behind a towing Cythera. The entire fleet became half of the boats towing the other half. The crews were run ragged from constant sightings of submarines and torpedoes—usually flotsam or porpoises. To add to the misery, towlines parted frequently and boats scraped and banged each other in heavy seas trying to deal with heaving lines. By the time Fletcher reached port at Horta, Maggie looked as bad as she sailed.
Again Fletcher found himself out of luck when it came to supplies or replacement parts. The Suicide Fleet was just too expendable to be allowed matériel. Sitting at anchor during a hurricane, Maggie dragged her hook, as did every other ship of the Great American Answer to the U-boat problem. One of them slammed into her, taking a goodly portion of her rail. The fierce winds tore off the spuds-locker top. Unable to maintain power to manage steerage and without enough chain to provide solid anchor, Fletcher eventually admitted defeat and sent his dory out to secure the ship to a mooring buoy.
Insult was added to injury when a German U-boat sank a Portuguese barkentine, and the Margaret was sent out to hunt the sub down. After a fruitless search, Fletcher was ordered back to the friendly confines of the harbor. Later, the German submarine commander radioed in the clear that he had seen the Margaret, but believed she was not worthy of wasting a torpedo.
Up to his eyeballs in failure, Fletcher awaited the outcome of his letter-writing campaign. Washington’s silence depleted much of his ambition and energy. Meanwhile, after months of complaints, Fletcher’s request for a serious survey of his ship was granted. As he well knew it would, the report showed that the deck leaked, crew quarters were uninhabitable, and the condenser was beyond repair. Worse, the steam drums were so bad that the maximum pressure that could be raised was 74 psi instead of the usual operational 160 pounds. The drums, originally 5/6ths of an inch thick, had been worn down to a mere 1/16th-inch.
Additionally, the official review cited the medical report that living conditions on board the vessel were very bad. The ship, the survey succinctly stated, was “absolutely unfitted [sic] for the duty to which she has been assigned.” It was readily apparent that Maggie, frankly, was of no value whatsoever. As Azores Detachment Commander A. W. Osteshans noted, the design of the ship was not meant for sailing out of sight of land “or, I might say, out of Long Island Sound. . . . To sum up in a few words, I consider the Margaret nothing more than a piece of junk, and I cannot imagine a ship being bought for the government that is so worthless for the duty required.” The commander recommended the ship be scrapped immediately.
Now recognized as a disaster waiting to happen, Maggie was pulled from further sailing orders; she became a holding ship for her crew and a general storage container for the Navy. Fletcher attempted to keep his men busy with constant painting and polishing; nevertheless, everyone was trying to obtain orders to other ships.
No excitement occurred until some swab from another boat attempted to swim to shore but rapidly became disoriented and fatigued. Hearing cries for help emanating from the dark, Gunner’s Mate Davis, on duty as petty officer of the watch on the Margaret, dived overboard and saved the man. Captain Fletcher brought Davis to Captain’s Mast on the charge of leaving the ship while on duty. Slyly he chewed the man out while subsequently writing the Secretary of the Navy seeking a letter of commendation, which Davis ultimately received for his brave act.
The only other incident of note during this interim was Fletcher’s beloved dog Poilu going overboard. Since the crew hated the dog, there was a certain amount of debate over whether it should be retrieved. To the dismay of many, it was.
Bad Circumstances Beget Amusing Memories
Fletcher finally received orders for a destroyer. Joyously he shoved off with little to look back on with sadness. Eventually each officer was ordered away after serving a few weeks as CO. The last captain of Maggie, before all crew were dispatched to other vessels, was the senior enlisted man.
Fletcher eventually ended up on board the USS Benham, relieving his old friend William Halsey Jr. as commanding officer of the destroyer. For his service in command of the convoy-protecting Benham, Fletcher would receive the Navy Cross. The Margaret was sold for scrap to an Italian firm for $1,200 after the war and was scratched from the rolls of Navy ships. But her legend lived on long, long afterward in bars, officers’ clubs, and family outings. Fletcher was noted for regaling his friends with humorous stories about his first war command. His distant relations quickly retold many of the adventures for years after his death, and even his later staffs would laugh at memories of Fletcher’s “Maggie stories.”
Records of the USS Margaret, History and Archives Division, Naval History & Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC.
Communications, Commander Azores Detachment to Commander U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, 12 January 1918. RG 45, Box 319, OF Files, NARS. Naval History & Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC.
Interviews by the author with Mrs. Fletcher Glick, 1984–1990.
Prosper Buranelli, Maggie of the Suicide Fleet (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1930).
Stephen D. Regan, In Bitter Tempest: The Biography of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994).
Yachts, journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers, vol. X., no. 8 (August 1898), pp. 931–934.