Countering the Sub Threat
Woodrow Wilson—elected president in the aftermath of the Republican internecine war between Progressives and Stalwarts—selected Josephus Daniels, a Southern newspaperman, as secretary of Navy, a cabinet position in that era. A strong Wilson supporter, FDR was made assistant secretary of the Navy, the same position once held by Theodore before he resigned to form the Rough Riders and become famous in Cuba. Franklin’s critics called him “Feather Duster Roosevelt” when he listed his qualifications for the sub-cabinet position as “Knickerbocker Club, Racquet Club, Harvard Club, Fort Orange Club, and Albany Country Club.”2
In an era when officials were often away from Washington for weeks and even months at a time, Roosevelt frequently acted as secretary of the Navy and was allowed to make extraordinary decisions, since Daniels believed that FDR actually had more knowledge of the Navy’s needs. Among his creations were the Naval Reserve and naval training for yachters; he also lobbeyed Congress for torpedo boats, destroyers, and aircraft. Although most of his ideas were excellent, his vision for submarine chasers was both outstanding and comedic.3
Historians debate the causes for U.S. entry into World War I, but each agree that unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans was at its core.4 Realizing that the submarine threat to merchant, passenger, and military vessels was virtually new to warfare, the assistant secretary immediately drew up plans for a new type of ship to be primarily used to deter the German U-boat menace.5 Since it would take quite some time to build these ships, Roosevelt—taking a page from cousin Theodore’s book on turning to fellow patricians in time of war—sought assistance from yacht clubs. TR had formed his Rough Riders from his Harvard and Yale cronies coupled with cowboys he met out West. FDR turned to his peers for their yachts under the assumption that they could easily be converted to subchasers. And so the adventure commenced.
Roosevelt was keen on approaching the submarine menace using three different types of ships: newly constructed subchasers, converted yachts, and 54-foot patrol boats for shallow waters along the northern coast of the United States. Secretary Daniels had no concern regarding the first idea but frowned on the latter two. The Navy had similar thoughts.6 Roosevelt’s brashness often caused President Wilson and Secretary Daniels headaches; however, his personality did not negatively impact powerful Senator Claude Swanson, who sat on the Naval Affairs Committee (FDR would later name Swanson his secretary of Navy during the early years of his administration).
His inherent conviction was that the upper-class yachtsmen were sailors with vast experience and knowledge of the New England and Mid-Atlantic waters. He had once demanded the wheel of a destroyer from the commanding officer because he believed he had more knowledge about the rocky shallows near Campobello Island, Maine, his summer home, than the skipper. Fearing for his career, Captain William Halsey reluctantly agreed. FDR took the ship without incident around Deer Island.7
Unable to obtain permission from the president to resign and serve as a naval officer in World War I, Roosevelt bore down firmly at his job. He commenced his plan to convert yachts to subchasers by discussing such “volunteer” efforts with his friends at the various clubs to which he belonged. Interestingly, many of the rich and famous were not disposed of sacrificing their yachts—for a modest sum—to be converted. Evidently, patriotism was the veneer on which they operated, but money certainly made a difference.
One of the golden patriots was Isaac Edward Emerson, a North Carolinian who had studied chemistry at the University of North Carolina and invented a headache and stomach remedy named Bromo-Seltzer. Headquartered in Baltimore, Emerson built the Emerson Tower that was the tallest building in the city until the 1920s. He added to his fortune by acquiring Maryland Glass Company, which also made the bottles for his medication.
Emerson was an integral member of Eastern Seaboard society. He married Colonel William Askew’s eldest daughter, Emelie, and adopted Margaret, her daughter from a previous marriage. The stepdaughter eventually married the son of William McAdoo, the secretary of Treasury under President Wilson. Obviously, Roosevelt knew Margaret and her stepfather and had served in government with her father-in-law.
A noted yachtsman, Emerson owned no less than two yachts at a time. His vessels were always noted as wonderful and peaceful recreational sites. The captain often held lavish high society entertainment onboard his boats. He received his title “Captain” both as a yachter and as an officer in the Maryland Naval Reserves. He personally financed a naval squadron during the Spanish-American War and persuaded the Wilson administration to grant him the rank of lieutenant during World War I.8
His yacht Margaret was recognized as a possible subchaser. The Navy estimated the boat’s worth at around $94,000 and purchased her for $104,000. The Margaret (SP-527) was a 245-ton steam yacht built by John Roach and Sons in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1899. She was 176 feet long, 143 feet at the waterline, and with a slim beam of 21 feet. Supposedly, her triple-expansion engine and twin Almy boilers could power her at up to 12 knots.9
John Long Severance, a Cleveland magnate, also liked yachts. He had graduated from Oberlin College and immediately went to work at Standard Oil (Ohio). His stint in the petroleum business was short, and he joined Cleveland Linseed Oil Company. Figuring he could do better on his own, he founded American Linseed Oil, eventually merging the two companies in 1899. He then operated Colonial Salt Company while serving on the boards of Youngstown Sheet and Steel, Youngstown Steel Door, Cleveland Trust, and Cleveland Arcade.
A generous man to a fault, he and his wife, Elizabeth Huntington DeWitt, were the primary benefactors of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra, for which he built the concert hall. He also was generous to Oberlin College, Case Institute of Technology, Western Reserve University, and a Korean medical school. Certainly he was the type of man willing to sell his yacht for the war cause.10
The Christina had been built for Frederick C. Fletcher in Wilmington, Delaware, by Pusey and Jones from a design by the naval architects Gielow and Orr, but she soon was purchased by the Severance family who renamed her the Artemis. Within a few years, Severance sold his yacht to the Navy for conversation to a subchaser. The Artemis (SP-593) was 177 and a half feet long with a 26-foot, 3-inch beam, and rated for 12 knots. She underwent her transformation from a civilian yacht to naval gunship at Shewan’s Shipyard in less than a month.11
Historian Ron Chernow describes Jay Gould, the notorious railroad king, as a “small, swarthy, full-bearded financier who prodigally bribed legislators . . . and [committed] acts of larceny on a scale never before imagined.”12 Although his son, Frank J. Gould, suffered from his father’s reputation, he shed no tears over his father’s money. A full-blooded scion of the penultimate robber baron, Frank was an avid collector of art, especially Impressionist works. His other hobby was purchasing upscale foreign hotels including the famous art deco Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice and the nearby HÔtel Le ProvenÇal, which offered the unique concept of a bathroom in every room. He loved cavorting with Charlie Chaplin, J. Paul Getty, the Rockefellers, and the Kennedys. He was a randy playboy who would have several wives and multiple girlfriends and was rarely seen without someone famous or beautiful—or both—including a very young Elizabeth Taylor.13
He also loved boats. Sumptuously entertaining his upscale peers, Gould had the Helenita built as the center of his watery universe. At 304 tons, 187 feet, with a 21-foot beam, large bowsprit, and severe overhang at the stern, she was not meant for open-sea sailing. Nevertheless, the Navy slapped two 3-inch guns to her decks and she became the naval vessel Helenita (SP-210). She was officially commissioned on 17 October 1917 and would be returned to Gould two years later on 17 June 1919.14
Another vessel in the gilded men’s fleet was the May (SP-164). Her owner, Joseph Raphael De Lamar, was a bootstrap man of wealth originally from Scotland, where he started at sea as a boy and worked his way up the nautical ladder. In 1872 he managed to raise the Charlotte, a merchant ship that had sunk off Bermuda with a cargo of Italian marble. De Lamar immediately left the maritime trade and purchased the Terrible Lead Mine in Custer County, Colorado for $5,500, which a few years later he would sell for $130,000. His investments in mines made him a millionaire and eventually earned him the designation of Great Financier of Wall Street.15
De Lamar rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, including the denizens of the stock market. He purchased several power companies, joined many important clubs, and even married an “old family aristocrat,” Nellie Virginia Sand, a direct descendent of John Quincy Adams. Ever the sailor, he enjoyed membership in the New York Yacht Club, the Columbia Yacht Club, and the Larchmont Yacht Club.
His contribution to Roosevelt’s quest was his boat May, built in 1891 by Ailsa shipyard in Troon, Scotland. Resembling her sisters but with very different dimensions, the May was a light 100 tons but posted an overall length of 239 feet, 1 inch, with an equally slim beam of 27 feet, 10 inches, and a hefty draft of 15 feet. Supposedly she could speed along at 13 knots.16
The Agawa was another Scottish yacht, built in Leith for William Harkness, whose father and uncles were among the founders of Standard Oil. Rolling in money, Harkness, a Yale graduate, lived in splendor at The Wings in Glen Cove, New York, where he was a friend of the Delano family. He also had a house on East 53rd Street in New York City, which he used when in town for business. A munificent man, he built Harkness Hall at Yale. Dying in 1919 shortly before his daughter married David Ingalls, a relative of William Howard Taft and an eventual assistant secretary of the Navy, he left her more than $52 million.
Like many of the gilded patriots, Harkness was a proud member of the New York Yacht Club and, like many of the others, believed himself a superior sailor even though he destroyed his original yacht, the Gunilda, on the rocks in Lake Superior—Jacques Cousteau called her remains one of the world’s most beautiful shipwrecks.17 His second boat, the Agawa, was leased to the Navy in 1917 and renamed the Cythera (SP-575) (see “Historic Fleets,” October 2010, pp.12–15). She was a 100-ton ship approximately 195 long and 24 feet at her widest, and like her sisters she was supposed to be able to hit 12 knots.18
These yachts were rebuilt as a fleet of naval ships, supposed to be subchasers, replete with fore and aft 3-inch guns and depth charges. In the process, they all became more tender because the modifications raised the center of gravity and created uneven weight distribution from the original architectural designs. They all were poor boats in open seas. With the additional weight, they seemed to have significant tendencies to yaw, wallow, and roll. The Margaret was so off balance her aft ports were underwater and leaked constantly—they became the enlisted men’s quarters. None of the boats could achieve much more than 4 knots, and several were so slow that they could not outrun their own depth charges.
Young Lieutenant Commander Frank Jack Fletcher was named commanding officer of the Margaret and discovered that she was a disaster disguised as a ship (see “When Frank Jack Met Maggie,” February 2011, pp. 52–58). On trial runs Fletcher fired the fore gun, blowing out windows and railing while ripping the gun from the deck. The firing of the aft gun opened 19 seams. He ordered that the guns never be fired nor depth charges dropped. The Margaret was more the model of the fleet than the exception. The men assigned to the flotilla of former yachts immediately named it “The Suicide Fleet.”19
In November 1917, the Margaret, Hannibal, Helenita, and May were joined by the Rambler (SP-211), Utowana (SP-951), and Wenonah (SP-165)—all yachts converted to patrol vessels—weighed anchor at Newport, Rhode Island, and set our for Bermuda. The Margaret was towing SC-65, crewed by French sailors who were learning as they went. All the ships broke down along the way, several had towing problems and broken lines, and one ship had such poor navigation that it missed the Bermuda Islands completely and had to turn around and head back north to find them.20
Navy authorities refused to provide supplies or undertake repairs to this band of leaking vessels; nevertheless, some were sent to the Azores. The Helenita and Utowana remained in Bermuda, but their absence was made up by the addition of three more ex-yachts: the Artemis (SP-593), Cythera, and Lydonia (SP-700). When leaving, the May had to tow the Wenonah, and soon afterward, the Cythera took the Margaret under tow, which would be pulled along for most of what was a stormy passage to Horta in the Azores. The trip was just one example of many instances when former yachts—and now unreliable Navy vessels—where subjected to the rigorous demands of wartime naval service.21
Life After Service
The Margaret was condemned by the Navy and ultimately used as a floating warehouse until the end of the war. Her boilers were unusable, her condensers problematic, and she was virtually unable to sail in open seas. Purchased for $140,000 in 1917, she was scrapped for $12,000 two years later. Emerson’s sale of the Margaret was a smart deal indeed.
The Artemis was also unfit for open water, but she remained afloat until she eventually burned and sank shortly after the Armistice. Her sister ship, the May, ran aground and was abandoned as a wreck in 1919. Like Emerson, Severance made a tidy profit from the Navy, while the government got little in return.
The Helenita, one of the better yachts, survived the war. She was later decommissioned by the Navy and returned to the Gould family. Another semi-success story, the Cythera, was decommissioned at the war’s end and returned to her original owners, the Harkness family. The Navy approached Mrs. Harkness at the beginning of World War II, and she patriotically sold the boat to the service. The Cythera was converted to Patrol Yacht 26, but met her tragic end off the coast of North Carolina, where she was torpedoed by a German submarine. Of her crew, only two survived, but they were picked up by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.22
Although the transformation of civilian yachts into antisubmarine ships was a bust, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s methodology was a precursor to his administration’s approach to a future national crisis. Roosevelt confronted the Depression with similar actions as he did World War I. He used hugely unorthodox and highly experimental concepts to hurriedly alleviate a national financial threat. The National Recovery Act, Civilian Conservation Corps, Agricultural Adjustment Act, and myriad similar plans were immediate, experimental, and not particularly well designed. As some of his experiments failed, he revamped his administration and launched a Second New Deal by using his upper crust colleagues to alter the economy.
FDR approached his gilded peers again for support in preparing for World War II. He convinced Henry Ford to convert his automobile plants into airplane factories. When called on by the president, Andrew Higgins turned from civilian boats to the incredible amphibious landing craft essential for the Pacific and D-Day assaults. Time and again, Roosevelt turned to wealthy contemporaries for their cooperation. And the upper class-businessmen responded.
They and their sons gladly sold their boats to Roosevelt’s grand experiment of World War I; however, the seeds for dealing with specific and immediate danger were sown for future use. When again facing crises, FDR remembered his little fleet and experimented just as unorthodoxly as he did before.
2. Stanley Weintraub, Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s introduction to War, Politics, and Life, (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2013), 21.
3. Stephen D. Regan, In Bitter Tempest: the Biography of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994), 34–36.
4. Herbert J. Bass (Ed.), America’s Entry into World War I: Submarines, Sentiment, or Security, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 1–7.
5. Weintraub, Young Mr. Roosevelt, 118.
7. Ibid., 68.
8. University of North Carolina, Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Library, Isaac E. Emerson Papers, 1894–1947, Collection Number 0744, www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/e/Emerson,Isaac_E.html.
9. USS Margaret history, Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC, copy in author’s collection.
10. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, “John Long Severance,” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=SJL.
11. USS Artemis, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/a/artemis-yacht-i.html.
12. Ron Chernow, House of Morgan, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), 30
13. Lanie Goodman, “Inventing the Riviera,” France Today, 17 July 2012, www.francetoday.com/articles/2012/07/17/inventing-the-riviera.html.
14. USS Helenita, history, Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC, copy in author’s collection.
15. “Delmar’s Luck Still With Him,” Los Angeles Herald, 24 February 1907, vol. 34, no.146, http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=LAH19070224.2.50; Hawaii Book Library, Joseph, Raphael De Lamar, www.hawaiilibrary.net/article/whebn0026109205/joseph%20raphael%20de%20lamar.
16. USS May, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/m/may-sp-164.html.
17. Parks Canada, “Searching for Cultural Resources and Heritage Wrecks in Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area,” www.pc.gc.ca/eng/progs/arch/page8/mai-may/super.aspx.
18. USS Cythera, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/c/cythera-s-p-no-575-i.html.
19. Prosper Buranelli, Maggie of the Suicide Fleet, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1930), 2,
20. USS Margaret (SP-527), 1917–1921: Voyage from the U.S. to the Azores, November–December 1917, Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/wars-and-events/world-war-i/voyage-from-the-us-to-the-azores-by-uss-margaret-and-other-conve.html.
22. USS Cythera history, Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC, copy in author’s collection.