The World War I correspondence between Engineman Second Class Robert Orville Carver and his family poignantly underscores how, even in a time of destruction on a grand scale, every life—and death—is significant.
A glass case in a library in Orange, California, preserves a letter from U.S. Navy Captain D. E. Dismukes, commander of the USS Mount Vernon (ID-4508). It is dated 11 September 1918 and is addressed to Mr. Randolph Carver of Poplarville, the seat of rural Pearl River County, Mississippi. It tells Mr. Carver that his son, Orville, “died as a Brave man should in these times—at his post of duty in the service of his county.” The German submarine U-82 torpedoed the Mount Vernon a week before. The weapon caught the ship amidships and blasted a large hole into the engine spaces. Effective damage control saved the Mount Vernon and she returned to Brest, France, but at a cost. Thirty-six men died. One of them was Robert Orville Carver.
Captain Dismukes’ condolence letter tells a little about how the torpedo hit the Mount Vernon and expresses deepest sympathy. These bare words delineate a tragedy, but little of its human dimensions. However, Orville, as he usually signed himself, left a series of letters to his mother and his sisters, and this correspondence shows what it was like for a young man from southwestern Mississippi to serve in the Great War and how that service affected his family.1
Assigned to a German Prize Ship
Orville Carver enlisted in the Navy in April 1917 along with six other young men from Poplarville. He wrote to his mother and second sister, Ruth, on 11 July 1917 to tell them he had just arrived in Boston from Virginia, where he had received basic training on board the USS Missouri (BB-11), a predreadnought battleship used for training new recruits in the Chesapeake Bay. He had been a little seasick on the voyage up but otherwise enjoyed a good trip. He let his family know he would be in Boston and not shipping out to France. The letters he received have not survived, but clearly he was responding to what had probably been an urgent question from his mother.
On 20 July, Orville wrote Ruth, telling her about his new ship, the Mount Vernon. She had been a German “treasure” ship, he explained. The first day on board everybody was searching for souvenirs. Some particularly creative, if unscrupulous, hands found and cracked a safe. “One boy got a pearl necklace worth three thousand dollars and a gold watch set with diamonds, another got a big roll of hundred dollar bills and another a diamond broach.” However, “That night the officers searched everyone and took the things off the boys and stuck them in the brig.”2
The Mount Vernon was the former North German–Lloyd liner Kronprinzessin Cecilie—a four-funnel steamer 706 feet long and displacing 19,505 tons. She had been in passage from North America to Germany in August 1914, carrying $2 million in gold bullion (roughly $42 million today) when World War I broke out. She sought refuge from British forces in Bar Harbor, Maine. There she sat until commandeered by the United States on 3 February 1917, one of 18 German ocean liners so seized, including the largest of the day, the Vaterland, which was renamed the Leviathan (see “Pieces of the Past,” p. 64). Collectively, these ex-German liners carried nearly half of the 2 million U.S. troops transported to Europe between May 1917 and war’s end.3
After conversion for use as a transport (including being equipped with four 5-inch guns), the Mount Vernon left Boston and sailed to New York. Orville had another brief bout of seasickness, but in a long letter written on 21 October, he described liberty time in New York. “Saw statue of Liberty, the second tallest building in the world and the flat iron building. Took in several good shows.” He assured his family that he was making nice friends. “Two of the boys from the west coast just got a couple of fruit cakes and I was invited to the feast. It was certainly grand a fea[s]t for four[;] the other three were from Washington and Oregon.” He continued to emphasize how safe he was. “There are lots of life boats and life rafts, and each one has been assigned to one. Mine is R.121.”
Nonetheless, the subject of German submarines made an ominous entry into his correspondence, again, presumably, in response to questions from his family. Submarine attacks were big news, and each successful attack, particularly against American ships, grabbed front-page headlines. On 27 October he wrote to his sisters, Esther and Ruth. He told Ruth, “[Mama] seems to think it is bad going across, but we have the dope for the German submarines and it isn’t worrying me one bit so why should you all worry. Hope one does come in sight, want to see how one looks with a hole in her going down.” To Esther (“my dear, dear sister”) he said, “I can’t stay at home all the time. And I am just as safe where I am as I would be any where else.”
He added, “Just as soon go as to go into a football game and you know how I like that. Have been hurt, nearly killed once and am waiting to play again. There is no more danger for me where I am than there would be playing football. Went to Central Park last night and saw a captured submarine [UC-5]. It was captured in April 1916 by English. Don’t look like anything to be afraid of.”
‘Playing Leap Frog’ with U-Boats
Packed with 4,000 troops in addition to her 1,000-man crew, the Mount Vernon finally sailed for France on 31 October 1917. Not surprisingly, the regular letters home stopped. The next word the Carvers heard from their son was a simple undated postcard: “The ship on which I sailed has arrived safely overseas,” signed Robert O. Carver. By the middle of December the Mount Vernon had landed her troops and returned to New York. “Arrived safely back in the good old U.S.A.,” Orville wrote to his mother. “We had a pleasant trip both ways. The weather was warm and the ocean was very calm going across but coming back we struck two storms.” He expressed satisfaction with his life: “I like the navy fine and believe I will put thirty years in. What do you think of that?” He also continued to reassure: “more dope just received, just heard that some of our ships had reached the other side never even saw a sub and lots of them report the same thing. It all seems very bad to you all when you don’t know anything about it.” He pointed out that “We . . . can fix the ship so they can’t see us at all at night. The submarines put themselves in lots more danger than our ships are in and it won’t be long until we will have ‘old Glory’ on the Kaiser’s flag staff.”
The Mount Vernon began a regular routine sailing between New York and Brest. She was a fast ship, capable of 24 knots, but the passage one way took 16 days or more because the ships did not follow a direct route. Orville wrote to Esther on 17 February 1918 after finishing his second round-trip. “I am still sailing the deep blue seas and playing leap frog with the German submarines. There is one [no?] more happy bunch when the lines are loosened from the dock and we begin to shove off for France. We only get about one liberty in France but believe me, we have some time.”
Once he was in his routine of transatlantic crossings, Orville did not write as often. His last surviving letter to his family is dated 31 July 1918 and has a different tone from his earlier correspondence. He had sent home a photo of a young girl taken in Boston on 4 July. His mother immediately wrote back asking who she was. Was she Orville’s new wife? Orville reassured his mother that he was not married. “What do you think I am crazy? Not at all I was only kidding you about the girl she sent me the picture and I had no place to keep it, so sent it home.” He assured her, “When I start to be married, I’ll send you an invite.”
There was, however, a darker and less reassuring side to this letter. The Mount Vernon carried wounded back to the States, and Orville related several stories he heard from them. “One soldier found a wounded German and was going to take him to be sent to the hospital. Somehow the German got away from him and was trying to escape. The soldier went and got him again, and the German spitted out in Broken English, ‘You Americans think you are going to win this war, don’t you.’ The soldier — ‘Yes — and you think you are going to the hospital, but you aint.’ — Bang and he was a dead German.”
‘It Exploded with Terrific Force’
On her ninth journey to the Old World, the Mount Vernon arrived in Brest in the first days of September 1918 and unloaded her thousands of troops. The ship had safely carried more than 35,000 men to augment the American Expeditionary Forces. On 4 September the Mount Vernon departed on her return journey. The next morning, she was 200 miles offshore steaming at 18 knots along with the USS Agamemnon (ID-3004), the ex-German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II, under the heavy protection of six destroyers. At 0730 the Mount Vernon’s forward 5-inch battery opened fire on a submarine sighted off the bow.4 She was U-82, a German boat that had been in service since 1916 commanded by Captain Lieutenant Heinrich Middendorff.
In 11 war patrols, U-82 sank or damaged 36 ships grossing 110,160 tons. Just the day before she had torpedoed and sunk the U.S. steamer Dora (7,037 gross register tonnage). She would complete her war service over the next two weeks sinking two more British ships.
As she came under fire, U-82 snapped off one torpedo and quickly submerged. The lookouts saw the weapon’s wake boiling toward the liner and the officer of the deck ordered right full rudder. As the large ship swung ponderously about, the torpedo smacked her to starboard amidships. A crewman on deck wrote: “It exploded with terrific force, shooting a column of water and debris high in the air. For a moment, I thought that we had actually been lifted out of the water. Everyone topside was thrown violently to the deck, and one of the 5-inch guns was ripped from its mount.” The torpedo hit a bulkhead separating firerooms seven and eight.5 One watch was in the process of relieving another, so the area of impact was unusually crowded and casualties were heavy: 35 men died immediately and 13 were wounded, one of whom later died.
Robert Orville Carver, from section two, was being relieved. Ten minutes later, he would have been out of danger. Only two men escaped from the two firerooms. One survivor, Chief Water Tender Charles O’Conner, wrote: “a eight foot high wall of water began pouring in the compartment, and formed a raging whirlpool. Boxes, shovels, and anything not tied down, was sucked into the vortex. I bumped against two or three bodies as I fought my way to the ventilator shaft.” He crawled about eight feet up the shaft and was eventually pulled to safety.
Fireman Harry S. Smith recalled: “I was standing in front of the No. 18 boiler when the explosion tossed me across the room. Flames shooting from the boiler burned my shirt, and the next thing I knew, I was caught in a current of water—carried up and down, then washed into the coal bunker . . . . By this time, the surging water was only about a couple of feet between the upper floor plates and the deck above.” He also tried to ascend a ventilator shaft but got stuck. Every time the ship rolled, his head submerged. “I had to hold my breath about a dozen times to keep from drowning. I screamed for help, and finally somebody heard my shouts and set to work to get me out.” Men eventually cut him out using hand chisels. Smith also had the dubious honor of surviving the sinking of the USS San Diego (AC-6) on 19 July 1918.6
The Mount Vernon lost half of her boilers, suffered extensive flooding, and took on a 13-degree list. Nonetheless, she limped back to Brest. Captain Dismukes issued a special order that afternoon. “The entire Crew has acted manfully, as Americans are expected to act in time of danger but the Captain desires especially to express his admiration for the brave men of the Engineer’s Force who unhesitatingly, and to a man, stuck to their posts of duty, facing the possibility and even the probability of death at any moment during the critical time immediately following the attack.” His official report noted, “The saving of the ship can be attributed to the fact that all water-tight doors were closed—that the bulkheads held—and that the crew had been well trained to meet any emergency.”7
Multiple Condolences, Inconsolable Grief
Death in action is one thing, but as the Robert Orville Carver file shows, the business of death in action is quite another. The Carvers received letters of condolence from Captain Dismukes; from Rear Admiral Herbert Wilson (dated 9 September), commanding U.S. naval forces at Brest; and from Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels (dated 21 September). Rear Admiral Wilson let the family know that the body had been recovered and would be shipped to Mississippi for burial at government expense, if the family so desired. He also advised that along with himself and Captain Dismukes, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt and a French admiral had attended a service honoring their son and the other men from the Mount Vernon.
Captain Dismukes informed the family that their son had taken out a life insurance policy for $5,000 (about $100,000 today). There also was a credit of $100 for burial expenses. Finally, the naval hospital in New York telegraphed the family that the body would arrive on 27 September. The hospital strongly cautioned the family not to open the coffin because the violent nature of Orville’s death had left his body unfit for viewing. They opened it anyway.
The governor of Mississippi gave the eulogy, and Orville was finally buried on 1 October 1918, just a month and 11 days before the war’s end. His mother visited the grave every day for the next 24 years, until her death in 1942.8
Throughout the entire war the U.S. Navy suffered 431 deaths, so the torpedoing of the Mount Vernon was a significant event, the fifth deadliest suffered by the Navy from enemy action during the war.9 Robert Orville Carver’s death was one of many suffered in a long and brutal conflict, but it was significant. The point these letters make is that every death in war is significant. The losses suffered by families, by society, are significant. It is a good thing to remember one man, and by so doing to remember and honor all.
Mission: Preserving Wartime Letters, Memories
The letters of Robert Orville Carver are preserved at the Center for American War Letters Archives, located at Chapman University in Orange, California, south of Los Angeles. The center contains an extensive collection of correspondence across all American wars and includes materials such as service documents, photographs, uniforms, and awards.
The center’s founding director is Andrew Carroll, author and editor of New York Times bestsellers including War Letters, Letters of a Nation, and Behind the Lines. In 1998 he launched “The Legacy Project,” an effort to honor veterans and active-duty troops by preserving their wartime correspondence and to help foster appreciation for the sacrifices and experiences of American troops and their loved ones. Thanks to media coverage, and the fact that Carroll’s project clearly addressed a great, unmet need, the center attracted a deluge of contributions and donations from across the country. By 2013 the Legacy Project’s collection had grown to more than 100,000 items from the Revolutionary War to today’s conflicts in the Middle East. Carroll, to better serve the project’s mission of gathering, preserving, and promoting war-related correspondence, donated the entire collection to Chapman University.
Today, the collection continues to grow. It is housed in a special facility in the university’s Leatherby Libraries and includes a reading room and exhibits. The archives are open to the public and accepts donations such as emails, audio and video messages, and paper correspondence. In fact, the Center for American War Letters Archives welcomes anything that helps visualize or understand the details of an individual’s service. The archives professionally preserve and document donations and makes them available to students, researchers, and the wider public. As the letters of Orville Carver demonstrate, such correspondence has much to teach, not only about a person’s service, but also about the ramifications of service on loved ones and on the nation as a whole, and that these ramifications echo through time, bridging our past and our future.
To find out more, visit www.chapman.edu/research/institutes-and-centers/cawl/.
2. All quotations from Carver’s letters are from “The Robert Orville Carver First World War Correspondence Collection.”
3. Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 435–36.
4. See William N. Still Jr., Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006), 372–73.
5. A. B. Feuer, The U.S. Navy in World War I: Combat at Sea and in the Air (Westport, CN: Praeger, 1999), 70.
6. Ibid., 71.
7. Carver, “First World War Correspondence.” Feuer, U.S. Navy in World War I, 72.
8. Carver, “First World War Correspondence.”
9. American Ship Casualties of the World War, Including Naval Vessels, Merchant Ships, Sailing Vessels, and Fishing Craft, Historical Section, Navy Department (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923).