Ship of Death: The Tragic Tale of the USS Leviathan

Posted on April 9, 2020

by Catharine Arnold

In three successive waves, from spring 1918 to summer 1919, the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide. By 1919, Spanish flu was responsible for the deaths of 500,000 people in the United States, five times its total military fatalities in the war. The tragic tale of the USS Leviathan, a troopship sailing between the US and France, is just one example of the horrors endured during this unprecedented outbreak.

USS Leviathan Steaming out of New York Harbor, circa the mid-1920s.
This photo is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

Part I

On 29 September 1918, the USS Leviathan transport ship was preparing to leave Hoboken, New Jersey, to sail to Brest, France. The vessel, along with other ships, was due to ferry around 100,000 troops across the Atlantic to France during October. On her ninth voyage to France, the Leviathan would carry troops from ten different army organizations, including nurses and combat replacements.

The USS Leviathan, operating as an American troopship in 1918, began life in Hamburg in 1914, where she was launched as the Vaterland, the pride of the German passenger fleet. When the USA entered the war in 1917, the Vaterland was resting at anchor in New York. As her German captain was unwilling to scupper her, the Vaterland became ‘the most gigantic Prisoner of War the world has ever known’. She was seized by US Customs officials in the early morning of 6 April 1917, and turned over to the Shipping Board to be manned and operated. After nearly three years in dry dock at Hoboken, she was finally turned over to the Navy Department on 25 July 1917, regularly commissioned as a Naval vessel and assigned to transport duty under the command of Vice-Admiral Albert Cleaves, US Navy, Commander of the Cruiser and Transport Force, United States Atlantic Fleet, and renamed the USS Leviathan.

When she was seized, the old Vaterland had been packed with luxury goods, glassware, silverware and vintage wines, which were immediately impounded by Customs. In the process, an eighty-piece gold coffee service, designed for the Kaiser, mysteriously disappeared without trace. By September 1918, pampered socialites in jewels and furs had been replaced by a crew of the United States Navy, consisting of fifty officers and over one thousand men. Although the ship had been stripped and painted with striped ‘Dazzle’ camouflage to deceive the spying eyes of the U-boats, she retained the remnants of a happier life before she had come down in the world: a swimming pool with Roman decorations, and first-class salons glittering with mirrors and furnished with carpets and chairs covered in rose-coloured brocade. But needs must when the devil drives. The dining hall had been converted into a mess hall for the troops, the swimming pool had become a baggage room, and the baggage room itself had turned into a brig (ship’s prison) and a ‘powder magazine’ (gunpowder store.) The once-majestic ballroom and theatre had been converted into a hospital, while the gymnasium on ‘A’ deck became an isolation ward for contagious cases and the former ship’s doctor’s office was to serve as a sick call station and dispensary for troops and crew.

For the transports to France, ten thousand doughboys would be crammed onto the Leviathan’s fourteen, self-contained decks. Nobody could forget that there was a war on when they saw the three giant smokestacks, one of them a ventilator, rearing proudly. Their slight backward slant and the wicked-looking guns that thrust themselves from unexpected places below gave a fleeting impression of a crouching lion with flattened ears and bared teeth. Like many a beauty fallen upon hard times, there was a hint of tragedy about the Leviathan, evident in her piercing siren. ‘At nightfall and in the dusk of early morning the iron throat of the big prisoner sends forth such a wail as wrings the soul. It dies away and rises again from its own echo like the mourning cry of a world bereaved.’ On her first day out, the ship’s log noted that ‘A carrier pigeon, w-7463, fluttered through the air and dropped dead on C deck.’ An omen, perhaps, of what was to come.

The USS Leviathan was now the biggest ship in the world – the officer of the watch covered twelve miles in his nightly rounds – and also one of the fastest, tearing through the water at 22 knots and usually traveling without an escort as it was believed she was too fast for the U-boats unless directly in their path. The doughboys jokingly referred to her as the Levi Nathan, but she already had a tragic past. Several passengers and crew had died of influenza on the Leviathan’s previous voyage back from Brest, France, in September and had been buried at sea. Among those taken ill on that journey was the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had barely escaped with his life. Now, the Leviathan lay at anchor at Hoboken, New York, preparing for her ninth voyage to France. The following troops were on board:

Troops, 9,366; 57th Pioneer Infantry; September Auto Replacements Drafts from Camps McArthur, Humphreys, Hancock and Jackson; Medical Replacement, No. 73; 401st Pontoon Train; 467th Pontoon Train; 468th Pontoon Train; Water Tank Train No. 302; 323rd Field Signal Battalion; Base Hospitals No. 60 and 62; Female; Debarking and Billet Party 31st Div.; Major General Leroy S. Lyon, C. G. 31st Div.

The only complete unit was the 57th Pioneer Infantry from Vermont. On the night of 27 September 1918, the men of the 57th began an hour’s march from Camp Merritt, New Jersey, to the Alpine Landing, where ferries waited to take them down the Hudson to the Leviathan. But that night the march took far longer. Soon after the journey began, the column halted. Men suffering from the symptoms of Spanish flu were falling out of the ranks, unable to keep up. While the most sensible course of action would have been to abandon the march and get back to quarters, this was not an option. The army and the schedules of the Leviathan were inflexible: they waited for no man, healthy or sick. After a break to allow the struggling men to catch up, the march resumed. But some men lay where they had fallen; others struggled to their feet and even jettisoned items of kit so that they could keep up. The soldiers were followed by trucks and ambulances, which picked up men as they fell and took them back to the camp hospital. It is not known how many men were lost on this march.

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The majority of the 57th made it to Alpine Landing and then endured a cold wet two-hour ferry trip down river. This was followed by final inspections on the pier at Hoboken – during which more soldiers collapsed – and coffee and rolls from the Red Cross, their first food in hours. The men climbed the gangplank and then boarded the Leviathan, where they had their first sleep for twenty-four hours, a period of hardship guaranteed to challenge any soldier’s immune system and break down his resistance to flu and pneumonia.

The Leviathan left port on the afternoon of 29 September and before the ship even sailed, another 120 men fell sick. ‘Many men and several nurses were obliged to leave the ship just before we cast off our lines,’ stated the ship’s log. ‘While the embarkation troops were lined up on the big pier some of the men dropped helpless on the dock. We were informed that a number of men had fallen by the wayside, limp and listless, on their march from the camp to the scene of Transportation.’ Despite this setback, the Leviathan eventually set sail with over 2,000 crewmen and around 10,000 army personnel, including 200 nurses. ‘Under clear skies we steamed slowly through the big harbor filled with shipping and proceeded straight to sea, stopping only to drop our pilot, Capt. McLaughlin, of the Sandy Hook Pilot Association and who always piloted the Leviathan in and out of New York Harbor.’ The ship’s log indicated the crew’s forebodings: ‘everyone felt that we would have a distressing time going over’.

© Copyright Catharine Arnold 2020


© Stuart Marshall

Catharine Arnold read English at Girton College, Cambridge and holds a further degree in psychology. A journalist, academic, and popular historian, her previous books include The Sexual History of LondonNecropolis, and Bedlam.

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