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|Steam Yacht Nahma
|121k||Photographed prior to her World War I Naval service
U.S. Navy photo NH 102049
|Naval Historical Center|
|USS Nahma (SP 771)
|108k|| At sea, during World War I
Courtesy of John C. O'Connell
U.S. Navy photo NH 50474
|Naval Historical Center|
|89k||Photographed by Herman Whitaker while at anchor, circa 1917-1918
U.S. Navy photo NH 42548
When the United States entered World War I, I was in Cuba surveying for a sugar central outside Cienfuegos. (I had studied civil engineering at the University of Virginia.) Being young and adventurous and, also, I suppose, somewhat patriotic, I dropped my job and hurried to New York to enlist in the Navy.
After a couple of frustrating months in the Brooklyn Navy Yard running the Map Room of the Third Naval District while waiting for a promised transfer to Annapolis to study for a commission, I was able to join a crew being sent to Scotland to man a yacht that belonged to an American, Robert Goelet. It was to be converted into a man-of-war for convoy duty. One hundred and thirty odd strong, under the command of Captain Friedrick, we crossed the Atlantic in the SS New York and, after a short time at Queensland, in Ireland, we were transported by rail to Greenock, Scotland, where the ship, the Nahma, was tied up.
After several months in Greenock, putting the Nahmap into commission as a war vessel, we were placed on convoy duty between the British Isles and Gibraltar. We would sale due west for two days escorting 30 or 40 cargo vessels, that we would turn south until we reached the latitude of Gibraltar, what we would turn east and head for that harbor. On our return voyages, the process was reversed. On both eastward and westward parts of our voyages we would be assisted in protecting the convoy by several destroyers, but on the long haul from north to south and vice versa we were on our own. Sometimes we would be taken off convoy duty and go foraging for submarines, or on submarine patrol.
On one of those submarine patrols, when we were off the coast of Spain, we spotted distant lights to starboard shortly after midnight. We steamed over to investigate, and discovered a large vessel surrounded by submarines. We had no knowledge of friendly submarines in those waters, as we should have had were there any there, and it had been rumored that the Spanish were secretly supplying German submarines off the coast. It was only natural, therefore, for our captain to assume that we had come upon such an operation.
General Quarters was sounded, which meant that every man went to his battle station - I was sight center on the 3 inch gun on the quarter deck aft - full speed ahead was signaled, which, for us, was 22 knots, and the "recognition signal" was flashed from our bridge. Recognition signals were used to identify friendly craft. They were changed each midnight. We received a wrong recognition signal and reply, and the captain immediately gave the order to commence firing. We had the submarines in our gun sights when the order was given, and we are firing almost at point blank range. Before it was discovered that the vessels were not German, we had blown the conning tower off one of the submarines, did much damage to the others, and there were men in the water screaming for help.
It developed later that we had encountered five submarines and their mothership which the United States had given to Italy, and which were being taken by their Italian crews to Italy for service in the Mediterranean. There was hell to pay later in Gibraltar. Our captain was court-martialed, and acquitted of error, but, nevertheless, he was relieved of command.
The USS Nahma was a coal burning vessel, and we "coaled" at Gibraltar, where coal was cheap. The coal barges were brought alongside, and the crew worked it into the bunkers. It was hard and dirty work. The worst job, and one quite frequently given to me by a boatswain's mate who did not like the fact that I had been to college, was to descend to the bottom of a bunker, cringe back against the bulkhead while the coal chute was filled level with the deck above, then dig yourself out. We survived, however.
In December, 1917, on one of our voyages northward to the British Isles, we were caught in a terrific storm in the Bay of Biscay - the worst storm, it was said, in 20 years. We almost sank. The seas were so high we could not take them on our bow, so, cautiously, we dropped slowly astern through our convoy, with cargo vessels passing perilously close in mountainous seas, until we were clear of the convoy. Then, the captain, with great skill, succeeded in coming about, and in putting our fantail stern into the seas.
We were blown 300 miles off our course. We lost every one of our lifeboats, washed off their davits high above the deck. Two wooden hatches leading to the lower decks were washed away. As we tried to clear the decks of wreckage, one man was washed overboard, and then washed back onboard again. There were so many seas coming aboard that the firemen in the boiler room were stoking the boiler standing knee deep in water. It was really frightening. Finally, we made port at Plymouth, England, with only four tons of coal aboard. We burned 40 tons a day. There had been talk of tearing up the wooden decks to get fuel for the furnaces.
We stayed in Plymouth several months while the Nahma was made seaworthy, then we returned to Gibraltar. Now that we were really seaworthy, we were taken off the tempestuous Atlantic and assigned to convoy duty in the Mediterranean. We would leave Gibraltar with 15 or 20 cargo ships, and escort them alone to Italian ports or to those of North Africa. Convoys both ahead of us and astern would lose ships almost every voyage. One of them left Genoa with twelve cargo ships and arrived in Gibraltar with only one. We lost only one cargo vessels during the entire 18 months that we were in that service. We wondered why. (We used to brag ashore that the Germans were afraid of us.) The time we lost that one cargo ship, we and three British sloops were escorting four cargo vessels from Bizerta, in Tunisia, to Gibraltar. The enemy must have thought that our convoy contained unusually valuable cargo to be thus escorted. He attacked, despite the strength of the escort, and he sank one ship. We dropped depth charges on him - it was my responsibility as gunner's mate to drop them - and oil appeared on the surface. We thought that we had caught him, but we had no real proof.
On Armistice Day, 1918, we were on patrol in the Straits of Gibraltar. We fully expected to be ordered back to the United States. We had almost two years of active service in the European theater. On the contrary, we received orders to go to Marseille, France, and to pick up Admiral Bristol, who had been named High Commissioner to Turkey, and to take him and his staff to Istanbul.
We were the first American vessel to pass through the Dardanelles since the cessation of hostilities. These waters had been heavily mined. We proceeded with caution. We had minesweepers attached to our bow and a lookout stationed there, but there was anxiety nevertheless.
After three months in Istanbul, during which time we made several voyages into the Black Sea and one back to Malta for supplies, I was finally ordered to return to the United States for release from active service. I had enlisted in April, 1917, has an ordinary seaman. I was paid off in Brooklyn in June, 1919, as a Gunner's Mate, 2nd class.
Lewis Clark went on to a 35-year career in the Foreign Service, including 13 years in pre-communist China, then France, Libya (as Ambassador), and Algeria. For further information, contact Sue Palsbo, InnovAbility@comcast.net.
© Susan Elizabeth Palsbo, 2011
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