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The Yacht Club and World War I

Navy recruiting poster 3 web

Sea Going Yachts Needed for Immediate War Duty

In connection with the quiet campaign of preparedness which is being carried on under the orders of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and about which there has been no previous public announcement, an active effort has been under way during the last month to procure seagoing yachts for immediate war duty.

The Government will employ a large number of such vessels as auxiliaries to the other fighting units of the navy and the patriotic spirit of many owners who have already come forward to turn over their vessels for this valuable service is worthy of commendation. (International Marine Engineering, Vol. 22, July 1917, p. 286)

Tod Corsair WW1

Well before this notice concerning one New York Yacht Club member was published, many other members were making commitments to defend America, and not only in regular Navy warships. At least 93 NYYC members were commissioned in the Naval Reserve after the United States declared war on Germany early in 1917. Club historian John Parkinson Jr. estimated that at least 300 members served in a military or naval branch. Several New York Yacht Club members worked with the Navy to organize loans and donations of vessels, and a great many more members volunteered themselves and often their yachts for patrol duty.

Ninety club members donated or loaned their yachts (including J.P. Morgan’s Corsair and several express cruisers and commuter boats) to the U.S. Navy or Royal Navy. The 2009 club history includes the lively story of member Robert E. Tod’s service on board Corsair. In addition, the club had 500 Navy members. Many club members were assigned to 110-foot patrol boats, a few of which crossed the Atlantic in daring convoys.

Several members served in the army. One was past Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a member of the Army National Guard, who commanded units in the Mexican border war and in Europe, and retired as a brigadier general.

Two volunteers were future Commodores, Vincent Astor and Harold S. Vanderbilt. The latter was one of many club members who served in submarine chasers protecting America and shipping from Germany’s most effective weapon, the U-Boat. This relatively new, terrifying weapon was the chief reason why America went to war.

President Woodrow Wilson’s War Message, April 2, 1917
Vessels of every kind, whatever their flag, their character, their cargo, their destination, their errand, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom without warning and without thought of help or mercy for those on board, the vessels of friendly neutrals along with those of belligerents. Even hospital ships and ships carrying relief to the sorely bereaved and stricken people of Belgium, though the latter were provided with safe-conduct through the proscribed areas by the German Government itself and were distinguished by unmistakable marks of identity, have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle.

Fears of German U-Boats dated from the sinking of the Lusitania in the Irish Sea in May 1915. That October, the threat became much more powerful for then-neutral America when German U-boat U-53 paid a surprise visit to Newport. The captain posted a letter to the German embassy, chatted up inquisitive locals, waved goodbye, went to sea, and quickly sank six commercial vessels flying belligerent flags.

Few U-Boats were seen in American waters until 1918, when they arrived in large numbers and posed a major threat to coastal shipping. One U-boat shelled the Cape Cod Canal with the aim of shutting it down so coal barges and other commercial vessels were forced to go around the Cape, where they were less well protected from torpedo attacks.

C Vanderbilt Uniform

The declaration of war shut down East Coast yachting. The America’s Cup, scheduled for 1914 at New York, was postponed and eventually sailed in 1920. The club’s annual cruise and annual regatta were cancelled from 1917 through 1920. With the nearly simultaneous arrival of war, Prohibition, and the Spanish flu, clubhouse life was very scattered. The war had one positive long-term effect on yachting: the rush of military research spun off many innovations, some of which made their way into yachts. For instance, the modern Marconi rig owed its rapid development and popularity to wartime aerodynamics. In addition, stronger glues created to build fighter airplane wings went on to be used to construct stronger masts.

I have been studying this period as part of my ongoing research on the Vanderbilt family in America. Several members of the fourth generation played parts in the war. One was General Vanderbilt (at left), who was mentioned earlier. Another was Alfred G. Vanderbilt, who died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1916. Their cousins William K. Vanderbilt and his brother Harold S. “Mike” Vanderbilt commanded submarine chasers during the war, protecting the North American coast. Willie K. later went to sea in big yachts on oceanographic research voyages.

Harold participated in an anti-sub patrol out of New London, commanded the patrol base at Block Island, and was serving in English waters at the time of the Armistice. The summary below of Harold Vanderbilt’s naval career, after he donated his power boat to the Navy and enlisted, gives an idea of the demands on many members during the war:

Harold S. Vanderbilt, U.S. Navy career
In March 1917 Vanderbilt was commissioned a lieutenant (junior grade) in the United States Naval Reserve. When the United States entered World War I, he was called to active duty on April 9, 1917, and was assigned as commanding officer of the scout patrol boat USS Patrol No. 8 (SP-56) which operated out of Newport, Rhode Island.

He was reassigned on July 20 to command the Block Island, RI, anti-submarine sector and on November 17 the New London, Connecticut, sector. Upon his reassignment the officers and men of the Block Island sector presented him with an engraved naval officer's sword as a token of their esteem. The sword is now displayed at the Marble House in Newport.

On July 17, 1918, he was reassigned to the US Navy forces in Europe and reported to Submarine Chaser Detachment 3 at Queenstown, Ireland in August. He served with Detachment 3 until the unit was disbanded on November 25, 1918 - shortly after
the Armistice was signed.

He was placed on inactive duty December 30, 1918. He was promoted to lieutenant on February 26, 1919 retroactive to September 21, 1918. He was discharged from the Naval Reserve on March 26, 1921. (Department of the Navy: Naval Historical Center)

In December 1921 Harold Vanderbilt was elected NYYC Commodore. A strong minded individual whose convictions were strengthened by wartime duty, he made some changes to the New York Yacht Club Cruise, revised he yacht racing rules, and worked with cutting-edge yacht designers W. Starling Burgess and, later, Olin Stephens to improve the new breed of big yachts, leading to three victories in the America’s Cup.

Harold Vanderbilt was hardly alone in approaching yachting with the new level of adventure and a heightened seriousness of purpose that had developed in wartime as young men went out hunting submarines in small boats in demanding conditions.

Vanderbilt Bros SubchaserSubchasers (at right) provided many yachtsmen their first offshore experiences, stimulating and encouraging the post-war rise of ocean racing and cruising. One of the New York Yacht Club members who played key roles in this development was Herbert L. Stone, the editor of Yachting magazine and the commander of a subchaser squadron during the war. After coming home, he organized a Bermuda Race in 1923 (it was won by club member Robert N. Bavier). When the 22 boats started the race, Stone wrote, “an instinctive cheer, releasing pent-up enthusiasm, broke from the crew of every boat, to be echoed by the spectators.”

The war was over and young sailors were eager to get back to sea, this time out of uniform.

U52 Newport 1915

U-53 at Newport. October 7, 1916
“On board U-53, officers and crew stood at attention in clean blue uniforms—the officers in white shirts and starched collars—as the ship moved up the harbor to an anchorage. As if by previous arrangement, a small boat went alongside, and the commanding officer, Lieutenant Hans Rose, Imperial German Navy, wearing the Iron Cross, went ashore.” (George M. Lowry, “Exploit of the U-53,” Proceedings, April 1961)

 

—John Rousmaniere, Club Historian

 

 

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