1916-1925: America– War and Peace

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Author: G. C. Whimsett  | Date: 1918

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The Loss of the "President Lincoln"

ON the morning of May 30, 1918, the "President Lincoln," on her fifth return trip, was steaming at full speed in company with the "Ryndam," "Susquehanna" and "Antigone." At about 8:57 am., when we were commencing to zigzag, a torpedo wake was sighted about 600 yards to the port beam, by persons on the port side of the ship, several of whom called to the bridge. The order "hard right rudder" was given. Before the ship could respond to the motion of the steersman, an explosion took place, which shook and raised the ship out of the water. Before the concussion of the explosion was over, another took place, seemingly in the same part of the ship.

General alarm was sounded throughout the ship and all hastened to their "abandon ship" stations. Before most of them could get there, however, still a third explosion took place, well aft of the first two and on the port side. It was afterwards learned that the first two torpedoes had hit the ship just aft of the bridge, one about on the level of the water and the other about 15 feet below, both hitting in the coal bunkers, at which place men were engaged at the time in shifting coal from one bunker to another. The third explosion hit just aft of the engine room.

Immediately following these explosions, the ship took a heavy list to port. All guns began firing, for the purpose of keeping the submarine below, although no periscope was sighted. The other three ships which accompanied us sped away, soon disappearing over the horizon.

Slowly the ship righted herself on an even keel, though gradually sinking, and it was thought for a time that she might be saved. Therefore word was not passed to abandon the ship, but to stand by prepared.

In the meantime all safety valves had been opened; working parties had gone throughout the ship to estimate the damage; men wounded in the explosions had been brought to the sick bay and given what treatment was possible; and the army sick, of whom we had 120, were prepared for the open boats. At 9:10 the captain, by a motion of his hand, signalled all to abandon ship.

The ship was equipped with fourteen lifeboats, two of which were destroyed in the explosion, and two were smashed in lowering. The other ten were safely lowered and shoved off, taking with them all sick and all army passengers. The next step was the throwing over of the life-rafts, which was hurriedly done, then the jumping into the water of the men who remained on board. This was all accomplished within five or six minutes at the most. All the time the forward guns kept up an incessant firing, the after guns by this time being under water.

At 9:15 the ship gave a sudden lurch and sank, stern first, just 18 minutes after she was first hit.

The men who had jumped in the water climbed on rafts and the boats took on their full capacity. At about 10 o’clock when every one was feeling more or less comfortable and waiting for some one to come and pick us up, we sighted what was thought to be a sail on the horizon. We watched it, as it came closer, and finally made it out to be a submarine. It was hard to express the feeling that existed upon discovering this submarine. Every one had settled back, feeling that the worst was over, and tranquilly waiting to be rescued. To have this "sea-louse" come upon us, to add to our misery, was enough to "get any one’s goat." As the submarine came closer we saw that she had on her bow a large gun, trained on us. There was also a smaller gun on her stern. These guns were variously estimated to be of 6- and 4-inch caliber, respectively. The submarine circled us several times, with the guns trained on us, and the gun crews were continuously changing the loads, as if to tantalize and intimidate us. The submarine commander called out, in plain English, for our captain, but fortunately the captain and other officers had removed their blouses and substituted sailors’ jumpers, the officers in the boats taking the oars. The answer was given back that the captain had been last seen on the ship.

For two long, anxious hours the submarine remained with us, continuously searching for the captain, perhaps with the object of sinking another ship which might be coming up to our aid.

At about 12 o’clock the submarine took aboard two of the sailors, leading them both below. These men later stated that they had been given coffee, and one of them said that he had seen on the submarine’s bulkhead a list of five ships namely: the "Leviathan," "Agamemnon," "Mount Vernon," "President Grant" and "President Lincoln," all ex-German passenger liners. As he was looking at this list, a German sailor scratched off the name of the "President Lincoln" and said, "Now we have but four more to get." Needless to say, that list was never changed.

After the return of these men, Lieutenant Isaacs was taken aboard the submarine and retained as a prisoner. This being done the submarine left us, remaining on the surface, as she proceeded on her way. At about 3:30 in the afternoon, she paid us another unsociable visit, repeating her maneuvers of circling and loading and training guns on us until 5:30 when she left us for good.

As dusk came, it was seen that the rafts and boats were by this time widely scattered, and it was evident that if something were not done by morning they would be completely separated. Therefore, the executive officer of the ship took charge of the ten lifeboats, tied all rafts together, and they in turn were tied to the lifeboats. This task was not completed until about 9 o’clock. The leading boat lit a kerosene lamp and all stood by and patiently waited.

At 11 o’clock rockets were sighted in the distance and then a message was flashed from the destroyer—for such it proved to be—to extinguish all our lights. Coming closer, we saw it to be a destroyer, the U. S. S. "Warrington." After about fourteen long hours, which seemed weeks, of tumbling and floating around in the vast ocean, the sight of this destroyer was enough to make us want to rise up from our cramped-up positions and give one long, tremendous, heart-rending, gladsome cheer, but such a demonstration would have interfered with the signalling and conversation with the destroyer. It signalled us that it would take aboard our sick, and within the next hour 550 of the more than 700 survivors were transferred to the "Warrington." Those who remained waited patiently until 3 o’clock in the morning, when the second destroyer, the U. S. S. "Smith," arrived and took us all aboard. Both destroyers waited until morning to see if any occupants of rafts or boats had been overlooked, and finding none, at daybreak proceeded to Brest, arriving there shortly after noon on June 2. Here the entire crew and officers were placed on board the U. S. S. "Great Northern" and returned to the States, there to be refitted and returned to sea again.

Four officers and twenty-three men were lost when the "President Lincoln" was torpedoed and sunk.

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Chicago: G. C. Whimsett, "The Loss of the President Lincoln," 1916-1925: America– War and Peace in America, Vol.12, Pp.84-89 Original Sources, accessed May 30, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UINJ5PF9KQIBIT2.

MLA: Whimsett, G. C. "The Loss of the "President Lincoln"." 1916-1925: America– War and Peace, in America, Vol.12, Pp.84-89, Original Sources. 30 May. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UINJ5PF9KQIBIT2.

Harvard: Whimsett, GC, 'The Loss of the "President Lincoln"' in 1916-1925: America– War and Peace. cited in , America, Vol.12, Pp.84-89. Original Sources, retrieved 30 May 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UINJ5PF9KQIBIT2.