Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 3, 2016

USS Leviathan: A Most Valuable Spoil of War

Official Navy Painting: "A Fast Convoy USS Allen Escorting USS Leviathan

The first large American troopship to make the Atlantic crossing with troops was the 54,000 ton USS Leviathan, formerly the German liner Vaterland, owned by the Hamburg America Line. Launched at Hamburg in 1914, she could sustain a speed of 20 knots across the Atlantic regardless of weather. She had 14 watertight compartments, 46 Yarrow coal-burning boilers, and eight Parson turbines driving four 4-bladed propellers measuring 14 feet from tip to tip. Having arrived in New York in July 1914, she was trapped in harbor when war broke out. Three years later she was seized as soon as America declared war on Germany. Outfitted as a troopship and given its new name and a "dazzle" style camouflage, Leviathan took a test run to Cuba in November. She was deemed fit for service on the Atlantic convoy run. On 15 December 1917 she left her pier in Hoboken in a heavy snowstorm for the crossing, bound for Liverpool. It is reported in the history of this ship that Leviathan had 7,254 troops of the 41st Division plus 2,000 crew on board for this initial trip.

Vaterland in Her Prewar Glory

The escorting destroyers and their personnel had a punishing trip. Some of the escorts lost their forecastle lifelines, had the bridge forward bulkheads buckled and the windows smashed. The navigator of the destroyer with the pilot on board mentions finding the designated pilot for docking the Leviathan standing in the passageway from the wardroom to the outside deck, where he was going to the bridge for his 4-8 a.m. watch. The pilot, with his spread feet and arms against the bulkheads, was a depressed-looking person. The navigator, trying to make conversation said, "How goes it, pilot?" and he could not be mistaken about the pilot's feeling when after some expressive words he concluded with "Every bone in my bloody body aches from 'olding on in the %#*$@ ship." The ship missed the tide and had to wait outside the port while the escorting destroyer ran antisubmarine circles around her. The Leviathan entered port on the morning of 24 December, and the escorts lighted off all boilers to get back to Queenstown for Christmas.

The Deck of Leviathan with Sailors and Doughboy Passengers
(Probably Postwar Voyage Home)

Leviathan would transport 120,000 Doughboys to the front by the Armistice. Its most famous crewman was none other than future movie star Humphrey Bogart, who served on the ship's security detail and reportedly once shot an escaping prisoner while transporting him to Portsmouth Naval Prison. After the war the ship was returned to service as an ocean liner, but as a spoil of war, for the United States Line.

Adapted From the Naval Historical Foundation's Article "Bayly's Navy"


  1. My great-uncle,Leo Walter, from Catherine, Kansas, was transported to France on the Leviathan. One of the items he brought home was his
    mess kit, which had been engraved for him by a German prisoner of war. Although the name Vaterland was neatly engraved above the image of the ship, the engraver mistakenly included four funnels instead of just three.

  2. Leviathin had a serious design flaw, split funnel uptakes, which contributed to some serious damage in an eastbound Atlantic 12/1929 crossing. See Steven Ujifusa’s A Man and his Ship which discusses the SS United States, the US national flagship state of the art passenger liner of the 1950s and ‘60s. The United States would cruise at 30+ knots in just about anything the North Atlantic could throw at her.