The schooner was lying at the pier forlorn and tired like an old boxer who’d taken too many punches. Two sentries, their rifles at the ready step up: “Sorry, this end of the pier is off limits.” The town of Newport was abuzz, ‘what’s going on down at the dock? Did you see the soldiers? Why that old ship?’ But no one could find anything out about the ship or why she was so heavily guarded.
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The Charles Whittemore was a typical four-masted lumber schooner built in 1905 in Mystic, Connecticut. Under the command of Captain S. H. Perry the Whittemore sailed the Atlantic coast for 13 years carrying lumber from the Carolinas to Nova Scotia.
Built by shipbuilder Mike McDonald the Whittemore was 693 gross tons displacement. Her dimensions were 204’ x 38’ x 15’. She was launched stern first into the Mystic River with banners flying and christened by Edna Perry, the Captain’s daughter. Considered a fast sailor in 1910 she made the run from New York to Georgetown, South Carolina and back in 19 days.
Her humdrum career would have continued uninterrupted except for two unrelated events; the United States entry into World War I and a fierce spring storm on March 13, 1918. The Whittemore was returning from Georgetown with a cargo of hard pine when she encountered the fierce March Nor’easter that would change her fate. The storm was no ordinary gale and the schooner lost her rudder. She was off Block Island, her signals being seen she was towed into Newport by the Revenue Cutter Tuscarora.
Having reached safety the schooner was tied up at the pier with Captain Perry and his wife still aboard. Captain Perry was busy arranging repairs for Charlie, a name he affectionately called his old ship, when to his amazement Naval officers began to inspect the Whittemore. After inspection, with no explanation, the Navy commandeered the ship buying it on the spot for $81,000. Captain Perry was sad to see Charlie go and as he and his wife packed their belongings and left the ship he said to the naval officers, “Be good to Charlie.”
Why would the Navy want an old lumber schooner? It was the start of the US entry into World War I and the Navy was trying to plan a defense against the imminent threat that German U-boats would pose to U.S. shipping. The Navy studied how the British had successfully developed what they called Q- ships.
Q-ships were older merchant vessels designed to look like sitting ducks and would lure U-boats into attacking them. After the U-boat attacked the trap would be sprung and the Q-ships hidden weaponry would be unleashed. The Whittemore looked like a low-end easy target, the exact type of vessel that was a popular target for German U-boats.
The Navy immediately outfitted the Whittemore for her new role as an American version of a British Q- ship, a U-boat killer. Below deck, where lumber had been stored, the space was filled with a cargo of machine guns, rifles, cutlasses, pistols, and even hickory sticks for hand-to-hand combat. The ship’s forecastle was packed with listening devices and radios. In addition, the Whittemore’s biggest secret was the 415-ton submarine she would tow submerged behind her.
The Navy’s unorthodox plan for how the attack would be carried out was the brainchild of Admiral W. S. Benson. Hopefully, after the U-boat was lured in by the Whittemore the German’s would board the ship to inspect the cargo. This was their standard operating procedure, to see if there was anything of value before sinking the ship with the U-boats deck gun.
Torpedoes were too valuable to be wasted on such a lowly target. The American crew, well-armed and hidden below deck, would then swarm up from the hold and attack. While the Germans were distracted by the attack the U.S. submarine would launch torpedoes and destroy the U-boat.
As predicted, German U-boats did arrive off the east coast of the United States and work was rushed on the Whittemore. In July 1918, she was moved to New London to complete her outfitting. In theory, the attack plan sounded like a good one but submarine engineering was still primitive by today’s standards. Submarines at the time were very noisy so to remain hidden the submarine had to be towed.
The decoy schooner was commissioned the USS Charles Whittemore ID#3232 on August 9, 1918 under the command of a veteran square rig captain, 55-year old Joseph Lyons USNRF. Lyons had a specially trained crew of 52 enlisted men dressed as ordinary seamen under his command. The crew sported beards, long hair, and wore work clothes to appear as ordinary seamen. Actual lumber schooners carried small crews so most of the seamen had to stay below deck and out of sight.
On August 17, 1918 the Whittemore left on her first war patrol towing the U.S. sub L-8 at a depth of 40 feet. The towing went surprisingly well but other issues arose. Because the sub had to stay submerged 14 hours a day, coming up only after dark, it was incredibly difficult on the crew. The air in the sub was foul and the quarters were cramped. In addition, the radio wouldn’t work underwater so the L-8 had to surface frequently to learn what was going on.
Prowling the U-boat infested waters kept the schooner’s crew on high alert. They were under orders not to answer any signals, even from friendly vessels, knowing that they might be fired on if they could not return a challenge. Struggling against fatigue, weather, and primitive equipment the heroism of these men was admirable.
The Whittemore did not encounter any U-boats on her first patrol and set out again on a second patrol. On September 5, 1918, during a storm the hawser towing the submarine N-5 went slack and the sub drifted off. The sub was able to limp into Block Island. The storm developed into a hurricane and terminated the Whittemore’s second patrol.
This story might be better if I could report that during her final patrol the Whittemore was able to bag a U-boat but it was not to be. By the time the Whittemore arrived on station, all sides were using armed merchantmen as decoys. The Germans might have thought the Whittemore was too good to be true so might have avoided her. While on station the Armistice was signed and World War I ended.
In spite of all the work to make the Whittemore look like an enticing target, and the bravery of her crew, the Whittemore never fired a shot. They hadn’t been able to detect a U-boat let alone destroy one. Admiral Benson’s extraordinary plan failed and the episode was left as a small forgotten footnote of the war.
The Whittemore was decommissioned in May 1919 but she wasn’t finished and she went back to work in the lumber trade. Records show she was in Nova Scotia in 1926 carrying pilings under the command of Captain G. M. Willkie.
That same year the L-8, the first sub the Whittemore had been paired with and the first sub built by the US Navy, was used as a target to test magnetic torpedoes and sunk. Today she rests in 120 ft. of water 5 miles south of Newport, Rhode Island and is a popular dive site.
On January 11, 1927 the Whittemore was bound for New York carrying 2000 logs when her crew had to be taken off during a storm. The old ship drifted helplessly until she was finally towed into Boston Harbor where she was left to rot, her gallant search for U-boats over, her secret long forgotten.