Thursday, April 26, 2018

U.S. Navy in WWI

The last post noted the demand for new ships to carry goods to Britain and France after the onset of World War I.  Although the United States was neutral until 1917, few goods went to Germany or Austria Hungary.  Britain's strong navy had enabled the Allies to deprive the Axis powers of over 60 percent of their merchant ships. Also, the British navy's presence and the mine fields they established in the seas between Scotland and Iceland prohibited ships from reaching German ports on the North Sea and blocked access through the Straits of Gibraltar to Austrian ports on the Adriatic Sea.

Beginning in 1915, Germany responded by using submarines (U-boats) to attack both naval ships and merchant ships carrying military supplies. For a time, pressure from the U. S. forced them to spare passenger ships and to limit where submarines operated. Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare (firing on any ship headed for an Allied port) on February 1, 1917.  They calculated that they could sink enough ships in 5 months to starve Britain into surrendering before the United States could mobilize troops to enter the war.  After 3 American merchant ships were destroyed by U-boats, the United States declared war on Germany and its allies on April 6, 1917.

WWI U.S. Navy uniform
at Benton County Museum
War called for an increase in the size of both the army and the navy.  In 1916, the U. S. Navy totaled 10,601 active duty sailors.  That number increased to 52,819 by 1918.  One of those sailors was R. E. Minard whose uniform is in the Benton County Historical Museum collection. Minard served on the USS Oregon which was called back into service during World War I as a reserve battleship in the Pacific. After the Russian Revolution, the USS Oregon escorted the American Expeditionary Force Siberia troops on their way to help stranded Czech forces and protect stockpiled war material from falling into German hands once the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany. 

Some sailors served on large battleships which helped Britain lay mines and contain the Germany fleet in port. The primary task of the U.S. Navy, however, was to protect convoys of merchant and troop ships as they sailed across the Atlantic. By August, thirty-six of the fifty-one U. S. Navy destroyers were escorting convoys.  If a U-boat did torpedo a cargo ship, the faster destroyers would catch up to it and drop explosive depth charges. Although U.S. Navy ships destroyed relatively few submarines, they played a key role by ensuring that 1.4 million American troops made it to France. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

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