There have been a number of truly strange ships serving in the US Navy over the years. Some of these make news on a fairly regular basis. The Flip Ship, deep water submersibles, the Glomar Explorer, midget subs and even a few midget aircraft carriers are known by most people. A few ships, however, never make the news. Here are three ships that I am willing to bet you have never heard about.
The USS Recruit. The Navy has had more than one ship of this name, but I am referring to the 1917 ship located in...Union Square, in New York. That’s right--this was a fully commissioned ship in the US Navy that never got near the water, though it was conveniently located next to the Broadway entrance to the subway.
The Recruit was a wooden recreation of a Dreadnought class battleship that served not only as the recruiting center for New York, but was also used as a training center. Under the command of Captain C. F. Pierce, the ship had a complement of 39 bluejackets (and a pet goat), who lived and worked on the wooden ship in the middle of the town.
With crew quarters, a doctor’s office, and room for the physical examination of the recruits, in many ways the wooden ship was a faithful recreation of real battleships. She was even armed, with six 14-inch guns and ten 5-inch guns—all wooden. The wooden ship was 200 feet long with a beam of 40 feet. Her “engine room” had a single smokestack, and powered the electric lights of the ship.
Hundreds of sailors spent from two to six months training on the ship, and she recruited over 25,000 sailors during the first World War. In addition, the ship acted as a public relations center for the Navy. Dances were held on the ship, the public was invited to tour the warship, and various patriotic events centered around the ship were designed to popularize the Navy. (And truthfully, for as long as the ship patrolled Union Square, there were no reported German attacks on Broadway.)
In all, the ship was in operation for almost three years, before finally being decommissioned in 1920. Carefully dismantled and crated, she was to be shipped to Coney Island where the Navy planned on her eventual “relaunching” and use once again as a training and recruiting aid. Somehow, the USS Recruit never arrived there, and her eventual fate is unknown. Personally, I think the crates are in the same warehouse as the Ark of the Covenant.
The USS Supply had many important roles and during her time in the Navy she fought in two wars, was part of the Perry expedition to Japan, and distinguished herself many times during patrols in the South Atlantic. However, one of her missions is all but forgotten today: she was once a “camel car”.
Before the Civil War, Jefferson Davis had a very active role in the US government. Besides building the new capitol building and serving as the Secretary of War, in his spare time he was very interested in developing the new territory the US had just taken from Mexico. The newly acquired southwest was largely desert, and Davis knew how hard this territory was on the Army’s horses.
In 1855, Davis was able to persuade Congress to appropriate $30,000 to investigate the use of camels for the US Army. He sent a relative, Captain David Porter and the USS Supply to Egypt to purchase camels and hire a few natives who knew how to care for them. Before setting sail, the USS Supply was heavily modified: special large hatches, stables, and camel hoists were installed. Unfortunately, upon arrival in Egypt, it was learned that camels were taller than expected, so the stables had to be expanded for more “hump space”, requiring holes to be cut into the main deck.
Correctly believing that there was not a suitable "camel saddle" in all of America, Captain Porter bought a few saddles, too. It took two trips, but eventually 70 camels were delivered to Texas and the US Army. According to Captain Porter, the camels not only made the sea voyage better than horses, but were healthier on departing the ship than when they had boarded.
The Army loved the camels. One officer said the camels were faster, hardier, and better at carrying weight. In his opinion, one camel was worth four mules. In addition, since the camels reproduced readily, as the herd expanded to a hundred head, there was even a proposal to start a version of the Pony Express (the Camel Express?) to link New Mexico and California …and then the Civil War started. The United States Army Camel Corps was quickly disbanded, in large part because no one wanted to be associated with an idea that was in any way connected with the newly elected President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
Most of the camels were sold, but a few were turned loose. The last confirmed sighting of a camel in the Southwest was in 1891. (Personally, I think they are still out there, being ridden by Bigfoot.)
The William D. Porter. Okay...in this case, the ship is not that weird; in fact, it was a fairly standard Fletcher class destroyer, one of 175 built during the second world war. A destroyer, by definition, is an escort ship meant to protect larger and more important capital ships. The Wille D, as she was called, may have been the unluckiest ship in the war.
The Navy reuses the names of ships that perform well in battle. There has been a USS Enterprise on the roster of ships for more than a century (and according to some people, this will continue until we count the years with star dates). It is unlikely that there will ever be another ship named after the somewhat obscure Civil War officer, Commodore William David Porter. (And by a coincidence, he was the brother to Captain Porter of the USS Supply.)
It saddens me to report that the USS William D. Porter DD579 was built in Orange, Texas and launched in September 1942. After a shakedown cruise to Bermuda, she reported to Norfolk, Virginia as part of three destroyers accompanying the USS Iowa on her voyage to Tehran. The Iowa was to be well protected since she was carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and a large portion of the highest ranking military officers of the war to a joint meeting with Winston Churchill and Stalin.
For the crew of the Porter, the trip started badly. As the ship backed away from the dock, her anchor was dragged down the side of a sister destroyer, removing life boats, a ship’s boat, stanchions and anything else in the way. To be fair, Captain Walker had a green crew, who were not yet used to the new ship, however...
The next day, however, the Porter accidentally lost a depth charge. Whether it was launched or washed off the deck of the ship is not known, but when the depth charge detonated, the entire task force—including the Iowa—began to take evasive maneuvers to escape the Nazi submarine each ship’s captain imagined was attacking. Somehow, during these maneuvers, a large wave washed over the Porter, damaging one of the boilers and washing overboard a sailor who was not recovered.
Once the panic was over, and perhaps to demonstrate to the president that the convoy could protect itself, the Iowa launched balloon targets that were shot down by all four ships. Somehow, during this action, the crew of Porter, while practicing simulated torpedo launches, actually launched a live torpedo. The aiming point for the exercise? The Iowa, of course!
With an armed torpedo running straight and true for the ship carrying the president of the United States, the Porter tried to send a warning to the Iowa, but since they were maintaining radio silence to prevent the enemy form learning their exact location, they used a signal lamp and told the Iowa that they had launched a torpedo, but in the excitement, they told the Iowa that the torpedo was traveling away from the battleship. Realizing their mistake, they signaled again, this time accidentally telling the Iowa that the Porter was backing up at full speed.
The captain of the Iowa probably thought this was good news, probably wanting the smaller ship as far away as possible.
Abandoning the idea of radio silence, the Porter finally radioed the battleship the warning that they were about to be hit by a live torpedo. As the Iowa began a sharp turn, FDR learned of the approaching threat and had his wheelchair moved to the ship’s railing so he could watch the torpedo’s approach. According to one account, the president’s Secret Service agents actually drew their revolvers in an effort to shoot the torpedo, which luckily missed the battleship.
The Iowa trained her guns on the American destroyer while it was debated whether or not the Willie D was actually fighting for the Axis powers. Not surprisingly, the ship was ordered to leave the task force and return to Bermuda, where for the first time in US naval history, an entire crew of a ship was arrested. Only the man who had inadvertently fired the torpedo was found guilty; FDR later intervened in his behalf, saving the poor man from serving fourteen years at hard labor.
The Willie D was sent to the Pacific where, before being sunk by a kamikaze plane, she distinguished herself by firing a live round at a base commander’s house and blowing up his front yard, by shooting down three American planes, and during one battle, by shooting the superstructure of the USS Luce. No wonder then that wherever she went, she was greeted by radio calls, “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!”
Note. The has a nice article about the USS Recruit and several other ships—real and proposed—that are worth reading about.