REVIEWED: The Great Rescue


The Great Rescue by Peter Hernon (War History, 2017).

This book ably tells of an important but today little-known facet of America’s involvement in the First World War. When the massive struggle broke out, a number of civilian German ships found themselves stranded in ports around the then-neutral United States. This included the nearly-new luxury ocean liner SS Vaterland. It was the largest and most luxurious liner in the world, and it sat useless in a New Jersey harbor opposite New York City for years–until America joined the Allied cause.

By the time the US declared war in 1917, the various European powers had been bleeding each other dry for over 3 years in the most savage fighting the world had ever seen. Russia collapsed soon after, freeing extra soldiers for Germany to throw against the western Allies (mainly France and Great Britain). Building up the then-small US army, shipping the fresh (if only half-trained) troops across the Atlantic and getting them into the fight before the Germans could finish off its last major enemies all presented multiple challenges to US leaders.

The Vaterland, renamed the Leviathan and refitted into the biggest troop transport ever seen, was pressed into service by the US Navy (as were many other large ships). Soon it was carrying never-before-seen numbers of new soldiers, army nurses and important officials across the seas.

One of the key reasons America finally entered the war was the brutally effective attacks of German submarines on ships (including neutral ones) carrying needed food and other goods to the European Allies. Now that it was back out on the ocean and ferrying thousands of soldiers and tons of equipment to battle the Germans, Leviathan faced torpedo attack as well as the normal Atlantic dangers such as intense storms and (in season) icebergs like the one that sank the previous record-holder for largest passenger ship (the more famous Titanic, lost a couple years before the war). And finally, Leviathon‘s crew and passengers confronted the deadliest danger of them all: The flu pandemic of 1918-19 that killed even more people than the war itself.

A very fast ship for its time, Leviathan used its speed to good advantage and (unlike so many other ships) was never successfully attacked. But that didn’t mean they were never threatened, or that the several Navy officers who captained her never had close escapes. The opposite was true, as Hernon recounts most thoroughly.

While focused on the ship’s vital exploits, the author also puts its role in proper prospective regarding the wider war effort. He touches frequently and well on the struggle to build up the America fighting forces. He tells of General Pershing and his often testy relationship with the French and British leaders (not to mention having to deal with skilled if difficult subordinates like Douglas MacArthur).

‘Black Jack’ Pershing was only one of many prominent figures who were wartime passengers aboard the great ship. Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt, US Congressman-turned-army-officer (and eventually wounded war hero) Royal Johnson, and star newspaper reporter Irvin Cobb were just a few of the better-known among the thousands who relied on the Leviathan for safe and speedy crossings of the dangerous ocean.

And Hernon doesn’t neglect the tens of thousands of ‘regular’ people the ship carried. He tells in detail about such figures as Freddie Stowers, a young soldier whose extraordinary heroism in battle was too long ignored (because he was black) and army nurse Elizabeth Weaver, who saw modern warfare’s monstrous toll and was herself finally wounded in action. Inevitably, people then of little note who later became well-known were also involved–including a young Leviathan crew-member by the name of Humphrey Bogart. A set of interesting vintage photos are also present here.

Human stories, large and small, dramatic tales of events major and personal alike fill this book. I do think the volume’s title may be just a tad over-wrought–for this one ship was a big part of a giant effort, but still only one part.

But it is a story too often neglected in books about the war. Carrying the thousands (ultimately 1.8 million) American soldiers to the battleground and later bringing the wounded, some of the dead and later still the victorious troops home—all these things were crucial events. If this one great ship and its crew’s story helps to remind us of the efforts of many such vessels and their crews, then such a tiny objection fades away.

Hernon is a new author to me–though he has had several best-sellers previously. He’s done a fine job here, and I heartily recommend this book about aspects of a war that is experiencing a rise of interest (as we’re in the middle of the 100th anniversary of its terrible carnage).



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