During the First World War, the U.S. Navy's Transport Force (also called the Cruiser and Transport Force) employed forty-five commissioned ships to transport American service personnel across the Atlantic to the European combat zone. One of these was an older ex-commercial steamer that had been in Navy hands since the early 1900s. Another had been specifically built as a U.S. Navy transport. The rest were former merchant passenger liners, sixteen of them German vessels that had been laid up in U.S. ports since the great conflict began in 1914.
Three of the wartime Navy transports were lost during 1918, two (President Lincoln and Covington) in mid-year due to enemy action and one by accident at year's end. Another left U.S. Navy service shortly before the fighting ended. In the months following the 11 November 1918 Armistice, eighty more former merchant-type ships joined the Navy's commissioned transport force to help expedite the homecoming of the more than two million Americans who had served in Europe. Nine of the eighty were passenger liners laid up in Germany during the conflict. Seventy-one came from other sources, among them over twenty passenger liner types (two of them hospital ships), one coastal passenger steamer, four former minelayers and forty-five austerely converted freighters.
In addition to former commercial ships, the Navy pressed fifteen older battleships, eight armored cruisers and two larger protected cruisers into service transporting service personnel home after the Armistice. It also appears probable that additional Navy ships, not formally listed as part of the transportation effort, were also used for the purpose as the opportunity arose.
At least four other former American coastal passenger steamers were employed carrying personnel between the British Isles and France, but apparently did not make trans-Atlantic passenger voyages. The Navy acquired two more, both former Great Lakes passenger vessels, but the fighting ended before they reached the war zone. They therefore saw no active service in European waters.
This large number of U.S. Navy ships can be conveniently broken into several groups, containing between one and twenty-seven vessels. The groups are easily defined by bow shape, number of smokestacks and number of masts. The basic groups are further subdivided by additional recognition features, including variations in deck lines, superstructure size, stern configurations and the arrangement of smokestacks, masts and kingposts. Though mainly intended as a tool for ship picture identification, these groupings are also useful for analysis and understanding of the Navy's World War I achievements.
A related category, featuring small steamers used to convey troops between transports and the shore in French seaports (mainly, and perhaps exclusively, at Brest), has been added to the end of this list, largely to facilitate photographic identity in a subject area that has not previously been studied. Some of these "ferry lighters" were operated by the U.S. Navy, but most were not.
Caution: Not every ship bearing the characteristics shown on these pages was commissioned in the U.S. Navy. There were many World War I era ships, large and small, that were employed by the U.S. Government under commercial charter, or which operated under the flags of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and other nations. Many of these closely resemble ships that did serve in the U.S. Navy, and a large proportion wore pattern camouflage schemes very much like those carried by the Navy's ships. Approach any ship identification task with this firmly in mind!
A Note on Sources: The basic listing of 125 commissioned U.S. Navy trans-Atlantic transports is taken from the 1919 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, Appendix F. This extremely useful source provides statistics on the individual ships, the number of pre- and post-Armistice voyages made by each vessel, and the number of passengers transported. Tonnage (gross tons in the great majority of cases. Displacement tons for a few ships) and dimensions come from several sources. Primarily, dimensions and some tonnage data were taken from the 1918-1919 and 1919-1920 editions of Lloyds Register of Shipping. Tonnage data was also obtained from individual ship data cards. A modest amount of dimension data came from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
This page features a list of World War I era U.S. Navy transport groups, defined by ships' physical characteristics, with links to pages dedicated to each group of ships. Those pages provide further links to the individual ships in each group. Representative photographs are also presented for ship groups and for individual vessels.
|If you want higher resolution reproductions than the digital images presented here, see: "How to Obtain Photographic Reproductions."|
With a few exceptions, passenger liner type transports had superstructures occupying at least one-third of ship length and less elaborate cargo handling provisions than freighters. Superstructures might be long and low, or several decks high, and constitute a significant recognition feature. All but two of these transports had "plumb" bows. Ship sizes varied significantly, from a low end of under 5000 gross tons to more than ten times that figure, and sometimes small ships had much the same basic configuration as considerably larger ones.
For this type of ship, number of smokestacks and masts, plus the bow type, suffice as initial identification elements. Thereafter, examination of smokestack size and spacing, superstructure and deck line features, camouflage patterns (especially in 1918 photos) and other details will help distinguish individual vessels. Always remember the "Caution" note at the end of this page's introductory text!
NOTE: Some of these ships have paired KINGPOSTS
in addition to MASTS.
The ships in this small group were nearly identical to each
other, and rather different in appearance from the Navy's other
World War I transports. They were also similar to several
ships acquired by the Navy in 1898, some of which were still in
service twenty years later.
As always, remember the "Caution" note at the end of this page's introductory text!
The forty-five transports converted from freighters generally had midships superstructures occupying notably less than one-third of ship length and cargo handling arrangements consisting of (at the lower end of the complexity scale) a couple of masts serving several booms. However, most had several masts and kingposts. In all cases, these ships had a single smokestack and plumb bows, but stern configurations varied. Counter sterns were most common, but several relatively new vessels had cruiser sterns.
When converted to transports (primarily in early 1919), these ships usually had portholes installed in their hull sides, and received several temporary deck houses before and abaft their original midships superstructures. Some vessels, apparently previously used as animal transports, apparently had the same or similar deckhouses while so-employed, but probably did not have the hull portholes until modified to carry personnel.
These ships' arrangement
of masts, kingposts and smokestacks is an important identification
element. Also crucial are weather deck profiles (flush-deck or
raised forecastle configuration, location and size of deck-edge
bulwarks) and the form of the midship's superstructure. Several
of these ex-freighters had previously served as Navy cargo ships,
and most had prior wartime employment under civilian operation.
It will be noted that some of our photographs show them prior
to, or after, their Navy service. In addition, other freighters,
with the same basic recognition features, either never were U.S.
Naval vessels or only served as Navy cargo ships.
As always remember the "Caution" note at the end of this page's introductory text!
NOTE: All of these ships had FLUSH-DECK HULLS with LOW
BULWARKS forward, amidships and aft. They have CRUISER STERNS
and oval CUTOUTS in their midships' superstructure sides. MAST
and KINGPOST arrangement identifies ships constructed by different
NOTE: All of these ships had FLUSH-DECK HULLS with LOW
BULWARKS at the bow. They have COUNTER STERNS and TALL SMOKESTACKS. MAST and KINGPOST arrangement helps to identify ships constructed at different times by different builders:
NOTE: All of these ships had prominent RAISED FORECASTLES,
LOW BULWARKS amidships and COUNTER STERNS. MAST and KINGPOST arrangement was identical in these five ships (MAST forward, PAIRED KINGPOSTS at each end of the superstructure, and a MAST aft):
NOTE: These ships were of varying appearance, but all
differed significantly from the types presented immediately above:
Page made 8 March 2007
New section added 25 February 2009