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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

32nd Division


of the



Survivors of a Submarine Attack

Presented the Great War Society

| Background | Quick Facts |
| A First Hand Account |



The liner Tuscania was delivered to its owners, the Anchor Line, at the beginning of 1915 for the joint service with Cunard from Glasgow to New York via Liverpool. Its maiden voyage on 6 February of that year was on this route which it carried on for the rest of its career. In September 1915, it helped rescue passengers for the Greek Line's ship Athini which had caught fire in the Atlantic.

She first undertook trooping duties in September 1916, carrying Canadian troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool. In August of the following year it brought 1,236 men of the 16th US Engineer Regiment from New York to Liverpool and two more successful voyages followed.

The ship left Hoboken, New Jersey, on her final voyage on 24 January 1918 carrying 2,013 American troops and a crew of 384. She joined Convoy HX-20 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and proceeded to cross the Atlantic bound for Le Harve. On 5 February the convoy was sighted seven miles north of the Rathilin Island lighthouse by the German Submarine UB-77 under the command of Lt. Cdr. Wilhelm Meyer. At 5:40pm he fired two torpedoes at the Tuscania, the first of which missed, the second scoring a direct hit. By 7:00pm all the ship's lifeboats had been launched, but approximately 1,350 men remained on board. The convoy's escorting destroyers assisted in removing these, but were hampered by the continuing presence of the UB-77 in the area. The Tuscania finally sank at 10:00pm, over four hours after being struck; 230 people were lost. {One estimate indicated 201 of these were American troops, the remainder crew members.]

The Tuscania was the first ship carrying American troops to be sunk, and public opinion in the USA regarded its loss as an outrage. In 1920 the American Red Cross erected a monument on the Isle of Islay, where many of the victims had been buried before their transfer that year to the American War Cemetery at Brookwood [England] or to their homeland.


Quick Facts

     Data on Tuscania:

         Gross Tonnage - 14,348 tons

         Length - 549 ft. Width - 66.5 ft.

         Builder - A. Stephen & Sons, Glascow

         Launch Date - 3 September 1914

         Passenger Capacity - 271 1st cl.; 246 2nd cl.; 1,900 3rd cl.

         Captain: Peter McLean, OBE

         Sunk: 5 February 1918 by: UB-77, Lt. Cdr. Wilhelm Meyer, Commander

     AEF Units Aboard:   

         20th Engineers, Companies D,E,F. [Forestry Battl.]

         107th Engineer Train

         107th Military Police

         107th Supply Train

         100th, 158th, 263rd Aero Squadrons

         Replacement detachments for 32nd Division

         Fifty-one casual [replacement] officers


A First Hand Account


From the Saturday Evening Post of March 9, 1918
By Irvin S. Cobb

Because the Tuscania rode high out of the water and wallowed as she rode, because, during all those days of our crossing she hugged up close to our ship, splashing through the foam of our wake as though craving the comfort of our company, we called her things no self-respecting ship should have to bear. But when the other night we stood on the afterdeck of our ship, we running away as fast as our kicking screw would take us, and saw her going down, taking American soldier boys to death with her in alien waters, we drank toasts standing up to the poor old Tuscania.

A Ship of the Tuscania Class

I was one of those who were in at the death of the Tuscania. Her sinking was the climax of the most memorable voyage I ever expect to take. Five days have elapsed since she was torpedoed, and even though these words are being cabled across from London to the home side of the ocean, at least three weeks more must elapse before they can see printer's ink. So to some readers of The Saturday Evening Post this may seem like an old story; but the memory of what happened that night off the Irish coast is going to abide with me as long as I live. It was one of those big moments in a man's life that stick in a man's brain as long as he has a brain to think with.

The Sober Departure

Transatlantic journeys these days aren't what they used to be before American went into the war. Ours began to be different even before our ship pulled out from port. It is forbidden me to tell her name, and anyhow her name doesn't in the least matter, but she was a big ship with a famous skipper, and in peacetimes her sailing would made some small stir... Instead we slipped away almost as if we had done something wrong. There was no waving of hands and handkerchiefs, no good-byes on the gangplanks, no rush to get back on land when the shore bell sounded... Alone and unescorted each one of us went soberly up the side of the ship, and then sundry hours later our journey began, as the ship, like a big gray ghost, slid away from land, as quietly as might be, into the congenial gray fog which instantly swallowed her up and left her in a little gray world of sea mist that was all her own. After this fashion, then, we started.

As for the first legs of the trip, they were much like the first legs of almost any sea trip except that we traveled in a convoy with sundry other ships, with warcraft to guard us on our way. Our ship was quite full of soldiers--officers in the first cabin, and the steerage packed with khakied troopers--ninety percent of whom had never smelled bilge water before they embarked upon their great adventure overseas. There were fewer civilians than one formerly might have found on a ship bound for Europe. In these times only those civilians who have urgent business foreign climes venture to go abroad.

Except for a touch of seriousness about the daily lifeboat drill, and except that regimental discipline went forward, with the troops drilling on the open deck spaces when the weather and the sea permitted, there was at first nothing about this voyage to distinguish it from any other mid-winter voyage. Strangers got acquainted one with another and swapped views on politics, religion, symptoms and Germans; flirtations started and ripened furiously; concerts were organized and took place, providing to be what concerts at sea usually are. Twice a day the regimental band played, and once a day, up on the bridge, the second officer took the sun, squinting into his sextant with the deep absorption with which in happier times a certain type of tourist was wont to stare through an enlarging crevice at a certain type of Parisian photograph. At night, though, we were in a darkened ship, a gilding black shape upon black waters, with heavy shades over all the portholes and thick draperies over all the doors, and only dim lights burning in the passageways and cross halls, so that every odd corner on deck or within was as dark as a coal pocket...

Crossing the Danger Zone

Doughboys Aboard Ship

When I emerged from [a bout of seasickness] it was to learn that we had reached the so-called danger zone. The escort of warcraft for our transport had been augmented By request the civilian passengers were expected to carry their life preservers with them wherever they went; but some of them forgot the injunction. I know I did frequently...

Our Captain no longer came to the saloon for his meals. He lived upon the bridge--ate there and , I think, slept there too--what sleeping he did. Standing there all muffled in his oilskins he looked even more of a squatty and unheroic figure than he had in his naval blue presiding at the head of the table; but by repute we knew him for a man who had gone through one torpedoing with great credit to himself and through numbers of narrow escapes, and we valued him accordingly and put our faith in him. It was faith well placed, as shall presently transpire.

I should not say that there was much fear aboard; at least if there was it did not manifest itself in the manner or the voice or the behavior of a single passenger seen by me; but there was a sort of nagging, persistent sense of uneasiness betraying itself in various small ways. For one thing, all of us made more jokes about submarines, mines and other perils of the deep than was natural. There was something a little force, artificial, about this gaiety--laughs came from the lips, but not from points further south.

We knew by hearsay that the Tuscania was a troopship bearing some of our soldiers over to do their share of the job of again making this world a fit place for hum beings to live in. There was something pathetic in the fashion after which she so persistently and constantly strove to stick as closely under our stern as safety and the big waves would permit. It was as though here skipper placed all reliance in our skipper, looking to him to lead his ship out of peril should peril befall. Therefore, we of our little group watched her from our afterdecks, with her sharp nose forever half of wholly buried in the creaming white smother we kicked up behind us.

It was a crisp bright February day when we neared the coasts of the British Empire. At two o'clock in the afternoon we passed, some hundreds of yards to starboard, a round, dark, bobbing object which some observers thought was a floating mine. Others thought if might be the head and shoulders of a human body held upright in a life ring. Whatever it was, our ship gave it a wide berth, sheering off from the object in a sharp swing. Almost at the same moment upon our other bow, at a distance of not more than one hundred yards from the crooked course we were then pursuing, there appeared out through one of the swells a lifeboat, oarless, abandoned, empty, except for what looked like a woman's cloak lying across the thwarts. Rising and falling to the swing of the sea it drifted down alongside of us so that we could look almost straight down into it. We did not stop to investigate but kept going, zigzagging as we went, and that old copy cat of a Tuscania came zigzagging behind us. A good many persons decided to tie on their life preservers.

U-Boat on Patrol

Winter twilight was drawing on when we sighted land -- Northern Ireland it was. The wind was going down with the sun and the sharp crests of the waves were dulling off, and blunt oily rollers began to splash with greasy sounds against our plates. Far away somewhere we saw the revolving light of a lighthouse winking across the face of the waters like a drunken eye. That little beam coming and going gave me a feeling of security. I was one of a member of the group for a farewell card game.

Perhaps an hour later, as we sat there intently engaged upon the favored indoor American sport of trying to better two pairs, we heard against our side of the ship a queer knocking sound rapidly repeated - a sound that somewhat suggested a boy dragging a stick along a picket fence.

"I suppose that's a torpedo knocking for admission," said one of us, looking up from his card and listening with a cheerful grin on his face.

I think it was not more than five minutes after that when an American officer opened the stateroom door and poked his head in.

"Better come along, you fellows," he said; "but come quietly so as not to give alarm or frighten any of the women. Something has happened. The Tuscania--she's in trouble."

Torpedo Hitting Home

Up we got and hurried aft down the decks each on taking with him his cork jacket and adjusting it over his shoulders as he went. We came to the edge of the promenade deck aft. There were not many persons there, as well as we could tell in the thick darkness through which we felt our way, and not many more came afterward --in all I should say not more than seventy-five. All the rest were in ignorance of what had occurred--a good many were at dinner. Accounts of the disaster which I have read since my arrival in London said that the torpedo from the U-boat thudded into the vitals of the Tuscania, disarranged her engines, and left her in utter darkness for a while until here crew could switch on the auxiliary dynamo. I think this must have been a mistake, for at the moment of our reaching the deck of our ship the Tuscania was lighted up all over. Her illumination seemed especially brilliant, but that, I suppose, was largely because we had become accustomed to seeing our fellow transports as dark hulks at night.

I should say she was not more than a mile from us, almost due aft and a trifle to the left. But in the winter evening the distance increased each passing moment, for we running away from her as fast as our engines could drive us. We could feel our ship throb under our feet as she picked up speed. It made us feel like cowards. Near at hand a ship was in distress, a ship laden with a precious freightage of American soldier boys, and here we're we legging it like a frightened bird, weaving in and out on sharp tacks.

We knew, of course, that we were under orders to get safely away if we could in case one of those sea adders, the submarines should attack our convoy. We knew that guardian destroyers would even now be hurrying to the rescue; and we knew land was not many miles away; but all the same, I think I never felt such an object of shame as I felt that first moment when the realization dawned on me that we were fleeing from a stricken vessel instead of hastening back to give what succor we could.

As I stood there in the darkness, with silent, indistinct shapes all about me, it came upon me with almost the shock of a physical blow that the rows of lights I saw yonder through the murk were all slanting somewhat downward on what would be the bow of the disabled steamer. These oblique lines of light told the story. The Tuscania had been struck forward and was settling by the head.

Suddenly a little subdued "Ah! Ah!" burst like a chorus from us all. A red rocket--a rocket as red as blood--sprang up high into the air above those rows of lights. It hung aloft for a moment, then burst into a score of red balls, which fell, dimming out as they descended. After a bit two more rockets followed in rapid succession... Never again will a red rocket fired at night be to me anything except a reminder of the most pitiable, the most hear-racking thing I have ever seen--that poor appeal for help from the sinking Tuscania flaming against that foreign sky.

There was silence among us as we watched. None of us, I take it, had words within him to express what he felt; so we said nothing at all, but just stared out across the waters until our eyeballs ached in their sockets. So quiet were we that I jumped when right at my elbow a low, steady voice spoke. Turning my head I could make out the speaker was one of the younger American officers.

"If what I heard before we sailed is true," he said, "my brother is in the outfit on that boat yonder. Well, if they get him it will only add a little more interest to the debt I already owe those damned Germans."

Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, then twenty-five. Now instead of many small lights we could make out only a few faint pin pricks of light against the blackness to mark the spot where the foundering vessel must be. Presently we could distinguish but one speck of light.....

U-Boat Victim Going Down

Still silent, we went below. Those of us who had not yet dined went and dined. Very solemnly, like men performing a rite, we ordered wine and we drank to the Tuscania and her British crew and her living cargo of American soldiers.

Next morning, after a night during which things happened about us that may not be described here and now, we came out of our peril and into safety at an English port, and there it was that we heard what made us ask God to bless that valorous, vigilant little pot-bellied skipper of ours. May he live forever! We were told that the torpedo which pierced the Tuscania was meant for us, that the U-boat rising unseen in the twilight fired it at us, and that our captain, up on the bridge saw it coming when it was yet some way off, and swinging the ship hard over to one side, dodged the flittering devil-thing by a margin that can be measured literally in inches. The call was a close one. The torpedo it was said, actually grazed the plates of our vessel--it was that we heard as we sat at cards--and passing aft struck the bow of the Tuscania as she swung along not two hundred yards behind us. We heard, too, that twice within the next hour torpedoes were fired at us, and again a fourth one early in the hours of the morning. Each time chance of poor aim or sharp seamanship or a combination of all three saved us.....

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Sources and thanks: The material in the introduction is from the Website of the Cunard Lines Archives, University of Liverpool. Regulor contributor Mary Shaefer found the article from the Saturday Evening Post. Ray Mentzer helped with the photos. MH

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