As we observe the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, over the next months we’ll share a few stories about the Rhode Island connection to “the war to end all wars”. When a Rhode Islander thinks of the US Navy in World War I, Newport, RI, immediately comes to mind. It was home to squadrons of destroyers, the Navy Torpedo Station (which is now the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport), and the Naval War College (which remains there to this day). Thousands of Navy enlisted personnel were trained at Coddington Cove. But did you know that the Navy also maintained a presence on Block Island off the Rhode Island coast? Or that one of the Navy’s largest ships, the battleship USS Texas, made a surprise visit to the island in the fall of 1917?
America officially entered the war on April 6, 1917. Just two and a half months later, on July 20, the Navy arrived on Block Island and established a base for coastal patrol boats. Tasked with the job of searching out marauding German U-boats, they took over the Narragansett Inn at New Harbor as their headquarters. The hotel had been built just a few years earlier.
Over the years, not a great deal has been written about the Block Island base. Only a few photographs of the Navy’s activities are known to exist. Most were taken by islanders’ and wound up in family albums. Navy personnel took some photos and a few were found in the personal album of the base’s second commander, Lt. Merriam. A wonderful chronicle of life on the island in the early years of the 20th century can be found in Block Island historian Robert Downie’s two-volume collection titled “The Block Island History of Photography”. The Navy’s story is in volume 2. There’s a set of both books in the East Greenwich Library reference room along with several of Downie’s other photo books. They are well worth a look some time.
Led by a handful of officers, some 350 enlisted served on the island at the peak of the Navy’s presence. Most of the men lived in a tent city behind the Narragansett Inn, while the officers enjoyed the amenities of the hotel. Quarters were also rented from islanders in private homes and boarding houses. A dispensary was set up at the Sullivan House on Indian Point and staffed by Red Cross nurses who became a familiar sight in their uniforms as they traveled around the island.
The Hog Pen Basin (across from the Narragansett Inn) served as homeport for a fleet of 60-foot patrol boats. The Navy had scrambled to put together enough small, fast coastal vessels for anti-submarine patrols and large private yachts proved a ready resource. Some had been volunteered by their owners who went along with them into naval service. The island’s steamship pier was also taken over by the Navy. Submarines and other craft often called at the base. Even aircraft from the Navy’s base on Cape Cod would touch down on occasion.
Larger, 104-foot subchaser patrol boats were also a familiar sight. After the war, some of the speedy subchasers would wind up as rumrunners during prohibition in the United States. One became the Block Island ferryboat Elizabeth Ann. Operated by the newly-formed Interstate Navigation Company, she carried passengers to the island until after World War II. Her small size and narrow 14-foot beam made for an occasional rocky ride during bad weather, but she was beloved by both islanders and visitors.
At any one time, no more than 10 Navy craft were stationed at Hog Basin and Payne’s Dock. They daily patrolled the waters from Long Island across Rhode Island Sound and out beyond Block Island, hunting for U-boats that might try to enter Narragansett Bay or lurk outside its entrance just beyond the minefield that had been laid (in a previous feature article, we shared the story of how the U-53 that boldly visited the Navy Base in 1916 when America was still a neutral nation). In a visit that lasted only a few hours, her commander, Lt. Hans Rose, managed to gather intelligence on ship traffic from the daily newspapers. He used the information to sink five ships off the coast of Massachusetts the next day. The Navy obviously didn’t want a repeat of that incident.
The two summers that the Navy men and nurses spent on the island, of course, were favored duty. The winter of 1917 was another story. All in all, however, it wasn’t a bad place to spend the war. Downie’s book shows enlisted men enjoying various free time activities (the Knights of Columbus had set up a recreation center, one of thousands opened in the US and overseas during the war by the fraternal order). Numerous sports activities also provided an outlet for youthful energy, if there was any left over after regular drills and sea duty. The Navy also set up a recreation building at Payne’s Dock (the structure still exists).
The first commander of the base was Lt. Harold S. Vanderbilt, son of the railroad magnate William Vanderbilt. He served only until November of 1917. He was succeeded by Lt. H.M. Merriman who commanded the base through the end of the World War I. Vanderbilt brought along his personal yacht. It was commissioned by the Navy as the SP 56 (and returned to Vanderbilt after the war). Other famous names of the time who contributed their pleasure craft as patrol boats were Rhode Island naval architect L. Francis Herreshoff (whose boatyard built also small patrol craft for the Navy) and newspaper publisher Ralph Pulitzer. One photo shows the SP 56 apparently run up on the shore and efforts underway to free it. An officer with his back to the camera could well be Vanderbilt, mulling over what to do. An accomplished yachtsman, Vanderbilt would go on to commission several successful defenders of the America’s Cup yachting trophy in the 1930s.
The little SP 56 was not the only naval vessel to come into unexpected contact with the Block Island shoreline. The battleship Texas made a sudden and unexpected call on the island after leaving the New York Navy Yard on her way to join the British fleet in England. During the mid-watch in clear weather on September 27, 1917, as the ship’s navigator tried to avoid the minefield at the opening to Long Island Sound, he became confused about shore lights. He turned the ship in the wrong direction and the 580-foot long, 27-thousand ton Texas ran firmly aground on Crescent Beach just below the famous Searles Mansion (the landmark was destroyed in a 1963 fire, but its foundations still can be seen). Needless to say, Captain Victor Blue was not a happy man that morning. His ship was stuck from the bow back beyond amidships, more than 200 feet. The ship drew 28 feet of water and obviously didn’t find it on the shore of Block Island.
We’ve written other feature articles focusing on Block Island!
- Rhode Island Enters World War II: The Aftermath of Pearl Harbor and Block Island’s Defiant Response
- The Aircraft Carriers of Block Island
Initial efforts to free the battleship were unsuccessful. Five thousand tons of coal, munitions, anchor chain and just about everything moveable in the forward part of the ship were painstakingly removed by the crew. Numerous small craft milled about to help. Even the USS New York, sister ship of the Texas, showed up to lend moral support. The New York’s crew shouted, “Come on Texas!” and the rallying cry later became the ship’s motto. Finally, on the morning of October 1, the Texas, with the help of tugs, was able to winch herself off the shore. She returned to New York for extensive repairs to her damaged hull. Captain Blue was never court-marshaled for the incident and retained his command (not always the case under such circumstances). His navigator was held solely responsible for the incident. Oddly, there are no official Navy photographs of the ship aground. The only picture is a copyrighted photo in Downie’s book, for which this writer could not obtain permission to reproduce. However, an official Navy photo of the dry-docked Texas showing the extent of the damage to her hull was located in the National Archives. Following repairs, the Texas went on to a distinguished career in both World Wars and is now a museum ship in its namesake state. The excitement soon died down and life returned to normal on Block Island. Residents and the Navy huddled down for a stormy winter.
One other major event highlighted by Block Island historian Robert Downie is the parade of July 4, 1918. In full dress uniforms with the officers carrying their swords, the Navy contingent along with the Red Cross nurses marched about a mile from the their headquarters in New Harbor down to the Ocean View Hotel in Old Harbor. The hotel had been decked out in flags and banners for the event. The Navy band played a concert in front of the hotel. The festivities attracted most of the island’s residents and, for certain, holiday visitors.
The parade would be the last public event marking the military’s presence on the island during World War I. The war, of course, ended the following November 11. The Navy lost no time in shutting down. Activities ceased in December and the base was abandoned on January 30, 1919. A few traces remain. The concrete mount for a one-inch gun is still visible down by the water’s edge in front of the Ocean View Hotel. The Knights of Columbus hall is still there as is the restaurant in the marina at Payne’s Dock on the Great Salt Pond. During the War, 63 Block Islanders (out of a population of 1000) served their country. Three did not return: Lawrence F. Conley, Arnold R. Milliken, and Milton M. Mitchell. Their names and those of the other sixty who served appear on a stone War Memorial across the street from the Block Island Historical Society.
Join the Varnum Continentals for $50!
At only $50 per person annually, membership keeps you in the Varnum loop and supports our efforts to preserve U.S. history and educate the public. Members get a monthly newsletter and can also attend our monthly dinner programs that feature authoritative and engaging speakers on historic and military topics. CLICK HERE TO JOIN NOW!