Daily Event for February 26, 2015

In the fog of the terrible carnage of the Great War the loss of one little tug off the coast of the United States is not an event much remembered today, nevertheless it is a story worth telling. The tug was built by John H. Dialogue & Sons in Camden, New Jersey in 1891, she was 120' long and only 273 tons. She could make 10 knots and had a range of just over 2,850 miles. Originally named Edgar F. Luckenbach for the Luckenbach Steamship Company her name was later changed to Luckenbach No. 2. The need for small craft was great and so on Oct. 12, 1917 she was acquired by the U.S. Navy. She was inspected and cleared for patrol duty, foreign service. The engines and boilers were judged to be in good condition and the hull, plating and bulkheads in fair condition. However the tug was now 27 years old.

She was commissioned USS Cherokee SP-458 on Dec. 5, 1917 at New York and the next day sailed for the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for repairs and modifications. On Jan. 31, 1918 repairs now complete, she sailed for New London, Connecticut. From there she moved to Newport, Rhode Island arriving on Feb. 22, 1918. Cherokee departed Newport on Feb. 24 heading for the Washington Naval Shipyard to receive guns, ammunition and stores, she was to be sent to a "southern port" however she would never make it.

On February 26, 1918 she ran headlong into a powerful gale off the coast of Delaware. Distress signals were sent and received at the Naval Reserve Station in Cape May, New Jersey, but rescue was not forthcoming. One report suggests that the steering gear broke and the ship became unmanageable. At least two rafts were launched and the ship was abandoned, being no match for the 50 mile per hour winds and high seas, the ship soon succumbed and sank beneath the waves.

Sources indicate that there were thirty-eight men in the ship at the time of her loss, but only twelve were pulled alive from the water by the British ship SS British Admiral later that day. Almost all were unconscious and two of them died of exposure. A second raft with four men was sighted, but as the raft was brought alongside the ship two of them were washed overboard, and the other two apparently died before they could be brought aboard. Several bodies could also be seen and the master of the British ship hailed another ship to recover them. The ten survivors and the bodies of eight others were landed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on the 27th.

The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, immediately called for an investigation into the loss of Cherokee. Family members of the dead and the survivors also began to speak out. The wife and father of the Commanding Officer both made allegations that the Cherokee was unfit for service, so they had been told by Lt. (j.g.) Newell. He had told them "the wasn't fit to go up and down the Delaware river." The wife of Oiler Arthur A. Martin, one of the survivors, produced a letter written the previous day stating that he (Martin) felt the ship was not seaworthy. He also reminded her of his prediction that the Cherokee would go to the bottom.

In early March the inquire was conviened at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard under Commodore Thomas D. Griffin (ret.). The results were released to the public on May 7th. The findings seem rather contradictory, although all I have to go on is a summary of the report.

The court found that "She was a small vessel, twenty-seven years old, in a poor state of repairs, overloaded and in bad trim." The court must have known that she had in fact been inspected by the Navy and found to be fit for foreign service, but the court stated in the loss report that she was in poor repair. The court further stated that she was overloaded, and while I have no information as to what was onboard the tug at the time she sailed from Newport, one should note that her guns had not yet been fitted and no ammunition had been loaded. If she was indeed overloaded without guns, ammunition and stores, the addition of these items would make her, in my opinion, severely overloaded.

The court went on to blame the commanding officer, then to absolve him of responsibility as well.

"Considering the condition of the vessel the commanding officer failed to take proper precautions for her safety when he received notice of an approaching storm. In view of the evidence the court is of the opinion that the death of any individual due to the foundering of the Cherokee was occasioned by an act of duty in which he was engaged when it occurred and was not the result of his own misconduct."

Further to this the court found that "a measure of responsibility rests upon the commanding officer of the Cherokee" but that "this responsibility appears to be greatly mitigated in view of his youth, lack of familiarity with navy methods and an undoubted desire to obey his instructions as soon as possible."

It is true, the captain is responsible for his ship and men, every navy captain knows this and also knows that he will undoubtedly be blamed for anything that befalls his ship or men. However the court in one breath says he is responsible and in the next says he committed no misconduct. He was perhaps inexperienced, but he had made complaints about his command, almost since he went aboard. His father, Dr. Edward D. Newell told the press that his son had made several appeals to various officials as to the condition of this vessel to no avail. He further stated that his son had shown him a document, addressed to Secretary Daniels office, outlining several reasons that the Cherokee was unseaworthy. The steering gear prominently mentioned in the document. I do not know if this document was ever mailed to the Secretary's office or not.

Dr. Newell is also quoted to have said "Knowing all this, and with the full appreciation of the responsibility resting in him for the lives of those of whom he was in command, there can be no question of his obeying an order to put to sea. It would seem the responsibility lies not with those who gave this order, but rather from those who from inefficiency or something much worse, made it possible under the existing conditions, and there is going to be many an ache in the hearts who have boys still in the service until the government has convinced them that another such calamity is not to be repeated."

The court surmised as follows; "from the date of her acceptance by the Government, indicates that she was not suitable for general service at sea because of her size, age and condition. The failure to make all the major repairs seems justified by the press of more important work at the Navy Yard and the urgent need of the services of the boat, and for these reasons no blame is attached to anyone for such failure."

That sums it up, the ship was in good order except that she was not fit for sea duty. Repairs were made, but not all the repairs needed were not made. Best of all, nobody (especially nobody in the navy command) is responsible for the disaster. Perhaps the most telling statement above may be that "more important work" needed to be done, and of course this "seemed justified" to the court. The safety of the men asked, or rather ordered, to serve in her appears to be secondary, or indeed less important. Perhaps there would not have been such an "urgent need" for such vessels if the ones in hand had been properly fitted out and repaired. I would note that on the same day (Feb. 26, 1918) another navy tug USS Mariner SP-1136 sank in the same storm, all her crew were fortunately rescued.

The court tried to blame the commanding officer (as usual), but then also exonerated him of responsibility, I would point out that it was his duty to take that ship to sea because he had been ordered to do such. To refuse an order would mean immediate relief of command and possibly a court-martial for insubordination. Following this order cost him his life along with the lives of twenty-seven other men. I feel sure that the findings of the court provided no comfort to the families of those lost, no one would be held responsible for the loss of their loved ones. The courts findings also may have had an effect on men still serving in small craft as well. To learn that some things are "more important" than sending men to sea in a vessel capable of surviving. Although it is not likely that many men serving in the navy at that time ever read the report.
© 2015 Michael W. Pocock
MaritimeQuest.com




Roll of Honor
In memory of those who lost their lives in
USS Cherokee SP-458
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Name
Rate
Anderson, Harry L.
Oiler
Biddle, Herbert M.
Quartermaster 3rd Class (USNRF)
Eden, Franklin
Seaman (NNV)
Elbers, Rudolph F.
Quartermaster 1st Class (USNRF)
Gehrig, Edmond
Ensign (USNRF)
Gibbs, Robert
Electrician 3rd Class [R]
Glennon, John
Chief Boatswain's Mate
Green, Benjamin
Ship's Cook 2nd Class (USNRF)
Harding, John W.
Yeoman 2nd Class
Kenealy, Thomas E.
Seaman 2nd Class
Kryzewski, Walter
Seaman (USNRF)
McCartney, Clarence H.
Machinist's Mate 2nd Class (NNV)
McGoldrick, Joseph F.
Boatswain (USNRF)
McSpirit, Joseph G.
Machinist (USNRF)
Newell, Edward D.
Lieutenant (j.g.) (USNRF)
Commanding Officer
Nolan, Sylvester B.
Fireman 3rd Class
O'Reilly, George W.
Landsman (USNRF)
Post, Frederick E.
Machinist's Mate 2nd Class (USNRF)
*
Rowley, Patrick
Mess Attendant 1st Class (USNRF)
**
Sanford, Mark J.
Ship's Cook 2nd Class (USNRF)
Smith, Joseph W.
Mess Attendant 3rd Class (USNRF)
Sova, James
Seaman 2nd Class
Staples, Charles T.
Seaman 2nd Class (USNRF)
Stevenson, John
Ensign (USNRF)
Vance, John V.
Fireman 1st Class
Walczak, Jr., Joseph
Fireman 2nd Class
Wargo, Frank
Fireman 2nd Class
Webster, Clayton A.
Electrician 1st Class
*
Irish national.
**
Russian national.

1.
Apr. 5, 2016

My great uncle was Patrick Rowley, Mess Attendant, on the USS Cherokee. I am interested in learning about the sinking. He had come to America from Ireland in 1915. The first picture below is a portrait of him when he lived in New York. The second was given to me by the family. I believe that this was sent to them in Ireland after he was lost on the Cherokee.

William Rowley
Melville, NY



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