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W. T. James (S.P. 429)


The Navy retained the name of this vessel that she carried at the time of her acquisition, in shortened form.

(S.P. 429: tonnage 267 (gross); length 150'; beam 22'; draft 8'5" (mean); speed 13 knots; complement 38; armament 1 3-inch, 2 .30-caliber machine guns)

W. T. James, a "Menhaden fisherman" built in 1912 at Wilmington, Del., by Harlan and Hollingsworth, was acquired by the Navy in the spring of 1917 from the Taft Fish Co., of Tappahannock, Va.; ordered delivered on 1 April; and accepted on 28 May for service as a minesweeper. Navy General Order No. 314 shortened the ship's name to James on 28 July, and the erstwhile fishing craft was commissioned in the Fifth Naval District on 10 August 1917, Ens. E. R. Burr, USNRF, in command.

Given the identification number S.P. 429, James was fitted out for "distant service" at the Norfolk Navy Yard and, near the end of August 1917, departed the Tidewater area, bound for Boston. There, with other sister ships which had made the passage from Hampton Roads, James prepared for the voyage to European waters. Accordingly, after shifting from Boston to Provincetown, Mass., on 25 August, James got underway for the Azores two days later, on the first leg of the Atlantic crossing.

Reaching Ponta Delgada, Azores, on 6 September 1917, James and her sister ships remained for five days, awaiting the tardy arrival of coal and water. On 11 September, the group departed the Azores on the last leg of the passage.

Disbanded as a mine squadron almost immediately after arriving at Brest, France, on 18 September 1917, the vessels of the group soon were busy escorting convoys into and out of port. Between these missions, they spent long weeks awaiting delivery of winches and French minesweeping gear. In November, the mine squadron was reconstituted under the command of Capt. Thomas P. Magruder. James, among the second group to be fitted out for minesweeping service, soon shifted to Lorient, France, where she would base for the remainder of the war.

From Lorient, James not only conducted minesweeping operations but covered coastal convoys, cleared important passages near Belle Isle, undertook night antisubmarine patrols using her crude listening gear, and assisted vessels in distress in her area. In July 1918, James and two sister ships swept a minefield south of Belle Isle and, despite the heavy weather in which the ships were forced to operate, accomplished their mission in such exemplary fashion that the three mine vessels received commendations from Vice Admiral Aubry, the French Prefet Maritime. During this operation, James cut out four mines in the space of 17 minutes.

James remained in European waters through the winter of 1918-1919. She departed Brest on 27 April 1919, bound for the United States, but soon began encountering "boisterous weather" with increasing north westerly winds and a choppy sea. At 2:22 p.m., the escort commander, in Marietta (Gunboat No. 15), ordered the group to return to Brest.

When it became evident that James was taking on more water than usual, she was directed to proceed to Brest without delay. Unfortunately, the "Menhaden fisherman" worked so much that her seams opened, allowing water to flood the engine rooms and affect the boiler fires, an occurrence that severely limited the ship's capacity to deal with the rising flood waters.

James, her predicament grave, signalled the nearby MacDonough (Torpedo Boat Destroyer No. 9) and converted yacht Rambler (S.P. 211) for aid. The former closed swiftly and attempted, unsuccessfully, to take the foundering minecraft in tow. The tug Penobscot (S.P. 982) managed to get a towline across to James the following morning and towed the ship for about 20 minutes before the line parted.

By that point, the heavy seas were nearly swamping the ship. Marietta closed as close as was practicable in the gale and put over a line. Rigging up a ferry arrangement with a life raft from James, the trawler's entire crew reached safety on board the gunboat by shortly after 8:00 a.m. on 28 April. Two hours later, James sank, six miles off Armen Light.

Robert J,. Cressman

9 August 2021

Published: Mon Aug 09 16:35:22 EDT 2021