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Agamemnon (Id. No. 3004)

1917-1919 

Son of Atreus and brother of Menelaus, Agamemnon led Greek forces arrayed against Troy in the Trojan War, described in Homer's epic poem, The Iliad. Some scholars believe that he was "a historical figure," a ruler of the Mycenaean or Achaean states of the Greek mainland.

(Id. No. 3004: dp. 25,530; 706'3"; b. 72'3"; dph. 40' 2 1/4"; dr. 29'10"; s. 23.5 k.; cpl. 962; 3,516; a. 4 6", 2 1-pdrs., 2 Colt Lewis .30-cal. mg., 10 dc.)

Kaiser Wilhelm II, a steel-hulled, twin-screw express passenger steamship, was built for the North German Lloyd Line by Vulkan Aktiengesellschaft at Stettin.

Kaiser Wilhelm II made her first Atlantic crossing in 1903 and, for a decade, operated with speed and efficiency between Bremen and New York. She was at sea, en route to the United States, when World War I began on 3 August 1914. She reached New York on the 6th, arriving off the Ambrose Lightship with only her running lights showing and dispensing with the usual whistle signals. To evade capture by three British cruisers, she had kept within the three-mile limit during the last hours of the passage.

On 6 April 1917, the day the United States entered World War I, the collector of the Port of New York seized Kaiser Wilhelm II, along with 26 other German vessels, in New York harbor, to prevent the ships' destruction at the hands of their crews. Unbeknownst to the Americans, however, Kaiser Wilhelm II's crew had surreptiously "commenced tampering with the machinery" as early as 31 January 1917, extensively sabotaging her engineering plant. Two and one-half years of enforced idleness had not helped the condition of the engines.

After preliminary repairs at Hoboken,Kaiser Wilhelm II  was towed to the New York Navy Yard on 22 May 1917 for conversion to a troopship. During overhaul and fitting out, she served as a temporary receiving ship, sometimes feeding as many as 5,000 men in one day. The Navy formally took over the ship on 21 August 1917 and that day placed her in commission as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Capt. Casey B. Morgan in command. On 1 September 1917 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ordered her name changed to the less Teutonic Agamemnon.

After trials, Agamemnon embarked troops at Hoboken for her first voyage with the Cruiser and Transport Force. She got underway on 31 October 1917 with a convoy of transports and escorting warships, and headed for France. During the following days her crew drilled in torpedo defense, firefighting, and abandon-ship procedures, and exercised lookouts and gun crews.

On the evening of 9 November 1917, transport Von Steuben (Id. No. 3017) made a course change which put her on a collision course with Agamemnon. Von Steuben put her helm over, but responded slowly, and her bow sliced a small opening in Agamemnon's side at her forward well deck. As Von Steuben sheered away, the two ships came together beam-to-beam, demolishing some of Agamemnon's boats. One of Agamemnon's embarked soldiers fell from her deck during the collision, but landed on Von Steuben's forecastle and escaped injury. The troop convoy arrived at Brest on 12 November and disembarked the first American troops to land at that port. Congestion delayed disembarkation, and delayed Agamemnon's unloading for some days.

Coal was in short supply at French ports, so Agamemnon coaled at Southhampton before sailing for the United States, arriving at Hoboken on 17 December. Following repairs,  she departed for France with a troop convoy in mid-January 1918. Five days out, the convoy ran into heavy seas; Agamemnon was pitching badly when a report came to the bridge that a man had fallen overboard. Stopping at once and turning on running lights, Agamemnon then began to circle back in hopes of picking up her missing man. As she turned her rudder full left, a heavy wave hit the rudder, jamming it; Agamemnon fell into the trough of the sea and took a 43-degree roll. Some material came adrift on board, but the ship suffered no serious damage. After steering with her engines until the reserve steering engine was connected, Agamemnon resumed her voyage. The next morning, a muster of all hands turned up no absentees, indicating that the report had been false. Agamemnon touched briefly at St. Nazaire before arriving at Brest on 24 January; she returned to Hoboken on 11 February 1918.

The next two voyages, carrying troops from Hoboken to Brest, proceeded without incident. After a brief drydocking at Norfolk, Agamemnon again sailed from Hoboken on 6 May 1918 carrying 4,967 men, the largest number she would carry on one passage. Summer weather and smooth seas permitted doubling the number of men embarked in each compartment. Half slept in the compartments at night and remained on deck during the day; the other half occupied compartments by day and slept on deck. The men enjoyed excellent health, probably due to the fact that they were in the open air for at least 12 hours each day. Thorough compartment cleaning twice a day helped maintain sanitary conditions. Bathing facilities, as could be expected, were taxed. "In order to relieve congestion," Agamemnon's medical officer reported, "a space on the boat deck was selected and by means of a hose a large number of troops were bathed [thus] combining recreation and sport at the same time."

As she returned to the United States, Agamemnon's radio picked up a warning of German submarine activity off the American seaboard. The submarine U-151 had sunk five American ships; discovery of their loss provided the Navy with the "first definite news of the actual presence of a submarine in home waters." Agamemnon set the war-zone gun watch, darkened ship, and bent on more speed to reach Hoboken safely on 3 June.

Agamemnon's sixth voyage was broken only by firings at "suspicious objects" spotted floating in the water; as she approached Brest on her next crossing, screening destroyers depth-charged what was thought to be a submarine contact. Returning from France, the transport carried sick and wounded soldiers back to the United States. After voyage repairs at the New York Navy Yard, she returned to Brest, again going to general quarters when other ships in her convoy fired at another "suspicious object."

The return voyage took a more serious turn. Agamemnon sailed from Brest on 5 September with the transport Mount Vernon and six destroyers. At 0685 the next morning, her lookouts sighted a periscope one-hundred yards off the port bow. Sounding her siren, the big transport turned up flank speed as one of her light guns fired a shot at the periscope to warn the other ships. Within a minute of the initial sighting, a torpedo from U-82  struck Mount Vernon, killing and wounding 48 men. Agamemnon resumed her course while the damaged Mount Vernon turned back to Brest for repairs. Three hours later one of the escorting destroyers sounded the submarine alarm signal; the transport sped up as one of her 6-inch guns fired at what turned out to be a piece of floating debris. On her return to Hoboken, Agamemnon hosetd a visit by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, commander of the Cruiser and Transport Force.

On 20 September 1918 Agamemnon again got underway for France, this time in company with transport America (Id. No. 3006). Near noon on 24 September, America fired a warning shot at a purported submarine. Agamemnon sounded general quarters and closed all watertight doors. One of her 6-inch guns fired twice, at the wake astern of America, but without result. Five destroyers joined the two big troopships a day out of Brest and the ships arrived at their destination on 29 September.

The outbreak of influenza on board during that voyage taxed the ship's four medical officers and 25 corpsmen, who "worked indefatigably in looking after the sanitation, the isolation and care of the sick." All pneumonia cases were quickly moved on deck, in cots, and Agamemnon reached Brest on 29 September without loss of life. Congestion in the hospitals at Brest would not permit the patients to be removed from the ship. While Agamemnon was in port, six soldiers and two of her sailors died.

Clearing Brest on 2 October 1918, Agamemnon reached Hoboken on the 10th. The influenza epidemic had reached deadly proportions, and the number of troops she embarked for her next crossing was comparatively small.

She returned to Hoboken on 5 November 1918; the signing of the armistice, six days later, found her undergoing voyage repairs. Agamemnon cleared Hoboken on 17 December 1918 for her first peacetime crossing. During the next eight months the big troopship made nine such voyages to Brest, taking replacements to France and carrying soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force back to the United States. During two of these crossings Cmdr. Raymond A. Spruance, the future commander of the Fifth Fleet in the Pacific during World War II, served as Agamemnon's executive officer.

Agamemnon's crew had nicknamed her "Rolling Billy," and she lived up to her nickname while returning from Brest on 30 January 1919. A North Atlantic gale caused her to roll heavily; seas swept her decks and smashed ports, splinters and shards of flying glass injuring 33 soldiers. The transport ended her last Navy voyage at Hoboken on 18 August 1919. During her period of service, she had carried 37,979 soldiers and sailors to Europe and brought 41,944 back.

On 27 August 1919, Agamemnon was decommissioned as Hoboken and turned over to the War Department. Her name was stricken from the Navy list the same day. Agamemnon served as an Army transport until the mid-1920s, when she was inactivated and placed in reserve at Solomons Island, Maryland. Though she was renamed Monticello in 1927, she saw no further service but remained at her moorings with transports Mount Vernon, George Washington, and America in the custody of a caretaker crew. All four ships were sold for scrapping in 1940; the former Agamemnon was towed to the breakers in September of that year.

Robert J. Cressman

1 July 2016 

 

Published:Fri Jul 01 10:44:20 EDT 2016