Virginia, a steel-hulled, single-screw steam yacht designed by George L. Watson & Co., Glasgow, Scotland, and built at Bath, Maine, by Bath Iron Works for New York merchant Isaac Stern, was delivered on 23 December 1899, described by Marine Engineering as a “strong, seaworthy, comfortable and handsome vessel.” In 1916, financier and philanthropist Frederick W. Vanderbilt of New York City acquired the yacht and renamed her Vedette.
The Navy acquired the ship on a free-lease basis on 4 May 1917, less than a month after the U.S. declared war on German and entered the Great War [World War I] on the side of the Allied and Associated Powers. Earmarked for convoy escort and patrol duty overseas, Vedette, given the identification number S.P. 163, was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., on 28 May 1917, Lt. Cmdr. Chester L. Hand in command.
Underway at 10:15 a.m. on 5 June 1917, Vedette, the fitting-out process completed, stood down the Ambrose Channel, then conducted exercises, testing her guns, before she anchored in the lower bay at 2:25 p.m. She later shifted her anchorage to the waters off Tompkinsville, Staten Island, the following day, where she awaited the arrival of five other converted yachts to begin their passage across the Atlantic. Eventually, all six set out for Bermuda on 9 June on the first leg of their voyage to France. Sultana (S.P. 134) and Christabel (S.P. 162) weighed anchor first, followed by Harvard (S.P. 209), Kanawha (S.P. 130), Noma (S.P. 131) and Vedette, the former pleasure craft forming up into lines of divisions, with Vedette leading the second division.
After an uneventful passage in clear, warm weather, with southerly winds and choppy seas, Vedette rolling and pitching easily in the swells (10-11 June 1917), the six ships sighted land during the afternoon watch on the 12th. Vedette formed column on Noma, Kanawha, Sultana, Harvard, and Christabel, and anchored in St. George Harbor, Bermuda, at 6:45 p.m. She took on water and coaled the following day, taking on board 75 920-pound baskets on the port side and 45 708-pound baskets on the starboard, the crew knocking off the dusty work for supper at 6:00 p.m. Underway at 6:33 a.m. on 16 June, Vedette formed column on Noma’s port beam and set course for the Azores.
En route, the ships conducted sub-caliber and machine gun practice on 20 June 1917, and after Noma left the formation temporarily, standing off on the northeasterly course the following day, Vedette assumed the division guide and squadron commander’s position. Four days later, the yachts made landfall off the Azores at 8:20 a.m. on the 25th. Hoisting the guide flag at 9:50 a.m., Vedette led the column into Ponta Delgada at 12:20 p.m. and dropped anchor 20 minutes later. The squadron remained there, replenishing water and provisions, and coaling, until sailing at 10:38 a.m. on the 29th.
Only sighting one ship during the passage, a British tramp steamer sighted off the starboard bow at 3:30 p.m. on 1 July 1917, standing to the southeast, Vedette carried out target practice the next day during the forenoon watch. Later that same day, Harvard fired one round at what proved to be a whale, while Noma fired three at a water-logged boat. The ships then paired off, Vedette with Christabel, and passed considerable floating wreckage that included a cork life belt on which no name was discernable. At 5:15 p.m., Vedette steamed past several more pieces of debris, sobering evidence that reflected their entering a war zone. She encountered more the next morning -- boxes, barrels, a broken life belt, and pieces of planking.
Reaching the French coast on Independence Day [4 July] 1917, the Americans sighted land at 4:40 a.m., but with their destination in sight, Christabel broke down at 6:00 a.m., necessitating Vedette’s standing by until repairs could be effected and the passage resumed. Later, a French torpedo boat stood out and met Vedette, then came about and led her into Brest, France. Rounding the breakwater at 3:35 p.m., the yacht moored a quarter of an hour later.
Over the next ten days, Lt. Cmdr. Hand granted liberty for his crew, and Vedette prepared for the operations that lay ahead, taking on water and coal, in the midst of such labor full-dressing ship on 14 July 1917, breaking the French ensign at the main in honor of Bastille Day. Vedette finally put to sea, in company with Harvard, on the morning of 16 July, and that first patrol established a pattern for those that followed. The two ships initially headed for the middle of the patrol line 10 miles off the coast, extending from the northward and westward of Ushant to the southward of Belle Isle. Vedette patrolled the southern half of the line while Harvard prowled the northern. Vedette returned to Brest on the 19th, without having met the enemy but having seen more wreckage, including life rings from an unidentified ship. She twice more patrolled the area between Brest and Ushant, near Belle Isle, before the end of July.
Vedette remained in port the first few days of August, and suffered slight damage on the morning of 3 August 1917 when Christabel, while shifting her moorings, raked her stern at 9:45 a.m., carrying away the flagstaff and damaging the after rail. Nevertheless, Vedette stood out to sea at 5:00 p.m. that afternoon in the screen of an outward-bound convoy, of 10 merchantmen, that was also protected by Harvard, three French patrol vessels, and two British escorts. Vedette left that convoy less than an hour into the mid watch on the 4th and patrolled the vicinity until 6:50 a.m., when she picked up a Brest-bound group of 19 merchantmen escorted by three patrol vessels. Vedette anchored at Brest at 10:25 a.m. the same day, but her respite proved short, for less than six hours later she stood out screening 16 merchantmen, joined in her protective duties by three French patrol boats and Harvard.
Vedette left that convoy when it passed out of the coastal danger zone and waited to pick up a Brest-bound group at 4:55 a.m. on 5 August 1917. While en route in, Harvard broke down. Vedette stood by until she had effected repairs that enabled her to proceed. Still en route to Brest during the pre-dawn hours of 6 August, Vedette sighted a “suspicious vessel” at 3:20 a.m. and opened fire with her number two 3-inch gun. The shot fell well forward of the stranger, which soon signaled and identified herself as a French patrol boat.
Arriving at the navy yard at Brest upon the conclusion of her patrols shortly after noon on 6 August 1917 to coal and prepare to receive planned alterations, Vedette was docked at 8:20 a.m. the next morning (7 August), and by 10:20 workmen had removed 16 feet of the foremast and signal yard, 22 feet of the mainmast and 14 feet of her bowsprit. After the work was completed, the ship was towed back to her former berth on the left hand side of the river where she provisioned and prepared to return to the Ushant-Brest patrol line.
Vedette escorted an outward-bound convoy late on 9 August 1917 and an inward-bound one on the 10th, before she and Harvard and two French patrol vessels were assigned to another outward-bound group of 10 merchantmen. At 8:10 p.m. on the 10th, Vedette’s watch heard an explosion astern, accompanied by several blasts of a ship’s whistle. A British merchantman, last in line of the convoy, had struck a mine, after which a French vessel rescued 14 men before the rapidly sinking ship disappeared. Twelve men had died in the explosion.
After delivering the convoy to Quiberon Bay, Vedette anchored at 06:45 a.m. on 11 August 1917 but that evening again got underway - -with a convoy of eight merchantmen, two French patrol vessels, and Harvard -- and arrived back at Brest with that group at noon the following day, after which she turned-to the chore of coaling ship. She brought on board some new coaling baskets on the 14th, and also provisioned, deck log providing a glimpse into the crew’s fare: lettuce, salt, cabbage, beans, Quakers [sic] Oats, rice, cornmeal, tapioca, and tomatoes. At 10:55 a.m. on the morning of the 15th, Vedette stood out and, along with three British and one French patrol vessel, began shepherding a convoy of 12 merchantmen. She conducted the same type of convoy escort operations through the next day.
At 6:50 a.m. on 17 August 1917, the Greek steamship Pontoporos, bound from Tyne Dock to Spezia with a cargo of 4,600 tons of coal and 2,000 of coke, was hit by a torpedo fired from the German submarine UC-21 (Oberleutnant zur See Werner von Zerboni di Sposetti, commanding) on the starboard beam that exploded eight feet below the waterline, abreast the engine room, tore up the decking topside, and caused significant damage on the starboard side. Vedette rang up full speed ahead and stood about, hunting for the submarine. Unable to make contact with the enemy, the yacht embarked 27 men from a lifeboat, including Pontoporos’ master, a Capt. Panas, at 7:15 a.m., adding two more men five minutes later that had been rescued by a French fishing boat. Vedette cast the empty lifeboat adrift at 7:25 a.m. and circled the sinking Greek steamer, which sank beneath the waves a quarter of an hour later. After Vedette reached Port Heliguen at 9:15 a.m., she turned the 29 survivors over to French authorities.
Vedette continued the same routine of operations --- interspersed with periods of upkeep, maintenance, and provisioning -- through the remainder of the summer and autumn of 1917 and into 1918. By January of that year, the ship’s antisubmarine armament reflected the multi-national character of the escort work performed out of Brest, for not only did she carry her original allotment of 10 Sperry Mk. I “Mines” (American), but was also equipped with eight French Guirand charges and three British Type “D” ones. By the next summer, that had again changed, and the ship carried, by that point, 21 U.S. Mk. 2 depth charges.
Vedette, underway at 4:35 a.m. on 5 August 1918, led a convoy of 11 ships out of Quiberon Bay, with Harvard, Remlik (S.P. 157), and Stewart (Coast Torpedo Vessel No. 13) as escorts. At 8:02 a.m., the convoy passed Point de Chats abeam to port, distance three miles, and at 8:12 a.m., the ships changed course so that by 8:35 a.m., they were off Pen Men, abeam to port at a distance of two and one-half miles. At 9:24 a.m., Vedette’s watch felt a slight jar; within a minute, they saw that the Norwegian steamship Hundvaagǿ, en route from Bordeaux to Cardiff in ballast, had taken a torpedo -- from UB-88 (Kapitänleutnant Reinhard von Rabenau) -- and was sinking rapidly.
Vedette rang down full speed ahead and her men hurried to their battle stations. At 9:27 a.m., Signalman 3rd Class Nye, Chief Quartermaster Teiper, and the officer of the deck saw a submarine off the starboard quarter of the convoy. Vedette heeled as the helm was put over at hard right rudder and sped toward the enemy, sounding five short blasts on her whistle. Before her gunners could draw a bead on UB-88, however, a merchantman obstructed the yacht’s view of the submarine, and the periscope disappeared. Vedette immediately commenced a search, circling and trying to locate the enemy. At 9:35 a.m., Vedette received orders from Harvard and, in company with Stewart, quickly proceeded to reform the convoy. Within 20 minutes, Hundvaagǿ had disappeared beneath the waves. An hour before noon, Vedette resumed her position at the head of the convoy and, 45 minutes later, took station on its port flank.
Things were not quiet for long, however. At one minute past noon, a French seaplane bearing the marking I-26, attracted to the scene of the torpedoing, dropped a smoke bomb, to indicate the presence of what looked like a submarine. Vedette again went to general quarters and put over hard right rudder as she sped off to the hunt. She soon picked up a small oil wake about 200 yards east of the smoke bomb and dropped a barrage of eight depth charges at 12:15 p.m. Ten minutes later, having seen “no further evidence of a submarine,” Vedette rejoined the convoy, taking station on the port bow. Stewart later dropped four depth charges over a 15-minute period but, as often happened, could not determine whether or not she had tangled with a U-boat. She nevertheless continued the hunt, in company with Vedette, Harvard, and Remlik, while the newly arrived Tucker (Destroyer No. 57) joined the convoy’s screen.
Vedette’s work for that day, however, was not complete until she had assisted a downed French seaplane from the French Naval Air Service. At 5:18 p.m., another French plane had dropped a message requesting aid in the Baie de Douarnenez. A bit under an hour later, Vedette lowered her motor boat that took the pilots on board and took the disabled aircraft in tow. When the ship reached her destination, she lowered a whaleboat which took up the tow and safely delivered the French plane without further incident.
As events would prove, Vedette and her crew would never again experience that much excitement in a single day. Thereafter, her duties for the remainder of the war proved placid by contrast as she continued to escort convoys to and from Brest and patrolled offshore in between convoy runs, duty punctuated by provisioning and coaling and periods of maintenance in port. Less than a month after the armistice stilled the guns of the World War (11 November 1918), she departed Brest for the last time when she weighed anchor on 6 December 1918 and set course for Bermuda.
Steaming in company with Emeline (S. P. 175), Corona (S.P. 813), Nokomis (S.P. 609), and Sultana, Vedette arrived at Ponta Delgada at 10:25 a.m. on 11 December 1918. She coaled ship there, took on provisions, and brought aboard 133 bags of coal to store on deck for the passage. Underway at 7:02 a.m. on the 15th, the squadron anchored in St. George’s Harbor, Bermuda, at 10:20 a.m. 24 December but got underway again less than 24 hours later, standing out at 11:20 a.m. on Christmas Day on the last leg of the voyage home to the U.S.
Shortly after leaving Bermuda, Emeline, Nokomis, and Corona steamed off “on duty assigned,” leaving Vedette with Sultana, one of her companions on her voyage to Europe in the summer of 1917. The two yachts entered New York harbor at mid-day on the afternoon of 28 December, and steamed past the Statue of Liberty at 2:00 p.m. Vedette moored to Pier 72, at the foot of East 24th Street a little less than two hours later. Casting off her lines at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, the trim vessel stood up the East River to the New York Navy Yard, where by noon, workmen had removed her 3-inch battery. Her men turned over 3-inch battery spare parts to the Ordnance Building later that afternoon, after which all small arms and spare parts were transferred to the same place. Shifting berths on the last day of the year 1918, Vedette shifted back to Pier 72 three days into the New Year 1919, and by the end of the month had transferred three whaleboats, two life rafts and one barge to the barge Lena.
Standing in to Tebo’s Yacht Basin at 4:00 p.m. on 4 February 1919, Vedette was decommissioned one hour later, and her crew transferred to Section Base No. 6.
The Navy maintained a security watch over the ship from the time she went out of commission until 10:00 a.m. on 5 February 1919, when she was returned to her owner. She was stricken from the Navy list the same day.
Commanding Officers Date Assumed Command
Lt. Cmdr. Chester L. Hand 28 May 1917
Lt. Charles A. Pownall 19 January 1918
Lt. Lewis W. Comstock 11 June 1918
Lt. Francis M. Collier 23 July 1918
Lt. Hamilton Harlow 27 October 1918
Lt. Donald W. Hamilton 2 November 1918
Lt. Charles A. MacDonald, USNRF 29 January 1919
Robert J. Cressman
21 February 1979, updated 6 February 2017 and 6 April 2022