Skip to main content

Lieutenant Commander R. Drace White, Commander, Seattle, to Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, Commander, Convoy Operations in the Atlantic

U. S. S. Seattle,    

June 24, 1917.

From:     Lt. Comd’r., R. Drace White, U. S. Navy.

To:       Commanding Officer.

Subject:  Report sighting submarine on Thursday, 21st June, 1917.

Reference: C.D.F.  Memorandum of this date.1

     I was on watch as the Officer of the Deck during the evening watch on the date in question, when the occurrence subject to this report took place.

     The ship was zigzagging on base course 45 degrees true,2 speed twelve knots. At 10:15 P. M., while on base course, Lieut. Roberts, Staff Officer on watch,3 shouted that there was something in the water ahead. I was standing close behind him and immediately saw a long streak in the water about twelve or fifteen yards wide, somewhat sinuous in form. When first seen it was somewhat on our starboard bow but it developed rapidly to port, crossing our bow and continuing to develop further on as I watched it. My first impression was that we had run into phosphorescent water and that the current or whirl had caused a phosphorescent wash. I therefore stood on until the stem had passed through the streak. The Captain,4 however, who was on the bridge at the time, remarked that he thought it was a submarine and ordered the rudder hard right.5 This was done and the ship swung to starboard. She was brought to 135 degrees true. As we were swinging, a ship on the port hand sounded six blasts on the siren and fired a shot. I observed the tracer from the shot and it passed across our stern.6

     The course was continued 135 degrees true till 10:30, the engines making all speed possible with boilers in use 74 revolutions. At 10:31 the course was changed to 45 degrees true and speed was reduced to 63 revolutions.

     At 11:25, while on this course, an object was sighted almost directly ahead. It looked like a large white cap, but it kept moving to port against wind, and when about two hundred yards from the ship, it turned to the right, moving parallel with the ship for a short time and disappeared. At the Captain’s order, the rudder was put left and the ship was brought to 20 degrees true. After the object disappeared the course, was, at the Captain’s order, changed to 70 degrees true and speed increased to 71 revolutions. An attempt was made to bring a gun to bear on the object, but this was not accomplished. This course and speed were continued until 12:18 A. M., when, there being danger of losing contact with the convoy, speed was reduced to 63 revolutions and the course somewhat later changed to 45 degrees true.7

     Before the first occurrence described herein, at about 10:05, the rudder jammed hard right and the ship swung to 160 degrees true. The port engine was stopped and an officer was sent to the steering engine room to clear the steering gear. The steering gear had been cleared and the ship brought to her course when the occurrence in question took place.8

     As I have stated, I was first of the opinion that the streak first observed was cause by tidal current or swirl of phosphorescent water. However, after watching the screw current from this ship and the destroyers, I am convinced that it was the screw current of a submarine running submerged or partly submerged.

     It was similar in every respect to the screw current from this ship and it developed as the screw would develop from a submarine going ahead under water. I am of the opinion that our turning to the right with the rudder jammed, or to the left when coming back to the course, brought the ship to nearly ramming the submarine and caused it later to submerge.

     I am unable to account for the second occurrence. The ship was at that time in phosphorescent water and there are many surprises under these conditions.9

(Signed) R. Drace White.    

Source Note: U.S.S. Seattle During the War: 54-55. 

Footnote 1: The memorandum has not been found.

Footnote 2: By “true” White meant that the compass heading and the map heading were the same. If they were not, the difference is called the declination and must be adjusted for.

Footnote 3: Lt. Frank H. Roberts.

Footnote 4: Capt. DeWitt Blamer.

Footnote 5: The convoy on the night of 22 June was arranged in two columns, 1200 yards apart, proceeding at twelve knots and all zigzagging. Gleaves, The Admiral: 144. In accordance with prearranged orders, ships of the “right and left columns of the convoy turned to starboard and port, respectively, and ran at full speed.” Ibid., 39.

Footnote 6: Gleaves reported that the ship that sounded the alarm and opened fire was the DeKalb, whose captain, Walter R. Gherardi, a torpedo expert, immediately identified the disturbance in the water as the wake of a torpedo. Ibid., 145. According to another eyewitness account, "at this time the destroyer Wilkes gave a hard left rudder and come dashing across the Seattle’s bow, barely missing us. I was spellbound with pride and astonishment at the daring of the Wilkes. I crossed the deck to watch the Wilkes and saw a large object disappear beneath the water between the Seattle and the Wilkes. The Wilkes encircled us [i.e., Seattle] once again before going back into formation.” Ibid., 55.

The torpedoes, four in number, passed close by DeKalb and another troop transport, Havana, but without hitting them. U.S.S. Seattle During the War: 39.

Footnote 7: Gleaves commented that the convoy was able to reassemble and return to its base course within “an hour” without using “search lights or any kind of signals, but by following previous orders—a rather extraordinary achievement.” Gleaves, The Admiral: 145.

Footnote 8: In his memoirs, Gleaves posits that when Seattle’s rudder jammed, the ship blew a whistle as a signal “to indicate her shear,” but that the German submarines misinterpreted it as a warning signal and made their attack on an overcast “dark night, instead of waiting for daylight.” Ibid., 144, 145.

Footnote 9: The convoy had no more encounters with enemy vessels before entering the nets protecting the harbor at St. Nazaire, France, late on 25 June. U.S.S. Seattle During the War: 57.