Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Lieutenant Robert R. Awtrey, Executive Officer, U.S.S. Davis, to Rear Admiral Herbert O. Dunn, Commander, Azores Detachment

U.S.S. DAVIS, 

May 22-1918.

My dear Dunn,

     I haven’t any Ready Letter Writer handy, but will try to do the best I can for you anent the U-boat.

     None of us saw the ramming. It was at 3:50 a.m. of a dark night, though as clear as a Georgia girl’s complexion.1 All the stars were out, a little chop, no sea. I was on the bridge and had just completed by <my> third quart of java2 when the Olympic fired a gun. It was a little on the port bow, and the flash was not bright; I thought it was the Olympic but was not sure. A minute later she fired astern twice, and then I knew it was she. Went to general quarters. We couldn’t turn towards her on account of your old home3 being on our port quarter, so turned hard right and whooped her up to 29 [knots]. The Olympic was going over the hill in a cloud of smoke. Saw a flare on the starboard bow and headed for it, but saw nothing further, so after circling with small rudder once or twice, turned to rejoin. We had just steadied to rejoin when a steady white light appeared on port quarter, and then some Very stars4 went up. Incidentally, they hit our submarine recognition signal for the night, an accident perhaps.

     Well, we headed for the light and fired a star ourselves to say the Campbells were coming.5 Then we got a blinker, very, very  slowly – “Please – pick – us – up.” More flares, then darkness. Saw a dark object 200 yards away on the starboard beam, turned a searchlight on it, and there was a Hun6 submarine, bows on. All she had to do was to let them flip – and we afterwards heard she had two ready.7 I wasn’t born on the 13th for nothing.8 All I heard on the bridge was a gasping “Grease us twice.”9

     The old wheel went round like the clock hands on a perfect day, and the engine room will never forgive me for the bell I gave them. So we fetched up about 50 yards to windward of her. She was going ahead very slowly, stern down, bows way up, with people crawling around the conning tower like bees on a fallen peach, save for one most curiously detached guy who sat on the edge and dangled his feet in the water. “Please, please, please,” they yelled. The sub crept slowly from the starboard quarter to the port, sinking a little all the time, then went down without a gurgle, leaving the hive in the water. By this time we had let go two Carley floats,10 and the whale boat was nearly down, with the bald head of the ship’s cook shining from the stroke thwart.

     I’ve picked up all sorts of people, from a pure-blooded mongrel to a Chinese Jew, but those Dutchmen made more ungodly noise in the water than all of them put together. The grunts and groans sounded like a barnyard record.

     Some of them got in the boat, some in the floats, but most of them did the Annette Kellermann11 for the ship. All hands manned the rail and hoisted them aboard with any old thing at all, three of them being redeemed with the fag end of a wash deck hose. A bowline settled over the head of the Engineer Officer, and he was hauled up by the neck. Evidently he was born neither to be hanged nor drowned, but a little sore nevertheless. “You can’t search me – Ich bin offizier,”12 quotha, and “The hell I can’t, you watch me, kid,” responded a burly gunner’s mate.

     One hombre who was pretty far gone yelled “Please save me first.” One man who had a life preserver was pulled under by two clinging to him a little way from the bridge.

     The skipper13 came aboard from a Carley float. As soon as he hit the deck he said “Well, I tried to get the big one but I didn’t.”

     We placed the officers in the ward room, and the men in the forward compartment. Gave them all a drink of medical red.14 The Hun skipper made a fox pass,15 however, for the Surge[on] had a carafe of alcohol in the ward room and he diluted his snifter with that. Then the transom got a shower bath.16 “What iss?”. He thought he was poisoned.

     The officers were an awfully gloomy bunch. A good morgue was an Elk’s meeting17 by comparison. But they could eat. A slice of toast carried an inch of butter on it. Bacon had as much chance as a fat man in Fiji.18 My “kipper and matutinal twin eggs”19 was only a hors d’ouvre for them.

     The crew were much better; some of them seemed almost human at times. Every man on the Davis who had studied high school German, or helped to make Milwaukee famous went down and tried it out. I was tempted to say “Kellner, zwei bier”20 myself.

     Took the boatswain aft and showed him our depth charges when he said the English charges were no good, that they dived beneath. Told him we set our depth charges for 400 feet.

     “Ach, Gott”!21

     Dropped a few eggs on a promising oil slick that same morning. All the officers jumped to their feet and looked at the clock.

     Is Jimmy22 still at the Savoy bar?

Yours in the Lord,      

(S)  Awtrey.       

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 23. An editor who was preparing this document for publication in the 1920’s wrote at the top of the first page: “Letter from Lieut. R.R. Awtrey, on capture of prisoners from U-103,” a second editor added: “Very amusing.”

Footnote 1: In the early hours of 12 May 1918, while en route for France with U.S. troops under the command of Capt. Bertram Fox Hayes, Olympic, a White Star Line passenger liner then being used to transport American troops, sighted a surfaced U-boat (later identified as U-103)500 meters in front of it. Olympic's gunners opened fire at once, and the ship turned to ram the submarine, which immediately crash dived to 30 meters and turned to a parallel course. Olympic almost immediately struck the submarine just aft of the its conning tower. Olympic’s port propeller sliced through U-103's pressure hull, forcing its crew to blow the sub’s ballast tanks, as it scuttled and abandoned the submarine. Olympic did not stop to pick up survivors, but continued on to Cherbourg. Meanwhile, Davis (the destroyer Sims mentions above), commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Rufus F. Zogbaum, Jr., had sighted a distress flare and picked up 31 survivors from U-103. Olympic returned to Southampton with at least two hull plates dented and its prow twisted to one side, but not breached. Mark Chirnside, The Olympic-Class Ships (Stroud, England: Tempus, 2004), 100-101.

Footnote 2: That is, coffee.

Footnote 3: Possibly, the U.S. destroyer O’Brien, which according to Davis’s war diary, was with Davis escorting Olympic. DNA, RG 45, Entry 520, Destroyer Ship Files, Davis, folder 7.

Footnote 4: That is, signal flares.

Footnote 5: While there is a traditional Scottish song entitled “The Campbells are Coming,” here Awtrey is using the term to mean that Davis was coming “to the rescue.”

Footnote 6: That is, German.

Footnote 7: That is, fire the submarine’s torpedoes.

Footnote 8: While the number thirteen was associated with bad luck, here Awtrey is flipping the meaning to indicate that he was “born lucky.”

Footnote 9: The editors are unsure what Awtrey meant here.

Footnote 10: Those were inflatable life rafts.

Footnote 11: Kellerman was a famed Australian swimmer.

Footnote 12: In English: “I am an officer.”

Footnote 13: Kapitänleutnant C. Rucker.

Footnote 14: Presumably, red wine.

Footnote 15: Presumably, a faux pass, i.e., he did not drink his wine.

Footnote 16: Presumably, he meant Rucker spit out his drink.

Footnote 17: A meeting of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, an American fraternal order.

Footnote 18: Awtrey is referring to the incorrect stereotype of that time that residents of Fiji were cannibals.

Footnote 19: “Kipper” is salted fish, often herring; “matutinal” is of or occurring in the morning so Awtrey is saying his morning meal of salted fish and two eggs.

Footnote 20: In English: “Waiter, two beers.”

Footnote 21: In English: “My God!”

Footnote 22: It is not clear who Awtry is referring to nor where the Savoy bar was located.