POSTWAR: TRANSPORTING THE AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE
For the United States, the end of World War I ushered in an unprecedented situation. Now that the fighting was over, the Navy was tasked with getting the entire American Expeditionary Force (AEF) back home. Prior to this, all of America’s major wars had taken place in American territory (or, in the case of the Mexican-American War, at least on the same continent). While the Spanish-American War had required transporting a few thousand troops to and from America’s new territorial possessions, the scale of that undertaking was dwarfed by the task of getting 2,000,000 men then in Europe back across the Atlantic.
Well before the fighting ended, American naval officers were aware of the challenge facing them; in fact, Vice Admiral William S. Sims, the commander of American naval forces in Europe, was ready with a plan for speedy crossing of the Atlantic within three days of the Armistice.Sims feared the task of bringing the troops home would take no less than two years, and perhaps much more.Sims was fortunately proven wrong, and indeed the backlash from both the troops and their families back home would have been enormous in if the undertaking had been drawn out anywhere close to that long. Besides concerns for the men’s well-being, the government had other reasons to speed up the return of the AEF: keeping that many men on the payrolls for many months was sure to be prohibitively expensive.
Even with the relatively short time needed to get them home, soldiers complained. Besides longing to see loved ones again, the men of the AEF feared that all the good jobs would be snatched up before they could get home, leaving them with only the scraps of the postwar economy. Even without these fears, the crushing boredom that marked their days was enough to make them want to get clear of Europe as soon as possible. Although the Army filled their time with athletic exercise and even educational opportunities, these were poor substitutes for men who had never intended to sign up for military life beyond the duration of the war.Pressed by the damaging effects, economic, political, and morale, that compounded with each passing week, the Army and Navy made it their foremost priority to get the men of the AEF home as soon as possible.
The first task of the Navy was to find enough ships for transporting so many troops. Although the Navy had recent experience transporting the soldiers to Europe (and the luxury of not having to take precautions against submarine attacks on the way home) there were complications. British ships had carried a slight majority of the AEF over but these vessels were quickly repurposed to return soldiers from Britain’s colonial empire to their homes.Finding additional ships to replace Britain’s created headaches. The United States was able to acquire several German passenger ships with relative ease.The Navy also sought out ships from other countries, both recent allies and neutrals, for the task.Efforts to convert the Navy’s existing ships proved more controversial. Admiral William S. Benson, the Chief of Naval Operations, strongly objected when the Navy Department went so far as to refit battleships for carrying troops.
Most of the men of the AEF embarked from the French ports of Brest, St. Nazaire, and Bordeaux. Before they could board, troops were bathed and deloused; they were also carefully inspected for venereal disease, and any man found infected was placed in a separate camp where he received treatment...and a delay in returning home. Only after they had – with much grumbling – undergone this process were they allowed on board a ship.
Compared to the trip to Europe, the journey home was much less nerve-wracking. There was no need to travel in convoys, no need for blackouts after dark to avoid attracting submarines, and no need for time-consuming zigzag maneuvers. The journey was far from luxurious though. Crowded conditions aboard ship made the voyage uncomfortable, particularly for the wounded, but most soldiers made the best of their circumstances. Their discomfort was mercifully short-lived, as many of the transports were able to make the journey in under a week.
The return effort reached its height in June of 1919, with over 340,000 passengers crossing the Atlantic that month. Somewhat ironically, America’s effort to bring its troops home had already peaked when Germany finally signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, formally ending the war. The same month, the Navy began reducing the resources dedicated to troop transports.
Technically, the task of returning the AEF home was not complete until 1923, when soldiers designated for occupation duty and various missions around Europe finally came home. The end of the Navy’s transport effort came much sooner, with the final ship designated for this duty putting in to the United States in September 1919. Altogether, the Navy brought home 1,933,156 passengers in just under a year, from the 11 November 1918 Armistice to the end of September 1919.