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Friday, April 17, 2015

Navy’s First Shot of World War I - April 19th, 1917

Blog #48.  April 17, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins
 
We hold an artifact adjacent to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard on the Path of History that played such an important naval role with our entry into what was once considered the Great War.  I wish to share a brief review of a 6" gun named "Teddy" named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt that was placed upon the aft end of the American Steamship S. S. Mongolia.  It was with this gun a group of United States Navy men fired the first successful shot that sank a German submarine on April 19th 1917.  This week, 98 years ago marks that historic event and thus begins “History Matters” reviews with this and future issues leading up to the 100th anniversary of World War I in 2017.

Photo #1 ~ 6” Gun from S.S. Mongolia at Path of History
Adjacent to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, taken on April 14, 2015)

By 1915 the European Allies were in need of desperate measures to bring in large amounts of gross tonnage; supplies, food and war support items of all types so various large commercial steamships were outright purchased from private lines and pressed into military support services.  At this time America had not entered the Great War and in fact the United States does not declare war upon Germany until April 6, 1917.  Dates aside, nothing removed the current threat of German submarines and blockading efforts to stop all supplies headed to Europe at all cost.  Overseas shipping was not only risky but a deadly business.
 
It was because of this threat the United States placed 6” guns both fore and aft on some of these commercial vessels preforming military sea service.  S. S. Mongolia encountered a German submarine in the English Channel in which the crew fired, hit and sunk that vessel when it broke surface with its periscope and tower.  This was the first shot from an American vessel on the high seas after war had been declared.  

This is “Teddy” at sea on the aft end of the S.S. Mongolia from a real picture photo postcard after the conflict.  On April 27, 1918 the ship was acquired by the United States Navy and on May 8, 1918 is commissioned USS Mongolia ID 1615.  The ship preformed troop transport duties till returned to its owners on September 11, 1919.

Photo #2 ~ Real Picture Postcard
Teddy – 6 IN GUN USS MONGOLIA
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
 
The following text is from the Naval History and Heritage Command:

The ship's after six-inch gun and its crew are pictured in April 1917.  The two officers at right are identified, in the original photo caption, as Lieutenant Ware and Captain Emory Rice of the U.S. Naval Reserve Force.  Note shells on deck, painted with letters: "T-E-X-A-S" and "T-E-D-D-Y."  Mongolia was assigned a Navy armed guard on 17 March 1917.  She engaged a German submarine on 19 April 1917, the first U.S. ship encounter with a U-Boat after the United States entered World War I.

Photo #3 ~ Image NH 781
Six-inch gun on S.S. Mongolia, April 1917
(Photo courtesy of United States Navy)
 
I brought a ladder out to view the upper part of the breach to better observe the small brass plaque that reads:
 
UNITED STATES NAVAL 6” GUN
FROM THIS GUN WAS FIRED THE FIRST HOSTILE UNITED STATES SHELL DURING THE WORLD WAR.  THE SHELL WAS FIRED AT 5:23 A.M. APRIL 19, 1917 AT A GERMAN SUBMARINE.  THE GUN AT THAT TIME WAS MOUNTED ON THE AFTERDECK OF THE S.S. MONGOLIA AND WAS MANNED BY SEVEN SEAMEN BELONGING TO THE UNITED STATES NAVY TRANSFERED FROM THE UNITED STATES NAVY DEPARTMENT.
 
Photo #4 ~ 6” Gun Brass Plaque from S.S. Mongolia at Path of History
Adjacent to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, taken on April 14, 2015)

And finally in closing, something that caught my eye many years ago in my Mother’s barn that she allowed me to have was a heavy paper poster of sorts, a bit frayed and silverfish eaten at the edges yet very cool.  I framed it having no idea at the time of the historic significance and how it would tie into the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  It portrays a large waving American flag and a ship underneath with an inscription that reads:

AMERICAN STEAMSHIP
“MONGOLIA” WHOSE GUN FIRED THE
FIRST SHOT FOR THE UNITED STATES ON
APRIL 19TH 1917 and SANK A GERMAN SUBMARINE
 
Photo #5 ~ S.S. Mongolia War Poster circa 1917
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, taken on April 16, 2015)

While we shall mark the 1917 formal entry of the United States into the Great War at 100 years ago in 2017 it is just as important to listen as the drumbeat on the home front was getting louder by the month well before that as these commercial vessels were armed and crewed by the Navy to protect both the Allies and American interests.  The Norfolk Navy Yard, and for that matter the entire country was about to be forever changed because of this very 6” gun that is within a couple of baseball throws from the northern shipyard wall today because –“history matters”.