SS Leviathan

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SS Vaterland at sea.jpg
SS Vaterland
German Empire
Name: Vaterland
Owner: HAPAG Line
Port of registry: Germany 1911–1917
Builder: Blohm & Voss at Hamburg, Germany
Launched: 3 April 1913
Maiden voyage: 14 May 1914
In service: 14 May 1914 – July 1914
Out of service: July 1914 to 6 April 1917
Fate: Seized by the United States to be used in the US Navy.
United States
Name: USS Leviathan
Owner: United States
Acquired: 6 April 1917
Commissioned: July 1917
Decommissioned: 29 October 1919
Fate: Sold into civilian service
Notes: Used as a troop ship during World War I
United States
Name: SS Leviathan
Owner: United States Lines
Port of registry: New York
Acquired: 29 October 1919
In service: June 1923 to 1933, some service in 1934
Out of service: 1933 to 1937
Fate: Sold for scrapping and broken up 6 June 1938 at Rosyth
General characteristics
Class and type: Imperator-class ocean liner
Tonnage: 54,282 gross tons
Length: 950 ft (289.6 m)
Beam: 100 ft 4 in (30.6 m)
Draft: 37 ft 9 in (11,51 m)
Speed: 26 knots (30 mph)
  • 1,165 as originally configured
  • 14,000 as a troop transport
  • World War I Navy Service:
  • 8 × 6 in
  • 2 × 1-pounder gun
  • 2 × machine gun

SS Leviathan, originally built as Vaterland (meaning "Fatherland" in German), was an ocean liner which regularly crossed the North Atlantic from 1914 to 1934. The second of three sister ships built for Germany's Hamburg America Line for their transatlantic passenger service, she sailed as Vaterland for less than a year before her early career was halted by the start of World War I. In 1917, she was seized by the U.S. government and renamed Leviathan. She would become known by this name for the majority of her career, both as a troopship during World War I and later as the flagship of the United States Lines.

Construction and early career

Launch of Vaterland, 3 April 1913.
Vaterland in her original HAPAG livery.

SS Vaterland, a 54,282 gross ton passenger liner, was built by Blohm & Voss at Hamburg, Germany, as the second of a trio of very large ships of Imperator class for the Hamburg-America Line's trans-Atlantic route. She was launched 3 April 1913 and was the largest passenger ship in the world upon her completion, superseding SS Imperator, but later being superseded in turn by the last ship of this class, SS Bismarck, later the RMS Majestic.

Vaterland had made only a few trips when, in late July 1914, she arrived at New York City just as World War I broke out. With a safe return to Germany rendered questionable by British dominance of the seas, she was laid up at her Hoboken, NJ, terminal and remained immobile for nearly three years.

World War I

USS Leviathan in dazzle camouflage

She was seized by the United States Shipping Board when the United States entered World War I, 6 April 1917. She was turned over to the custody of the U.S. Navy in June 1917, and her German crew was sent to a new internment camp in Hot Springs, NC, where many of the crew later died of a typhoid fever outbreak in summer 1918 as they were about to be transferred to Fort Oglethorpe, GA.[1]

She was commissioned in July 1917 as the USS Vaterland, Captain Joseph Wallace Oman in command. On 6 September 1917 she was redesignated SP-1326 and renamed Leviathan by President Woodrow Wilson.[2]

The trial cruise to Cuba on 17 November 1917 prompted Captain Oman to order 241 Marines on board to relieve a detachment of Marines to station themselves conspicuously about the upper decks giving the appearance from shore that the great ship was headed overseas to increase American Expeditionary Forces.[3] Upon her return later that month, she reported for duty with the Cruiser and Transport Force. In December she took troops to Liverpool, England, but repairs delayed her return to the U.S. until mid-February 1918. A second trip to Liverpool in March was followed by more repairs.

Leviathan leaving for France from the New York Port of Embarkation with 11,000 American troops.

At that time she was repainted with the British-type "dazzle" camouflage scheme that she carried for the rest of the war. With the completion of that work, Leviathan began regular passages between the U.S. and Brest, France, delivering up to 14,000 persons on each trip. Once experience in embarking troops was gained 11,000 troops could board the ship in two hours.[4]

On 29 September 1918 she left New York for Brest, she was one of the main carriers of troops to France, carrying 2,000 crew, and 9,000 troops. The voyage would prove to have the worst in-transit casualties of the deadly second wave of the Spanish flu. By the time she arrived at Brest on 8 October, 2,000 were sick, and 80 had died.[5]

Before the armistice 11 November 1918 the ship transported over 119,000 fighting men. Amongst the ship's US Navy crew during this period was future film star Humphrey Bogart. After that date Leviathan, repainted grey overall by December 1918, reversed the flow of men as she transported the veterans back to the United States with nine westward crossings ending 8 September 1919. On 29 October 1919, USS Leviathan was decommissioned and turned over to the U.S. Shipping Board and again laid up at Hoboken until plans for her future employment could be determined.

American service

The U.S. Shipping Board was by the end of the war encumbered with surplus tonnage and government sponsored shipping companies. On 17 December 1919 the International Mercantile Marine signed an agreement to maintain their intended acquisition until a final decision could be made. The Gibbs Brothers Inc., later named Gibbs & Cox in 1929, was hired to survey the vessel and her economic potential from every aspect when newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst objected to the purchase by claiming British influence over I.M.M, riding on nationalistic sentiment to stop the deal.[6]

SS Leviathan in the 1920's

The Gibbs brothers were allowed to continue by the Shipping Board even as the deal fell through,[6] their first big task being the creation of a new set of blueprints. None had been received from Germany under the Versailles Treaty and the price was deemed outrageous. Instead an army of workers measured every part of the ship until a new set of prints had been made.[7]

Having languished in political limbo at her Hoboken pier until April 1922, a decision was finally made and the $8,000,000 in funds allocated to sail Leviathan to Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in Newport News, Virginia, for her 14-month reconditioning and refurbishment.[6] War duty and age meant that all wiring, plumbing, and interior layouts were stripped and redesigned while her hull was strengthened and her engines converted from coal to oil while being refurbished; virtually a new ship emerged.[7]

The Ritz-Carlton of Leviathan

The decorations and fittings, designed by New York architects Walker & Gillette, retained much of her prewar splendor of Edwardian, Georgian, Louis XVI styles now merged with modern 1920s touches.[8] The biggest deviation was an art deco night club supplanting the original Verandah Cafe. And in June 1923 she was given back to the Shipping Board. Leviathan's measured tonnage had increased to 59,956.65 GRT and her speed trials showed an average of 27.48 knots. Thanks in part to Gibbs' clever accounting and the Gulf stream, she had become the world's largest and fastest ship.[6][7][8] A claim that was immediately challenged by the Cunard Line who reminded them their RMS Mauretania (1906) still held the official speed record for trans-Atlantic crossing, as well as the White Star Line, who claimed the RMS Majestic as the world's largest ship as its length was longer, and its gross tonnage was higher as Gibbs used a skewed formula.

By this time United States Lines, which had interested I.M.M, had been sold and contractually obligated to run Leviathan for a minimum of five return voyages on the Atlantic run per year. The Gibbs Brothers Inc would run her for her first voyages and train the crew until ownership officially changed hands.[6] She immediately proved popular with the American public in the 20s, starting her career fully booked for her maiden voyage 4 July 1923.[9] Her passenger average reached a strong 1,300 by 1926, making her the #1 traveled ship on the Atlantic, but given her capacity of 3,000 it was too little to be profitable.[7]

Her economic problems lay primarily in high labor and fuel costs which were compounded by Prohibition. From 1920 all US registered ships counted as an extension of US territory, making them "dry ships" according to the National Prohibition Act. With the Atlantic shipping capacity oversaturated, especially after the Immigration Act of 1924, alcohol-seeking passengers readily chose other liners.[7] But Leviathan was an American symbol of power and prestige, which despite her economic failings, made her a popular ship with loyal travelers. She attracted attention as the largest and fastest ship in the American merchant marine and featured in countless advertisements. The only serious incident occurred one day out of Cherbourg on a winter crossing in 1924 where she met a fierce storm with 90 ft waves and winds up to 100 mph, at times forcing her into 20 degree rolls. Eleven portholes were smashed and 32 passengers injured by the time the storm abated.[10]

The ship's orchestra, the SS Leviathan Orchestra under the direction of Nelson Maples, was also well regarded.[by whom?] Gramophone records were produced in 1923 and 1924 for Victor Records by the band, which would later become inspiration for the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra decades later.

Leviathan in drydock, December 1931.

Captain Herbert Hartley commanded Leviathan from July 1923 until he retired in February 1928. Hartley published his autobiography titled "Home Is the Sailor" in 1955. By 1927 the "good years" were over, during which time U.S. Lines had been sold and re-nationalized. In 1929 Leviathan was finally allowed to serve "medicinal alcohol" outside US territorial waters to make her more competitive with foreign lines and was quickly sent on Booze Cruises to make money.[11][12] The Great Depression was the final nail in the coffin and U.S. Lines actively lobbied for the Shipping Board to either take the Leviathan back or give them a subsidy for her operation. She was laid up at her pier in Hoboken, New Jersey, in June 1933, having lost $75,000 per round trip since 1929.[13]

USS Leviathan escorted by USS Allen, both in dazzle camouflage, painted by Burnell Poole, 1918

U.S. Lines had been acquired at auction by I.M.M. in 1931 who were just as eager to be rid of their white elephant. The government steadfastly stipulated that Leviathan should sail, and so she did after a refurbishment costing $150,000, for another five round trips. The first round trip sailed on 9 June 1934, high season on the Atlantic, and tallied a loss of $143,000. By Leviathan's fifth voyage she sailed at barely half capacity. The I.M.M. paid the U.S. government $500,000 for permission to retire her while keeping her in running order until 1936.[14]

In 1937 she was finally sold to the British Metal Industries Ltd. On 26 January 1938 Leviathan set out on her 301st and last voyage under the command of Captain John Binks, retired master of RMS Olympic, and a crew of 125 officers and men who had been hired to deliver her to the breakers. She arrived at Rosyth, Scotland, on 14 February. In the 13 years that she served U.S. Lines she carried more than a quarter-million passengers, never earning a cent.[15]


  1. ^ Painter, Jacqueline Burgin (1992). The German Invasion of Western North Carolina: A Pictorial History. The Overmountain Press. ISBN 1570720746.
  2. ^ "USN Ships—USS Leviathan (ID # 1326)". Retrieved 27 November 2015.
  3. ^ USS Leviathan History Committee, History of the U.S.S. Leviathan, New York, NY, Brooklyn Eagle Press
  4. ^ Huston, James A. (1966). The Sinews of War: Army Logistics 1775–1953. Army Historical Series. Washington, DC: Center Of Military History, United States Army. pp. 346–347. ISBN 9780160899140. LCCN 66060015. Retrieved 23 October 2014.
  5. ^ Sorick, Meg. "Research Notes – The Great War (9) Plague Ship Leviathan". Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e SS United States, SS United States. Retrieved 9 October 2011
  7. ^ a b c d e The Great Ocean Liners, Vaterland/Leviathan. Retrieved 9 October 2011
  8. ^ a b Gjenvik, The SS Leviathan. Retrieved 9 October 2011
  9. ^ "Cast Of!". Time. 16 July 1923. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  10. ^ "Storm". Time. 15 December 1924. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  11. ^ John Maxtone-Graham, "The Only Way to Cross", Barnes & Noble, 1997
  12. ^ Time, Wet Leviathan. Retrieved 9 October 2011
  13. ^ Time, Monster out of morgue. Retrieved 9 October 2011
  14. ^ Time, Monster back to morgue. Retrieved 9 October 2011
  15. ^ The [Vaterland/Leviathan ] (Wayback Machine)

Further reading

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