Service Aboard the USS Tennessee and Memphis
By Alvion P. Mosier
[manuscript c. 1965-1970]
I was born in Vincennes, Indiana on July 30, 1890. Parents: Julia (Wanzer), mother and Henry Clay Mosier, father –a farmer. A few years previous, the Arapaho Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Oklahoma was made available for free homesteading –for the asking. My father decided to take advantage of this offer, and we joined about the last wagon train from this part of the country going to Oklahoma [between 1893 and 1896].
Several of my uncles –Mother’s brothers– were already there and had staked claims to farms where they lived the rest of their lives. I knew One Star, a Cheyenne chief who had fought General Custer. Our early years on the farm were hard work… very discouraging, with many setbacks. Growing wheat and raising cattle were our means of income. We were not very successful. Hailstorms and long droughts ruined crops; scarcity of water was hard on the cattle. Progress was slow with very little harvest in those early years.
The homesteaders who had picked good locations prospered. One of my uncles had a very good farm, and he shared with the rest of the family who were less fortunate, making it possible for them to continue. Many had given up and gone back to their former homes. In later years conditions changed. After a five-year drought, there were good wheat harvests. Now, after many years, the farmers are doing well –oil wells pumping where once wheat had grown. Many parts of Oklahoma are now prosperous oil country. Of the originals who went out, there are three of us left, and I am the oldest.
Farm life was very discouraging to me. When I was seventeen, I mounted my pony and rode away to see what the outside world had to offer. I worked in thrashing gangs. One time I worked on the Rogers ranch, not knowing then how famous Will Rogers would become. Even in those days, he was good with the rope. I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. Not sure what it was that I wanted, I sold my pony and took the train to Wichita, Kansas. I worked on the railroad and stayed that winter with my cousins who lived there.
One day, passing the Navy recruiting station, I read the poster: “Join the Navy and see the world.” I was interested. I talked to the officer in charge and signed up –October 1908. With a group of other recruits, I was sent to Goat Island in San Francisco Bay. We were a sad lot of homesick farm boys those first few weeks. Hungry for some good home cooking, our first breakfast of navy beans was so hard we thought they were bullets. Funny, later they were one of my favorite foods.
From the training station I was sent to the USS Milwaukee. After a short time, I went to the USS Tennessee, an armored four-stack cruiser –one of the most sought-after ships in the Navy. She was built at Cramps Shipyard in Philadelphia and was christened in 1904 by Keith Frazer [Sommerville], a young debutante accompanied by her father, a former senator who was at that time Governor of Tennessee. Many years later, Mrs. Sommerville became a very good friend.
The Tennessee received all the special assignments. In 1906, she had become the pathfinder for what was then the “White Fleet” (ships at that time were all painted white), and had made a trip around the world. Then she returned to Bremerton, Washington and rejoined the Pacific Fleet. It was there in 1908 that I became one of the crew.
During my first four years, nothing out of the ordinary happened –just work, some cruises that I enjoyed, and seeing parts of the world I had never seen. In 1912, my enlistment ended. I went to New York, enrolled in the Barber School and opened a shop in Brooklyn. Life was more or less quiet for almost a year. Then –seemingly from a clear sky– the war clouds were gathering in Europe. I re-enlisted in November 1913, very happy to go aboard the Tennessee –this time as the ship’s barber where I met all the dignitaries who came aboard.
Early in August 1914, we were ordered to go to France with a shipment of gold. The gold reserve was at a low ebb at that time, and England and France demanded a large deposit from this country. Assistant Secretary of War Breckenridge was delegated by President Wilson to supervise the distribution of our shipment: some six and a half million dollars to England, two million to France, and one million to our Turkish Ambassador. Many American tourists were cared for also.
On August 24, a request came from Myron T. Herrick, American Ambassador to France, asking our captain to furnish him with a picked bodyguard of six men for duty at the embassy in Paris. Every man in the crew of eight hundred was anxious for the assignment. I was surprised and happy when the Captain told me to report for duty as one of the six. I had the added honor of being personal guard to Ambassador Herrick. I had entrance with him to places where otherwise I could not have gone.
The American Embassy was within three hundred yards of the Eiffel Tower, a mecca for thousands of Americans. Many of our tourists were there in addition to citizens from other countries during those trying months of war. The next three months went by quickly –excitement every hour of the twenty-four. When the first Zeppelin raid was made over Paris, I never saw such confusion. Paris was a madhouse in those days.
Most of the other governments moved out. Only the American Ambassador and the New York Herald remained. Both stayed throughout the siege and dispensed news and assurance to an anxious world. The Eiffel Tower was the target of enemy bombs during my three-months stay –one narrowly missed the Embassy. The Tower was used at that time by the French to communicate by wireless with England and the United States. In addition to all this was the responsibility of the gold stored in the Embassy vaults until it was distributed.
During the Battle of the Marne, the city was crowded with the dead and wounded. Every available vehicle was put into service to bring them in from the battlefield. Paris –only a few months before the playhouse of Europe– was now a morgue. The Ambassador and his staff worked heroically. The Embassy was the one bright light in the darkness with the enemy only sixteen miles from Paris. The guard was always with the Ambassador, snatching sleep when we could–never knowing when the “Boches” would throw a bomb of destruction.
In the middle of November, we received orders to report to Le Havre for duty aboard the ship. Captain Decker was taking her on a “mission of mercy”. While I regretted leaving the Embassy, the mysterious business lent a tang to it. We went to Le Havre, but the ship had left. After several misses, we finally caught up with her. Going aboard was like going home –the crew deluged us with questions.
The first stop on our mystery journey was Gibraltar, then to Triniai, Italy where I received at the Consulate a letter personally signed by Ambassador Herrick thanking me for my services in Paris: “Before my departure from Paris, I desire to take this opportunity to say how greatly your services were appreciated and how reassuring your daily presence was at the Embassy to those in distress.” I treasure this letter and have had it framed for many years.
We were in the Mediterranean for almost a year; then, to Scies, Greece to coal ship. All the ships were coal burners in those days –gave us plenty to do when we had the “White Navy”. Then came a memorable incident at Smyrna, Turkey. A launch from the Tennessee was fired upon by Turkish gunners. That was fixed diplomatically, but the crew who were eyewitnesses were convinced it was deliberate. We felt like letting loose with our big guns on those murderous Turks. They may have been brave soldiers, but the way they treated the Jews, Armenians, and Syrians was more than cruel.
Our next stop cleared up the mystery. Across the Mediterranean, we went to Jaffa, Palestine (in biblical times, known as Joppa) situated about thirty miles from Jerusalem. The sight I saw there I will never forget –Syrian refugees from the northern part of Palestine, Armenians and Jews so frightened from the treatment they received from the Turks. And the hunger… those poor people had wasted away to mere shadows. They pleaded with our officers to take them away from their tormentors. At this time, early in 1915, the Turks were so busy in other parts of their country that they paid no attention to us. Accordingly, the Tennessee made twenty trips to Alexandria, Egypt taking thousands of those poor people out of the hands of their persecutors. The Turks at this time were overrunning the Holy Lands. Many Christians were killed. During the time we were at Alexandria, we saw many troops and battleships leave for an attack on the Dardanelles.
We then returned to New York in July 1915 –due for a furlough that we never had. There was a revolution brewing in Haiti. We were sent with several companies of Marines to Haiti and Santo Domingo. Four trips were made and what the Marines did there made history. In September the ship was ordered to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a major overhaul. That was completed in January. We were then ordered to Caribbean waters. Shortly after our arrival, Captain Beach came aboard as our new Commander –a wonderful officer in every sense of the word.
The Tennessee was called back to Norfolk to take William G. McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, his wife (the daughter of President Wilson), his staff of eighteen, international diplomats, and statesmen to attend the International High Commission meeting at Buenos Aires, Argentina in May 1916. This was being held for the purpose of insuring neutrality of the countries of the Western Hemisphere during World War I and to promote trade and good will between the two countries –the U.S. and Argentina– whose imports had been cut off from Europe as a result of the war.
Our first stop was Port of Spain, Trinidad, and former President Theodore Roosevelt visited the ship. Then, on to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Uruguay. From there to the Magellan Strait which we went through in one day –the first time a large ship had accomplished this. We were now in the Pacific Ocean. We visited Lota, Chile and Valparaiso, Peru. We soon arrived in the Canal Zone. We passed through the Canal to Panama City. Then, on to Havana, Cuba. We returned to Hampton Roads on May 24; the High Commission left the ship and returned to Washington.
On this trip, the first time I shaved William G. McAdoo, he gave me a one dollar tip and told me the dollar bill was fresh from the Treasury. It was quite a tip since a shave at that time cost a nickel –unbelievable, compared with the same service today. Previously, I had the honor of serving President Taft when he had gone to Panama to inspect the Canal which was being built at that time.
Shortly after this trip, on May 25, 1916, the Tennessee was renamed the Memphis when the keel for the new battleship Tennessee was laid. There is a superstition among Navy men that it is an ill omen to change the name of a ship. The subsequent wreck of our ship soon after that date did indeed support that theory.
About this time, a revolution was brewing in Santo Domingo. The Memphis was sent down with a detachment of Marines. The trouble was short-lived, but it was thought advisable to lay at anchor in the harbor until quiet had been restored.
It was customary to give only “sundown liberty” in this port, which was not really liberty, but rather a recreational party -“to straighten their sea legs”, as the saying goes. There was one ashore on this day. There were also several small boats in the harbor. This day –August 29, 1916– I will never forget. No one could anticipate what was about to happen. At 3:15, the sea was smooth, a gentle breeze stirring. Shortly after this, she began to roll slightly. A general recall to return to the ship was hoisted for all small boats, including the recreational party, and the postmaster’s boat.
Just about then the sea really began to roll, and with it many tragic matters happened in rapid succession. The main steam line burst; battle gratings over the engines fell on the men stationed in the engine room; steam from the main steam line enveloped them. The waves by this time were so high that they went down the stacks and washed the fire out of the boilers –there was loss of life and many badly scalded and burned men. The boats that were trying to return to the ship were lost with all aboard. All electric current was gone. For all practical purposes, the vessel lay dead and at the mercy of the continual pounding of a relentless sea. It was in the engine room that many heroic deeds took place. Charles H. Willey, Warrant Machinist, was awarded the Congressional Medal later. He was sent home on a hospital ship and after many months was retired. Some called it a tidal wave; it was a huge foamless wave –the creation of some convulsion of the ocean bed. We were powerless to move or act until the wave hit us. All I remember was tons of water pouring over us. Our beautiful ship was tossed back and forth on the rocks, sometimes hitting the ocean bed. Forty men were lost, and many were injured. Some died later. Many were saved by five lifelines that were rigged up by the rescue parties. The lines were fastened to boatswains chairs and stretched to the reef ashore. A large box was put on one of the lines for the injured, ones who could not hold onto the lines. They were all sent ashore first. A careful search was made of the entire ship to make sure that all the men were accounted for. One body was found in the torpedo room. It was closed when it became apparent that there was serious danger of the ship sinking. About 8:30 p.m., all were ashore. According to tradition of the sea, Captain Beach was the last one to leave the ship –a total wreck on the rocks only fifty feet from the shore.
The flag was found four days later. It was dried and taken by one of the shipmates and stored carefully for many years. It is now in the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. There are other mementos from the ship on view there, including a piece of the pennant which, when flown on the ship, was 610 feet long. Many of the men have a piece of it –a reminder of the days when it flew so proudly from the Tennessee and later the Memphis.
Before the flag was placed in the museum, it made one more memorable trip. Captain Beach, son of our captain, was Commander of the USS Triton. He asked for the flag, but at the time could not say why he wanted it. The Triton was making a secret trip. It circumnavigated the globe submerged, following the same course that Magellan had followed more than four hundred years before. The Triton’s trip made history. On the return trip, eighty-three days later, as it came into the base at New London, Connecticut, the Triton was flying the Memphis’ flag. Then we learned why Captain Beach had asked for the flag from his father’s ship.
Following the wreck of the Memphis, Captain Beach was given a court-martial and lost about twenty points. He could never become an admiral, but his sea command was not revoked as is often the case when a naval officer loses his ship. Later, he was absolved and was given command of another ship. The disaster was declared “an act of God” –no one could have prevented or stopped what happened. The Captain, until the time of the wreck, had had an excellent record, had written thirteen books about the U.S. Navy, and had dedicated thirty-three years with a spotless record to the service he loved. Captain Beach retired as Commandant of the Navy Yard, Mare Island, California.
The loss of the Memphis was the greatest sea disaster in peacetime that the Navy had ever suffered. The survivors were assigned temporary duty with the Marines at Fort Azamo and went to various ships. A short time later, I went aboard the USS Hancock, a troop transport carrying our boys to France –we were now in World War I.
In July 1917, I enjoyed my first furlough in four years. I was supposed to have one every year, but… wouldn’t you give up a little thing like a vacation for service on the Memphis? My second enlistment ended in November 1917. I returned to Philadelphia, my home port while in the Navy.
For thirty years, three of my old shipmates and I met for lunch on August 29 to talk over the old days on the Memphis and that fatal day which we will never forget. The vessel itself was salvaged, but the bulk could be seen in the graveyard at Santo Domingo, near the mouth of the Ozamo River, until some time during World War II when a scrapping contract was issued and carried out. There are no remains to be seen now.
Several years ago, several of us started to try and locate the old crew. We put a notice in the Fleet Reserve and several other Navy publications, and we heard from more than a hundred men from all over the United States. In 1958, we had our first reunion in Philadelphia. About fifty men and many of the wives attended. It became an annual affair. Many wonderful friendships were made and have continued through the years, but age is taking its toll –only ten could make it to the last reunion which won’t be held yearly anymore. The tradition of the group is being carried on by younger members of the families of several of the survivors. Every year on August 29, a memorial service is held at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis. So far there are always some of the members present.
After my return to Philadelphia, I became a member of the Reading Railroad Police Department for several months. I then took the examination for the Philadelphia Police Department and was appointed in April 1918. In the meantime, there was still World War I. Since there was no Memphis to return to, I enlisted in the Army and left for Waco, Texas on May 10. I was assigned to the regular Army, 34th Infantry, 7th Division. Early in August, I was on my way to France. We laid in New York Harbor for a few days because the German subs were close by. Then, under cover of darkness, we were finally on our way.
I went into active duty until October 22. I was severely wounded and gassed. After several hospitals and an operation on Armistice Day, I arrived in New York in February 1919. I was discharged March 31 and reported to the Philadelphia Police Department. I was given a thirty-day leave for further recuperation. During this time, I married the girl I had left behind when I went to France. Later, with our three daughters, we made our home in Roxborough, never to roam again.
Here I started a new life –a busy and interesting one. I served in the Police Department with many outstanding men and took part in some notable arrests. I served for twenty-six years and retired –but not from work. I became interested in the servicemen and their families. I became a member of the V.F.W. and was their Service Officer for forty years. I served as an officer in several branches of the organization, work which I never tired of. As a resident of Roxborough, I was always interested in the community –especially the youth. For many years, during the week of Memorial Day, I spoke at the schools on “Americanization”, stressing love for the flag and this great country of ours. I was even Santa Claus for many years for the pleasure of the little ones.
Now I am about to retire. I have limited my activities to minor ones for the Hattal-Taylor Post. The boys are good to me and take me to all the meetings. Many visit me at home, and I enjoy many happy hours with them.
This is the end of a life of adventure and service. I traveled around the world twice while in the Navy. I had the honor of serving on special assignment, and I met many dignitaries who traveled to various countries on important government missions aboard the USS Tennessee and Memphis, my home for seven memorable years.