In May 1918, the Great War had been raging for four years and the Germans were making every attempt possible to sink enemy shipping, which fueled the war in Europe. That month proved to be a deadly month. Contrary to the notion that the war was beginning to wind-down, news headlines of the day were busy with reports of a number of naval engagements, including one encounter that sank the RMS Moldavia. Indeed, the American public was about to find out that the Great War was far from over. Many battles still had to be fought, and Germany was launching its last major offensive.
Other noted news stories from that time included: May 15th – the United States Post Office Department begins the first regular airmail service in the world (see video here); May 16th – the “Sedition Act of 1918” was approved by the U.S. Congress; and on May 20th – the small town of Codell, Kansas was hit for the third year in a row by a tornado; and yet another naval engagement known only as the “Action of 21 May 1918”, took place off the coast of Spain.
Lost in the headlines was the announcement that the RMS Moldavia was torpedoed and sunk in the English channel, by a German U-Boat.
The RMS Moldavia was a passenger steamship owned by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O Line). She was constructed by Caird & Company of Greenock, Scotland, and her assigned yard number was 301.
The completed ship was 520 ft. (160 m) in length, a beam of 58.3 ft. (17.8 m) and a draught of 24.8 ft (7.6 m). The gross tonnage for the Moldavia was 9500. Coal storage was 2,000 tons and cargo approximately 3,500 tons. The Moldavia was constructed for 348 first and 166 saloon class passengers.
She was launched on 28 March 1903, and served most of her life traveling the England to Australia route, via the Suez Canal.
The Moldavia was purchased by the British Admiralty in 1915 and converted into an armed merchant cruiser. She was torpedoed and sunk on 23 May 1918 off Beachy Head in the English Channel, by a single torpedo from U-Boat UB-57. At the time of her sinking she was being used as a troopship for United States troops from the 58th Infantry Regiment.
The following excerpt from the book
The Fourth Division: It’s Services and Achievements in the World War
by Christian Albert Bach and Henry Nobel Hall
describes the Moldavia’s final moments:
The first casualties in the (Fourth) Division, as the result of an enemy act, occurred at sea when the Moldavia, a refitted British liner with Companies “A” and “B” of the 58th Infantry on board, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine with the loss of 56 men, all but one being Company “B ” men. This occurred at 2:40 on the morning of May 23, 1918, at a point about midway between Land’s End and the Isle of Wight.
The Moldavia was armed with six light naval guns and two anti-aircraft guns. She was leading her convoy of five ships, “mothering” them, so to speak, while five British destroyers, which had joined them the previous day, darted around and between them. The sky was overcast with clouds and the night was very dark—ordinarily an ideal condition for outwitting the lurking U-boats. A sudden rift in the clouds permitted the moon to peep out for perhaps five minutes during which short time the invisible periscope enabled the U-boat commander to glimpse his prey and send the fatal torpedo crashing into her.
The explosion tore a gaping hole in the port side of the hull and shattered the compartment where the “B” Company men were sleeping and the ladders leading to the deck above. Nearly all the men in the compartment were killed outright by the explosion. The listing of the ship to port undoubtedly saved those who survived the explosion, enabling them to utilize the uneven surface of the sloping compartment walls in climbing to the next deck above, and from there to the boat deck and rescue.
Fortunately, the engines were not injured by the explosion, and the bursting of a starboard bulkhead caused the ship to resume an even keel. An attempt was made to reach shore, but the water gained rapidly and stilled the ship’s throbbing engines within an hour.
The explosion had awakened all on board. Contrary to orders, many of the men had undressed before going to bed in the belief that the submarine danger was practically over, as land had been visible during the entire day. In the darkness and confusion many of them were unable to find their clothes and were forced to go to their boat stations in little more than their underwear—some wore even less.
The dying down of the engines found nearly all the men at their proper boat stations. A decided list to starboard had developed, however, which made the launching of the boats at the port side a very precarious matter. A number of men received a chilly bath during the process, but, eventually, the boats were launched. One of the British destroyers came alongside, and made fast to the starboard side of the Moldavia, taking all the men she could find room for direct from one ship to the other. Another destroyer circled around, picking up those who were in boats and hanging to the life-rafts.
Only two men were lost by drowning, although many unwelcome cold baths were taken by those who tried to climb upon the life-rafts only to overbalance the unwieldy affairs and slide, headlong, back into the sea. One soldier performed this stunt three times before he became convinced of the error of his ways.
After dropping depth bombs over the area in which the Moldavia was struck, three of the destroyer escort and the other five ships of the convoy had scurried away to avoid possibility of further disaster. This left only the two rescuing destroyers with their shivering but thankful burden, to watch the death throes of the stricken vessel. She had settled forward rapidly, her stern slowly rising higher and higher in the air.
Picture, if you will, a glassy, calm sea in the early dawn of that season of the year; a heavily clouded sky through which the sun had not yet made its way, but light enough to make each detail of the tragedy visible to the spectators aboard the little rescue ships; abandoned life boats and rafts bobbing about; here and there a dead body; on the decks of the two waiting destroyers a motley, shivering, awestruck crowd in various stages of dress and undress; a long minute of breathless silence; a lurch; a gurgle; a ponderous gathering of that immense mass of steel, as if for physical effort, followed by the rearing of the stern high in the air; a sickening dive; a seething cauldron in which are tossed bits of wooden wreckage, and the Moldavia was no more. The rescued soldiers, packed on the two destroyers, greeted the final plunge of their ship with a tumult of cheers.
END OF EXCERPT
The headlines of this event were downplayed in the U.S.; although it was a larger news story in the U.K. A number of factors contributed to this. First, it occurred during a busy news cycle. Second, we could assume the U.S. War Department was reluctant to give any unnecessary information to the public, for the enemy to consume. Third, editors simply decided that it was a British ship that went down during war time, not an American vessel; and they gave the story less editorial weight. Unfortunately, the American public had grown accustomed to steam liners sinking in the Atlantic. In fact, the Titanic went down only 6 years prior to this.
More importantly, there was a strong anti-war/isolationist sentiment in the U.S.; and President Wilson had to work hard to win the public’s support, not only to enter the war, but to also stay involved. Any news story of an allied loss, such as the Moldavia, was dampened.
Despite the fact that America had joined the war in earnest just the year before; the American public felt that the U.S. were there to wrap things up. The Moldavia was a slap in the face of the public’s notion that the war should be coming to a quick end. In fact, it would be another long six months before the Armistice would be signed. Many of the war’s bloodiest days were still to come, and many more lives would be lost.
On May 25, 1918, the War Department released the names of the 53 American soldiers lost in the Moldavia sinking. Among those killed in action, was Pvt. Andrew Blackwell from Hominy, Oklahoma. His hometown’s American Legion Post 142 was later named in his honor.
Besides giving out the list of men missing, the War Department issued only this statement:
“Besides 53 American soldiers reported as lost on the Moldavia there were 427 other American soldiers on board, a total of 480. The American units aboard were part of the 59th Infantry. All those reported lost were members of Company B.”
The list of the missing is as follows:
Chappell, Fred, 6628 Haddington Street, Philadelphia.
Shenk, Roy, 847 East New Street, Lancaster, Penn.
Armstrong, Oscar O., Bridgeport, Okla.
Blackwell, Andrew, Hominy, Okla.
Boosalis, George D., Fargo, N.D.
Bosley, Clyde, North Troy, Vt.
Bosley, Clyde E., North Troy, Vt.
Bracken, Leslie C., Royalton, Minn.
Bracken G., 29 Columbia Avenue, North St. Cloud, Minn.
Brown, William A., Hoytsville, Utah.
Buchanan, George N., Mannette, Wash.
Bucher, Emil, R.F.D. No. 2, El Centro, Cal.
Callan, Joseph P., 375 Third Avenue, Milwaukee, Wis.
Canwell, Fred D., 210 Thomas Street, Fall River, Mass.
Castro, Louis V., 1,237 Delmas Avenue, San Jose, Cal.
Clausing, Edwin L., Grafton, Wis.
Cook, Virgil C., Hobart, Okla.
Croatt, William G., Port Washington, Wis.
Diehl, Herman, 445 East Ninety-first Street, New York City.
Dierks, Herman W., Braunfels, Texas.
Eckel, Conrad, West Allis, Wisc.
Gerhardt, Fred, 3,435 West Congress Street, Chicago, Ill.
Gerl, Edward L., Manitowoc, Wis.
Gottenberg, Redwald, Pigeon Falls, Wis.
Graci, Giuseppe, Licati, Sicily.
Hackler, Charles F., Millville, Cal.
Hodges, Thaddeus, Mount Carmel, Utah.
Johnson, Clem, Martin’s Mill, Texas.
Kneip, Isidor H., 454 Ashland Av., St. Paul, Minn.
Kobus, John, Missouri Av., South Milwaukee, Wis.
Lading, Henry C., Strasburg, Ill.
Larsen, John S., 1,202 East 55th St., Chicago.
Williams, Barney D., Dixon, Ky.
Lewandoski, Frank, 4,728 Seeley Av., Chicago.
Lindsey, Clyde B., Clarksburg, Miss.
Lundell, Anton W., 9,717 Avenue M., South Chicago, Ill.
McCarthy, James G., 23 Tyler St., Boston, Mass.
McKinney, Frank, Stonington, Ill.
Mars, Jesse, Shelbyville, Ill.
Mikle, Rudolph, De Pere, Wis.
Milone, Jesse, Olney, Ill.
Odell, Frank, Blytheville, Ark.
Rosh, Emil M., Lankin, S.D.
Roux, Frank, Rice Lake, Wis.
Reaser, Lee, Cedarsville, W. Va.
Sautter, Walter G., New Hartford, NY.
Schuh, John, 840 3d St., Portsmouth, Ohio.
Sherman, Joseph, Fort Totten, N.D.
Spies, Lewis P., Nelson, Wis.
Swartz, Ray, Pleasant Hill, Ohio.
Sweetland, Maurice G., Albany, Vt.
Trapp, Willow, Arbor Vitae, Wis.
Weber, Edward N., Tolley, N.D.
Source: NY Times, May 26, 1918
The RMS Moldavia, as a dive site.
We should note that the RMS Moldavia went down approximately 25 miles off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. With its close proximity to the British isle, and with it laying in a depth of over 45 meters of water; the Moldavia’s wreck is a challenging but very popular dive site for experienced divers. Paid tours to the site are given each year.