[Received October 17, 1917]

S. S. Carmania

September 21, 1917, 11:40 A.M.

Dear Mother:

A life of ease and luxury requires more self control and determination to get anything accomplished than does the hard rough living we had at Mineola. I have not quite gotten over the intoxication of this burst of luxury.

First I will tell something about this harbor. We came in yesterday morning. The weather was warm, the sky a little hazy. As we proceeded in, the bay became narrower. A few strange ships were about. A large steel square rigged, an ice boat and a fishing schooner. The land was rugged hills and ridges whose slopes went directly into the water. Barracks and forts could be seen in the hills with straggly evergreens and little cottages. There was one tremendous gun in a large turret on top of one ridge. It must have been a dummy gun. Then we came to the beginning of the harbor proper. The bay was about one mile wide and securely protected by a submarine net. Further up we went through the gate of another submarine net very near the city.

The city looked very modern and large. Factory buildings, coal docks, churches, etc. In the harbor were a great many large boats. One from Australia, and one from New Zealand, both loaded with troops, who gave us our first enthusiastic cheers. There were six or eight large ships of the British Navy which were very interesting. One large freighter was a curiosity. It was painted à la camouflage, black, white and grey—smokestack, deck-houses, and everything. It looked like a futurist’s painting.

Our ship proceeded on past the city and anchored in the large inner basin. There were two rather dilapidated looking large freighters labeled “Belgium Relief,” many other freighters and Scandinavian sailing ships.

This harbor is a wonder. It is very deep, and beautifully protected with a tremendous area of inside anchorage. And all right on the ocean. If it could be used all the year round it would compete very favorably with our large harbors like Boston and New York.

This morning the air has become wonderfully clear, and the hills and trees stand out very distinctly. The water looks very bright and bright blue. I am surprised at the temperature. I have on my khaki uniform and though I am nice and cool, do not feel chilly.

We have had very calm weather all the way. There was always the little waves on the surface but no long swells. The ship has been very steady. Here’s hoping we have a couple of days of hard blowing before we get across. We have seen a great many spouts from whales, and passed a couple of schools of porpoises.

The human beings on the ship are practically all soldiers. We have a portion of a regiment of infantry, some machine gun men, we would-be aviators, about 50 U.S. Army nurses (females), a bunch of officers, and about 15 male and 5 female passengers.

The would-be aviators are the only non-commissioned troops who are traveling 1st class. And we surely are in luck. I hear that the other food, and know that the other sleeping quarters are very bad. There has been a lot of discussion as to whether or not we should salute the officers all the time. We now wear the officers’ crossed flags and salute when it is convenient.

I do not know just what the living conditions on these liners were before the war, but I believe the attendance and food has been cut down to a bare minimum. Of course it is very fine in my late experience, but it is nowhere near what I thought it was before the war. The table is very good but rather simple and curtailed. We have had some fine chicken and turkey served in slices or cuts like in a good boarding house. We have to keep after the waiter to keep up our supply of side lines, like jam. We keep the baths working overtime and usually the hot water is out and bath towels have to be schemed for. The bath steward can rarely be found. I am surely enjoying the salt showers.

At night the ship is entirely without light. All the fixed lights and port lights are heavily painted over and closed at night. The port lights in the state rooms are closed tight all the time. This tends to make the ventilation in the state rooms and baths rather poor. Most of the state rooms have four men in them. They are small. I would put them on a par with the rooms in the Middlesex, only they have not got the nice square window. Some of the state rooms on the decks higher up look pretty roomy and have windows. The music room, smoking room and cabins are very elegant and comfortable. The promenade deck is fine for walking around, and the boat deck, although the course is not straight and unobstructed, is better, as there is nothing overhead.

There has not been very much sociability aboard. We have been very busy sleeping, eating, studying Spanish, and attending boat drills. Every morning and afternoon there has been some sort of a formation in connection to getting overboard in a life boat, but we do not know just how it is to be done yet. When we start across we have to wear our life preservers all the time except when sleeping and eating. Our state room steward has twice had the pleasure of floating around on a life preserver, after his big ship had been torpedoed. I have an unexplainable hope that we meet a German submarine. It is all a matter of fate so it does not do any harm for me to wish that this fine ship and its passengers should be jeopardized for my amusement.

Our detachment has the honor of having Mr. Spalding, the famous American violinist, along with us as interpreter. He is the best natured and most natural genius I ever imagined. He at first was down below with the privates, sleeping and eating, and took it all in a very matter of fact way. He has charge of our Italian lessons, and is very capable. He also holds informal lessons almost all day long and never seems to get tired. He probably will not get into any danger, but you all can rest assured that he will get all the care and help that is possible. If you read anything in the papers about the wasteful way the U.S. has of sending her artists to the front you can rest assured that Mr. Spalding is as safe here as he would be in N.Y. because everybody in this squadron has got him in the very particular class with our Major and our flag. If any of us get back it will be those three. Spalding has been troubled with inoculations, bum food, and Italian classes, so has not given us any concerts.

However, we have had some very good music. Several fellows can play the piano well, and one man has a wonderful tenor voice. It really is a wonder. He gave us a great treat last night. Then we have some general free-for-all harmonizing on the top deck at night with guitar and mandolins.

All the crew of this ship are English or Scotch, and it is very pleasant to have the new variety of faces and voices about.

This ship was built in 1904; is 675 feet long and designed for 18 knots. We have been running slower. There is no rigging that we can play in. I have not been all over her yet. When we get started across I am going to try to get down into her engine, boiler, and steering-gear rooms. She surely is big, and I am very anxious to see how she behaves in a storm.

Now I will take up the back stuff. I wrote you about my visit with Mrs. Millikin. The next day, Sunday afternoon, our God mother, a Mrs and a Miss Bird, presented us with an American flag. We had a little drill and ceremony for the occasion. They are the ladies who furnished us with comfort kits and sweaters etc. (grey ones). Just after the flag presentation we took up a collection for a company magazine fund. The ladies saw it and immediately said—take the money back, we will send you the magazines. That night no one was given leave. We got up the next morning at 4:45 and by 6 o’clock had breakfasted, cleaned up barracks and kitchen, rolled our blankets, packed suit cases, etc. We marched to Garden City and took train to Long Island City (which is north Brooklyn on the East River). There we boarded a tug and steamed down the East River, under the bridges and up the Hudson to the Cunard piers. I saw a ferry and some car floats built by us. We stayed on the pier for a while and then went aboard about 10:30. We left dock at 12 noon. Everybody in uniform was ordered inside. After passing the submarine net and getting out of the Narrows, we were permitted on deck. The trip up here was uneventful—mostly boat drills, meals, and sleep.

There is a Canadian civilian on board who has a son in the cavalry in France and another who has been flying on the Verdun Front for eight months. He is now flying a scout fighting machine. So you see there is a fellow who has flown for eight months and is still alive.

I am very dumb in Italian. Cannot memorize the first lesson. Will continue this later on.

The Carmania was a British ocean liner of the Cunard fleet, built by John Brown and Co. in Glasgow. (Parr describes a visit to the John Brown shipyard in his letter of February 29, 1918). The Carmania and her sister ship the Caronia were nearly identical, except that, as part of the British effort to determine the best means to achieve speed in their fleet in order to compete with Germany, the Carmania was outfitted with steam turbine engines, while the Caronia had traditional power. When speed and efficiency were measured and compared, the superiority of Carmania’s steam turbines was quickly evident, and Cunard proceeded to install this kind of engine on the Mauretania and the Lusitania. Until the outbreak of the war, the Carmania served as a passenger ship on Cunard’s Liverpool–New York route. In 1914 she was requisitioned by the British government and converted to an armed merchant cruiser. She saw action off the coast of Brazil that year and in 1915 assisted in the Gallipoli campaign. In 1916 the Carmania returned to Cunard and served mainly as a troop transport vessel between Halifax and Liverpool.41

The New Zealand ship Parr remarks on was perhaps the S. S. Ruahine, which had left Wellington on August 15, 1917, and arrived in Halifax Harbor on September 18, 1917. Corporal Lawrence Dudley Chambers, who was on the Ruahine, was also struck by the use of camouflage: “In the distance was a steamer painted light grey with a black whale painted on her side. Another dark grey steamer was painted white fore & aft. At the bow the dark paint resembled . . . a stern while the dark paint at the stern looked like a bow. This makes the vessel look smaller & if going slow a submarine might think she was going the opposite direction or look as though she were reversing. This white fore and aft also helps to deceive the speed of the vessel.”42 The ships Parr and Corporal Chambers saw were apparently examples of the use of “dazzle camouflage,” which sought to create visual confusion, rather than concealment.43

The freighters labeled “Belgium Relief” were ships of the Commission for Belgian Relief, the organization, chaired by Herbert Hoover, set up to supply food to German-occupied Belgium and northern France.44

A diary entry for September 20, 1918, in War Birds (John MacGavock Grider and Elliott White Springs were also on the Carmania) notes that “we’ve got over two thousand [doughboys] on board of the 9th Infantry Regiment of the regular army,” which gives an idea of the size of the effort underway.45 In the same entry, credit is given to Major Leslie MacDill, commanding officer of the detachment, for the first class passage enjoyed by the cadets. Parr, in a letter written September 13, 1917, had suggested a connection between the Major’s trip to Washington and the switch from third to first class (see Introduction). Fiorello La Guardia—the future mayor of New York—offers his own explanation. Although already a congressman, La Guardia had applied for and been accepted by the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. In August of 1917 he reported to Mineola, where he met Major MacDill.

One day Major McDill [sic] gave me a War Department order for 156 passages on any passenger liner sailing from the port of New York. We looked up the sailings and picked the Cunard Line’s S. S. Carmania. McDill told me to go ahead and book the passages. I went down to the Cunard Line offices on lower Broadway, displayed my order and asked for 156 first-class passages. This was the first time the company had carried any aviation cadets, and the head of the passenger division was dubious about giving me first-class passages for them. I gave him all the arguments I could think of, but the only thing that really impressed him was my statement that I knew what I was talking about because I had helped shape the law that created such cadets. I told him I knew it was the intent of Congress that these cadets were entitled to first-class passage. (At least, I thought so.) At any rate, I got the 156 first-class tickets. Major McDill’s eyes almost popped out when I showed him the big bunch of first-class passages. He remarked that if we got away with that, we were good, but he warned me that the responsibility was mine.

Well, this incident proved very interesting. It established a precedent, which was later approved by the Comptroller General of the United States. I am glad it was. Otherwise I would have been stuck for the difference between soldier rate—third-class or steerage—and first class.46

Crossed flags were used as the insignia of the Signal Corps.

Chicago born Albert Spalding (1888–1953) had studied violin extensively in Florence and Bologna, which would explain his being called on to assist with teaching the cadets Italian.47 (Parr’s reference to “studying Spanish” is a slip of the pen.) Spalding enlisted as a private and, as such, was not initially permitted a first class berth. According to War Birds, “they finally got Spalding up in the first class on the excuse that he has to be there for private instructions.”48

“Our Major,” Leslie MacDill, was born in Illinois in 1889; he received his B.A. from Hanover College in Indiana and an A.M. from the University of Indiana in 1911. He then entered military service as a second lieutenant with the Coast Artillery Corps, joined the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps in 1914, and trained to fly at the Signal Corps aviation school in San Diego.49 Before going overseas with his contingent of cadets on the Carmania, he served briefly with the First Aero Squadron and then with the Second in the Phillippines.50

Mrs. Millikin was Louise Millikin (née Harriman), whom Parr visited prior to embarking on the Carmania (see Introduction). Her father-in-law, Peter Bryson Millikin, was a prominent Baltimore businessman who in this period lived on Madison Avenue, not far from the Hooper family home at 1626 Bolton Street.51 Her husband, B. Carter Millikin, was around this time working for the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in New York City and residing with his wife and children in Roselle, New Jersey, within easy visiting distance for Parr during his stay in Mineola.52

Our God Mother, Mrs., and Miss Bird are unidentified.

The ferry and car floats built by us are presumably ones built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey, where Parr had been employed.

The record of (civilian) passengers arriving in Liverpool on the Carmania on this voyage includes two Canadian men; the one Parr mentions was almost certainly George H. Harrower, a sixty year old “manufacturer.”53 He had two sons, Robert Hamilton and Gordon Stuart, both slightly younger than Parr.54 Robert volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force on April 15, 1916, serving in Lord Strathcona’s Horse (R.C).55 Gordon was issued a flying certificate (license) by the Royal Aero Club dated January 9, 1916, having been tested on a Wright biplane at the Stinson School at San Antonio Texas.56 He became a member of No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service and flew a Sopwith Camel.57 Parr’s reference to scout fighting machines makes clear that such planes were now being used as fighters, not simply for reconnaissance, which was the original purpose of “scout” machines. Where Americans used the term “pursuit,” the French “chasse,” and the Germans “Jagd,” the R.F.C./R.A.F. stuck with the term “scout” for their fast, light, single-seater planes, even after they were machine-gun equipped and used less for reconnaissance and more for combat.58

S.S. Carmania, writing room

Saturday morning, September 22, 1917

Just after I stopped writing yesterday, we were summoned on the boat (top) deck to a boat drill. We noticed that several of the large ships lying in the inner anchorage were getting under way, and presently we heard our own engine telegraph bell ringing. We were all thrilled at the assumption that the fleet was getting under way. Four or five of the large ships slowly approached us and we were surprised at their great size and loads of soldiers. As they passed we all exchanged hearty cheers. Then the word was passed around that we should stand at attention when the flagship passed. A large gray liner went by and we fell into ranks at attention. The passing liner’s band played “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Save the King.” At the conclusion we all shouted and waved like mad. Then our buglers sounded to colors—more cheering. It was all so very real and spontaneous that it was by far the most thrilling and emotional experience I had ever had, but it was just a little touch compared to what was to immediately follow.

Our ship backed around and steamed slowly through the narrow harbor past the city. We were allowed to break ranks and climbed up to all the points of vantage in our superstructure. Every living person in the town, the cottages on both sides of the harbor, along the shore, in boats and railroad trains showed themselves and waved and shouted. There is one very picturesque promontory formed by a hill on which are pine trees and a small red cottage. The front porch was covered by a large Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. Then there was a flag pole above it with the Stars and Stripes flying. There were a couple of little boys and two girls (20 yrs.) about. One girl was a shark at wig-wagging and with a handkerchief in each hand sent us messages “We are Americans,” while the boy dipped the flag up and down on the pole and everybody shouted.

Then we passed a couple of British battleships. We all fell into ranks and their bands played “Star Spangled Banner.” By this time it had begun to get me and when I was not shouting and waving my handkerchief I was using it on my nose.

One ship’s band played “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot.” But the worst was yet to come. We approached some British Admiral’s Flagship. We all fell into ranks and our buglers played “To the Colors”; then the Flagship’s band played “Star Spangled Banner” while every one on both ships stood at salute. Just about this time I got an acute case of convulsions starting in the solar plexus and coming up by way of the abdomen; and I am the guy that can smile at funerals. When the band had finished, the Admiral came out on his bridge and led his crew in cheers. It surely was a send-off.

There was a line of about ten of us that went out of [censored]. I believe we have two converted merchantmen as convoys.

Last night was very dark and it was very interesting to try to imagine where the other ships were and in which direction we were going.

This morning is very clear, cooler and bracing. There are 14 ships forming our fleet, all strung along a mile or more apart.

We had some very fine singing last night, and a rotten Italian lesson.

This afternoon, Mr. Spalding gave us a violin concert. It surely was fine. It seemed terrible that a fellow who can play so beautifully should be wearing a khaki uniform. The situation was rather pathetic. If he gets hurt war surely is Hell, but believe me the submarines and the Boches will have to go some to get him.

Parr is presumably using the term “wig-wagging” loosely, as this signaling technique developed during the Civil War uses one flag, as opposed to semaphore, which uses two.59 But the usage cannot have been idiosyncratic. A man in another ship in the convoy described the departure from Halifax Harbor: “Women on a bluff high above the harbor wig-wagged with semaphore flags.”60

censored: At this point a strip of paper has been cut out of the letter of about the right size to remove, I presume, the words “Halifax Harbor.” This was an assembly point for ships in the convoy system the British began using in May of 1917 to protect ships from German submarines as they crossed the Atlantic.

I am aware of three first-hand accounts (there are probably more) that attempt to name all the “ships forming our fleet.” There are some discrepancies, but it appears that the following sixteen (!) ships crossed the Atlantic together starting on September 21, 1917: Anchises, Canada, Carmania, Carpathia, Grampian, Ionian, Kroonland, Medic, Miltiades, Mokoia, Mongolia, Orissa, Orita, Ruahine, Themistocles, and Victoria (or Victorian).61 Ernest de Mouncey, author of one of the accounts, remarks of the convoy: “There are approximately 17,300 soldiers all told, almost an army in itself.”62

The Anchises, the Miltiades, the Medic, and the Themistocles were “HMATs” (His Majesty’s Australian Transports) carrying members of the Australian Expeditionary Force who had begun their voyages in Australia in early August.63 The Ruahine and the Mokoia were “HMNZTs,” carrying New Zealand Expeditionary Force troops, and had started in New Zealand in mid August.64 These six ships joined up after passing through the Panama Canal and traveled as a convoy to Halifax.65 The Carmania, the Carpathia, the Kroonland, and the Mongolia had started in New York, having gathered American troops before setting off for the rendezvous in Halifax.66 The Grampian, the Ionian and the Canada started from Montreal. The Canada was carrying officers and men of the 26th Division U.S. Infantry; the Ionian and Grampian were both carrying Serbian reservists as well as other military personnel.67 The Orissa and the Orita originated in South America, but took on American and Australian troops, probably at Halifax.68 I have not been able to further identify the Victoria(n).69 Shortly before reaching the British Isles, the Carpathia, the Mokoia, the Miltiades, the Ruahine, and the Themistocles separated and headed to Glasgow, where they arrived on October 2.70 The Anchises, the Canada, the Carmania, the Ionian, the Kroonland, the Orissa, and the Orita, all docked at Liverpool on October 2, the Mongolia on October 3, with the Grampian and the Medic following on the 9th and 12th respectively.71

September 23 [1917]

Medium sea running. Temperature bracing. Concert in the music room in evening. Mr. Spalding did not play. It was great walking on deck all today. I could have stayed out all the time and enjoyed it, but I had to go after the Italian. It seems like a very easy language but I cannot remember the words.

I have not been down into the machinery spaces of the ship at all. In fact I have not explored very much anywhere.

September 24 [1917] Monday

Just before dinner, I went down into the for’d fire rooms. Got to chatting with an under engineer. He was on the Franconia, in the fire room next to the one the torpedo entered at the time she was struck. He said “You’d be surprised how quickly the cold water came in after the blow.” I am going down again and see some more of her power plant.

The Italian class is getting to be real misery. The captain who conducts it is sane and a decent fellow at other times but in the class he is a mad man. Today he made me so mad I did not get over it all afternoon, and I did not even get called on.

for’d” is conjecture; the original letter reads “Ford.”

The Franconia was another Cunard operated ocean liner that was turned into a troop transport vessel. She was torpedoed by a U-boat and sank in the Mediterranean on October 4, 1916; she was carrying no troops at the time, but 12 of the 314 crew died.72

The Italian teacher and captain was Fiorello La Guardia.73

September 26, 1917

The troops aboard are getting organized for submarines. Our detachment is going to keep a continuous guard of ten men at once scouring the sea with field glasses for signs of U-boats, and the infantry is going to keep a continuous line of riflemen along both sides. Today I got the old engine bee in my bonnet again and did some sketching on it. Tonight after supper I had an interesting confab on the upper deck with Clarence Fry, the typical story-book Southerner. He corrected some of my barbarous ideas of what was the proper way to act towards the Germans during the war, and taught me some chivalry. I have finished reading The Rhymes of a Red Cross Man and a volume of Service’s poems about the North Land, including the “Spell of the Yukon,” etc.

Clarence Horne Fry, a 1912 graduate of Tennessee’s Columbia Military Academy, was in Parr’s ground school class at Ohio State University School of Military Aeronautics, graduating with him on August 25, 1917.74

Robert W. Service was living in Paris when war broke out and worked for a time as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. His collection, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, was published in 1916 and dedicated to the memory of his brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, who had been killed in action in France in August of that year. The other volume Parr was reading was probably Service’s best known collection, the 1907 Songs of a Sourdough, which was also published as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses.75

Sunday, September 30, 1917

Well I surely am glad I work in a ship yard that built some of our destroyers. Yesterday, when I woke up from my nap after being on submarine watch I went up on deck at about 4 P.M. and there were ten lovely little destroyers all about our fleet and loping along with us. Two of them were American like the ones we built. They surely did look fine. They had just arrived and everybody was tickled to pieces. Such bright faces all about. We all felt like taking the graceful little things into our arms and bear-hugging them.

I was on submarine watch from Friday at 5 P.M. to Saturday at 5 P.M, 2 hours on and 4 hours off. My mate Heater and I had the station on the starboard end of the navigating bridge. One of us combed the sea with glasses and the other one with the naked eyes, and alternated about every 10 minutes. It was very interesting because for the first time we were really doing a duty in the war. We were really looking for submarines, periscopes, torpedo wakes, etc. The moon was out, but the clouds were pretty heavy and darkened it most of the time. We wagered a dinner in Rome for the one who saw the enemy first, but it was never decided. The navigating bridge was a very interesting station. We could see something of the work of the Captain and officers, watch the signaling between ships, etc.

Everybody has been required to wear their life preserver at all times except when sleeping and eating and then it must be right by you. It seems very funny to see everybody walking around with the preservers on and carrying them into the dining room.

The submarine watch was a very pretentious affair. It was carried out with all the military pomp and formality possible, parades, inspection, etc. We have gotten on such familiar terms with the subs in theory and imagination that to get torpedoed would seem like a natural event in the day’s activities. We have boat drill every day and have been ordered to sleep with our clothes on, but I can’t see doing that. Before the convoy met us I was all prepared for going down. There were two things I wanted especially to do. The one was to measure the time from the explosion to the sinking with my stop watch, and the other was to take a few pictures of her after she was hit. I kept my camera in my pocket and kept the stops adjusted for the kind of light I expected to have in the coming hour. Heater just left for supper (I am writing in my state room) and after a minute returned saying, “I needs must not forget my corky waist coat” as he picked up his forgotten life preserver.

Night before last, I had a session of sock darning and Heater and I got to talking. He is a very quicked [sic] Westerner (Dakota). We got to learning things about each other and found out that we were Tau Beta Pi brothers. He graduated from Purdue last June.

They issued very strict orders that no pictures could be taken aboard ship, so I have not gotten enough to try my hand at developing. Also no letters are to be sealed or stamped, and no written matter sent any way except as open written matter. I am wondering how much of this will get to you.

I have had a lot of fun with my glasses. I have compared them with some very fine modern ones and I think they are the best. It is surprising how much detail you can see with those little ones.

Charles Louis Heater, from Manden, North Dakota, received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Purdue in 1917 and graduated from Cornell University’s ground school on September 1, 191776

October 1, 1917

Well we expect to land early tomorrow morning, October 2, and I am going to pack my duds. No one knows how much time we will spend in England or where we will go.

Love to all and be sure that I am all right.