200 Plus

A ‘Grewsome’ Voyage Home

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Mar 14, 2018

After the Army transport Sumner survived two typhoons in the Pacific, the U.S. government decided it was time to bring the ship back to the East Coast. It was considered by many to be the finest and most elegant transport in the Army, and as such was chosen for a special honor.

On April 28, 1903, the Hawaiian Gazette said the Sumner “will probably carry from Manila to Spain one of the most historic, and at the same time, grewsome (sic) cargoes, ever consigned to the hold of an American ship. When the warship Regina Christina, flagship of Admiral Montojo, who was in command of the Spanish fleet sunk in Manila bay by Dewey on May 1, 1898, was floated on April 12, the skeletons of about eighty of her crew were found in the hulk. One skeleton is believed to have been that of an officer, as a sword was lying by its side.

 “The Spanish residents of Manila objected, and expressed a desire to have the skeletons shipped to Spain for interment. As the request will doubtless be granted, the transport Sumner may be assigned to the duty of conveying them to Spain as the vessel has to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar in order to cross the Atlantic to New York.”

Unfortunately, things seldom go as planned. The New York Times on July 7 reported, “The United States transport Sumner, having on board the Fourth Infantry, struck an uncharted reef and her forward hold filled rapidly, necessitating the vessel being beached. The Fourth Infantry was on its way to various stations in the Island of Luzon.

“The Sumner was beached in seven feet of water, near Mauban, Province of Tayabas, Island of Luzon. The Quartermaster’s Department has dispatched two inter-island transports to continue the distribution of the Fourth Infantry and to bring the Twenty-eighth Infantry to Manila.”

Not only did the Sumner seem jinxed, but the Philadelphia Inquirer of July 10 told the story of the Army officer from New Jersey on board.

“Captain Joseph C. Castner, who is now with his regiment, the Fourth U. S. Infantry, in the Philippines, has just been shipwrecked for the fourth time since receiving his commission. … Captain Castner’s first wreck was in Alaska in 1898, when he was on an exploring tour for the War Department. He suffered the most intense hardships with his party, he and four enlisted men living for weeks on roots and wild rose seed pods, while they tramped overland to an Eskimo Village. A year later, while on his way with a party of troops to Manila, he was wrecked off the coast of Japan, and a week later finishing that trip he was wrecked in Manila Bay.”

Finally, on Oct. 18, the San Francisco Chronicle was able to announce, “The fine transport Sumner, which was detained several months in the Philippines and Hongkong as a result of striking a rock near one of the island ports, is now on her way to New York, having been repaired at Hongkong at an expense of about $70,000. The report has been received from Manila that the Sumner was trice carried upon the rocks but her bottom gave way. The first time after striking and getting into deep water, the vessel was backed off, and, under the direction of the pilot, was sent ahead, only to again go upon the rocks. This was once more repeated, the last time the effect being to tear out much of the transport’s bottom plates. After temporary repairs, the vessel was sent to Hongkong and put in condition for (the) long trip to New York. She is under command of a new captain.”

The Sumner’s cargo this time would be more personal. The Baltimore Sun of Oct. 23 announced, “Major Bellinger, of the Quartermaster-General’s office, who has supervision of national cemeteries, has been informed that the remains of 163 soldiers who lost their lives in the Philippines are being brought home by the transport Sumner, by the Mediterranean route, and probably will arrive at New York about the middle of November.

“All of these bodies claimed by relatives or friends will be sent to their late homes for interment, and all those unclaimed will be brought to this city for burial in the Arlington Cemetery.”

Americans were beginning to learn that there was a price to pay for becoming a world power. The New York Times of Nov. 22 carried “The United States transport Sumner, the second ‘death’ ship from the Philippines arrived here yesterday morning. On board were 171 bodies of soldiers of the United States Army who died in service, and whose bodies were disinterred in order that they might rest in this country.

“There were 196 officers and men aboard who comprise the Second Battalion, Fifth United States Infantry, commanded by Major Edwin M. Glenn. All of the men were in excellent health, though in their light uniforms and being without overcoats, they suffered considerably from the climatic change. They disembarked immediately after the vessel had tied up to the West Shore Railroad pier in Weehawken.

“The work of removing the bodies of the dead soldiers will be begun on Monday. The vessel will be brought from Weehawken to Pier 12, East River, and as fast as the bodies are removed they will be sent to those claiming them. The bodies not claimed will be buried in the National Cemetery at Arlington, Va.”

It had been a long trip home.

“The voyage of the Sumner from Manila was without incident except for the stop at Bombay. She is said to be the first vessel with United States troops aboard that has ever put in at that place, and the officers and men of the English regiments located there made it the opportunity to entertain the Americans. At Malta and again at Gibraltar the officers of the English garrison visited the ship and later received the voyagers onshore. The trip took sixty-five days.”

The Sumner also carried evidence that fighting a guerrilla war in a hostile country was extremely difficult. “Major Glenn and Major Robert L. Howze were recently acquitted by a court-martial of charges of cruelty which it was alleged they practiced against the natives in the Philippines. Major Glenn was prominent in what was called the ‘water cure’ affair, and Major Howe was tried of his own application after charges of cruelty to the natives had been made against him by Gen. Miles.”

On board the transport as it returned home was one other item of importance. Seventeen years before America had a tomb for the Unknown Soldier, the Sumner carried one from the Philippines.

Leslie’s Weekly Magazine immortalized the event in a poem saying, “No name was missed at roll call – Not one among knew – the slender, boyish figure – Arrayed in army blue. – Among our fallen soldiers – They brought him o’er the deep – And with nation’s heroes – They laid him down to sleep – A starry flag above him – And on the simple stone – That marked his final bivouac – The single word ‘Unknown.’”   

In 1903, the U.S. Army transport Sumner was back from the Pacific, but the lines written about her cargo still have meaning today. “Perchance a mother watches – Her eyes with weeping dim – Or sweetheart waits the postman – In vain for news of him – While snow of winter freezes – And April violets thrust – Sweet blossoms through the grasses – Above his nameless dust.’”

The Sumner was now less than 100 miles from the site of her future grave, but there were still some cruises left to be made.

Next Week: Mutiny and teachers.


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