200 Plus

From Troop Transport to Special Missions

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Mar 21, 2018

U.S. Army transport Sumner was destined to end its career on the Barnegat Shoals, but there is a long and winding story of how the ship got there. By June 1904, the Sumner was back in the Atlantic after surviving two typhoons and a collision in the Pacific. Living up to her reputation as the most elegant ship in the Army, the Sumner was chosen for several special missions.

On the 13th, The Bridgeport, N.J. Courier News announced, “The United States army transports Sumner and Kilpatrick have left here for Porto Rico to bring to the United States 600 Porto Rican schoolteachers. Congress at the last session made an appropriation for the trip. Two hundred of the teachers are to take the summer course at Cornell, and the others will be in Boston and other eastern cities during the summer.”

More details were reported in the Washington Evening Star a few days later. 

“The Sumner, carrying about 200 teachers, will go direct to New York. The teachers are to attend school about six weeks after which those brought to New York will re-embark on the Sumner and sail for Boston, to spend two days seeing the sights of that city. All the teachers are then to re-embark on the two transports and proceed to New York where they will remain about two days seeing the sights and then proceed to Philadelphia.”

On July 2, the New York Tribune told the story of the ship’s cruise.

“The Sumner sailed from San Juan on June 26, and had fine weather until Thursday night. That night the four occupants of two rooms went to sleep with the portholes of their staterooms open. Suddenly along came an immense comber, and before they were well awake there was a foot of water in their bunks. A drenched quartet from each room fled shrieking into the corridors.

“No one knew the reason of the sudden outcry, and the whole ship below decks was a turmoil of white clothed, shrieking women. The crew, with the usual dipsy gallantry, rushed below, and, discovering the reason for the trouble, closed the ports, bailed out the bunks and gave up their blankets so that the teachers might have a dry place to sleep.”

The New Jersey Home News reported on one of the highlights of the visit in August, as the teachers, “on their homeward trip anchored off Atlantic City … the Sumner remained at Atlantic City until night, but the Kilpatrick in the afternoon went on to New York. A small boat, filled with teachers, came ashore to spend the afternoon. … the teachers asked to have the craft stopped in order they could study the resort through marine glasses. A number of yachts went out from the Inlet and exchanged greetings with Porto Ricans.”

The next VIP duty for the Sumner involved politicians. The Star discovered on Oct. 20, “The big military transport Sumner is being fitted out for the purpose of taking Secretary Taft and party to Panama. As stated in yesterday’s Star, the main purpose of Secretary Taft’s visit to the isthmus is to give personal assurances to the president and official of the Panama government that the United States has no desire or intention to transgress any of the rights of Panama in utilizing the canal strip for the construction of the interoceanic canal.

“Secretary Taft will be accompanied by Rear Admiral Walker, chairman of the canal commission; Judge Magoon, law officer of the commission, and all members of the Senate and House committees dealing with isthmian affairs who are willing to go. … It is expected that the trip will not take more than a month’s time.”

Even on a ship used to carrying VIPs there could be problems. The Brooklyn Eagle of Feb. 26, 1906, declared there had been a mutiny on board.

“On the arrival of the transport Sumner … Charles Watts, 30 years old, a member of the crew who had been in irons throughout the greater part of the voyage from Cuba, was removed to the Fourth Avenue police station, charged with having attempted to kill H.P. De Winter, master-at-arms, while the Sumner was in Cuban waters.

“Captain M.E. Nye declared that every man who did his duty would get good treatment, while summary action would be taken to punish recalcitrants.

“Watts’ alleged attempt at murder was the result of a dispute with De Winter over a bottle of grog, the master-at-arms had found in the man’s bunk. The others of the crew based their complaints on the quality and quantity of the food. One man who openly sympathized with Watts was put in irons, but upon expressing repentance was released after one day of confinement.

“Just before the Sumner sailed from Havana it was learned by Captain Nye that members of the crew had smuggled aboard a large quantity of grog. He gave orders to his officers to seize all that could be found, and so well was the search conducted that jugs and bottles by the dozen were thrown overboard.”

By 1915, the Sumner’s glory days were behind it, and the Washington Post of Aug. 8 reported the ship was about to enter routine service. “Although the request of army officers stationed in the Canal Zone for a regular transport service between this country and the zone at first was not looked upon with favor by the War Department, it is possible that such a service will be established.

“The quartermaster general of the army has recommended the establishment of a service that contemplates the use of the transport Sumner, now undergoing repairs and overhauling at New York. It is proposed that this vessel ply between New York and Cristobal, sailing at six-week intervals. The outgoing trip, according to the proposed plans, would be made by way of Galveston, Tex., and on the return trip the vessel would proceed directly to New York.”

But in a time of crisis, the Sumner could still answer the call. In 1916 it appeared that the United States and Mexico would soon be at war, and the Courier News of June 17 explained, “The army transport Sumner has been ordered to proceed immediately to Tampico, Mex., and take all Americans from that port.

“There are believed to be 180 American citizens there. The orders were secretly issued yesterday and the Sumner is now on her way to that port from Newport News, Virginia.”

The situation was worse than thought, and according to a report in the Trenton Times on July 3, “VERA CRUZ. The transport Sumner left yesterday with 650 Americans on board, all protesting bitterly because the ship’s destination was Tampa and not Galveston, as they had hoped.”

Unknowingly, the Sumner sailed into a hurricane. The Asbury Park Press three days later carried some good news. “For many hours there had been intense anxiety over the U.S. transport Sumner, bringing many refugees to Tampa from Vera Cruz, but early today a radiogram from the ship stated that it had avoided the fury of the hurricane.”

Reporters from the local Tampa paper boarded the Sumner after it arrived.

“All about the ship were little reminders of the voyage, its discomforts and the few pleasures. One notice posted on the wall warned the men against utilizing the steamer chairs unless women were seated. Another brought to mind what might have been a thrilling adventure had it been noised about at the time. A lighted cigarette, thrown overboard, had caught in a wind chute. A blaze was discovered in time to have occasioned no danger. The notice warned those aboard to be sure all stumps went into the ocean.

“Another interesting notice was that calling attention to the approaching Fourth (of July) and setting aside the day as one for the pleasure of those aboard ‘providing weather permitted.’”

By December, the Sumner was back in service with a new captain, 41-year-old Bruno Webber, who was enjoying his first command. The Sumner had left the Canal Zone on Dec. 4, bound for New York City. The captain remembered that on Dec. 11, the ship was off the coast of New Jersey following a course which “would have brought me clear of Barnegat Shoals five miles, passing just eastward Gas and Whistle buoy. … I estimated that at no time the visibility was less than one mile. After dark rain continued until about 7:30 P.M., when it cleared up sufficiently to see a distance from four to five miles ... I encountered steamers both east and west of me, which confirmed me, in my judgement, that I was on the regular route, and perfectly safe. … At 10:00 P.M., it set in very thick very suddenly, I immediately slowed down to half speed, setting the steam whistle going at one minute intervals. As my course was taking me directly parallel to the coast I did not slow down, because I had apprehension of being near the shore and in danger of running aground, but because I was in the regular steamer track and going at slow speed was sure of being better able to handle my ship if the occasion arose.”

The captain was wrong.

Next Week: SOS!


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