200 Plus

Rough Seas in the Pacific

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Mar 07, 2018

U.S. Army Transport Sumner, destined to end its career on the Barnegat Shoals, arrived in Manila in the Philippine Islands, on May 23, 1900, carrying almost 1,000 troops. It had left Sandy Hook, N.J., 53 days earlier and traveled by way of the Suez Canal. Once in the Pacific, the ship began ferrying troops around the islands, along with trips to Japan and China, as the United States was trying to put down the Philippine insurrection and what became known as the Boxer Rebellion, in China. The ship also made regular trips to San Francisco.

The San Francisco Chronicle of June 16, 1900, noted, “The transport Sumner is scheduled to sail from this port for Guam and Manila July 16th. The vessel is now enroute here from the Philippines on her first trip, having sailed from New York only a few weeks ago, via the Suez Canal. At the time of her departure from New York she was reported by the Eastern press to be the finest transport in the service, although not so large as some of the transports which are familiar to this port.”

When the ship arrived, the newspapers around the country announced, “San Francisco, June 20 – The transport Sumner arrived today from Manila with a number of army officers and civilians, together with forty-three sick soldiers, seventy discharged men, twelve insane patients and ten members of the hospital corps. … During the voyage there were four deaths on board.”

As time passed, the ship’s cruises became routine, with only a few to attract attention.

“Capt. E.V. Lynam, being duly sworn … ‘I am the captain of the U.S. army transport Sumner, I have been going to sea for forty years. About 3 p.m. on March 18, … we passed the Tungsha light, going about 4 miles an hour plus the tide. We were going with the tide, which was making 1½ to 2 miles an hour. I was on the bridge. There was a very thick fog. I heard a bell ahead. I think it was the small relieving bell in the pilot house. Within five seconds after I heard the bell (as near as I can estimate) I saw the glimmer of the stern of a ship ahead, a little on the port bow. We (the pilot and I) ordered the engines full speed astern and the helm hard aport. The other ship was lying a little across the current. When we touched the other ship, the Sumner was nearly or quite dead in the water. We just touched the side of the other ship, and went astern, and went ahead under the stern of the other ship. The only damage I could see from the bridge was that we broke his side ladder, and our port anchor caught and bent one of his boat davits. I did not hail the other ship. We saw there was no danger to the other ship.’”

The Sumner had rammed the Norwegian ship Ragnar at anchor in Manila Bay, setting off an international firestorm as to who was at fault and who should pay. Finally the U.S. consul general ruled, “As the Ragnar was at anchor and was ringing her bell, and the Sumner was in motion, going at considerable speed in a black fog, in the mouth of a river which is the approach to a considerable seaport, although it was known that other vessels were ahead of the Sumner in the fog, I decided that the Sumner was to blame for the collision, and asked the agents of the Ragnar for proof of the amount of repairs made.”

The Sumner would have better luck when the Honolulu Bulletin reported, “The Sumner makes this voyage as a special trip to bring back to the Mainland Vice Governor of the Philippines Luke E. Wright and Major General Ada R. Chaffee, together with several members of General Chaffee’s staff and a few other passengers. … The Sumner left Manila October 2, Nagasaki October 9, and Yokohama October 15. She had only been one day out when a terrible typhoon struck the vessel, giving all on board a most terrible experience.”

Capt. Lynam recalled the storm.

“On the noon of October 16 the falling barometer led me to suspect that a typhoon was approaching from some southwesterly direction. During the afternoon the gale rapidly increased until its awful force became indescribable . No matter how vivid man’s imagination may be, or how readily and easily he can command eloquent and expressive language, it would be utterly impossible for him to describe the awful tumult of which this ship formed the centerpiece last evening.”

Then the Sumner entered the eye of the typhoon.

“… then we had very little wind, from southwest, with stars out overhead. … Our barometer commenced to go up, and I congratulated myself that we had seen the worst of the storm – false delusion. In a few moments the gale commenced anew with a force that outdid anything we had seen before.”

In 1902, there was no radio on board ships. The Sumner was alone in the vast Pacific.

“I wish I could describe the awful scene around the ship. … We could not see once the ship’s length away in any direction. The sea rose in mounds of roaring, rushing water which hurled against the ship as though their only aim was her destruction. … as the ship overcame each angry wave which charged upon her from unseen space beyond our world and went like raving furies in quest of other victims.”

The captain continued, “During the worst of the gale a sea boarded the ship, striking on the starboard side, smashing No. 7 lifeboat, throwing the steam launch out of her chocks, carrying away chain lashings, tearing beds out of the deck and throwing the launch on her beam ends afoul the side of Quartermaster Captain’s quarters, in which Mrs. Chaffee had been lodged since she came on board.”

This was the second storm the Sumner had encountered on the voyage. A passenger on board remembered the first.

“About 6 o’clock in the morning, Captain Lynam entered the smoking room and assured those of the passengers who had been freely hoping all the way across for a typhoon that they were about to have their wish. ... ‘You people who wanted to see a typhoon,’ shouted the bluff old sailor through the roar of the elements, ‘will have a chance to know all about one before night.’

“‘Will it be any worse than this, captain?’ asked a lady. … ‘Indeed it will; it’s scarcely begun’ was his reply, as he vanished up the companionway.”

The captain was right.

“It was a grim scene: white and anxious faces scanned the sea in search of hope, but the storm held on with pitiless purpose and energy. Women kept in their staterooms and talked as quietly as the roar of the storm would permit in the smoking room. Men passed feeble jokes and laughed nervously at trifles. Down in the bowels of the ship, steaming with sweat and grime and dirt stood the faithful engineers. All through the storm an engineer stood at the throttle, cutting off the steam at every wild plunge to prevent the screw from racing. An accident to the machinery meant, perhaps, the loss of the ship with all hands.”

Finally the Sumner’s ordeal was over. The passengers concluded, “Too much cannot be said of the weatherly qualities of the ship. She behaved like a fair woman at a dance. Her plunges and curtsies were occasionally wild and she creaked and groaned a little, but all in all her behavior was magnificent, and it may be said with all positiveness that few ships so situated would have made as good weather of the typhoon as did the Sumner. Nor can less be said of the way she was handled. Night and day, before and during the storm Captain Lynam and First Officer Dunbar were ever on the alert, taking practically no rest, and always putting every effort into the care of the ship and her people.”

Army Transport Sumner had survived two typhoons and a collision in the Pacific. It was time to come home.

Next Week: Back in the Atlantic.


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