Encyclopedia Titanica

RMS Olympic: The Early Years


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RMS Olympic
RMS Olympic from the cover of a first class passenger list

It's easy to start the story of Olympic by talking about a limousine pulling up in front of Downshire House. However this has been over-used in many books and articles. What can one say about the career of Titanic's sister-ship? A brief period made her the largest ship in the world? She was requisitioned as a troop transport during World War One? She sank the Nantucket Lightship? There's only a handful of people left who can appreciate having sailed the Olympic. The anniversary of her maiden voyage crossing is approaching. What better than to read about her early years then in the words of the people lucky to have traveled on her.

The newspapers wrote extensively about the goings-on aboard the new luxury liner. The celebration of the Olympic's first 4th of July ball where Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, traveling under an assumed name, scandalously danced with young C.H. Duell to the 'Teddy Bear" and an Apache dance Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, who was in mourning, watched from the window and sarcastically referred to it as the "Duell Bunny Cuddle". Or when music hall star, Marie Lloyd shared one of the most expensive suites with a much younger jockey named Bernard Dillon and was held as an undesirable alien when it was revealed they were not married.

Professional gamblers flocked to the new ship along with celebrities and members of society. One young target, Barton Harvey, a wealthy restaurateur, ignored warnings about gambling and had card sharps in his stateroom every evening. Each day, he lost more and with that he began drinking heavily. The last round cost him $10,000. The stress of the loss, the drinking and supposedly the frequenting of the Turkish baths was too much on his heart and he collapsed. Dr. Beaumont declared him dead a few hours later. Efforts to find the card-sharps were fruitless.

Another time, a fight broke out in the smoking room when a French passenger accused a well-known financier of New York of cheating. This same voyage, the ship lost one it's propeller screws and was sixteen hours late in arriving in New York.

A collision with HMS Hawke made people take notice that perhaps ships were becoming too large and too powerful. It was thought that the displacement from the Olympic sucked the HMS Hawke right into her. For most passengers though it was just a relaxing and luxurious way to cross in those early days. Robert Malcolmson, a passenger on the return maiden voyage, echoed the sentiments of many when he said, "And now en route in the Olympic, the finest and largest steamer in the world."

RMS Olympic Funnel
One of RMS Olympic's funnels on the dockshide at Harland & Woll prior to fitting



Clive Livingstone Du Val.

The White Star Steamship Olympic, sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic, left New York in June, 1911, on her first east-bound trip, under the pleasantest auspices and skies. In the lower bay, as a last graceful good-bye, an aviator, in a biplane, far above the Olympic's wireless apparatus, dropped, or rather attempted to drop, a bunch of roses on her deck.

The Olympic has miles of deck and endless corridors, but she was hardly clear of Sandy Hook before the Yale men on board began to come together. The ship was so steady and the weather so fair that it wasn't long before one or two of the older graduates on board conceived the original idea of having an old fashioned reunion, smoker, 1492 gathering, call it what you will. At any rate the idea appealed to every Yale man on board, and I think even the organizers of what proved to be a most unique and pleasurable time were surprised to find that no less than thirty-seven graduates and undergraduates were on board. A spontaneous committee, consisting of Bishop Lines, '72, of Connecticut, and George E. Ide, '81, interviewed the Chief Deck Steward and secured the starboard palm garden on the promenade deck for the evening before our arrival in Southampton

Passengers on Olympic
Yale Graduates aboard the Olympic
(Courtesy of Trevor Powell)

At nine o'clock on that evening, the dozen small round tables in the palm garden were occupied by Yale men from 1911 to 1872. The Yale graduate fresh from Commencement to the seasoned graduate of many years standing were both equally enthusiastic over the first ocean smoker. The palm garden being a public room, of course our smoker was to a certain extent an open one, and many of the passengers gathered at the entrance to hear the songs and cheers and informal remarks. A number of our Harvard friends seemed especially envious because the same idea had not occurred to them.

Mr. Ide acted as toastmaster in the most genial manner. Bishop Lines addressed us shortly on "Yale Men Abroad," and every man present suspected of having any accomplishment was called upon to exhibit it. Several members of the Glee Club happened to be on board, and under their leadership, we had all the good old songs, and many others too.

Eleven-thirty came, and with it the Chief Steward, who informed us that regulations called for "lights out." No one wanted lights out, but the discipline of the ship could not be relaxed even for a Yale smoker; but before we adjourned it was suggested and unanimously carried that a wireless be sent to President Taft with the good wishes of the first Yale Ocean Smoker. Thirty-seven very happy Yale men then stood and sang "Bright College Years" as the lights flickered and died out.

History of the class of 1903, Yale College by Yale University.
The 1903 men present were Clive Livingstone Du Val (b.1879), Harry Wilfred Du Puy (b.1880), and Thomas Jefferson Gaines (b. 1879)


Sailing from New York on the White Star liner Olympic on the 27th day of July, I witnessed one of the most touching scenes of my life. Gathered on the pier were hundreds of men, women and children, bidding au revoir to the friends and relatives who were to sail out into the deep, with destinations to other shores, foreign lands and tongues. Each person aboard endeavored to secure the most conspicuous position in order that he or she might be enabled to get the last glimpse of the friends they were leaving behind. There was a feeling of expectancy like unto the experience of childhood in preparation for a great outing or a Sunday picnic, but this sentiment soon changed as we gradually plowed our way through the inland waters and then into the ocean and out of sight of the great American continent of liberty.

Every one remained on deck until the setting of the sun, then gradually they adjourned to their cabins to arrange their affairs for a week's domicile aboard the greatest steamship afloat at this time. Awaiting the passengers of each quarter of this floating palace were "servants of every rank and of both genders." I wondered why they were so accommodating and why it was that at every turn their presence was made known to me. It was several days before I understood the real reason actuating them in their interest. My knowledge in this respect was gained from a most interesting passenger who insisted upon reiterating the declaration that he had "crossed several times before." My informant impressed upon my mind the fact that the workers with whom we came in contact aboard the ship were dependent almost entirely upon the liberality of the passengers, and that I was expected to contribute my pro rata to the wages of the various maids, stewards, etc., who occupied most of my time answering their inquiries as to whether I was comfortable.

Third Class Menu for 30 May 1912

I learned that the wages paid to the stewards on the better transatlantic liners rarely exceeded fifteen dollars a round trip, or less than two hundred dollars a year. This convinced me, of course, that the steward or other help with whom I came in contact could not live in respectability unless I paid to him a sum of money which I thought had been covered in my initial payment for passage to the steamship company. Indeed, I was further shocked by the news that it was quite an established policy for the steamship companies to collect a percentage of the tips received by the stewards, and in addition to that fact, they were charged so much a trip for breakage, regardless of whether there was any loss.

Below the water-mark, deep in the hull of the ship are the great engines that make for comfort and passage. Little did I understand or appreciate the trying circumstances under which the men operating these great engines worked until I secured a glimpse of their surroundings. Those who understand the dangerous occupations on land realize the tremendous sacrifices of life that is accorded each year to the comfort and pleasure of the more fortunate, but here aboard a floating bulk of steel and humanity we find men—stokers and coal passers—receiving a compensation of approximately twenty dollars per month, living day in and day out in an environment of intense heat and in the very jaws of death. Yet to these men, working for such beggarly wage, the very life of the hundreds of passengers who sup and dine above depended. In realization of this fact my mind wandered back to the very recent catastrophe in which the great Titanic (the sister ship of the boat on which I was aboard in mid-ocean) was lost, and I was reminded of how very little consideration had been given to those in the hull of the ship when it had been destroyed and who drowned like rats without a chance for their life. That incident, like the condition aboard the Olympic, was one of the survival of the fittest.

Passenger List
First Class Passenger List for a Voyage Commencing 14 June 1924

On deck there was every evidence of class distinction. There were really three specific classes aboard this floating city; the same classification that is found in the factory center of any American city. Between the first- and second-class passengers no one could fail to discern a conspicuous sign announcing the limitation of your freedom. The first-class passengers seemed to look down upon the deck of the second-class passengers with a kind of patronizing sympathy, one of those "it's too bad" glances, and in order that vengeance might be had the second-class passengers would with as much dignity as possible view the third class passengers who stood upon the bare decks looking out into the open sea for their consolation.

RMS Olympic Maiden Voyage
Olympic arrives in New York at the end of her maiden voyage
(Modern Sanitation Magazine)

We had the happy opportunity of viewing the two-thousand-dollar suite that had been used by the money king of America, Mr. Morgan, on the Olympic's previous trip. I inquired of a confiding official if Mr. Morgan really paid two thousand dollars for his passage. He informed me that he was uncertain as to this fact, but that he considered the patronage of Mr. Morgan worth an amount quite equal to that sum, because his presence attracted the better class of oceanic travelers. I was not surprised, however, to later discover that Mr. Morgan traveled free because of his financial interest in many of the transatlantic steamship companies. Although it was generally understood as being an English liner, the discovery only proved the claim that money is not limited by any specific jurisdiction, or industry.

I was enabled, through acquaintances made aboard, to secure a very favorable comparison of the Olympic to the Titanic—both ships were advertised to be non-sinkable and sister ships, with the greatest possible endurance. There was very little to choose between them. The same extravagance existed aboard the Titanic as was found aboard the Olympic, so far as space for the plutocratic traveler was concerned. Gymnasium, pool rooms, libraries, swimming tanks, saloons and parlors equal in size to any found in a modern hotel and furnished as elaborate as the most exclusive hostelry. The provisions for life-saving devices, for the prevention of accidents were given meager space aboard this floating palace, because there was presumably no income from such a source. The ocean standard can be compared very favorably with most every other character of institution; it is reduced to the finest commercial profit-making basis, and the dollar reigns supreme from the stoker to the captain.

Knowing the conditions, one finds it very hard to refuse assistance to the various employees aboard an ocean liner, when one is safely landed or about to be landed on terra firma. It is that understanding of human nature that the steamship companies so thoroughly recognize that causes the continuation of this specie of tyranny and slavery that I have referred to. ON The second day of August, just one week from the day we sailed from New York, I landed at Cherbourg and stepped for the first time upon the soil of a foreign country.

Labor conditions abroad: a review of the social, economic, and political ... By George Leonard Berry


by Ella Wheeler Cox

RMS Olympic Interior
RMS Olympic Interior View from 1920s

My husband and I were on board the Olympic, sailing to England, when the Titanic went down. At the breakfast table our steward told us that news had been received that the Titanic had struck an iceberg, but was saved with all on board.  He said, however, he feared more serious news might come later. Mr. George Marcus, of the firm of Marcus & Company, of New York, was one of the Olympic passengers, and an intimate friend of my husband. Shortly after breakfast we walked on deck, and Mr. Marcus and his artist son walked with us; Mr. Marcus recounted a curious dream he had had the previous afternoon. He said, "I told my son after waking from my afternoon nap, that I had dreamed of the Titanic. I thought I saw it sailing over a smooth sea, and then suddenly run up the sheer straight side of an enormous iceberg and turn a somersault and sink into the sea." The son said both he and his father felt the fate of the Titanic was more serious than had been reported. It was not until the afternoon that the terrible facts were received on board the Olympic. It made the remainder of our voyage very gruesome indeed, as nearly all the crew and half the passengers had friends and relatives on the Titanic. Our room-steward lost his father and two brothers. And it was during this voyage, that we, for the first time, realized fully the wonderful power of poise and self-control possessed by the Englishman. I wrote some verses, entitled "The Englishman," as a result of this experience; and they appeared in an English paper the day we landed. Only on the arrival of the Olympic at the English port was the whole awful truth revealed to us. It was a dramatic hour never to be forgotten.

2nd class menu
2nd Class Menu for 16 June 1911
(Courtesy of Trevor Powell)


Born in the flesh and bred in the bone,
Some of us harbor still
A New World pride: and we flaunt or hide
The Spirit of Bunker Hill.
We claim our place as a separate race
Or a self-created clan:
Till there comes a day, when we like to say
"We are kin of the Englishman."
For under the front that seems so cold
And the voice that is wont to storm,
We are certain to find a big broad mind
And a heart that is soft—and warm.
He carries his woes in a lordly way,
As only the great souls can:
And it makes us glad when in truth we say
"We are kin of the Englishman."
He slams his door in the face of the world,
If he thinks the.world too bold:
He will even curse: but he opens his purse
To the poor, and the sick and the old.
He is slow in giving to woman the vote,
And slow to pick up her fan:

In England I had my attention called to a story by Morgan Robertson, which had been written more than a decade before the Titanic disaster, and which was being republished because of its peculiar plot. The story was entitled "Futility," and described the building of an enormous ship, the Titan, and of its destruction by an iceberg the second day after being launched. At the time the story was first published no such monster passenger ships were known; but Mr. Robertson's imagination had given a picture of the Olympic and Titanic which was almost photographic in detail, and had called his ship the Titan.

Olympic at sea
RMS Olympic at sea
(Courtesy of Jim Kalafus)

I was curious to know more of the matter; so after my return to America I wrote to Mr. Robertson and received the following reply:

"As to the motif of my story, I merely tried to write a good story with no idea of being a prophet. But, as in other stories of mine, and in the work of other and better writers, coming discoveries and events have been anticipated. I do not doubt that it is because all creative workers get into a hypnoid, telepathic and percipient condition, in which, while apparently awake, they are half asleep, and tap, not only the better informed minds of others but the subliminal realm of unknown facts. Some, as you know, believe that in this realm there is no such thing as Time, and the fact that a long dream can occur in an instant of time gives to it, and partly explains prophecy."

RMS Olympic
(Edison Monthly vol 4)

Interesting as Mr. Robertson's letter may be, it leaves the reader of "Futility," written and first published fourteen years before the Titanic was built and sunk, with a-strange and creepy sensation. In the realm of unknown facts, was it already recorded fourteen years previously that the Titanic should sink? And how should Mr. Robertson fix on almost the very name which was afterward given to the ill-fated sea monster?

In the year 1917 a similar puzzling and mysterious incident occurred. Miriam French, a beautiful American woman, was on board The City of Athens, sailing from Cape Town, Africa, to America. During her voyage Mrs. French amused herself by writing a story about the ship and imaginary passengers, and ended the tale by having the ship strike a mine and sink into the sea. Two months later The City of Athens met that exact fate. How can the purely material reasoning mind explain such occurrences?

Daniel H. Burnham : Architect, planner of cities

by Charles Moore

April 13. Theodore N. Ely called; also Henry Bacon. Went to steamship Olympic in Charlotte Graham's auto. Bacon and wife there. Dined in the public dining-room. Hon. Charles Bryan on board.

Frank Millet was sailing on the Titanic with Colonel Archibald Butt, on their return from Rome. That steamship and the Olympic were to pass one another at sea. On the evening of the 14th, Mr. Burnham wrote a message of greeting to Millet and Butt and gave it to his steward to take to the wireless operator. The steward returned to say that the operator declined to receive it, but would make no explanation. Puzzled and worried, Mr. Burnham sent the man back to insist on an explanation. He again returned to say that an accident had happened to the Titanic, that the Olympic had been summoned, and had been ordered to prepare hospital facilities. Thereupon Mr. and Mrs. Burnham arranged to give up their suite of rooms to Millet and Butt. Later, however, they learned that other succor had gone to the Titanic and that the Olympic had been ordered to resume her course.

Reception room
RMS Olympic First Class Reception Room
National Magazine vol 35 1911

April 15. This morning, the steward told us that an accident had occurred on the Titanic, sister ship to the one we are on. She sailed from Cherbourg on the 10th. Later in the day we learned via Marconi, that she had struck an iceberg and had gone down; later yet came a list of survivors (675), mostly women and children. My Chief of Decoration of the Fair of 1893 and Vice Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, Frank D. Millet, whom I loved, was aboard of her, and with him was Major Archibald Butt, President Taft's military secretary. Their names are not on the list of survivors and probably they have gone down, thus cutting off my connection with one of the best fellows of the Fair.

April 16. Breakfasted in our rooms. Went out and read list of Titanic survivors telegraphed from the Carpathia, which is carrying them to New York. Frank's name is not among them, nor is Archie Butt's. My steward is in grief; his son was a steward on the Titanic and has gone down. This ship is in gloom; everybody has lost friends, and some of them near relations. I find Kirsten, partner of our Boston client Filene, is aboard.

April 18. Breakfasted alone in the main dining-room. Found a list of subscribers to Titanic Relief Fund amounting to £770 or $3850, headed by Lord Ashburton. Subscribed $100.

April 19. After dinner Charles H. Thorne — my Charles — appeared. I feel cheated. He has been aboard all the time and I did not know it. This comes from my sore foot and keeping in our staterooms. A pleasant evening with Mr. and Mrs. Thorne.

April 20. Up at five, getting ready for shore. No further news of the Titanic. I still do not know whether our dear Frank Millet came through or is lost. Landed at Cherbourg at 1.30 P.m., after stopping at Plymouth. Albert and Ethel Wells on the pier. Said good-bye to Charles Thorne and went to the beautiful Casino Hotel on the beach, where we lunched, dined, and put up for the night.

White Star Line Passenger Brochure

Six months, March-August, 1914

By Clare Benedict

At length the unhappy London days came to an end through the kindness of our nearest male relatives, who, by a piece of good fortune which was almost incredible, chanced to be in England for the first time in many years. They gave us one of their cabins on the Olympic, which was finally announced to sail on August 22d. We did not get off, however, until the morning of the 23d, owing to the sudden departure of a large troop ship, which had to have the right of way. It made us actually ill to look at the smart British soldiers and to think of what might be in store for them!

This was our last sight of that England which had been a second home to us for so many happy years, and, like our farewells to Austria and Germany, it cost us bitter pangs—pangs which the non-traveller cannot in the least understand.

The voyage, although devoid of alarming incidents, was, nevertheless, horribly uncanny. Everything was closed soon after four, blinds were drawn, iron shutters were pulled down, and even behind these, the electric lamps on deck were carefully darkened. Not a ray of light escaped from the great liner except what was absolutely necessary for navigation.

An automatic ventilating porthole

Meanwhile, behind the darkened portholes, most of the passengers indulged in their accustomed pleasures; they played cards, danced and flirted as if there had been no such thing as war either on land or at sea. The women arrayed themselves in costly dresses of the most extreme fashion, the men encouraged them in this, and went on betting on the run; together, they danced the tango in the saloons and even on deck; in short, they behaved, in our opinion, with revolting flippancy considering the tragic circumstances. And not only that— by persistently ignoring the agony of a whole continent, as well as our own actual danger, and by pursuing their petty pastimes in the face of these things, they missed an experience that could scarcely be duplicated.

The great ship, closely shrouded and muffled, rushing along in the darkness like some blinded creature, conscious of threatening danger and straining every nerve to avoid it; the horrible wireless messages telling of death and disaster constantly intercepted, the feeling that however swiftly we were travelling, we could not escape from the immense misery that we had left behind us—all this and much more that is inexpressible was suggested by the voyage.

But the majority of the passengers failed to see it—their motto seemed to be:

"On with the dance! let joy be unconfined."


Ventilation Fans on Boat Deck
Ventilation Fans on the Boat Deck of the Olympic
(Modern Sanitation Magazine)

When we reached shore, our thankfulness was beyond all words, even the dock looked beautiful to us, and the custom house officers, instead of being enemies, became real friends. They treated us with the most sympathetic courtesy.

As we drove across the city and finally passed under the great Metropolitan tower, we drew a long breath of relief; humanly speaking, we were in safety at last after one whole month of continual anxiety, for unlike most Americans, we had not felt secure in England. It had been one long agony, and now we were home again, far away from the terrible fighting, beyond the reach of hostile cruisers or airships, though not beyond the reach—alas!—of sickening heartache for all the suffering multitudes in stricken Europe!

In the course of the last month we had been forced to leap many difficult hurdles; the first was the making up our minds to leave Bayreuth, the second, our decision to abandon our luggage, the third, our reluctant, final departure from Germany, which involved breaking off all communication with many beloved friends. Hurdle after hurdle in rapid succession confronted us in London—difficulties about money, serious problems in regard to necessary medicine from Paris, innumerable desperate complications in connection with our lost luggage—and over and above all these, there was the dreadful hurdle of the English hatred against Germany. We surmounted these obstacles with what courage and skill we could muster; then came the voyage, which was one huge hurdle in itself.

Having leapt it, we drew, as I said a long breath—no more hurdles now, only rest and whatever peace we could hope for. But we were mistaken; in the midst of inspiring tokens of faithful love with which our friends literally enveloped us the instant we touched American soil, we beheld, looming up ominously in front of us, a cruel hurdle—the last, but perhaps the worst of all. The American press had taken the English point of view, it vied with England, indeed, in vilifying Germany and the Germans. Receiving no direct news at first, except through English channels, it had, as a body, accepted the English version unconditionally. Germany and Germany only was blamed, all other belligerants were praised and believed in to the fullest extent. Belgians, Russians, French and Servians were brave and disinterested; Germans, on the other hand, were treacherous and brutal. Atrocities were reported as having been committed solely by the Germans, whereas the Allies were given a clean sheet in every respect. The Kaiser was responsible for all the bloodshed, the other European rulers were noble, peace-loving individuals.

Utterly exhausted and sick at heart, we gazed at this last hurdle—had we the strength to attempt it? A great wave of homesickness swept over us; for the first time, we seriously questioned our decision, had we remained in Germany we could at least have avoided this conflict, a conflict with friends, most of whom would inevitably follow the lead of the press. What could we do against so many, what would our voice avail in this roar of hostility? We decided to retreat to .our beloved Pomeroy Place, it would shelter us, it would comfort us, under its old roof we could rest.

But no, we could not rest there either, for even in the peaceful village we were surrounded by the same determined hostility, the same preconceived opinion was held almost universally, the same ignorance existed of anything but the one side.

In desperation, I seized my pen, one feeble protest I would make on Germany's behalf.

Americans are proverbially fair-minded, they do not follow the lead of any land—not even that of England—with blind confidence. Let them reflect upon Germany's record, her intellectual eminence, her splendid part in helping suffering humanity, her music, which has inspired and comforted thousands in all lands, her poetry, which for depth and tenderness can scarcely be surpassed, her science and philosophy, her enlightened system of hygienics, her fine mercantile marine, which has carried so many of us safely across the ocean, her gallant army, which is not daunted by a whole world of enemies, her patient professors, who have laboured so unselfishly for the good of all mankind, her skilled and honest artisans, than whom there is not a finer class of men anywhere, her great artists in all lines, who have added so much to the joy of nations, finally, her princes, who from the Emperor to the obscurest ruler of the tiniest principality, are distinguished among European royalties for their culture, their devotion to duty, their clean lives.

And now consider, are all these people scoundrels—are they liars and brutes, are they enemies of progress?

Is it not conceivable that there may be another side?

Clabe Benedict,
Pomeroy Place, Cooperstown, New York.

Olympic Concert
Program for a concert held aboard RMS Olympic on 18 May 1921

The "Battle of Chatillon": a graphic history of the Second Corps ...

by United States. Army. A.E.F., 1917-1920. Second Corps Aeronautical

February 12, 1918, saw us leave AIt . Clemens for our port of embarkation. It was a happy day, for the boys were anxious to get overseas and into action. We were ten days at Garden City and Mineola and even now the mention of the "barracks" under the grandstand at the Mineola Fair Grounds will send chills up and down the spinal column. It was a "cold, cold winter" and no mistake. These ten days were busy ones. Men were going and coming on short leaves, there were transfers of personnel, both in and out, inspections of every description, drawing clothing and exchanging equipment 'til finally on February 25th the entire squadron embarked on a ship officially designated as "Ship No. 527." It was the White Star liner "Olympic," bound for Liverpool.

The trip across developed very few seasick patients, as we had perfect weather. The Engineers. band gave daily concerts on the deck and the life-boat drills and daily parades on the decks made the time pass quickly. The fifth day out we picked up our convoy of four American destroyers, and they were a welcome sight. There was little fear of submarines after that and the captain, a native of dear old England, after witnessing the actions of the "Yanks" when "subs" were sighted, expressed himself rather forcefully on the subject. The occasion came when the ship's gunners fired on a periscope and the destroyers cruised around and dropped depth bombs. Several shots were fired and those aboard lined up against the rail and gave vent to their feeling in wild cheers. "They are either very brave or else they are damned fools," was the captain.s observation. Maybe he was right on both counts, who knows? Tales vary as to whether there were three submarines or only two encountered on the way over, but it makes little difference. We were fortunate enough to elude them and finally took those "shock absorbers," or life-belts, off when we reached Liverpool, March 5, 1918.

Immediately after debarking we were put aboard one of the funniest sights (outside of a top sergeant being called down by the C. O.) that we'd seen since joining the army.

With the 364th infantry in America, France, and Belgium

by Bryant Wilson, Lamar Tooze

Out into the broad Hudson, the boats chugged and then turned their snouts downstream. Soon we found ourselves opposite the great city and amid a host of strange objects, daubed with color, which we immediately recognized as camouflaged ships. On the western shore lay numerous army transports among the Hoboken piers, but it was toward the east we turned and drew up at Pier 59 with many a thrill. For there lay a huge leviathan, out-measuring anything else on the horizon.

The ferryboats spewed forth their great throngs which immediately filled the enormous pier buildings and began a savage attack on bushels of refreshments which thoughtful organizations had provided.

Then began the entry into the ark, which proved to be none other than the great Olympic, now masquerading under a coat of badly-blended brown and black and yellow paint and sailing under a number instead of a name. To our delight, two hundred nurses of feminine gender were sent up the gangplank. They were to make a pleasant trip twofold more pleasant.

Once aboard, a trip of exploration was in order. We sometimes thought that the object in placing us aboard such a huge ship was threefold: first, to accustom us to the gentle practice of locating billets with ease, for there were several thousand hammocks aboard and all looked alike and were apparently distributed in haphazard fashion; secondly, to get us in practice for strenuous marching later on, for the ship, being 890 feet long, required more than a quarter of a mile's hike to circle it, a thing one had to do every time he set out to find either his hammock or his chow; thirdly, to break us into the delights of dugout life, for the old boat boasted twelve stories, five of them under water. But the floating palace of peace days, now remodeled as a troop transport, had many items in her favor, namely, she could carry the whole regiment of 3600 men with a sanitary and ammunition train thrown in; she was fast and traveled alone rather than in a convoy, thus being able to develop her full speed; she was so huge that those few who harbored any submarine fears felt that it would take a whole school of torpedoes to sink her.

Olympic Stern
Stern view of the Olympic leaving Southampton
Courtesy of Jim Kalafus

We remained motionless at the dock from the forenoon of July nth until nine o'clock on the morning of Friday, July 12th, when the giant craft began her long journey. Simultaneously with her first shuddering movement, each one took unto himself a bosom friend in the form of a life preserver, which, on the pain of a turn in the brig, was always to be worn except when sleeping. Out on the high seas, the guards' favorite diversion was to keep a sharp lookout for some luckless officer of high rank who had forgotten his life-belt, or who carried it in his hand instead of on his back.

If secrecy was the word as we silently trudged from Camp Merritt to the river, it was promptly forgotten by those in command of the Olympic. Instead of a stealthy fade-away in the dark, the great ship, crowded with soldiers, sailed majestically through the busy harbor in broad daylight, the object of the gaze of thousands on boats and on land and the subject of much cheering and waving. In the outer harbor a vast throng of camouflaged freighters were assembled in convoy formation, heavily laden with supplies. Past them we gradually pushed our way out into the misty deep until the famous statue, symbolic of that liberty for which we were to fight, disappeared from sight.

But with the fading from view of the metropolis, our attention was turned to a slim, sleek craft which appeared to be running circles around us. It proved to be a convoying destroyer of particularly jaunty appearance because of the brilliance of its yellowish streaks of camouflage. Almost simultaneously, a dirigible balloon appeared over us and two or three aeroplanes hummed industriously about. The dirigible remained as sky escort until four in the afternoon when it turned back, but the trim little destroyer was still cutting the waves in wide sweeps ahead of us when the fine summer day gave way to darkness. With the coming of morning, the destroyer had also disappeared and the Olympic zigzagged across the seemingly deserted ocean for five days, quite alone.

Needle Shower
Needle Showers on the Olympic
(Modern Sanitation Magazine)

Many factors contributed to make the ocean voyage a pleasant one. It was taken at the best season of the year for sea travel. Excellent weather and calm seas favored us. Aboard ship there was abundant talent for entertainment. And the possibility of a peep at a submarine added another little thrill to our adventure.

In order to guard against the piratical "tin fish," a rigid guard was maintained. A comprehensive system for manning the lookout posts and the watertight compartment doors was in operation day and night. The guard personnel including the M. P.'s numbered into the hundreds. Stationed forward, amidships, and aft, scores of soldier eyes constantly searched the surrounding waters for a possible periscope of a U-boat. Six big guns, alertly manned, pointed across the waves in various directions in a very menacing and businesslike way.

When a call was made for entertainers, the result would have pleased a Belasco. Several performances were given. The ship's captain allowed the men to crowd together and enjoy the music and stunts out on the exposed decks even while in the danger zone. The enlisted men were entertained from seven to nine in the evening and then the stage was shifted to the dining saloon for a nine o'clock performance for the officers and nurses.

First Class Passenger List
First Class Passenger List for the voyage commencing 23 July 1913

Services were held in three different parts of the great ship Sunday morning, July 14th. We were fortunate in having on board with us some notables of the New York financial world and also Mr. Herbert Hoover. These men consented to speak to us in the evening and one of the striking statements made that night which indicated the critical outlook for the Allies was " the one thing for which we are praying is for the fall of snow to stop the Germans!" Little did we realize that the day upon which those words were spoken was the first day of the ever-memorable week which marked the breaking of the last great German offensive upon the stone wall of Allied resistance, and the beginning of Foch's counter-attack which was to bring victory before the fall of snow.

Before Mr. Hoover appeared to speak to the large throng of men gathered on the aft deck, Chaplain Lyman Rollins, a veteran of several months' service in France, told us of experiences with the Huns, amusing and otherwise. Then when the Honorable Mr. Hoover, feeder of a world, mounted to the searchlight platform, and was introduced, some irrepressibles on the lower deck shouted, "We don't want Hoover. He feeds us tripe for breakfast!" Mr. Hoover laughingly disclaimed the honor of being sponsor for the serving of that breakfast delicacy and proceeded to tell us about the simple job of rationing a world.

Coaling the Olympic
(Courtesy of Jim Kalafus)

Speaking of tripe reminds us of some of the exchanges constantly going on between soldiers and the ship's crew—exchanges of postcards, tobacco, and also of fists. One sailor suddenly found himself in Dreamland when he chose to remark, in the presence of a horny-handed American Sergeant, that " the next war would be between the two 'yellow' races, the Japanese and American." No charges were preferred. Again, after champion "midget" Sepulveda of Company "A" had put to sleep a husky deck hand who refused to obey orders, some of the crew were heard to remark, " If the smallest bloody man in the outfit can fight like that what could the big guys do?"

The announcement that we were at last within the danger zone only added to our thrills of interest. Thousands of pairs of curious eyes searched the surrounding waves for a possible Hun periscope. One grizzled member of the ship's crew, after watching the actions of this Wild West bunch, delivered himself of the following: "Well, I'll be hornswoggled! It's many a load of troops I've seen cross in this old boat, but never a gang like this. Generally about this time, one can see a lot of Bibles in evidence and scared looks on the owners' faces. But if we sighted a submarine this minute, every American on the ship would be crowding the rails to see her, and, if she succeeded in launching a torpedo, all that these doughboys would do would be to watch its course and yell' Raspberry'!"

But no subs appeared. However, those in command were taking no chances. Every day throughout the trip, alarms were sounded, boats were manned, watertight doors were closed, and all rushed to their appointed posts.

Olympic Dazzle Paint
RMS Olympic in her World Ward One dazzle scheme
(Pennsylvania in the World War, 1921)

Upon entering the danger zone, the ship's paravanes were lowered into the water. These were contrivances shaped like torpedoes, equipped with wings which held them out at an angle of forty-five degrees from the ship's prow, to which they were attached by steel cables. They were placed low enough in the water to intercept the cables of any mines in the ship's course and the paravane cables, extending out from the ship, would not only ward off the deadly mine head but would force the mine cable into the saw-tooth mouth of the paravane which would promptly sever it and cause the mine to float on the surface where it could be easily destroyed.

We awoke, the morning of Thursday, July 18th, to the fact that five U. S. destroyers had surrounded us and were convoying us through the last lap of the journey. They had come forth from their British port to meet us and, the use of wireless being denied them, had stationed themselves in a line athwart our proposed route at intervals of twelve miles. The destroyer which first sighted us, signalled our presence to the others by means of a dense smoke cloud and soon we were surrounded by our speedy little zigzagging friends. On the aft end of the nearer boats could be seen an "egg" breakfast for the Huns—neat piles of depth bombs ready to be dropped into the haunts of enemy subs. These gave us great assurance of safety but the thing that delighted our hearts the most was the sight of the American ensign which seemed to breathe a message from home.

Postcard of the Olympic riding a particularly heavy sea 

Toward midnight of the eighteenth we sighted the light at Scilly Isle on our starboard side and the light at Land's End on our port side. The moon was out just enough to aid the U-boats but we successfully crossed the "ships' graveyard" and morning found us in sight of the Isle of Wight.

At the entrance to the harbor leading to Southampton, the ship was stopped, paravanes hoisted on deck, and a pilot taken aboard. The scene before us was suggestive of the grim war being waged against the submarine. The sea was filled with destroyers, Pboats, friendly submarines, hydroplanes, buoys marking mine fields, and nets. Out of the shallow water protruded the masts of a recent victim of the under_seas wasps. We learned about this time that we had narrowly escaped a similar fate, the America-bound Carpatbia having been sunk not far from us.

Proceeding into the harbor, we passed through the opening between the nets near Portsmouth and lay to for several hours awaiting the tide. Finally we slowly made our way up the channel to the piers of Southampton, reaching our destination at five in the afternoon of July 19th. We had arrived at the very port from which the Mayflower had sailed with our forefathers three centuries before. We were now returning, many thousand strong, to aid our Mother in her fight for the liberty which that ancient band had set out to seek.

Smoking room
RMS Olympic First Class Smoking Room
(Munsey's magazine 1914)

Below us, British soldiers, policemen, and civilians afforded us amusement as they scrambled for coins and cigarettes dropped from the ship's sides. Near by a large steamer displayed a gaping hole in her side commemorative of a recent engagement with the enemy. Across the way a cross-channel boat was being crammed with men from a unit of the Ninety first preparatory to the trip to France. Their identity was made known by a thousand swinging arms talking the language of the wig-wag.

We remained aboard ship one more night (celebrated by having a farewell dance on the top deck) and began disembarking the following morning. The regiment remained in the dock sheds throughout the day.

Olympic New York Postcard
Postcard of RMS Olympic arriving in New York at the end of her maiden voyage

Once the war ended, the RMS Olympic was returned to passenger service. As evidenced by letters and post cards home, articles in newspapers, and advertisements, she was no longer the largest or most luxurious, but she was a perennial favorite for those who sailed aboard her. And that fondness carried over till the last piece of metal was stripped from her frame in the breakers yard.

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Michael Poirier, USA


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Encyclopedia Titanica (2011) RMS Olympic: The Early Years (Titanica!, ref: #638, published 7 February 2011, generated 22nd June 2024 01:26:02 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/rms-olympic-the-early-years.html