(Yacht: t. 853 (gross) ; l. 239’6″; b. 30’6″; dr. 15’0″ (mean); s. 15 k.; a. 4 3″, 2 .30-cal. mg.)
Wakiva II—a steel-hulled steam yacht built at Leith, Scotland, by Ramage and Ferguson—was launched on 3 February 1907 for Lamon V. Harkness. The graceful yacht served the Harkness family—first for Lamon V. and then for his son Harry—and ranged from the North Sea to the Netherlands East Indies in the halcyon days before the first World War. After the United States entered this conflict on the side of the Allies the Navy acquired Wakiva II on 20 July 1917 and commissioned her on 6 August at the Boston Navy Yard, Lt. Comdr. Thomas R. Kurtz in command.
While shipwrights were still laboring to complete the conversion of the erstwhile pleasure craft to a man-of-war for “distant service,” Capt. Thomas P. Magruder hoisted his burgee pennant in Wakiva II as Commander, Squadron Four, Patrol Force, on 18 August. With the necessary alterations completed on the ship one week later, she set sail for Provincetown, Mass., in company with six French subchasers and the remainder of the squadron—a collection of converted fishing craft and patrol boats—and departed the east coast on 26 August for France.
Wakiva II paused at Ponta Delgada in the Azores from 6 to 11 September—towing P. K. Bauman (SP-377) part of the distance from the United States, due to a breakdown in the SP boat’s propulsion system— and arrived at Brest on 18 September. Nine days later, Capt. Magruder hauled down his pennant to establish headquarters ashore. Released from this “flag” duty, Wakiva II soon commenced her convoy watchdog duties on the high seas on 28 September, putting to sea to meet a convoy 75 miles west of Ushant.
Wakiva II operated on patrol and escort duty out of Brest, France, from the fall of 1917 to her loss the following year. On 28 October 1917, when transport Finland was torpedoed, Wakiva II and Alcedo (SP-166) teamed to pick up survivors—standing towards the sinking ship soon after she was hit. Wakiva II lowered two boats and manned one of the transport’s lifeboats— eventually rescuing 126 men before setting course for Brest. On 23 November, the yacht’s lookouts sighted an object 500 yards distant which looked initially like a submarine’s conning tower. Going to general quarters, the yacht sped towards the contact and commenced fire with her forward guns. After the warship had loosed seven shots, a closer investigation disclosed that the object of their attack—which resulted in the destruction of the object—was a convincingly painted target.
Her first actual head-to-head encounter with the enemy came within a week. Wakiva II sailed from St. Nazaire on 28 November to join up with a west-bound convoy. The passage proceeded uneventfully until oiler Kanawha fired off two Very pistol stars and sounded a loud blast on her siren. Thus alterted, Wakiva II sounded general quarters and rang down for full speed ahead. While Noma (SP-131) also closed to screen the vulnerable and valuable fuel carrier on the starboard side, Wakiva II took up station on the port beam. Thirty minutes of painstaking search revealed nothing to the hunters, however, and the three ships returned to the van of the convoy.
No sooner had the search been discontinued when Noma suddenly sounded another alarm and dropped a depth charge on what her lookouts felt was a submarine. Her crew at general quarters, Wakiva II sped to the scene to assist in the hunt and, at 1902, while still one and one-half miles from Noma, sighted a periscope 100 yards away. Putting over hard-a-port, Wakiva II commenced fire with her after guns—her third salvo was thought to have sheared the periscope. As the yacht passed over the suspected submarine the second time, she dropped a depth charge barrage—all of which exploded and sent oil and debris to the surface, indicating that they had heavily hit the enemy submersible. Two hits on the wreckage, fired from number one gun, added the coup de grace to what appeared to be a shattered submarine. Wakiva II made a third pass and sighted three men clinging to wreckage, but by the time the yacht had come full circle, all that remained was the heavy smell of fuel oil and bits and pieces of wreckage on the surface of the sea.
Wakiva It’s commanding officer glowingly praised his crew’s performance in the subsequent after action report, noting their work as a “perfect fighting unit.” His men showed “admirable coolness and courage,” and did not manifest any nervousness or inefficiency. Wakiva II —while receiving credit for only a “probably seriously damaged” submarine, by the Admiralty—was nonetheless commended by Vice Admiral Henry B. Wilson, commanding naval forces on the coast of France, and Admiral William S. Sims, commanding United States Naval Forces in European waters.
On 12 February 1918, Wakiva II, while in company with Corsair (SP-159) and May (SP-164), sighted a submarine running on the surface dead astern. Signalling the report of the sighting to the three merchantmen in the small convoy—Munindies, Florence H., and Thorwald Halvorsen—Wakiva II commenced fire with number two and four 3-inch guns, checking fire momentarily to avoid hitting Florence H. which was steaming just beyond where the enemy submarine had suddenly appeared. The U-boat quickly submerged, and the yacht remained at the scene for 90 minutes before abandoning the search.
Wakiva II maintained a schedule of patrol and escort out of Brest through the late winter. On 21 May, she steamed in convoy with a group of eight ships on the port flank, heading eastward from the French coast. As fog set in shortly after sunset, speed was reduced. The ships crept along with Wakiva II taking station on the freighter Wabash (Id. No. 1824). Zigzagging ceased with the onset of the murky weather, and Noma sent a message to the convoy commodore, in Black Arrow, to this effect.
By 0300 on the 22d, visibility improved—but only briefly—before the convoy slipped into another fog bank. The sounds of whistles from the loosely assembled shipping pierced the gloomy dawn; and, at 0310, those on watch in Wakiva II distinctly heard Wabash’s whistle but could not see the ship. As another blast from the cargo vessel sounded even closer soon thereafter, Lt. Comdr. E. G. Allen, commanding the yacht, ordered the helm put over to port, one point, and the whistle sounded. Ten seconds later, Wabash loosed another blast, even closer.
Suddenly, the shape of the cargo vessel loomed out of the mist and bore down, inexorably, on Wakiva II. Ringing down full speed ahead, Allen ordered a turn to port—but before the helm could be put over, Wabash’s stem tore into the yacht’s starboard quarter, just abaft the mainmast and forward of the after guns, and ripped a mortal gash in the ship’s side from the main deck down to the propeller shaft. On board Wakiva II, there had been barely enough time to reach the general alarm. The collision threw both ships briefly on parallel courses, carrying away Wabash’s starboard boats. Both ships also hung together briefly before parting, with the cargo vessel slowly going astern.
While two men were lost on board the patrol vessel, individual acts of heroism occurred simultaneously. Upon feeling the shock of the collision and hearing the general alarm, Chief Gunner’s Mate Oliver P. Cooper, USNRF, ran aft to the fantail where the depth charges were secured, withdrew the bursting pins from the British mines stored there, and set the American depth charges on “safe.” He reported that all was “secure” within five minutes of the collision.
Electrician Second Class Charles E. Kirkpatrick, UNSRF, on watch in the ship’s radio room, remained at his post and sent out the SOS—remaining on board until abandoning at the last possible moment. Chief Boatswain’s Mate Thomas Olson, USNRF, rigged out the motor whaleboat and rousted out men from below-decks, and then, along with the captain, inspected and cleared the ship. Below, as the engine room filled with water, Machinist Mate First Class Charles A. A. Smith began to start the pumps before realizing that at the rate at which the water was cascading in through the rent in the ship’s side, the pumps could not hold their own.
As Wakiva II sank by the stern, the captain and his crew pulled clear in the ship’s boats at 0330. The yacht disappeared beneath the waves six minutes later, as Wabash simultaneously lowered her undamaged boats and assisted in picking up survivors from the doughty yacht