USS Vedette (SP-163) was a commercial yacht built in 1899. At the outbreak of World War I, the yacht was leased by the U.S. Navy, and was used as a patrol vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean. She served honorably during the war, rescuing survivors at sea, and attacking a German U-Boat. At war’s end, she was converted to her original configuration and returned to her owner, Frederick W. Vanderbilt of New York City.
Built in Bath, Maine
Virginia -- a steel-hulled, single-screw steam yacht designed by G. L. Watson and built at Bath, Maine, by Bath Iron Works for New York City merchant Isaac Stern -- was delivered on 23 December 1899. In 1916, the yacht was acquired by the financier and philanthropist Frederick W. Vanderbilt of New York City and renamed Vedette.
Acquired by the U.S. Navy
The Navy acquired the ship from him on a free-lease basis on 4 May 1917. Earmarked for convoy escort and patrol duty overseas, Vedette was classified SP-163 and was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 28 May 1917, Lt. Comdr. Chester L. Hand in command.
World War I service
Sailing for France
and five other former yachts got underway from Tompkinsville, New York
, bound for Bermuda
on 9 June
on the first leg of their voyage to France
. Sultana (SP-134)
and Christabel (SP-162)
were the first to weigh anchor; Harvard (SP-209)
, Kanawha (SP-130)
, Noma (SP-131)
, and Vedette
followed. The ships formed up into divisions, with Vedette
leading the second group.
On the evening of the 12th, they anchored in St. George harbor
and remained in Bermuda
for a little over three days, coaling ship and taking on water. The vessels got underway again on the morning of the 16th and reached the Azores
on the 25th.
Witnessing the debris of war
After coaling and taking on water and provisions, Vedette
and her consorts began their passage to Brest
. En route, they soon encountered abundant evidence that they were entering a war zone. Vedette
spotted "considerable floating wreckage and a cork life belt" upon which no name was visible on the evening of the 2d. The next morning, she spotted more of the same: boxes, barrels, a broken life-belt, and pieces of planking from an anonymous ship -- or ships -- mute evidence of a sinking.
The squadron sighted the French coast at 0440 on 4 July; but, before they could make it into port, Christabel broke down; and Vedette stood by until her damaged consort could get underway again. Later, as the ships made their way toward Brest, a French torpedo boat came out and greeted the American force that was among the first ships of the United States Navy to reach French waters in World War I.
Over the next 10 days, Vedette prepared for the operations that lay ahead. She finally put to sea, in company with Harvard, on the morning of 16 July.
Assigned to convoy patrol duty
Her first patrol pretty much set the standard theme for the many that followed. The two ships initially headed for the middle of the patrol line 10 miles off the coast, extending from the northward and westward of Ushant
to the southward of Belle Isle
patrolled the southern half of the line while Harvard
prowled the northern.
Vedette returned to Brest on the 19th, without having met the enemy, but she did encounter more wreckage, including life rings from an unidentified ship. She twice more patrolled the area between Brest and Ushant, near Belle Isle, before the end of July.
Vedette remained in port the first few days of August, and she suffered slight damage on the morning of 3 August when Christabel -- while shifting moorings -- raked her stern, carrying away the flagstaff and damaging the after rail. Nevertheless, Vedette stood out to sea at 1700 that afternoon in the screen of an outward-bound convoy of 10 merchantmen which were also protected by Harvard, three French patrol vessels, and two British ships.
Vedette left that convoy at 0050 on the 4th and patrolled the vicinity until 0650, when she picked up a Brest-bound convoy of 19 merchantmen escorted by three patrol boats. Vedette anchored at Brest at 1025 the same day, but her respite was short. Less than six hours later, she stood out with a convoy of 16 merchantmen, three French patrol boats, and Harvard.
Vedette left that convoy when it passed out of the coastal danger zone and waited to pick up a Brest-bound convoy at 1655 on the 5th. While en route in, Harvard broke down; and Vedette stood by until her longstanding partner was ready to proceed.
Still en route to Brest during the pre-dawn hours of 6 August
sighted a "suspicious vessel" at 0320 and opened fire with her number two 3-inch gun. The shot fell well forward of the stranger, who soon signaled that she was a French patrol boat. Vedette
's first shot of the war had been aimed at a "friendly" ship.
The yacht was docked at Brest shortly after noon that day for alterations. After the work was completed during the forenoon watch on the 7th, the ship was towed back to her former berth, where she provisioned and made ready to return to the Ushant-Brest patrol line.
Convoy ship strikes a mine
escorted an outward-bound convoy late on the 9th, and an inward-bound one on the 10th, before she and Harvard
were assigned to another outward-bound group of 10 merchantmen and two French patrol vessels. At 2010, Vedette
's watch heard an explosion astern, accompanied by several blasts of a ship's whistle. A British merchantman, last in line of the convoy, had struck a mine
; nearby, a French vessel rescued 14 men before the rapidly sinking Briton disappeared. Twelve men had died in the explosion.
After delivering the convoy to Quiberon Bay
anchored at 0645, but that evening again got underway -- with a convoy of eight merchantmen, two French patrol vessels, and Harvard
-- and arrived back at Brest with that group at noon on the following day. On the morning of the 15th, Vedette
was underway again and conducted convoy escort operations through the next day.
Rescuing crew members of torpedoed ship
At 0650 on 17 August
, the Greek
-- bound from Tyne Dock
with a cargo of 4,600 tons of coal and 2,000 tons of coke -- was hit by a torpedo
on the starboard
beam. The missile exploded eight feet below the waterline, abreast the engine room, and tore up the decking topside.
rang up full speed ahead and stood about, hunting for the submarine
. Unable to make contact with the enemy, the yacht picked up 27 men from a lifeboat
, including the master of Pontoporos
, a Captain Panas, at 0715. Two more men were transferred from a French fishing boat five minutes later. Vedette
soon cast the lifeboat adrift at 0725 and circled the sinking ship; at 0740, Pontoporos
sank from sight. After Vedette
reached Port Heliguen
later that morning, she turned the 29 survivors over to French authorities.
continued the same routine of operations -- interspersed with periods of upkeep, maintenance, and provisioning -- through the remainder of that summer and autumn and into 1918
. On 20 January 1918
, Lt. Comdr. Hand was relieved as commanding officer by Lt. Charles A. Pownall who would command carrier task forces during World War II
Updating anti-submarine weapons
By January 1918, the ship's armament reflected the multi-national character of the escort work performed out of Brest, for not only did she carry her original allotment of 10 Sperry Mk. I "Mines" (American), but also was equipped with eight French Guirand charges and three British Type "D" ones! By the next summer, that had again changed, and the ship carried, by that point, 21 American Mark 2 depth charges.
Vedette's routine changed little in 1918. Her only encounter with the enemy, however, came on 5 August 1918.
Vedette goes to general quarters
Underway from Quiberon Bay at 0435 that day, she was steaming at the head of a convoy of 11 ships; other escorts were Harvard
, Remlick (SP-157)
, and Stewart (Coast Torpedo Vessel No. 13)
. At 0802, the convoy passed Point de Chats
abeam to port, distance three miles; at 0812, the ships changed course so that by 0835, they were off Pen Men, abeam to port at a distance of two and one-half miles. At 0924, Vedette's watch felt a slight jar; within a minute, they saw that SS Hundvaago
had taken a torpedo
and was sinking rapidly.
went to full speed ahead and sprang to general quarters
. At 0927, Signalman
3d Class Nye, Chief Quartermaster
Teiper, and the officer of the deck saw a submarine off the starboard quarter of the convoy. Vedette
heeled as the helm was put over at hard right rudder and she raced toward the enemy. She sounded five short blasts on the whistle, but a merchant ship obstructed the yacht's view of the submarine, and the periscope
immediately commenced a search, circling and trying to locate the enemy submersible.
At 0935, Vedette
received orders from Harvard
and, in company with Stewart
, quickly proceeded to reform the panic-stricken convoy. Within 20 minutes, Hundvaago
had disappeared, another U-boat victim. An hour before noon, Vedette
resumed her position at the head of the convoy and, 45 minutes later, took station on the port flank of the convoy.
Dropping depth charges
Things were not quiet for long, however. At one minute past noon, a French seaplane
, attracted to the scene of the torpedoing, dropped a smoke bomb, indicating the presence of what looked like a submarine. Vedette
again went to general quarters and put over hard right rudder as she sped off to the hunt. She soon picked up a small oil wake about 200 yards east of the smoke bomb and dropped a barrage of eight depth charges at 1215. Ten minutes later, having seen "no further evidence of a submarine," Vedette
rejoined the convoy, taking station on the port bow.
later dropped four depth charges over a 15-minute period but failed to learn whether or not she had tangled with a submarine. She nevertheless continued the hunt, in company with Vedette
, and Remlick
, while the newly arrived Tucker (Destroyer No. 57)
joined the convoy's screen.
Rescuing a downed French plane
work for that day was not complete until she had assisted a downed French seaplane from the French Naval Air Service. At 1718, another French plane had dropped a message requesting aid in Bay de Douarnez
. A bit under an hour later, Vedette
lowered her motor boat
that took the pilots aboard and took the disabled plane in tow. When the ship reached her destination, she lowered a whaleboat
which took up the tow and safely delivered the French plane.
would never again have that much excitement in a single day. Thereafter, her duties for the remainder of the war were placid as she continued to escort convoys to and from Brest and patrolled offshore in between convoy runs. Less than a month after the armistice
stilled the guns of World War I, she departed Brest for the last time when she weighed anchor on 6 December
for the long voyage home.
Steaming in company with Emeline (SP-175)
, Corona (SP-813)
, Nokomis (SP-609)
, and Sultana
arrived at Ponta Delgada
at 1025 on 11 December
. She coaled ship there, took on provisions, and brought aboard 133 bags of coal to store on deck for the transatlantic
voyage. Underway at 0702 on the 15th, the squadron anchored in St. George's harbor, Bermuda, on the morning of 24 December
but got underway again on Christmas Day
on the last leg of their voyage.
Shortly after leaving Bermuda, Emeline
, and Corona
steamed off "on duty assigned," leaving Vedette
along with Sultana
-- one of her companions on her voyage to Europe
in the summer of 1917
. The two yachts entered New York harbor
on the afternoon of 28 December
, home at last.
Post-war decommissioning and disposal
At 0900 on the 30th, Vedette
moved up the East River
to the New York Navy Yard
. By noon, her trio of 3-inch guns, her machine guns, and small arms had been removed.
On 4 February 1919
, at Tebo's Yacht Basin, following World War I service in the eastern Atlantic, Vedette
was returned to her owner, Frederick W. Vanderbilt
of New York City
. She was struck from the Navy list
the same day.