This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Going Home

21 July 2017

It was spring.
If the weather remained fair
the voyage would take 10 days.
Normally the ship
provided accommodation
for about 900 sailors,
but now its crew shared
their limited quarters
with nearly 1,300 soldiers.
Improvised bunks, cots, and hammocks
filled every available space aboard ship,
competing with countless bags,
boxes of supplies, military gear, 
and the coal that fueled the ship's boilers.

Officers did their best
to alleviate the monotony of the crossing.
At night they showed movies, silent ones of course.
The decks were built for battle
so there was no room for athletic games,
but boxing matches helped settle
the inevitable rivalry
between landsmen and seamen.
And today the ship's band
teamed up with the army band
to give a concert on the bow of the ship,
upwind from the steamship's smoke.

The USS Seattle was taking them home.

The ship was the Tennessee-class Armored Cruiser No. 11, the USS Seattle. Its keel was laid down in September 1903 at the Camden, NJ shipyard, and in August 1906 it was commissioned as the USS Washington. Armed with 4 x 10 inch rifled guns, 16 x 6 inch guns, and 22 x 3 inch rapid-fire guns, the cruiser was built for speed and could make 22 knots from its two engines and 16 boilers. After initial service in the Caribbean, the Washington joined the Pacific fleet until 1910 when it transferred to the Atlantic. In 1916 it was renamed the USS Seattle when the navy decided it would use the name Washington for a new Colorado-class battleship. However construction of that ship was not started until 1919 and it was never completed. In 1924 the unfinished hull was towed out to sea for gunnery practice and sunk.

Armored Cruiser No. 11

The US Navy took up photography in a big way before the turn of the 19th century, perhaps because ship-spotting was an important part of its mission when at sea. The archive provides dozens of photos of the USS Washington-Seattle. This one was captioned Roll Call and it shows a group of sailors standing with the ship's band in formation at the bow. 

Roll Call, evening dress

Of course an ocean is not always calm and placid. This image of the USS Seattle's bow in a heavy sea demonstrates the perils of life aboard a battleship. Sailors knew that a call to "Batten down the hatches!" was an order requiring immediate attention.

Bow view while in heavy seas

At the beginning of World War 1, the US tried to remain neutral and let the European powers fight it out amongst themselves. But Britain's blockade of the North Sea ports and Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic tested President Woodrow Wilson's commitment to that policy. Eventually German arrogance over its secret meddling with American-Mexican relations forced the question, and the United States joined the conflict in April 1917 on the side of Britain and France. By this time the USS Seattle was no longer a cutting edge modern battleship, so it was used mainly to guard merchant ship convoys supplying Britain and France. Initially the US military was unprepared to mobilize a large force and by June 1917 the American Expeditionary Force had only managed to send 14,000 soldiers to France. Yet by the following summer, American troops were arriving to the Western Front at a rate of 10,000 a day. And everyone of them traveled there by ship.

The war may have officially ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, but there was still much work to be done by the millions of American soldiers serving in France. There was the German occupation, the disarmament of enemy forces, the exchange of prisoners and civilian refugees, and thousands of other unforeseen assignments for the A.E.F.  It took some time before the troops could return from "over there."

Wilmar MN Tribune
26 February 1919

Beginning in January 1919, the USS Seattle became one of hundreds of vessels entrusted with bringing America's boys back home. Over the next six months the Seattle made a voyage every month from the port of Brest to New York City returning, on average, 1561 soldiers and officers with each trip. This was similar to what other Navy ships handled, but the US government also procured several German ocean liners which carried upwards of 3,000 to 4,000 men.

Families around the country followed the schedule of ship arrivals with keen interest since the soldiers had no idea when, or on what ship, they would return to America. Newspapers large and small, from every state in the union, published detailed lists of every transport ship and each military unit returning to the United States.

In February 1919 a soldier from Wilmar, Minnesota wrote an account of his wartime experience for his hometown paper. His unit came back on the cruiser Seattle, and he described the onboard conditions. There were all kinds of magazines and newspapers available, very good meals, and a band that played concerts every day for the benefit of the troops. When they reached the Hoboken pier, the ship's band played "The Yanks All Here!"

What he glossed over was that the crossing was made in January, and it was the first made by the Seattle working as a troop transport. In another newspaper's account, the crossing was described as very rough because of a severe storm that hit the ship with 45 ft swells and hurricane force winds. Consequently the soldiers were not permitted much access above decks.

* *

The ships varied in size and speed, and the Seattle was one of the fastest, but generally the troop transports made the Atlantic crossing in convoys, even though there was no longer a risk of submarine attack. Each week several ships would arrive at the docks on the same day, releasing a great multitude of excited soldiers onto New York City's streets. On one day it was 8,500 men, on another 12,000. And on May 19, 1919, when the Seattle was one of eight ships that arrived together, 27,000 men disembarked. 

On its four previous voyages, the units reported to be on the USS Seattle were a mix of telegraph battalions, machine gun companies, medical detachments, areo squadrons, engineer sections, and various casuals or miscellaneous military units. But on the May voyage the Seattle carried a larger single group, the 324th Field Artillery, with 38 officers and 1,253 soldiers. Most of the men were from Ohio, including its commander, Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn (1874-1941), a career officer from Batavia, Ohio. Ashburn, a West Point graduate, served in both infantry, coastal artillery, and field artillery, and in 1927 was promoted to the rank of major general.

Lancaster OH Eagle-Gazette
23 May 1919

The men of the 324th Field Artillery had been away for nearly a year, having reached France in June 1918.  Eventually after weeks of reorganizing, retraining, assembling the heavy guns, loading ammunition, and moving equipment closer to the front lines, the 324th joined with other American forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This extended battle lasted from 27 September to 11 November 1918 and was the critical contribution of the American Expeditionary Force towards defeating the German army. General Pershing committed 1,200,000 American soldiers to the offensive which saw 26,277 men killed and 95,786 wounded. The 324th was proud to have fired 160,000 rounds during the campaign. It sustained 18 casualties, three killed and 15 wounded.

* *

After his return Col. Ashburn wrote a short book entitled The History of the 324th Field Artillery, United States Army which is a chronicle of the unit's experience in World War One. In precise military terms it outlines the 324th's movements, duties, and operations beginning from its soldiers' initial muster to their postwar discharge. It contains numerous rosters of officers and enlisted men, with details on their hometown and military assignments. It also expands on the official casualty number for the regiment of 18 men.  Two of the wounded were members of the band, 1st Cl. Mus. Carl A Wintzer and 2nd Cl. Mus. Charles B. Dickinson. Even Col. Ashburn was slightly wounded in action on November 6. 

But the 324th Field Artillery also lost 21 men who died from illness, disease, or accidents. On their return to the US, an accident at Camp Mills on Long Island, NY claimed the life of Assistant Band Leader Homer McClean,. He was a clarinettist, "whose playing had been a source of much amusement to all. He was a master of its vagaries, and, while an expert musician, manipulated his instrument in such a fashion, when desired, as to convulse his audience."

Col. Ashburn's history is typical of similar wartime annals. The Internet Archive has 89 histories of other Field Artillery regiments. They were produced mainly as souvenir yearbooks for veterans to share their experiences and maybe to get all the facts and stories correct. There are several topics that stood out when I read the History of the 324th Field Artillery. 

The first topic was reading how brief the American military experience actually was during the Great War. Congress and President Wilson may have declared war on Germany in April 1917, but our soldiers did not really join the fighting on the Western Front until late September 1918. For the 324th it was a very intense but coordinated effort with the AEF. Certainly it was dangerous, furious fighting. It was also miserably cold, wet, and muddy. But it was only for about 7 weeks. This is in stark contrast with the incredible ordeal that soldiers of France, Britain, Russia, Germany, and Austria endured from July 1914 to November 1918.

The second topic that interested me was learning of the great number of horses that one artillery regiment needed to operate. Motorized artillery was not common in 1918, and even then not very powerful or reliable. The 324th was a horse-drawn artillery force, and moving heavy guns took real horsepower. At the Armistice the regiment had only 517 horses remaining from the 957 issued when they started. If those horses did not get daily care and feeding, an artillery unit became totally ineffective. Securing fodder, repairing harnesses, and tending to the stock was a constant task for artillery units that other units like infantry or signal corps did not have to do. I don't believe any of the horses and mules ever returned to America.

The third point was reading the accounts for the number of gun firings made by the 324th Field Artillery. A barrage required careful aiming directed by range finders far up on the line of battle or flying over enemy lines. A single gun battery might fire 40 rounds per hour. On one day in October several batteries supported an attack by firing 5308 rounds on machine gun nests, road crossing ravines, dugouts, and observatories. The next day brought 2323 rounds of preparation, interdiction, and harassing fire on cross roads, observation points, enemy trenches, dumps and machine gun nests. Thousands upon thousands of munitions had to be hauled up from behind the lines, kept in secure and protected places, and then carried to each gun. Presumably by men with horses. And this was done while under fire from German heavy guns.

Even on the very last day, November 11th, 1918, when officially the ceasefire went into effect at 11:00 AM, the 324th Field Artillery let loose over 267 rounds from 6:30 AM to 10:25 AM. They believed that these were the last shots of the war delivered by any unit in the 32nd Division.

* * *

On May 20, 1919, just before their arrival at New York harbor, before they fired a salute to the Statue of Liberty, Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn wrote a final letter of farewell to the Officers and Men of the 324th Field Artillery. It is a model of military conciseness, yet honors his regiment's bravery and achievements. Col. Ashburn was very proud of his men, a regiment "without fear and without reproach."

From The History of the 324th Field Artillery
by Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn

From The History of the 324th Field Artillery
by Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn

I can't be certain that the men pictured on my postcard of the USS Seattle are soldiers of the 324th Field Artillery. It's quite possible that they are a different regimental band from another trip made during the first months of 1919. But I believe there are good reasons this postcard was made on the May 1919 crossing by the USS Seattle when the 324th Filed Artillery was onboard. Field Artillery regiments had a long tradition of assigning a band to the headquarter's company. And Col. Asburn's history of the 324th includes a generous number of photos, including one of the unit's band playing on the bow with the ship's band. The perspective is almost 180° opposite the postcard's viewpoint. The caption says it was taken on May 18th, 1919. The lifeboat is missing in the postcard image but I think it still makes for a very good match.

The USS Seattle made one more trip back to Brest to pick up American troops. It returned on July 4, 1919 with 1468 men from many small detachments taken from transportation corps, signal corps, remount squadrons, areo squadrons, depot service companies, sanitary squadrons, pack train units, commissary units, and camp hospitals. There was also a Casual Company of 75 prisoners, US soldiers convicted of a crime. The group included four men, "yellow quitters", who were charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

It was the fastest crossing made by the Seattle, arriving in New York after just 8 days 20 hours and 12 minutes. During the voyage the ship even offered a timely assist to the Huguenot, a small Glasgow bark out of Hong Kong, that had run out of food and water after being 159 days at sea. 

On July 5th, the captain of the USS Seattle was notified that his ship was reassigned to the Pacific fleet based in Puget Sound. It was placed in and out of commission during the 1920s. By the 1930s it was back on the Atlantic coast and served as a Receiving Ship, a floating barracks for navy personnel, in New York during WW2. She was sold for scrap in 1946.


In 1917 John Philip Sousa composed the U.S. Field Artillery March at the request of Lieutenant George Friedlander of the 306th Field Artillery. It was based on a marching song called The Caisson Song by Edmund L. Gruber. But Sousa mistakenly believed the melody was an old tune from the Civil War era, when in fact Gruber had written it in 1908. It became a big hit by Sousa march standards, and eventually Sousa granted Gruber royalties for his contribution. In 1956 the song's familiar refrain  "The Caissons Go Rolling Along" was changed to "The Army Goes Rolling Along" and adopted as the official song of the U.S. Army. A caisson is a two wheeled wagon for an ammunition box that is attached to an artillery piece and pulled by horses.

Cover of  U.S. Field Artillery March
by John Philip Sousa
Source: Wikipedia

As the son of an army officer. I heard this march many times whenever my father participated in army parade drills. But I don't remember seeing a version like this. It's played by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, Eastern Army Band, 1st Division Band and 1st Artillery Unit, conducted by Major SHIGA Tōru, commander of the Eastern Army Band. There are no caissons but the cannons make for a thrilling effect. Did the band leader on the USS Seattle  think about doing the same thing with the Seattle's big guns?

* * *

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
always on a voyage of discovery.


La Nightingail said...

Well done, and right in line with the prompt. Boys going home and the bands played on. :)

Kristin said...

Your post reminded me of a third ship post I could have done, I could have brought forward an old post about my great uncle Hugh who kept the coal engines going on a battle ship during WW 1. I didn't realize I had so many ships in my family.

Little Nell said...

Vivid accounts and photos - too vivid in the case of the giant waves. So much information MIke; it could be a whole chapter of a book - now there’s an idea.

Jofeath said...

Perfect for the prompt and such wonderfully detailed history.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Nice of Sousa to cut Mr. Gruber in. I wonder if there was a lawsuit involved or if it was
just "the right thing to do." Interesting to read this and watch the USS Gerald Ford being commissioned
this morning.

Tattered and Lost said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this whole post, but the thing that has me excited is the link to NavSource. I can't wait to show this to my father. He hates the computer, but I'm betting he'll be more than willing to take a look at this site. Thanks for the link!

Barbara Rogers said...

Such a fun and evolving post...the Seattle certainly did her job well, as well as the men who fought, and the bands who played! I've always sung about casisons for the Marines...if my memory serves me right. But then my memory these days is quite as full of holes as swiss cheese. The Japanese language signs with the band playing and the cannons firing is really a nice touch, I do wonder what they say.


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