Converting Private Yachts into Armed Vessels during World War I

German U-boats had been enjoying great success at sea when the United States entered World War I. Every vessel Germany sunk meant the loss of critical cargo for the Allies, and the delay of future deliveries to France, England, and Italy. When the United States joined the fight a dire need existed for small, maneuverable ships to hunt submarines, escort convoys, and rescue crews from sinking ships. To meet this need and do so quickly and efficiently, the U.S. Navy began converting private yachts into armed vessels.

The USS Venetia had been a Californian’s private, 270 foot yacht before the war.  Acquired by the government in August 1917, she was refitted and, equipped with three inch guns, machineguns, and depth charges.  Not long after the Venetia crossed the Atlantic in convoy towing a French sub-chaser, she then began escorting convoys from the Mediterranean out of Gibraltar.  On May 11, 1918 her convoy lost a ship to U-boat ace Otto Launburg, but not without putting up a fight  By Launburg’s own report the Venetia forced him to submerge and drove him off with persistent gunfire and depth-charge attacks. Lt. Cmdr. Lewis Porterfield received the Distinguished Service Medal for this anti-submarine work. The government returned Venetia to her owner in 1919.

The USS Alcedo had been a Pennsylvanian’s private, 275 foot yacht before the war.  Acquired by the government in July 1917, she arrived in Brest, France with a crew of 94 by the end of August to escort convoys and patrol the coast. During two weeks that fall her crew rescued 203 sailors from torpedoed vessels. But before dawn on November 5, 1917, in a convoy 75 miles off Belle-Isle, she encountered a surfaced U-boat 300 yards away. A torpedo struck the Alcedo on the port side, causing her to sink in eight minutes with the loss of 21 men.   

The Alcedo and Venetia, and their crews performed difficult missions during a time of crisis. The armed yachts, often manned by volunteers and reservists, crossed the Atlantic in haste, fought a veteran enemy, and saved the lives of many men. This conversion of yachts into armed vessels proved not just the nimbleness of the U.S. military, but showed practical problem solving in a war that needed immediate solutions.