Remembering World War I: American Troop Ships First Arrive in France

Shortly after the United States entered World War I, the commander of U.S. Convoy Operations was ordered to organize and begin escorting the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) to France. With the threat of enemy submarines, American ships crossing the Atlantic needed protection. Four cruisers, 13 destroyers, two armed yachts, and two fuel tankers gathered in New York Harbor in early June 1917 to serve as escorts. They would convoy 14 steamships and three navy transports to France with cargoes of soldiers, material, draft animals, and supplies. By the end of the war, more than 75 percent of American troops passed through New York Harbor on their way to Europe.  

In little time, the transport ships had been gathered, fitted for carrying troops, equipped with radios, and armed. The United States even utilized German ships that had been interned, or seized after the declaration of war. The American government had to be flexible and efficient in order to get troops and supplies into Europe quickly. By June 14 the ships were deemed ready to sail.

The cruiser USS Seattle, and the destroyers USS Wilkes, Terry, Roe, and later, the Fanning served as heavy escort to the USS Tenadores, Saratoga, Havana, Pastores, and the DeKalb, a captured German armed merchantman. (Merchantman is a name given to a ship, tanker, or freighter whose intended purpose is the transportation of goods and supplies, not military troops). Their orders sent them toward the port of Brest, France. Late at night on June 22, torpedoes coursed through the convoy, narrowly missing several ships.  Lt. T. VanMetre of the destroyer USS Wilkes used early passive sonar to discern the sounds of nearby U-boats. The ships scattered as planned and regrouped the morning of the 23rd.  Marines on the DeKalb were aware of the attack but some soldiers missed the incident.  A soldier of the First Division reported “Daily rumors spread that submarines were near, but no one saw them.” The Navy later remarked on the incident to Congress. 

On the afternoon of the 24th the convoy rendezvoused with additional American destroyers stationed at Queenstown, Ireland. They escorted the ships toward France, where French aircraft could be seen patrolling for submarines. Because of U-boats off the port of Brest, they headed for Saint-Nazaire instead. The crowded troop ships arrived safely, giving the soldiers, sailors and Marines a great sense of relief.

On June 26th the landing began with Army stevedores going ashore to prepare for unloading. Company K of the 28th Infantry Regiment was the first AEF infantry unit to set foot in France. The rest of the 28th, and the 16th Infantry Regiment also came ashore that day, as did part of the 5th Marine Regiment. It was June 30th before the entire contingent could be brought ashore.  Due to the cramped port, it took stevedores assisted by Marines a few day to bring all animals, materiel and supplies ashore.  

First Units to Land at St. Nazaire in Order of Arrival:

•             16th Infantry Regiment
•             18th Infantry Regiment
•             26th Infantry Regiment
•             28th Infantry Regiment
•             5th Marine Regiment
•             Army Field Hospital No. 13
•             Ambulance Company No.13
•             Company C 2nd Field Signal Battalion

The first units ashore marched three miles to Camp No. 1, a site hastily constructed by German Prisoners of War. The mayor of Saint-Nazaire welcomed the Americans, who awed the citizens of the small port town.  Local French bands played in honor of the Americans, and American regimental bands returned the compliment. Shortly after arrival, the French requested that Americans march in Paris on July 4 as a symbol of the United States’ entry into the war.  The 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment received a rapturous welcome in Paris from French citizens and government officials.

While less than an Army division of Americans had arrived in France by late June 1917, this small installment began the mobilization of several million American men and women. Many French ports were transformed to accommodate the arriving waves of allied support. Many of the new docks, warehouses, roads, and railroads were built by American engineer regiments. The U.S. Navy pioneered modern antisubmarine warfare, convoy escort, and refueling of ships underway. The scale and sophisticated organization of the effort amazed Americans and Europeans alike. These millions of Americans with supplies and material became the keystone of Allied victory in 1918. 

Suggested reading

Dick Kamp, The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood (Singapore, Zenith, 2008) .

History of the First Division During the World War (Philadelphia, John C. Winston Co., 1922).

Naval Investigation, Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs US Senate, Sixty-sixth Congress (Washington, GPO, p 2127).