This post was written by Harry Kidd. Harry is a volunteer at the National Archives working on textual and photographic digitization projects. Harry is a former Navy photographer himself and came across this story while researching military photographers.
In the early morning of January 1st 1919 Surfman Roger Smith reported sighting the U.S.S. Northern Pacific a few miles southeast of Fire Island, Coast Guard Station #83. Unbeknownst to Smith, the initial report was the beginning of an 18 day saga that remains one of the most amazing, yet often forgotten, rescue stories of World War I.
The U.S.S. Northern Pacific, a troop transport leased by the U.S. Navy from the Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company, was almost home on the westbound portion of its 11th transatlantic run. Carrying over 2500 troops returning from France, the ship was in route to the disembarkation port of Hoboken, New Jersey. Of the passengers on the ship, more than fifteen hundred were recovering wounded, including 300 bed-ridden, plus a contingent of Navy nurses. As a result, when the Northern Pacific got stuck on the Fire Island sandbar the potential for disaster was imminent.
The efforts to rescue the stranded troops were made significantly more complicated by the treacherous conditions. The weather on the morning of January 1 was 45 degrees and raining with a strong wind out of the southwest. During the day efforts to refloat the Northern Pacific proved unsuccessful and the ship was forced further on shore by the winds, current and tides. The ship finally came to rest about 200 yards off shore, stuck to a depth of 11 feet of sand on the Fire Island sand bar.
With the situation stabilized, resources began arriving at the scene on the morning of January 2. Using Beebe-McLellen surfboats the Coast Guard began transferring soldiers, ten at time, from the ship to shore and to other nearby ships. The rescue necessitated a breeches buoy apparatus, which was essentially a life ring on a pulley system that ran from the stranded ship to the shore. The foul weather conditions made the launching and recovery of the boats very hazardous. On its way back to shore, one of the rescue ships capsized and nearly killed three soldiers before Coast Guardsmen performed resuscitation.
Over 2500 men and women were transferred from the ship to the shore. The most seriously wounded where transferred directly to the Navy hospital ship USS Solace. The ordeal continued for a staggering 18 days before a fleet of powerful wrecking tugs were able to refloat the ship. Surfmen at Coast Guard Station #84 maintained 24 hour watch of the Northern Pacific throughout the ordeal and despite several mishaps, no major injuries occurred.
The captain of the ship, Louis J. Connelly, was tried by a general courts-marital on three charges related to the grounding on Fire Island. He was found guilty on two of the charges. After completing repairs due to the grounding, the Northern Pacific made two more transatlantic trips in June and August 1919. While under tow to a Chester, Pennsylvania shipyard on February 2, 1922 the Northern Pacific caught fire and was destroyed.
Photographs of the rescue at Fire Island are now housed at the National Archives as part of the series, Photographs of American Military Activities (111-SC). The WWI photographs from this collection are being digitized in their entirety as part of the Wartime Films Project. The Unwritten Record has highlighted a number of records related to World War I over the past two years which can be found here.
The Station Keepers of Coast Guard life saving stations filed daily reports, microfilm copies of which are also preserved in The National Archives, located in “US Coast Guard Records Assistance to Individuals and Vessels, Microfilm Publication T720-Roll #15, November 16, 1918 – April 1, 1919.” Additional information was found in articles appearing in the New York Times of January 2 – 20, 1919.