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USS Lake Elsinore celebrates 100th anniversary after proudly serving during World War I


Last updated 9/13/2018 at 7:22pm

National Archives & Records Administration

The USS Lake Elsinore serves as a cargo ship to transport coal during World War 1.

Editor's Note: Oftentimes little snippets of history about a city, a war hero or the gallant efforts of a community or the nation are lost through time but revealed in thoughtful research. Such is the case of the city of Lake Elsinore, and thanks to Rick Reiss, a local historian who contacted this newspaper about a World War I ship named after the city of Lake Elsinore and its crew – USS Lake Elsinore – that we honor today.

Here are some edited excerpts of Reiss' research discoveries and that won him recognition by the Temecula Valley Historical Society in their September newsletter. It is the 100th anniversary of this U.S. Navy commissioned merchant marine ship. We thank President Theodore Roosevelt for honoring this vessel and the crew that faithfully served on this ship in this nation's first World War.

"At half-past 2 p.m., Sept. 13, 1918, the United States Navy took possession of the USS Lake Elsinore and commissioned the cargo ship into the Naval Overseas Transportation Service, or N.O.T.S., during the twilight of 'The Great War.' The ship was promptly refitted and refurbished in accordance with Navy standards and protocols.

While construction of the cargo ship began a little more than a year after America had entered World War I, German U-boats had been detected in U.S. waters for the first time.

In the European Theater of the War, the spring 1918 German offensives on the Western Front had yielded continued stalemate and then an ultimate German retreat during the Second Battle of Marne. Just as the USS Lake Elsinore was commissioned into service, Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing and his American doughboys attacked and routed retreating German forces at the Saint Mihiel salient and broke through German lines to capture the fortified city of Metz.

"While the Allied armies were on the offensive and racking up victory after victory against the Central Powers, the Allies were voracious in their need for food, logistics, ammunition and weapons and of course, coal. 'King Coal' ruled the era, powered the Industrial Revolution, fueled the Naval fleets and Army supply trains and provided the heat needed for the troops driving eastward on the Western Front.

Such were the conditions that the officers and crew found themselves facing when they commissioned and manned up the USS Lake Elsinore on that early autumn day in Montreal, Canada.

The American Shipbuilding Company, a pre-eminent shipbuilder throughout the Great Lakes and based in Lorain, Ohio, designed and built the SS Lake Elsinore. The United States Shipping Board contracted American Shipbuilding to construct the Lake Elsinore and similar ships through a government-run entity then known as the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

The USSB itself was created in the early 20th century to revitalize America's Merchant Marine infrastructure. The mission of the shipping board was radically changed upon the United States' entry into World War I in April 1917. At this time in history, America's Navy was quite diminished. The greatest needs of the Allied armies in the war theaters were for soldiers and logistics. This included a high demand for coal, which cargo ships like the USS Lake Elsinore provided.

To meet these logistical demands, the USSB created the Emergency Fleet Corporation and proceeded to launch a massive shipbuilding effort.

"By the time the Armistice was declared Nov. 11, 1918, the United States had constructed some 3,000 ships for the war effort at a cost of $5 billion. These ships were constructed in 150 shipyards located throughout the country while employing an estimated 300,000 workers.

The Emergency Fleet Corporation Design 1,020 ships were built at the Great Lakes facilities and became widely known as the "Lakers" as the U.S. Shipping Board named all 35 ships in this class after American lakes. The Lake Elsinore transited to Montreal where she was commissioned and manned by U.S. Navy sailors.

The specifications of the USS Lake Elsinore classify the ship as a collier, i.e., a coal transport, type of ship with an overall length of 261 feet; a beam of 43 feet 6 inches; a single smokestack; two-single masts; three-raised hull islands; two-coal fired Scotch boilers rated for 180 pound-force per square inch of steam; a reciprocating piston steam-driven main engine with a single screw (propeller) with a pitch of 12 feet 3 inches and a top speed of 9 knots. In addition, the ship had a York refrigerating unit capable of producing 1 ton of ice per day and a single .50 caliber gun mounted on the aft deck of the ship. The ship's roster from Dec. 3, 1918, reveals the ship's complement was 10 officers and 53 enlisted crewmen.

Four days after commissioning, the USS Lake Elsinore deployed to Sydney, Nova Scotia, Sept. 17, 1918. The ship was under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Gustave Ernest Wiebe of the U.S. Naval Reserve Force. The remaining crew was composed of junior officers and an array of enlisted men with a variety of specialty ratings.

On Oct. 8, 1918, the USS Lake Elsinore steamed ahead to Nantes, France arriving there Oct. 21. The Lake Elsinore was home ported at the U.S. Naval Base Cardiff, Wales. The ship delivered coal and other supplies via the English Channel by steaming from English ports such as Cardiff, Barry Road and Belfast to a variety of French ports and destinations including Roscanvel, Brest and Tonnay Charente.

The deck logs of the USS Lake Elsinore indicate that the ship delivered 2,439 tons of cargo to Europe during her deployment. Available ship's deck logs indicate that the Lake Elsinore carried out her missions with no incidents until the Armistice was declared in effect Nov. 11, 1918.

Yet, there was one post Armistice Day incident that occurred on the morning of Nov. 23, 1918. While steaming up the Charente River the USS Lake Elsinore collided with the French steamship SS Vidar. The collision left virtually no damage whatsoever to the Lake Elsinore, but the Vidar sustained more moderate damage as the ships collided. Subsequent investigations and U.S. Navy boards of inquiry placed the blame on the Vidar for obstructing the channel while connected to an onshore cable while other reports concluded that both ships were at fault. In the end, there was no disciplinary action taken against anyone."

Reiss wrote, "For her service to the war effort, the USS Lake Elsinore was awarded with the World War I Victory Medal after the Great War, the medal was referred to as The Victory Medal. After World War II, the medal was redesignated as the WWI Victory Medal.

On May 5, 1919, the USS Lake Elsinore was transferred to an Army account from which she continued transporting coal and other materials for the war recovery and de-mobilization effort. Sometime during the early summer of 1919 Lt. Cmdr. K.J. Powers replaced the Lake Elsinore's commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Wiebe. It was left to Powers to oversee the demobilization and decommissioning of the Laker class collier.

National Archives & Records Administration

The USS Lake Elsinore serves as a cargo ship to transport coal during World War 1.

On Aug. 26, 1919, the USS Lake Elsinore departed U.S. Naval Base Cardiff for Saint Nazaire, France, for her last war-related supply run.

On Oct. 4, 1919, the USS Lake Elsinore was officially decommissioned from the U.S. Navy and returned to the inventory of the U.S. Shipping Board. As she was no longer a U.S. Navy vessel, her name reverted to SS Lake Elsinore. In 1926 she was sold to the Ford Motor Company for scrap.

The officers and crew of the USS Lake Elsinore performed their duty with honor, efficiency and ingenuity. In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "To the men who took part in this great work too much credit cannot be given."

"For the people of Lake Elsinore California, the USS Lake Elsinore should easily come as a source of pride and reverence for a namesake ship that diligently answered the call of our nation in time of war." Rick Reiss, local historian


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