When history remembers great conflicts and events, troop carriers rarely get noted or recognized for their contributions. However, USS George Washington served proudly in two world wars, carried thousands of troops to the theatre of battle and back, and twice carried President Woodrow Wilson and his delegation to the peace negotiations after World War I. When the U.S. declared war in April 1917, the German passenger luxury liner George Washington was moored in a New York harbor and seized as a “spoils” of war. This coal-fired vessel was refurbished as a troop transport for our military. At the outbreak of WWII, the retrofitted oil-fired USS George Washington returned to service, where she was placed in service through the war and after as a troop transport. This great ship, which transported thousands of troops during both world wars, was decommissioned in 1947 and later, in 1951, was sold for scrap.
My father, DeWitt Talmage McGill, left his home in Lake Butler, Fla., in July 1917 and joined the Navy at Key West, Fla. He was assigned as a yeoman on George Washington and made 22 safe crossings of the Atlantic, including the peace conference of 1918 and 1919 in France with President Wilson. 27 years later in October 1944, Arl M. Thomas, also of Union County, Fla., joined the Army as a radio operator. He and his battalion were transferred to France on George Washington to serve at the Battle of the Bulge and into Germany. My father kept a detailed journal of his World War I voyages which included crew morale, details of the New York harbor, USS Leviathan (largest ship afloat), life on George Washington, convoys, submarine attacks, and the peace negotiations voyages with President Wilson. Excerpts from the journal have been included.
George Washington truly had a stellar history of service to our country, delivering our servicemen to the gates of war. The resolute old vessel remains only a footnote in history and perhaps a treasured memory of family members passing the stories along through the ages.
Excerpts from the personal log books of WWI Navy Patriot, Dewitt T McGill 1917-1919.
On July 26,1917 I left my perfectly good home in Lake Butler, Fl, where I got three good square meals daily and a nice place to sleep to join the navy at Key West, Fla. I got in as Yeoman. I see the many boys in uniform; our finest, clean places of amusements and the churches here thrills me with a pride in our great democracy, that will make our women sacrifice and our men die for. It is the strongest evidence that our democracy is true. The personnel of the Army and Navy today is cleanliness, intelligence, loyalty; they are educated, clean and patriotic, the soldiers and sailors are not the uncouth brawler of days gone by. He is a citizen-in-arms, a representative of our country as well as a fighter for American democracy.
There was another bill posted for volunteers for a Trans Atlantic crossing and I thought this the best time if I wanted to see service, especially at sea so I voluntarily signed up.
June 6, 1918
Was transferred to Ellis Island, this is the place all immigrants are landed before they are allowed into the United States and was assigned June 11th to the USS George Washington, a troop transport that was a German ship but was always named the George Washington (the 3rd largest afloat). There are 24,000 civilian workers in the yard - 8000 every eight hours. On the other side of the GW was the largest ship in the world (at the time) USS Leviathan she carried 7000 troops over on her first trip 14,000 the second and is planning to carry 21,000 this trip. It has 300 Yeomen, 40 boilers and makes 28 knots. Went aboard several transports that were being torn apart, ripping out the finest mahogany walls, furniture, several dance halls to make room for the troops.
Hoboken NJ is the place where all the troops catch transports for France. It takes 27 minutes to walk from the Navy Gate to the ships. Left Hoboken NJ for France, we are not told where exactly. The George is well equipped with all conveniences such as telephones, speaking tubes, elevators, pianos, Victrolas, and a daily newspaper printed on a board call the "Hatchet" which gives the latest war and sporting news daily.
June 21, 1918
A floating buoy was seen about halfway to France at 7:30 PM and was fired upon by the Washington and destroyed. We had on board 5370 soldiers and 211 officers, all Army men. Had a band of about 125 pieces played twice daily.
The Paymaster and I work well together and he makes everything pleasant for me. The office where I work is the largest on the ship, it has fourteen desks, four electric fans and two adding machines and also the bank is connected with this office. Now don't worry (Mom and Dad) about me not having money...I have plenty so far!
Battleships, cruisers and destroyers conveyed us over, 15 ships total. Some ships joined us near Virginia Capes and sub chasers brought them out. A $25 reward was given to the first man that saw a submarine. Tuesday we were met by 14 pilots and convey from France to see we get there safe. Schools of whales were seen some were 30 to 40 feet long. A number of sharks and porpoises followed the ships for miles while at sea.
Sailed from France July 1, and on July 2 1918 The Covington was about 400 yards from the Washington when she was torpedoed. At 21:15 a submarine came up and then submerged when torpedoes hit the Covington about mid-ship. She was being towed to France by two destroyers when she failed and sank about 100 miles from shore. The destroyers dropped death bombs and all ships fired at the submarine but don't know whether the sub was hit or not.
The speed of our ship was increased to 19 knots.
July 26, 1918 the day before we reached France; just 25 miles off the coast of France, the merchant marine ship, the USS California, was torpedoed and sunk. She had cargo valued at over 3 million dollars.
We left Brest France Nov 11, 4pm - arrived Hoboken NY Nov 19, 1918.
Nov 11, 1918 at 10:20 am Monday the British Prime Minister announced The Armistice was signed at 5 this morning and hostilities are to cease on all fronts at 11 this am. All ships raised flags, sounded whistles, Forts all fired guns
Left Hoboken for transatlantic trip with President Wilson and Peace party Dec 4,1918 10:15am landed Brest, France Dec 13,1918 13:10. USS Battleship Pennsylvania and ten Destroyers convoyed us over. Guns saluted 21 times on all Cruisers, Battleships and Destroyers that we passed. Crews stood on deck at attention.
Sunday 12/8/2018 Very bright and sunny day, moving picture taken of crew all day. President and Party attended Church in E-3, shook hands after movies. President and his wife walked around "B" deck with two Marines as guards and two secret service men.
3pm abandon ship drill, lowered President boat to "C" deck. A box of carrier pigeon, somewhere turned loose 500 miles out.
12/10/18 passed by Azores Islands, 25 miles long, US Naval base here. Volcano in action. Belongs to Portugal. Passed two large cities and fired 21 times passing each city. Five more Destroyers joined us here. Destroyers dropped several depth charges, just trying them out.
900 miles from here to Brest, France, average 380 miles per day. USS Penn sent up balloons and fired anti air craft guns.
Friday Dec13, 1918- American destroyer #50 came out with French pilot 9am- (4) American Battleships on our left - 5 on our right met us all saluting the Presidential ship 21 times- 10 Battleship in all, 37 Destroyers with us.
11am French ships met us, gave President Salute, dirigibles and hydroplane met us
2:15 - President and party left the ship. We answered the salutes 21 times. Each ship played the Star-Spangled Banner and we answered, also passed review in harbor
January 2, 1919 - left Hoboken landed in Brest France Jan 10,2019.
$2,000,000 in gold for American soldiers, 2000 sacks of mail. Carried a few civilians and passengers - Franklin D Roosevelt, Asst. Sec of Navy.
June 28, 1919- President signed Peace Treaty 7am
Left France with President Wilson's party arrived Hoboken Tuesday. July 4th President talk to all on board through Dictaphone, that would carry his word to the States. Most powerful wireless phone afloat it can pick up to anything up to 1400 miles