Tuesday, November 6, 2007

USS Yankton

The USS Yankton was originally a yacht named Penelope and was built in 1893 by Ramage & Ferguson in Leith, Scotland. The Penelope was a 975-ton, steel-hulled schooner that was 185 feet long, almost 28 feet wide and carried a crew of 78 officers and men. When the Spanish-American war started in April 1898, the US Navy was short of warships and decided to purchase the Penelope and convert it into a gunboat. The ship was acquired in May 1898 and was renamed the USS Yankton after a county in South Dakota. The Yankton was armed with six 3-pounders and several other smaller caliber guns. She was commissioned on 16 May 1898 and was sent to Cuba on 18 June.

The Yankton arrived off Santiago de Cuba on 25 June 1898 and was assigned to Rear Admiral William T. Sampson’s North Atlantic Fleet. She then joined the blockade of the southern coast of Cuba near Cienfuegos. Patrolling that area of Cuba, the Yankton came into contact with the enemy on three separate occasions. While steaming towards the coastal town of Casilda, the Yankton saw another converted American yacht, the USS Eagle, bombarding a Spanish artillery battery on Cape Muno. The Yankton quickly came to the Eagle’s assistance and opened fire on the battery. After 20 minutes of shooting, the battery was destroyed. The Yankton also assisted the gunboat Dixie in shelling several Spanish gunboats that were anchored near Casilda. Finally, the Yankton spotted an unidentified ship heading for Cienfuegos. She chased the ship for two hours but the enemy ship was faster than the American gunboat and was able to escape. The Yankton’s skipper, Lt. Commander James D. Adams, identified the mystery ship as the Spanish auxiliary cruiser Alfonso XII, but that claim was never confirmed. After making a brief trip to Guantanamo Bay on 21 July, the Yankton returned to her blockade duties off Cienfuegos. She remained there until the end of hostilities on 12 August 1898.

After returning to the United States for maintenance, the Yankton was used to perform coastal survey work off the coast of Cuba. She was based in Guantanamo Bay and returned to the Naval Base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, once a year for her annual overhaul and repair. The Yankton continued operating off the coasts of Cuba and Puerto Rico until 1903, when she was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, and used as a fleet tender to battleships. She continued being used as a tender until 16 December 1907, when she was added to the “Great White Fleet” that was being sent on its famous around-the-world cruise. The Great White Fleet was a large collection of American warships that was sent on a good-will visit to ports all over the world. The Fleet visited such countries and islands as the British West Indies, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France and Gibraltar. The Fleet ended its journey at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 22 February 1909. It was an amazing accomplishment for any fleet and it proved to the world that the United States was now a major naval power.

From 1909 to 1917, the Yankton resumed her duties as a tender for the Atlantic Fleet. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Yankton was initially assigned to patrol the waters along the coast of northern New England. In August she was sent to Gibraltar to help protect Allied shipping from German U-boats. The Yankton escorted merchant ships in the Straits of Gibraltar as well as the western Mediterranean. On 5 May 1918, while escorting an Allied convoy that was steaming from Bizerte, Tunis, to Gibraltar, the Yankton spotted the German U-boat U-38. The U-boat managed to hit the Italian steamer SS Alberto Treves with one torpedo, but, fortunately, it didn’t sink the merchant ship. The Yankton immediately started shooting at the U-boat, which quickly submerged and got away from the elderly gunboat. For the rest of the war the Yankton did not see any more German U-boats, but it assisted several merchant ships that were victims of U-boat attacks.

The Yankton was sent back to the United States for repairs in September 1918. When the war ended on 11 November 1918, the Yankton was still part of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. In January 1919 she was sent to Plymouth, England, to carry two naval officers to Murmansk, Russia, where they were to serve as American port officers. On 8 February the gunboat reached Murmansk, which by that time was involved in a tense standoff between Allied troops and Bolshevik Army units. When Rear Admiral N.A. McCully arrived to take command of American forces in northern Russia on 23 February, he used the Yankton as his headquarters. McCully eventually transferred his flag to the cruiser USS Des Moines, but the Yankton continued being used as a patrol boat and fleet tender for the remainder of her time in Russian waters. On 9 July 1919, she was ordered to return to England and stayed in European waters until the end of 1919. She was sent back to the United States and arrived at the New York Navy Yard in January 1920. The Yankton was decommissioned on 27 February 1920 and was sold on 20 October 1921. She was converted into a merchant ship and was seized two years later by the federal government for, of all things, transporting illegal rum! Evidently the once proud US gunboat had been converted into a rumrunner during the Prohibition Era here in the United States. After being held by the US government for a number of months, the Yankton was sold once again for use as a merchant ship. This time she was able to end her days as an honest merchantman and was finally sold for scrap in Boston in 1930. Thus ended the amazing career of a ship that was never even designed to be in the US Navy. The Yankton went from being a yacht, to a gunboat, to a convoy escort, to a rumrunner, and, finally, to a law-abiding merchant ship. No ship today could ever hope to match a career like that.


Figure 1 (Top): The USS Yankton shortly after the Spanish-American War. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle): The Yankton circa 1906. Courtesy U.S. Warships of World War I. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Bottom): The Yankton photographed on 22 May 1919 while operating with U.S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia. Courtesy the Sub Chaser Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.