On Active Service
Defying the danger at sea
Ebert Philpott in uniform. (OSA)
Sailor helps to mine the North Sea
In 1916 Ebert Philpott, a 21 year old from Bullards, just north of Bandon, traveled
to the Portland recruiting station to enlist as an apprentice seaman in the
Navy. Philpott trained for several months at the Naval Training Station on
Goat Island in the San Francisco Bay. After a brief stint aboard the USS Alabama,
he saw duty as a fireman second class on the minelayer USS Canonicus.
mine became a primary Allied weapon against the German submarines during
I. The cylindrical mines measured approximately
36 inch wide and were packed with 300 pounds of explosives. View loading
mines onto a ship.
The senior officers of Mine Squadron One in the North Sea in 1918. Philpott's
commanding officer on the Canonicus, Captain Thomas L. Johnson, stands
second from the left. (Photo #NH 52995 courtesy www.history.navy.mil)
in the war, advances in the firing devices on the moored mines made
it feasible to plan a bold countermeasure against the U-boats. Over
month period in 1918, American and British minelayers planted over
Sea in a line
extending 250 miles from Scotland to Norway. While not completed before
the end of the war, the North Sea mine barrage lowered the effectiveness
of the German submarines.
Resting easy on 900 explosive mines
The Canonicus, with Philpott aboard, laid 11,000 mines in the
North Sea area during the effort. With the end of the war, the
ship saw duty transporting soldiers back to the United States. To Philpott's
dismay, the Navy assigned him to a new duty away from the Canonicus.
Philpott sent this letter to his parents soon after the Armistice was
ship sailed home:
Well I must tell you the sad news. My ship
the Canonicus has sailed for America. But, I am left here
I am in a nice little town called Inverness. I am drafted
to a mine sweeper. And it is impossible for me to say when
will see the US now....
Now don't let the fact that I am on a mine sweeper
worry you. The Canonicus planted more mines than any mine layer
in history. And it is up to what few of her crew is left over
here to keep up her record and sweep more mines than any other
crew over here.
You don't have to worry about me getting torpidoed
[sic] anymore, so that will be one lode [sic] off you mind.
We were attacted [sic] several times by Subs [submarines].
But as far as we know the[y] never fired on us. We had
them anyway. If they blew us up, we had a load of nine hundred
on board. That was enough to blow everything out of the
water for miles around. I have see[n] as many as fifteen
[mines] blow up at once when we were planting. They would
blow mountains of watter [sic] into the air. The Germans
too, and I think that that is why they never tried to sink
any of our mine layers....
Your loving son.
Ebert L. Philpott
U.S. Naval Forces Europe
U.S.N. Base No. 18
c/o Post Master
Naval blockade theory
Despite Philpott's effort to reassure his parents about his
relative safety on a mine laying ship, German submarines, or U-boats
(short for undersea boat in German), caused great damage to merchant
shipping during World War I. Before the start of war, experts thought
submarines were poor weapons for naval blockades of enemy countries.
Blockades often involved taking aboard the crew of a captured ship as
prisoners. Also, sailors from the attacking ship often would man the
enemy ship after it was captured. But submarines were incredibly cramped,
having barely enough space to house a crew for its own operation. Thus,
with no room for prisoners or additional crew to man captured vessels,
they were deemed ineffective for blockades.
The unarmed submarine freighter Deutschland, described on a postcard
as the "largest in the world," arrives at a Connecticut harbor
in 1916. The United States was still a neutral country at the time. Six
months later the vessel was commissioned into the German Navy after
the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. In the next several
it traveled over 9,000 miles, sank 19 ships, and shelled targets ashore
on the Azores.
Unrestricted submarine warfare
However, in February
1915, the German government rejected the prevailing views on the use
known as unrestricted
warfare, leaders decided
that rather than attempt to capture merchant ships,
the U-boats would simply sink them. No attempt would be made to rescue
merchant sailors. The German government declared a war zone around the
British Isles and announced their intention
warning any Allied merchant ship.
By September the U-boats had hit 50 ships. One of them, the ocean liner
Lusitania caused particular outrage in America after it went down in
May 1915. Nearly 1,200 lives were lost, including 128 Americans. Since
States to be officially neutral in the war, the loss of American life
caused many to call for war against Germany. Wilson sent a strong protest
to the German government, which eventually suspended the attacks.
Oregon boys survive as ship sinks
USS San Diego
Three Sheridan, Oregon sailors were among many Oregonians
who survived the sinking of the 503 foot long cruiser
USS San Diego in July 1918 off the coast of New York.
It was believed to have struck a mine left by a German
Ercel Yokum spent three frightening hours in the water
before his rescue near Fire Island. The San Diego served
as an armed escort for convoys in the North Atlantic.
The convoys protected merchant ships from the attack
of German submarines. ((Oregon Defense Council
Records, Personal Military Service Records, World War
I, Box 6, Sherman County, School District No. 4)
U-boat marauders nearly succeed
But by February 1917, the strategic equation had changed enough that
the German government was willing to risk bringing the United States
The goal was to starve Great Britain out before the Americans entered.
The new policy was even more deadly than the first: all Allied and now
neutral ships, including those flying the U.S. flag, would be sunk on
The strategy nearly succeeded. By the time America declared war in
April, the U-boats had sunk over 1,000 merchant ships and Great Britain
within six weeks of starvation. Ultimately, the new practice of
deploying the merchant ships in convoys protected by armed escorts
doomed the U-boat warfare strategy. Convoys made the ships much less
made the task much more dangerous for the U-boats. As a result, the
merchant ship losses dropped quickly and a reliable supply route across
helped to turn the tide against Germany. American troop ships also benefited
from the use of convoys as the "doughboys" made their way to
a speech by U.S. Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels in 1918
entitled "The Navy Is Ready." (mp3 via
On to a minesweeper
Hoping to return home as soon as
possible, Philpott put in an application to be dismissed from the Navy
the Navy had other plans for him.
The work of minesweepers continued long after the end of the war. They
were needed to help clear mines from the harbors and coastal waters of
Europe so that the nations of the continent could begin to rebuild their
economies. Philpott would serve for two more years before his discharge
in December 1920. Much of that time he spent on the minesweeper USS Woodcock
working as a water tender.
(Oregon State Defense Council Records, Personal Military
Service Records, World War I, Box 2, Coos County, School District No.
21; Oregon Military Department Records, World War I Service Cards)