At Sea in the Great War: A Coast Guardsman’s Letters Home

August 8, 2012 7:49 AM - Updated: February 5, 2013 1:27 PM

You may send my new camera to me, without the tripod, as I am allowed to use it.” So wrote Frederick Richard Foulkes in a letter home on 17 April 1917, just four days after enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard. Seaman Foulkes, the son of a Presbyterian minister, very quickly had acquired the nickname “Parson.”

When the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, the Coast Guard had been transferred from the Treasury Department to the Navy Department. Veteran crews were augmented with fresh recruits; Foulkes was assigned to the cutter Manning . A small warship by today’s standards, she was 205 feet long and displaced 1,155 tons. Commissioned on 8 January 1898, the Manning was a veteran of the Spanish-American War, one of the last class of U.S. revenue cutters rigged for sail, and the first to carry electric generators.

Powered by one steam engine, she could attain 17 knots and boasted two 3-inch gun mounts and two 6-pounder rapid-fire guns. Filled out to a full complement of 8 officers, 4 warrant officers, and 100 crew, the Manning was deployed to Gibraltar. She escorted her first convoy out through the danger zone, some 215 miles, on 19 September 1917.

Foulkes frequently wrote to his family in Philadelphia and made ample use of the camera he had requested—the result being a rich trove of letters and photographs. The excerpts from his letters reproduced here, along with a sampling of his dozens of photographs, provide an up-close look—nearly a century later—at wartime duty on board a heralded cutter of Squadron 2, Division 6, Atlantic Fleet Patrol Forces.


30 September 1917 : I cannot tell much because of censorship, but I will do my best. To begin with, I am well now but have been seasick. . . . We don’t think about getting the Germans near so much as we think about getting home.

11 October : I am now signalman; there are four of us, and every other day we are off. At sea, I turn to again as an O.S. [Ordinary Seaman]

In case my other letter did not reach you, I am going to repeat a request for some stuff—Durham Duplex [razor] blades, vest pocket Kodak film, and a box of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum, also newspapers.

11 November : Your Freddie has seen a real German U Boat, but would much rather see the Statue of Liberty loom up before his gaze, still I am not homesick, although I surely do miss home. It’s funny, one day I think of home as a means of getting a certain dish that I liked and the next day it will be some music I would like to play on the piano and so it goes.

6 December : Uncle Sam has given us free postage as a Christmas gift. It is welcome more because of the convenience it gives than the money saved. Stamps sure were scarce articles, but now we can write and mail a letter whenever we wish.

About the fellows on the ship. There are some mighty fine boys on board and I get along very well with them. The crew runs from one “gob” who has taken postgraduate work at Yale, to one who claims that he has been in practically every jail in the States, so you see I have plenty of companions to choose from. There is very, very little swiping among the crew. In fact, things I have lost have been returned to me. Of course, unmarked clothing is not owned by any one, so if a fellow fails to mark his clothes, he has to take a chance.

9 February 1918 : This is the sixth day out and I have not written before because of the restless waves. The sea is still rolling but not rough.

The first thing we saw, after leaving port, was a torpedoed tramp. The stern was under water. Fritz did not get her though, as she was heading for land, under her own power. Believe me, we kept some lookout. While looking at her, the crew’s attention was called back to our ship by a fire on board. We soon had it out as every man knew his place.

As soon as we were away from the sheltering shores we had rough weather again . The weather was not near as rough as some we have had, but the waves were very high, making the ship roll and pitch a great deal. We did not use tables to eat on but used bowls.

I do not swing [use a hammock] but sleep on the deck. In good weather it seems crowded below, but when the fellows on deck are driven below by bad weather, it sure looks like a cattle car, or better yet, a chicken car, as there are about three layers of us. First come the gents who swing. All hooks are used and everything else that a hammock can be swung on.

On the sides of the berth deck are benches used for lockers and seats. They are about a foot and a half wide; those are used next. Fellows lashing themselves on them so that they will not roll off. Then the benches used to eat from are next in order for beds. Much the same procedure used for the other benches except that the benches must be lashed to something to keep them from sliding around the room.

Last of all come the men in Freddy’s class; we sleep on the deck. I prefer to sleep on deck as it is cooler and more convenient. The men on deck sleep in a scrambled egg fashion. Some will be using my feet for a pillow and I will very likely be using somebody’s back or other portion of his body, for my pillow. We must not show a light so a little shaded light is all we have down there. I will describe one night’s sleep. . . . I turned in around seven thirty. I had the four to eight in the morning. I tried to get asleep as soon as possible (O yes, I had all my clothing on, just my shoes were off) so that I would not get seasick. I went to sleep alright.

The next thing I knew a fellow sleeping on a bench fell off, overturning the bench on me. I just told him what I thought of him and went to sleep again. The next thing to happen—someone going on watch steps on my head, trying to navigate through the crowd. I don’t blame him for I have done the same myself. It is hardly possible to get around without walking on some one’s hand or foot. I prefer walking on their stomachs as I hate to hear the bones crunch.

O! the wonders of my Navy sleep! A man swinging above me fell out of his hammock. He hardly woke up and in his fall he received a black eye. My “fat” has done some good. I always wake up with a bad taste in my mouth, but help is in sight, we are having better weather and a lot of us are sleeping on deck. I should add that the remaining cat always sleeps with me, or on my bunk. Why I don’t know. We had a number of cats. One was sat on, one climbed in a hammock and was lashed up, the rest fell or jumped overboard.

What used to be the chart room is now used by the captain as living quarters, while at sea. . . . In front of the chart room is the old pilot house. The ship is now steered from the bridge. In the pilot house the signal flags are kept, so that allows the signalman and quartermaster freedom of that room. As the pilot house is high above the water-line, we can get fresh air and light from the lee side. . . .

There has been some complaint about the food lately, so the Captain called me into the chart room, day before yesterday, and had a half hour talk with me about food, liberty, etc. He said he would try and let us have pie twice a week and all night liberty. The food has improved and for the last two days we have eaten well. When the captain called me I thought he was going to tell me to wash but he did not, he usually does about once every trip. So I washed yesterday for the first time since leaving port. I have not shaved, though. Really, for a young chap, I have quite a vigorous fringe.

I am getting to be quite a person on board here. I have charge of a life raft when we abandon ship. I am in a machine gun crew, also. We use both the Colt and the Lewis.

I remember when I was younger reading about a hero who captured a gun that broke loose on a man-of-war. I did not understand it then, but I can now. A vinegar barrel broke loose when the ship was hitting the high seas. Talk about your “bull in a T shop.” We are a very modest bunch and no one wanted to be a hero, but at last it was captured.

Yesterday was the first day since leaving port that the decks were dry. So I decided to sleep on deck. I had the 4 to 8 this morning and I was mighty glad I did for it started to rain this morning at 3:15. I made up my mind not to get up ’till I went on watch. I was just a little damp at four but if I had slept through until seven, I would have had a bath. Water does not seem to hurt one though.

Today is wonderful, a blue sea, no caps, hardly any wind and a white sky. But O the sea is deeply moved. Go to the bathroom (I could spend a day in the shower now and need it), fill the tub and greatly disturb the water, put a match or some small object on a cake of Ivory soap put the soap in the tub, look at the soap, watch how it floats up one wave and down the next, then look at the toothpick or match slide around, that’s ME. . . . But I think there is something grand about a wild and rough sea. Maybe I will be [a] sailor yet.

The days have been, as a rule, cloudy and the nights dark. When I am on watch, during the night time, I take it upon myself to pass the coffee around. It usually comes up about once every two hours, or twice on a watch. It is some job passing the java on a dark night. One night I offered it to the compass, which I mistook for the Officer of the Deck. On another time I thought I was filling a cup, but instead I was pouring it up my sleeve.

13 February : Yesterday I found the secret of bathing in one bucket of water. . . . For quite a while I have washed my teeth with the aid of an old jam can, in which I held the water. The jam can is about the size of a large water tumbler. Here is the way I washed. First I filled my bucket as full as possible with water which I heated by means of steam to a fairly warm temperature.

I then went into the wash room (about five square feet). Next I took off all my clothes, except my underwear. The said underwear was in need of a washing also. I filled the jam can with water and washed my hands in it. I got them clean, too. The soap water was then poured over myself. I filled the can again and washed my face. You need soap on your face here, too. The soapy water left was again poured over me. I next used the jam can full of water for my hair. Next came my back and chest to be cleaned, so I removed my jersey which was by now well filled with suds and stood for it. It took about two cans of water to wash my body and then I removed my drawers which were well sudded and gave myself a good foot and leg bath. By using the can three or four more times, I was able to rinse off all the soap and dirt. It is to be noted here that my original bucket of water is still clear.

So I gave myself a copious shower of the clean water, which by this time was cooled quite a bit. But the remarkable thing is this, after all the water used on myself I had half a bucket of clean water to wash clothes in. I guess I must have the making of a good sailor in me to do that.

8 March : I have received a half bag of North Americans [a Philadelphia newspaper]. I think it is best to cancel the order, as they all come at one time and I cannot read one tenth of them. Besides the policy of the N.A. nearly drives me mad. Things are bound to go wrong and this business of enlarging the faults of our hard working President and others nearly makes one doubt the sincerity of the paper. . . . We have plenty of warm clothes. Most of the fellows use their Red Cross sweaters for liberty. For watches at sea, we have underwear, a blanket shirt, a wind suit, laced boots that go on over our shoes and a sheep skin coat, besides rain clothes for bad weather.

22 April : Of course U-Boats are our “ambition,” you might say, so a very good lookout is suppose to be kept. As there are four signal boys we stand four hours on and twelve off. I have stood lookout and wheel watches also. The wheel watch is not bad but the lookout, My! A fellow feels far from home way up in the crow’s nest. The ship may not be rolling much but the lookout feels every move.

31 May : Yesterday being Decoration Day I was “decorated” with four hours extra duty. The exact reason for my voluntary (on the officers’ part) work was not because yesterday was the 30th but because I failed to lash my hammock up properly.

I was the official lemonade maker. In fact, fellows coming back from “Liberty” would wake me up to make the stuff.”

26 June : I have not been to church for a long time, as Sundays have either been used up at sea, or I am on watch if they found us in port. I sure do miss going. In fact, that is the kind of thing that I have missed most.

30 July (the last letter that was saved) : I was going to do a lot of writing this last trip but for a mighty good reason did not. The sea was rough. Roll? There were times when I thought the “old packet” never would come back.

One of the ships with us had her life boats torn from her side by the wild sea. For three nights had no sleep and no one else did either. Water even came below to the berth deck.


With that, the extant commentary from Foulkes—my grandfather—draws to an abrupt end. Contemporary accounts, including the ship’s log, help fill in some blanks. At 0920 on 11 November 1918, the Manning “received signal from dockyard that Germany has signed armistice.” By war’s end, the Manning had escorted 24 convoys consisting of more than 700 merchant ships, escorted troop ships on special service, and conducted antisubmarine patrols in the Mediterranean. Typical of the cutters of Squadron 2, the Manning was under way more than 40 percent of the time. Although she didn’t earn a star on her funnel for sinking a U-boat, there were a few brushes with German submarines, including a narrow escape from an enemy torpedo.

After returning to the States, my grandfather was honorably discharged on 26 January 1919. He got married and worked at a number of jobs in and around New York City, including high-rise steelworker, merchant seaman, and hotel manager. Responding to the devastating losses from U-boat attacks during World War II, the War Shipping Administration telegraphed him that “vessels of our Merchant Marine may be delayed in November and December for lack of qualified officers. . . . We urge you to ship as quickly as possible.” Well into his 40s and father of a 10-year-old daughter, he answered the call, quoting to my grandmother a couplet from Richard Lovelace’s famous poem:

I could not love thee, dear, so much,

Lov’d I not honor more.

He served for the rest of the war as first mate on a series of Liberty and Victory ships—but that’s another story. He died in 1971 at the age of 73.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
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