The Ship that Never Sailed

USS Recruit (1917)

U.S. Navy

Picture it if you will – 1917, and the United States have joined the Allies in fighting the “Great War” (later to be known as World War I).  Recruiting, however, is not going all as it should for New York City.  With a quota of 2000, the city produced less than half that number.  What to do…

Well, Mayor John Purroy Mitchel came up with an answer.  He had a ship designed by designed by Donn Barber and Jules Guerin, and based somewhat on Battleship #10 USS .

  The main (>heh<) difference?  This “ship” was built in Union Square, close to the subway station, and wasn’t going to sail anywhere.

In order to promote enlistments in the Navy and Marine Corps, the Mayor's Committee on National Defense raised modest sum of $10,000 (about $202,424.13 in 2015 dollars), to build a mock dreadnought.  When completed, it was christened by the Mayor’s wife, Olive Mitchel, and on Memorial Day in 1917 it was presented to the Navy.  Acting Captain C. F. Pierce was placed in command of USS Recruit.

As completed, USS Recruit (also known as “Landship Recruit”) was 200 feet long with a beam of 40 feet.  While made of gray-painted wood and tin, it was armed with a real searchlight, semaphore signals… and one-pound guns. While initially battleship gray, in following year (July 1918) the ship was repainted in an overnight evolution in a brightly-colored dazzle camouflage by twenty-four members of the Women's Reserve Camouflage Corps (assisted by a squad of sailors).

  The Recruit's camouflage was designed by American artist William Andrew Mackay, and implemented by order of Commander W.T. Conn (I’m presuming him to be the Commanding Officer of USS Recruit at the time)

USS Recruit operated not only as the U.S. Navy's headquarters for recruiting in the New York City district, but also as a recruiting and training ship during the war.

  She was commissioned as though a normal vessel of the U.S. Navy and manned by a crew of trainee sailors - operating as a commissioned ship, with manned watches on the quarterdeck and roving patrols topside night and day.  In 1917, the ship housed 39 bluejacket guards (enlisted men, with between 2 and 6 months service).  Their routine was pretty standard – up at six o’clock, scrub the decks, wash their clothes, attend instruction classes, and then stand guard and answer questions for the remainder of the day.  From sundown to eleven pm, the lights of the ship were turned on, including the searchlight.

Fully rigged, and flying the flag of the Navy and the flag of the Marine Corps, USS Recruit had accommodations on board such as forward and aft physical examination rooms (for prospective recruits, as well as the crew) and associated waiting rooms, full officer's quarters and cabins for the accommodation of the sailors of its crew, showering facilities, a wireless station (radio room), and a heating and ventilation system that was capable of changing the temperature of the air inside the ship ten times within the span of an hour.  Presumably there was also a galley & mess decks for meals, all things considered.

Topside, there were two 50-foot high cage masts, a conning tower, and a single 18-foot (dummy) smokestack, matching Recruit's silhouette to the layout of seagoing U.S. battleships of the time. Three twin turrets contained a total of six wooden versions of 14-inch guns, providing the ship's “main battery”.  As well, ten wooden 5-inch guns in casemates (a fortified gun emplacement or armored structure from which guns are fired) represented the secondary anti-torpedo-boat weaponry of a battleship (German U Boats terrorized the Atlantic in WWI).  And finally, the previously mentioned two replicas of one-pounder saluting guns, completing the ship's “armament”.

The Navy offered public access and tours of the ship, allowing civilians to familiarize themselves with how a Navy warship was operated.  As well, the ship was host to a variety of different events and receptions intended to bring civilians aboard the ship - not only patriotic events, but social events as well.

  Both her size and location allowed USS Recruit to become a focal point of New York activities. - the ship hosted dances for New York's socialites, various city ceremonies took place at the bow of the ship, and the Red Cross held drives.  There were even boxing matches and Vaudeville shows held on board. 

Remember the quota of 2000 recruits?  By the end of the war, over 25,000 men had registered on board USS Recruit.

However, after the war’s end, the military was being scaled back.  With the war at peace, it was determined that there was no need to keep USS Recruit in commission - and so, USS Recruit was decommissioned on 16 March 1920. 

The plan was that the ship would be deconstructed with care, in order to be rebuilt in Luna Park on Coney Island – where the Navy planned to have it reconstructed as a permanent recruiting depot (as opposed to a commissioned ship on land).  And indeed, Recruit was deconstructed, and while it was estimated that it would take but two weeks to get to the park… Landship Recruit seems to have disappeared.  Theories have been presented as to what then happened to her…

Theory:  the ship was destroyed by termites when it was kept in storage.

Theory:  because the ship was moved from the city to the coast, the damp and sea air caused the wood to rot.

… but no one has been able to find solid evidence to her ultimate fate.  Which in my opinion is a real shame.