‘Human nostrils have their limitations’: Why a WWI ship had to retreat from a port visit
By JOHNATHAN CROYLE | syracuse.com | Published: October 12, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — By the autumn of 1919, the First World War had been over for almost a year.
But that did not mean that the American military was not already thinking about the next struggle. The armed services needed more recruits and the top brass needed to think of new ways to get more men to enlist.
The U.S. Navy had an idea.
Why not send some of the heroic boats of the Great War on tour, stopping at cities and towns to drum up some enthusiasm about enlisting?
To Upstate New York the Navy sent Submarine Chaser 245 a 110-foot long ship under the command of Ensign Martin Weisman.
During the war, the vessel had been attached to the Italian fleet in the Adriatic Sea and was used against the Austrian fleet. It carried three stars on her smokestacks, indicating that her crew had destroyed three submarines during the fighting.
Staffed by a crew of 32 men during the war, the boat had a three-inch gun on its forward deck and in the rear was a “Y” gun, in which charges of TNT were dropped onto enemy submarines.
In July, Submarine Chaser 245 toured Lake Champlain and hundreds of people in Plattsburgh came to see it.
In September, 5,000 people saw it in Schenectady and enjoyed the “moving pictures” that accompanied the ship detailing the use and operation of the vessel and showcasing the daily life of a sailor.
On October 6, the ship arrived in Rome via the Barge Canal with crowds on shore waiting for it. Many toured the vessel to get a “look at the craft that gave a good account of itself during the recent war with Germany.”
Then Submarine Chaser 245 turned its sights for Syracuse, where the ship expected to dock in the heart of downtown, at Clinton Square. It was to be there on October 11 for an undetermined length of time, before it moved west towards Buffalo.
But there was a problem.
The bridges around Clinton Square were too low, and even with the removal of the ship’s wireless masts, the submarine chaser could not get there. The fallback plan was to move the ship to the new Barge Canal Terminal at what is now the Inner Harbor.
Then things took another turn and there would be no reports of crowds turning out to see the ship.
Maybe Ensign Weisman would have known what was in store for him and his crew if he had read a letter to the editor in the Syracuse Herald on Oct. 11, 1919, the day his ship arrived in Syracuse.
In a letter entitled “Bad Harbor Conditions,” written by someone who called themselves “One Who Knows,” the atmosphere around the harbor was described in vivid detail:
“When they say that the odor which arises from the harbor does not impair the health of those that live in that locality they don’t know what they are saying, as anyone with common sense will know that the germ-laden odors that arise from the waters are harmful to health and are strong enough to almost knock you down.”
The writer said that during the past summer “the scum that covered the water was almost a foot thick and the stench from the same was almost unbearable.”
“If the city of Syracuse is to blame for this matter why don’t they rectify the cause and not allow the sewage to empty into the harbor, which is considered one of the best harbors on the line of the barge canal?” the letter writer asked.
Ensign Weisman and the crew of the Submarine Chaser must have wondered the same thing.
By the morning of October 15, they had had enough.
“Our recruiting schedule called for staying here at Syracuse a longer time,” Weisman told reporters, many of whom plugged their noses while he spoke, “but you see we are not losing any time getting away this morning.”
He said that up to that moment, “we had escaped a continued stench, I believe, because of the cold weather. However, every time the wind blew right the revolting odor hit our boat.”
Weisman did not hold back, complaining that the war veterans had experienced nothing like while overseas.
“Our men, hardened by two years of service, have made many complaints of the air conditions.”
“Do you get that?” Weisman asked when the boat’s engines were started and began riling up the rancid water. The reporters nodded.
“When the engine churned the fetid air and water bystanders had hard work retaining their balance and their breakfasts,” a Herald reporter wrote. “Human nostrils have their limitations.”
As the crew packed to leave, Weisman offered some final thoughts on Syracuse’s Inner Harbor, something that would be talked about in this area for the next 100 years.
“This is one of the best terminals in the State,” he said, “but the conditions are revolting. Of all the harbors we have visited, not one has conditions like that here.”
“If this sewage condition could be bettered, I am sure the harbor would boom things for Syracuse and bring many trading vessels here. I am afraid that while the air is polluted that you will not be able to get boats to dock at the terminal.”
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