Ink-written diary kept by George R. Toothill during the Great War.
CONSTANT FEAR OF GERMAN TORPEDOES stressed by World War I American sailor in this ink-written diary kept by George R. Toothill (?) during the Great War. The sailor served aboard two vessels, first the USS Sterling, the United States Navy Auxiliary iron, schooner-rigged collier, and then the USS Lake Ontario, a single screw seagoing tug, and apparently lived in or near Norfolk, Virginia. The hard-covered diary book is in fine condition and is imprinted on the front cover in gold, “SOLDIER’S-SAILOR’S DIARY AND ENGLISH-FRENCH DICTIONARY SELF-PRONOUNCING.” 3-3/4”-wide by 5-3/8”-high. The diary was presented to George by a woman named “Lucy,” who inscribed the very first day, “Friday, Dec. 24, 1917, To George from Lucy. God speed you.”
The diary begins at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on January 1, 1918 and continues through December 30 of that year. After being anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia until February 11, 1918, the Sterling began its voyage from Norfolk to France. On February 27th George anxiously wrote “Hospital ship was torpedoed to night about 100 miles south of us.” The next day he wrote with apparent joy, “The torpedo boats met us this morning.”
On March 23 he reports in the diary he and is ship are going from France to Hampton Roads, Virginia (recording the previous day “We are all anxious to make the start for home”). On the 24th he wrote “We are still in the submarine zone,” and on the 25th, “Escort left us early this morning,” and the next day, “We are in the war zone alone.”
During the remainder of March, the ship and crew members face harsh weather which slows them, causing sailor George to write, on April 2, “Heavy sea continued. Made only 100 miles to-day.”
The delays caused by the weather cause other problems aboard the Sterling. “Running short of water and coal,” George wrote on April 3. “Changed course and headed for Bermuda.” The next day he writes “Counting coal by the lump now,” and on April 5, “The coal bunkers look sick.” On April 6th the boiler is “leaking badly,” and on the 7th, in desperation, “Swept the coal bunkers clean and got about one days supply.”
Fortunately, on April 8th, the Sterling arrived in St. George’s, Bermuda, and George reported in his diary “Our coal gave out at 10:30 a.m. burned all the loose wood aboard the ship and arrived here at 4 p.m.” A close call it was.
On August 12, 1918, George wrote he received an appointment as Lieutenant, and ordered to report to the USS Lake Ontario. He begins his voyages and records similar anxiety about German submarines in the North Atlantic. August 29, 1918—“At Sea enroute from Sidney N.S. to Scotland. Submarines reported all around us but we have not had a look at them.” The next day, “The subs attacked the Standard Firow (?) this morning but she got away.”
While the entries are not extensive in length, they nevertheless, because of their being included every day of the year, provide an exceptional perspective of how the American sailors felt going from America to the European war zone by ship.
The diary is exceptional too in that besides having the English-French dictionary, there is a section on “Military Slang.” On the diary’s first “Memorandums” page sailor George wrote “Mar. 23 (perhaps 1919)—Left France for U.S.A. engine counter stood 366950.” Nautical miles traveled?
The diary is in fine condition. $550.