Everything about her seemed to be enormous, perhaps out of scale, on the large side for the times She was constructed by the famous Blohm & Voss yard in Hamburg for the Hamburg Amerika Line and launched for trans Atlantic passenger service on April 3, 1913 Nothing like it had been seen before. The ship had an impressive displacement (weight) of 54,282 gross tons, an overall length of 907 5 feet and a beam of just over 100 feet. Her top speed was 22.5 knots. The commercial crew numbered 1,120
Vaterland was not built for war duty, but was the second of three large, fast, and luxurious express steamers designed to compete with British liners then coming into service when her keel was laid down, most notably the White Star Line's Olympic and Titanic In fact, Mr Albert Ballin, the prewar director of the Hamburg Amerika Line, was a staunch antimilitarist who believed that the only conflicts that Germany should be involved in were commercial ones
This brand new superliner had three funnels (the farthest aft was a dummy), tall masts fore and aft, four huge screws, and a clipper style stern This imposing German ship was powered by direct acting steam turbine engines geared to quadruple screws; these were far more economical to operate and maintain than conventional reciprocating engines and were very fast and dependable in almost any weather for the New York shuttle. And that proved to be true on her maiden voyage in May 1914 when Vaterland made a steady 22 knots from Hamburg to New York, with none of the vibration and mechanical problems that had plagued the first voyages of other Hamburg Amerika Line vessels.
The accommodations were richly appointed in keeping with the best liners of the day. First class cabins, for the first time, had hot and cold running water Public rooms may properly be described as plush, even extravagant Passenger service was attentive and unflawed. Upper deck guests could perambulate as they might at home. There were accommodations for 750 First
Class passengers. 535 in Second Class, 850 in Third Class, and 1,536 in Fourth Class She was greeted ceremoniously and warmly on her arrival in New York by distinguished dignitaries, elected officials, throngs of wide eyed spectators, cabbies by the hundreds, two bands, and crews of dock workers ready to turn Vaterland around for her first eastbound express crossing The reception that followed was a social top of the season affair This ultramodern vessel would be a commercial success and further help to tie two continents together
Vaterland made two more Atlantic crossings, with full loads of passengers going both ways, but by the tune of the June 28. 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, dark clouds forewarned of foul weather yet to come. Captain Ruser was ordered by Director Ballin to keep the crew at the highest level of readiness and be prepared to take evasive action against enemy warships, knowing that an outbreak of war could mean the destruction or confiscation of the grand ship The ship ran into mechanical problems on her fourth crossing that forced the closing down of one of the four turbines and its propeller. Speed was sharply reduced Then the failure of all four of her backing turbines made her completely dependant on tugs when entering the harbor and docking in New York City It was because of the ship's newness, but was, nevertheless, somewhat embarrassing.
As it happened, when the pilot came aboard on July 29, 1914 to maneuver the slow moving Vaterland into its berth, he passed by several senior officers who had taken a huge portrait painting of the Kaiser off the wall and destroyed it, fearful that it was he who would take their lovely ship away if war were to be announced And this was with some justification because war had been declared a few days later between Germany and Britain and the United States government moved on August 4, 1914 to intern Vaterland Perhaps this was a saving measure for the ship as British warships were patrolling just off the New York coast. But this also marked the end of German ownership. This giant symbol of a modern Germany was to rust away slowly for the next three years at her pier, manned only by a small skeleton crew. There she stood as a shadowy, massive hulk, with her glory hastily slipping away
But this was not the end of that greyhound of the seas On April 7, 1917, the day after the United States entered World War I, the Vaterland was seized by Federal agents. backed by armed soldiers Immediately, a rift between the United States and the British Admiralty ensued The U S Navy was stunned when the British refused to allow the extremely large ship into the Liverpool or Southampton harbors, stating that it would overtax harbor facilities and if it were to be sunk or damaged during arrival or departure it could close the ports to other ships It was suggested that Vaterland be used as a hospital ship by the Americans between some unspecified European port and the United States
Captain Albert M Gleaves of the U S Navy was the first to see the potential of Vaterland as a troopship before the war started. He was present at the arrival of the ship in New York City on her maiden voyage and had asked one of the senior officers how many troops the liner could carry in wartime "Seven thousand," he said, "and we built her to bring them over here". Gleaves, not missing a beat, answered "And when they come we shall be happy to meet them." But now, Gleaves, a full admiral and Commander of the U.S Navy's Cruiser and Transport Force, tactfully argued that the largest ship afloat would be misused as a hospital ship when it was vital to the support of the war to carry American troops to Europe. Finally, the Admiralty agreed that the speedy Vaterland would best be used as a troop ship and the U.S. Shipping Board passed control to the U S Navy in June 1917
A survey of the ship found that the years of sitting idle had quite significantly deteriorated the turbines, boilers, auxiliary machinery, and pipes. Vaterland 's bottom was anchored to the muddy harbor floor by massive growth of barnacles and the build up of silt Within days of the survey, the navy moved quickly to recondition the famous liner, even without detailed engineering drawings Navy teams were able to bring the boilers and turbines back on line. Replacing piping and relocating much of the electrical system were more difficult tasks At the same time, other crews were removing most of her civilian furniture and fittings and sending them ashore for storage Carpenters and pipe fitters began to install thousands of troop bunks. Kitchens and food storage areas were enlarged To conserve fresh water during troop sailings. faucets were removed from all accommodations except the staterooms assigned to the captain, the executive officer, and the commander of the embarked troops (regardless of the fact that the distillation plant was capable of producing 24,000 gallons of fresh water per day) Interior spaces were scrubbed, fumigated, and disinfected.
Outside Vaterland, the ship was found to be solidly aground in the silted mud The Army Transport Service brought in dredges to shift the silt and, guided by the divers, the dredges were able to free the hull in four days of non-stop work The liner was now ready to be dry-docked, but there was no dry-dock in the U.S that could handle her size. Finally, after considering sending her to a suitable dry-dock in Panama (but the canal was closed due to a rock slide), navy divers dud the best they could to scrape off the layers of barnacles, while Britain agreed to dry-dock the ship at Liverpool for proper scraping and painting alter Vaterland 's first eastward crossing
The conversion was almost complete by midsummer and the vessel was commissioned into the United States Navy on July 25,1917 under the command of Captain J W. Oman. By the time the ship was crewed with 2,000 navy sailors, the once magnificent liner was renamed USS Leviathan on September 6, 1917, according to Frank Braynard' s monumental five volume work The World's Greatest Ship, The Story of the Leviathan. The name means "sea monster" in various scriptural accounts. After a trial run from Hoboken, NJ to Cuba and back, armaments were installed (eight inch guns, two one pound cannons, two 30 caliber machine guns and a central magazine made from one of her cargo holds). At the same time, the ship received a dazzle paint scheme in an effort to confuse any Uboats who might sight her at sea, like those being applied to many Allied warships, which she now was.