Excellent attention to detail has brought forth a superb rendering of the armed American merchant marine freighter S.S. PLEIADES in wartime grey departing Le Havre during World War I.
The painting shows the Steamship PLEIADES steaming out of the French port of Le Havre. Within a year of this painting's 1917 date the ship would be commissioned as the US Naval Ship USS PLEIADES. The ship was built in 1900 by the Maryland Steel Company our of Sparrows Point, Maryland and as depicted in the painting she was an armed merchant freighter of 3753 gross tons.
Civilian ships were already a significant part of the war effort for combatant nations when this was painted. Many were commissioned by the navies of their respective countries and often refitted and repainted- some with the dizzying patterns of dazzle camouflage to obscure their more luxurious or utilitarian origins. PLEAIDES here is decked out in classic battleship gray.
When thinking about civilian losses in WWI we remember the sinking of civilian passenger liners like the LUSITANIA and the BRITTANIC but so many more ships both passenger and merchant met their end trying to cross the Atlantic during the war. In just April of 1917 ships totaling 1,250,000 deadweight tons were sunk in all. Britain estimated they lost one in four ships attempting the crossing in the same year.
This meant that even before the US got involved in the war there were problems moving cargo in and out of ports along the entire Eastern Seaboard. Resultant food shortages were part of what swayed public opinion in the US to support a declaration of war against Germany. Also there was an increasing loss of American lives at sea due to Germany's newly adopted policy of unrestrained submarine warfare. This policy gave German subs permission to attack any merchant ship entering the war zone no matter what cargo they carried or their nationality.
The US Congress approved the arming of American merchant ships on March 22, 1917 - and since the ship appears armed in this painting it's likely this was painted after that date. There are records of PLEIADES undergoing Naval inspection later in 1917, but she would not actually be commissioned until August of 1918. He first voyage for the US Navy she took on cargo in New York, sailing then to Norfolk, VA and then joined a convoy to Cherbourg, France and finally to deliver her cargo at Le Havre. The ship continued with similar routes between the US and France before being decommissioned in January of 1919.
After her wartime service PLEIADES was returned to owners the Luckenbach Steamship Company of New York City. During her long post-World War I commercial service, the freighter was renamed Segundo in 1923, Cabo Santa Maria in 1925, and Mina Piqurea in 1932. She was scrapped in Spain in 1950.
Inscribed: S.S. Pleiades Captain A.C. Fickett, 1917.
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