This Former Private Yacht Became an Integral Part of the US Navy During World War I

March 28, 1918

A milestone in the short but eventful U.S. Navy service of the vessel USS Aphrodite took place when she was assigned to convoy escort duty with a higher-than-average risk along the French coast during World War I. Aphrodite had made her debut a couple of decades earlier in decidedly more luxurious circumstances. Civil War veteran and prominent businessman Oliver H. Payne, widely considered to be one of the wealthiest Americans who ever lived, had the vessel built by Bath Iron Works in Maine as his private yacht. He chose seasoned yachtsman Charles W. Scott, a close friend, to serve as commander of the vessel.

The vessel, which lifelong bachelor Payne named after the Greek goddess of love, was launched at Bath towards the end of 1898. This ceremony involved having Scott’s 14-year-old daughter Vivien smash a bottle of wine onto the bow of the yacht. Aphrodite made her first official voyage in March of the following year, traveling from Bath to New York City.

The 302-foot (92-meter)-long Aphrodite quickly became the subject of considerable acclaim. Marine Engineering magazine proclaimed in its June 1899 issue, “The single screw-steel steam yacht Aphrodite is the largest and finest steam pleasure craft that American designers and builders have as yet produced.” Over the next several years, the yacht continued receiving similarly positive media coverage.

Aphrodite established herself as a familiar fixture on rivers within New York City and the surrounding area. With Scott at the helm, the yacht also made numerous trips to Europe up until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Payne’s favorite destinations on those trips included England as well as the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. Payne also made a round-the-world voyage on Aphrodite.

After the U.S. entry into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers in April 1917, Payne joined the ranks of other American millionaires who lent their yachts to the Navy in the fight against Germany. The Navy formally acquired Aphrodite at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in May 1917, and the vessel was subsequently outfitted to perform her new military role. Payne offered to have members of the crew of his one-time yacht serve on USS Aphrodite, and the Navy accepted several of those individuals for that purpose. Scott, for his part, became executive officer on Aphrodite under the command of Navy Lieutenant Commander Ralph P. Craft.

In June 1917, the newly commissioned Aphrodite sailed under Craft’s command from New York Harbor as one of the vessels escorting the first U.S. convoy of American Expeditionary Force troops headed for France. Payne, unfortunately, did not live to learn about any further contributions of his prized yacht to the wartime effort; he died later that same month.

After arriving in Europe, Aphrodite was assigned to patrol duty in the Bay of Biscay on France’s western coast. Another one of her initial duties entailed meeting inbound convoys from the United States and helping to guide them to French ports such as Brest, Le Verdon-sur-Mer, and St. Nazaire. Aphrodite’s military service took on an even more intense and potentially deadlier dimension, however, with her assignment as an escort in Division 7, Squadron 3, of the Patrol Force starting in March 1918.

This squadron, which was based in Le Verdon-sur-Mer and routinely operated in the perilous waters of the region, was one of several squadrons collectively and macabrely known by many as the “Suicide Fleet.” These squadrons were also jointly nicknamed the “Easter Egg Fleet” due to the multi-colored camouflage paint schemes of the vessels.

Capt. Frederick C. Billard

Aphrodite served as part of the Easter Egg Fleet for the remainder of the war. By this time, Captain Frederick C. Billard was serving as the vessel’s commander. Billard, who later became the sixth commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and a rear admiral in that military branch, was awarded the Navy Cross for “for distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the USS Aphrodite, engaged in the important, exacting, and hazardous duty of transporting and escorting troops and supplies through waters infested with enemy submarines and mines.”

A few months after the end of the war, Aphrodite returned to the United States from Europe. She was decommissioned in July 1919 and then handed over to Payne Whitney, a nephew of the now-deceased Oliver Payne. After Whitney’s death in 1927, Aphrodite was sold to a Greek firm that used her for several years for interisland transport within the Mediterranean.

Additional information on USS Aphrodite is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Aphrodite_(SP-135)

For more information on Oliver H. Payne, please check out his 28 June 1917 New York Times obituary at  http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/business/20070715_GILDED/20070715gilded.payne.pdf

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