Anchor’s Aweigh: Getting the 51st Pioneer Infantry to France and Back

Anchor’s Aweigh: Getting the 51st Pioneer Infantry to France and Back

The history of the 51st Pioneer Infantry included information about the ships that brought Joseph McMahon to France and back home again. Gathering images and more information about these ships fleshes out the details of his WWI service.


From U.S. to Brest, France

On 29 July 1918 the 51st Pioneer Infantry left Camp Merritt, NJ, and marched to Alpine Landing. From there they were placed on ferries to Hoboken, NJ. Then they boarded the steamer USS Kroonland. On 8 Aug 1918 the U.S.S. Kroonland arrived in Brest, France in the rain.

The U.S.S. Kroonland brought troops to France six times. She also made postwar trips, then was returned to International Mercantile Marine Company.

The journal of Gordon Van Kleeck, a private in Company F of the U.S. 51st Pioneer Infantry, includes the story of the crossing. The soldiers wore overalls rather than uniforms, and sat in the lifeboats during the early morning until sunrise in case there was a submarine attack. You can read Pvt. Van Kleeck’s journal at:

Brest was the location of the American Naval Headquarters in France. More than 30 destroyers and multiple yachts escorted troop and supply convoys were based at Brest.

While the Kroonland sailed past St. Mathieu lighthouse through LeGoulet Channel into Bay of Brest, French and British airplanes flew low looking for submarines. Several lighter-than-air blimp ships flew low in front of the convoy.

The image below shows the U.S.S. Kroonland at the New York Navy Yard, on 24 July 1918, just before its trip to bring the 51st to France. It is painted in “dazzle” camouflage.

Anchor aweigh - 1 - Kroonland
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy,  photo NH 52093, Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC).

Below, an airship escorts a convoy into Brest Harbor in 1918.

Anchor aweigh - 3 - Airship escorts convoy
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy photo NH 121616. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC)

This picture shows a landing at Brest, France, 8 August 1919.

Anchor aweigh - 4 - Landing at Brest 1919
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy photo NH 965. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC)


From St. Nazaire, France to the United States

On 23 June 1919 the 51st Pioneer Infantry sailed from St. Nazaire on the U.S.S. Wilhelmina. On 3 July 1919 they arrived in New York harbor After the Armistice she made 7 round trips returning the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) troops from France. She was decommissioned on or after 6 Aug 1919 and on 16 Aug 1919 she was returned to the Matson Navigation Company. She was originally bought to carry passengers and cargo between the west coast of the US and Hawaii. She purchased by a British shipping company was sunk by a U-boat in 1940 while in a convoy between Nova Scotia and Liverpool.

The USS Wilhelmina is shown in front of a coaling facility at the New York Navy Yard on 1 May 1918, painted in dazzle camouflage.

Anchor aweigh - 2 - Wilhelmina

Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy photo NH 47885. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC).


Dazzle ships

The dazzle camoflauge patterns were painted on the ships in grey, black and blue. They were effective at distorting a ship’s silhouette and making it harder for the enemy to estimate a ship’s type, size, speed, and heading. You can read more about the dazzle ships at The Vintage News.

To learn more about ships in your ancestor’s history I recommend visiting the websites for the Naval History and Heritage Command Photography CollectionNav Source Naval History  and Wikipedia.