"To keep the memory of her father’s generation alive."
By Joshua Baker
Recently I had the privilege and honor of interviewing Mrs. Ava Jarboe of Georgia. Now 87, Mrs. Jarboe contacted the World War One Centennial Commission to share a lost piece of American history dating back to the First World War.
Mrs. Jarboe belongs to a long line of proud Americans who have answered their nation's call to arms in times of war. Mrs. Jarboe's grandfather served in the Spanish-American War, her brother served in the Korean War and later in the Strategic Air Command, her son served 22 years with the Air National Guard while being deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Her late husband Colonel Wallace E. Jarboe also served many years in the U.S. Air Force. Mrs. Jarboe is immensely proud of her family’s service and dedication to the nation, but the story she wished to share with the Commission is her father’s story.
Mrs. Jarboe’s father Samuel W. Hart was born on August 27, 1902, in Henderson, North Carolina. At the time the United States of America entered the First World War, Hart was only 14 years old. Despite his age, Hart was determined to join the war effort, and on April 10, 1917, Hart (misrepresenting his age) enlisted in the Navy as an Apprentice Seaman. Hart enlisted only four days after America’s declaration of war against Germany, and soon was off to basic training.
Upon completing his training, Hart was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for his first posting, but became ill and was hospitalized. Once he had recovered, Hart was reassigned to the U.S.S. President Lincoln, a former passenger ship built by the same company that produced the Titanic. The President Lincoln was re-commissioned as a troop transport ship on July 27, 1917, and soon set sail across the Atlantic with the mission of bringing wounded American soldiers home. Hart and his fellow sailors completed four trips across the Atlantic between Brest, France, and New York City without incident. The fifth voyage across the Atlantic however, would turn out to be it’s last.
In a past interview that Mrs. Jarboe shared with the Commission, her father recalled the events of May 31, 1918. Hart wrote, “On the morning of May 31, 1918, I was on the 6-8 watch in the forward crow’s nest.” Hart recalled that the Lincoln was sailing in a convoy of four ships, without any destroyer escorts. The reason Hart noted was that “we were about 500 miles from France,” which at the time was a range believed to be too far for the primitive German U-Boats to attack Allied shipping.
German U-Boats in the Second World War had a devastating effect on Allied shipping lanes, but during the First World War, the Germans were still experimenting with submarine warfare. Specifically, during the First World War, the German Navy experienced limited successes with its submarine fleet. The most successful attack by a U-Boat occurred during the early stages of the war, when a single U-Boat was able to sink three obsolete British cruisers in September 1914. Despite this initial success, German U-Boats at the time, were too fragile when surfaced and too slow when fully submerged to be much of a threat to modern combat vessels of the time.
After his watch, Hart was relieved at 8 a.m. and went to the mess hall for breakfast. After breakfast, Hart returned to his bunk, where he recalls hearing an explosion followed by two more shortly after. Soon the battle alarm sounded, and Hart rushed from his bunk with his life vest to his battle station. Once on the deck of the ship, Hart remembered looking down the cargo hatch of the ship where he could see that water was quickly rising. He then realized that the ship had been torpedoed by a U-Boat and that it was sinking rapidly. The call “all hands, abandon ship” was passed along from the ship’s bridge, and soon the President Lincoln’s crew rushed to evacuate the ship. Upon entering the icy water, Hart quickly abandoned his heavy hob-nail shoes as to make himself lighter, before he was picked up by a nearby lifeboat. Hart then manned an oar and assisted his fellow crew members in gathering sailors who were floating in the water. (Read Hart's personal account of the sinking and its aftermath here.)
Unfortunately, during the U-Boat attack, two of the lifeboats had been destroyed, meaning there was not enough room for all the sailors in the lifeboats. As such, the survivors gathered together on lifeboats and pieces of floating debris and tied themselves together to keep everyone in close proximity. While in his lifeboat, Hart remembers seeing officers abandon any visible markings of their rank, as to avoid capture by surfacing U-Boats. Lieutenant Edouard Izac, was one of the officers in Hart’s close proximity. Lt. Izac was visibly seasick noted Hart, and was in great deal of discomfort not only from the choppy waters but from his fear of water due to his poor swimming ability. Mrs. Jarboe during her own personal research of the President Lincoln, made the fascinating discovery that Lt. Izac, despite being a Navy man who graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, was, ironically, afraid of the water. Mrs. Jarboe made this discovery by contacting Lt. Izac’s son, who like his father, was also a graduate of Annapolis and was too afraid of the water.
As the situation unfolded, a German U-Boat surfaced and was spotted as it began to move in the direction of the floating survivors. At around 3 p.m. on May 31, Hart recalled that the U-Boat finally made its approach to the lifeboats. On the U-Boats, deck stood German sailors and officers who manned a 3-inch cannon and a various assortment of small arms. The U-Boat’s crew called down to the American sailors demanding that the highest-ranking officer present himself to be taken, prisoner. As Hart remembers, the highest-ranking officer that was present with the survivors did not raise his hand. Instead, Lt. Izac stated that he was the highest-ranking officer alive, as the others had gone down with the ship. When Hart told his daughter years after the war what Lt. Izac had done, he said it was one of the “bravest things he had ever seen.”
Lt. Izac was taken prisoner by the German crew, while the remaining American sailors were left at the mercy of the Atlantic. Years after the war, the very captain of the German U-Boat that sunk the President Lincoln also recalled the events of May 31, 1918. Kapitanleutant Walter Remy, of U-90, took Lt. Izac prisoner and then waited in the area of the surviving American sailors until his U-Boat intercepted American naval communications. Upon learning that the American vessels were on their way to the approximate location where the President Lincoln was sunk, Kapitanleutant Remy ordered his crew to prepare to return to Germany.
While aboard U-90, Izac befriended the German officers according to Mrs. Jarboe, and was able to gain their trust. In doing so, Lt. Izac learned vital information through studying German maps and had located the whereabouts of German U-Boat bases. Deeming this information essential to the Allied war effort, Lt. Izac knew he had to escape his German captors. Once in Germany, Lt. Izac made two attempts to escape his German captors first unsuccessfully on a train, and later successfully escaped a P.O.W. camp.
For his actions, Lt. Izac was awarded the rare Tiffany Medal of Honor in 1920 by then Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. His Medal of Honor citation reads “In attempting to carry out his plan, he jumped through the window of a rapidly moving train at the imminent risk of death, not only from the nature of the act itself but from the fire of the armed German soldiers.” Once at the P.O.W. camp, “Lt. Izac made a second and successful attempt to escape, breaking his way through barbed-wire fences and deliberately drawing the fire of the armed guards in the hope of permitting others to escape during the confusion.” Remarkably, Lt. Izac was able to escape across southwestern Germany, surviving only on a diet of raw vegetables, while also managing to swim across the River Rhine before he made it to the neutral state of Switzerland. Lt. Izac eventually made his way back to the Allies to share the vital information about German U-Boats with the Allied high command, but by then, the war had concluded.
A day after their ship was sunk, on June 1, 1918, Hart and the rest of the President Lincoln’s survivors were picked up by two destroyers, the U.S.S. Warrington and the U.S.S. Smith. Hart went aboard the Warrington, where he remembered the “crew treated us like heroes” and were given all the food he could eat. Hart returned to Brest, France, aboard the Warrington before being sent home to New York City where he was able to acquire a new pair of shoes since abandoning his last pair the night his ship was sunk.
Hart would later attend the U.S. Army and Navy Academy in San Diego, raise a young family with his wife Pamela Purdy, and would also serve in the U.S. Army during the Second World War training new recruits in Texas. Lt. Izac, upon his return to the United States, would later be forced to retire from the Navy due to medical issues, and then he would have a political career as an elected official in California’s 20th Congressional District.
Mrs. Jarboe contacted the Commission, not for her own benefit, but to keep the memory of her father’s generation alive. In her home, hangs a sketch done by one of her family members of the President Lincoln, which serves as a reminder of her father’s generation sacrifice. Samuel W. Hart and Edouard Izac are only two of the thousands upon thousands of Americans who have fought to protect the preservation of democracy and freedom around the globe.
While many of America’s finest have memorials to remember their sacrifice, Mrs. Jarboe reminded me that the First World War is often forgotten in America’s long history. She recalls how for years after the war, her father would make his way up to New York City to join his Navy friends for an annual reunion to remember their time aboard the President Lincoln. In particular, Mrs. Jarboe referenced the 40th reunion on May 31, 1958, where the Kapitanleutant Walter Remy of U-90 was in attendance.
On this occasion, Mrs. Jarboe’s father was able to meet and speak with Remy. Mrs. Jarboe remembers how, even though her father and Remy fought on opposing sides, that her father thought Remy was a respectable and honorable man. They had both served for their respective nations for a cause they fought was bigger than themselves, which as Mrs. Jarboe said “is admirable on its own.” These words are moving as we are now past the centennial of the “war to end all wars.” As such, Mrs. Jarboe’s advice to the younger generations is to “remember those who have sacrificed so much for this country” so that future generations do not repeat the mistakes of the past. On a less serious note, Mrs. Jarboe jokingly offered some advice to the Commission, and that is to “finish the memorial soon so I can travel to the Capital to see it!”