From my great-grandfather’s obituary, I know that Thomas Francis Atwell I enlisted in the Navy in 1909 at age 18. Born and raised in Providence, RI, It seems that he went straight to the US Naval Training Station in nearby Newport. He is listed there in the 1910 census as an apprentice.
By the time the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Thomas was a Boatswain’s Mate, First Class. From what I can gather, boatswain’s mates were in charge of the external parts of the ships: the deck, the rigging, boats, external equipment and organizing the other members of the crew in using these items. (To me, it seems that one must have a lot of attention to detail and organization skills in this job.)
In May of 1917, Thomas was part of gun crew/armed guard (commanded by Chief Turret Captain William J. Clark) on the SS Silver Shell, a commercial steamship owned by Shell Oil Company. The ship departed New York and was headed to Marseilles, France. According the the Official U.S. Bulletin, In the early afternoon of May 30 in the Mediterranean Sea, a German “submarine was first seen at about 7,000 yards. She had a 6-inch gun forward and another aft. She flew no flag. Upon sight of the submarine the steamer hoisted the American flag and waited about 10 minutes. As the submarine approached the steamer fired. The submarine responded. The steamer kept a speed that would permit the submarine to come within range. Then followed a fight lasting for an hour and a half. the submarine came to a distance of about 2,300 yards. By that time the submarine had fired 35 shots and the steamer 25. The last shot of the steamer apparently struck the submarine, which raised clear out of the water and stood stern end up for a few seconds. Then she disappeared.” The Silver Shell was able to complete her journey to Marseilles.
Being the first American crew to sink a German U-boat, this story made newspapers all over the country. The incident lead to the U.S. policy of arming merchant vessels to protect themselves as they carried cargo to the Allies.
I don’t know how the rest of my great-grandfather’s time went during the war, but by 1920 Thomas achieved the rank of Chief Boatswain’s Mate, the highest rank he could attain as an enlisted man. He retained this title for the rest of his naval career. The census of January 20, 1920 found him on the USS Utah at sea. He was not on the Utah for long, because in June he married my great-grandmother, Eva Christina Lipsett in Salem, MA.
The 1920s knit the Atwells together. Their two children were born at this time (Eugenie in 1924 and Thomas II in 1926). Perhaps that led to Thomas obtaining a commission closer to home. On the April 7, 1930 Census, he was stationed in Boston harbor on the USS Southery. By the late 1930s, he no longer seemed to be navy, but worked as a superintendent in an office building.
Like many Americans, Thomas must have seen the writing on the wall as World War II progressed in Europe and Asia. It was inevitable that the United States would eventually join the war, so Thomas re-entered the Navy in October 1941, working as a Chief Boatswain’s Mate at the Boston Navy Yard, where he would remain for the rest of the war. With so many ships coming and going, I am certain his many years of experience helped the operations run smoothly.
Finally in 1947, Thomas retired from the Navy. He moved permanently into civilian life, working for many years and having plenty of time for retirement. He passed away on January 16, 1988 and received a military funeral. Like his wife Eva, he was buried at Pine Grove Cemetery.