Robert Ryman was a ship's cook on submarine chaser SC 129, which served in the Otranto barrage and later along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. This is a transcript of a letter from crewman Ryman to his sister, from the time of his service at Spalato, Dalmatia.
In addition to an interesting first-hand account of the Durazzo bombardment, Ryman offers a frank assessment of the USN mission in this region after the war: "to see that the Italians don’t capture these ships." American naval forces in the region were there largely because of President Wilson's commitment to the concept of an independent government in the region. Italy's post-war objectives included taking over this strategic area.
Thanks to John Chesher for submitting the content of the letter to The Subchaser Archives.
Mar. 15, 1919
I will try again to get you a few lines. I have been writing all along, but you never get them. I got my last letter from you in Oct. Said you had not heard from me since Xmas, is Gibraltar. Well I have been in Greece and Italy since and am in Austria now. Have been here since Dec. 22, 1918. There is no censor now, so I can tell you more.
I have the pleasure of telling you I was in the only naval battle Uncle Sam had in this great war. It was on Oct. 2, 1918 and took place at Durazzo, Albania. I was on subchaser #129.
The bombardment lasted 1:55. The U.S.S.C. (my little boat) had the pleasure of sinking one sub. We dropped 8 depth charges and he disappeared into 40 fathoms of water. When we left Brindisi, Italy, our skipper said he would give one pound (4.86) to the first man seeing a sub. That was just for the battle. It began at one o’clock and at 11:05 I saw a sub one half mile away. We went to the spot, overtaking it and began dropping our ash cans, then there was some hell raised for 15 minutes.
On our return across the Adriatic Sea to Italy I went ashore with two pounds English instead of one. There were no casualties on our part at all. One ship, the Weymouth, belonging to England, was torpedoed and her stern torn off, but got back safely.
The 129 was fired on twice by coast batteries, one fell short by 50 yards, and that was very, very close. I felt like I had the flu. Guess it did start it, for on Oct. 10th , I went to the hospital with it. Thirteen died in Corfu, Greece with it while I was there.
Now I am on the S.M.S. Zrinyi, a bit Austrian battleship, at Spalato. It has four 12”, eight 10”, and twelve 5” guns. I enclose a picture of her. You will see me at the far left, or port side, by the davit, with white pants on.
You wished in your letter that I could come home. Do you know that the nearest I have been to the U.S. since Oct. 1916 was Gibraltar? I will have been around the world when I get back. I left Manila P.I. Aug. 1, 1916, arrived at Port Said, Egypt, Oct. 1. 1916.I was in 12 different countries in 81 days coming over here. I have been in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas ever since.
This navy is all right in peace times, but no more war for me. Well I did mine for the sake of keeping Nashville and what is left there for me. And I want to tell you people there that you are living.
There are Austrians along side of this ship every day when we dump our slop, who fish it out of the water and eat it, right in before our eyes. Nearly all of them are half naked, with no shoes at all. There is snow here on the hills, yet. Shoes cost $20.00 per pair, ham $4.00 per lb., flour $30.00 per hundred lbs., sugar 3.04 per lb., meat .60, fish .50 and eggs $2.50 per dozen.
We fellows here have given so much clothing and shoes, that I have to wash my undershirt and go to bed while it dries. I have no top shirt at all. I had a piece of tin in the sole of my shoe for a while to keep my foot clean, but I have a pair of shoes now which the Red Cross (dear girls) sent me. There are 700 good American men over here, who the people over there don’t know what they are doing. We are here to see that the Italians don’t capture these ships, and to try to feed these bloody Austrians, who, four months ago would have cut my throat and yours, too.
After all is signed up I guess we will come home, and I will have two gold chevrons to show that I did my part, and I want everyone to see them, too.
There are a lot of things I could tell you, but my guess you won’t get this. The Navy Dept. wrote mycapt. requesting me to write to you and so I did. You said in the last one that there must be something wrong, there is, you are not getting my mail, that is all. These four years are not mine, so don’t worry, I am safe. If you don’t hear from me, all is O.K. If anything did happen, what of it? I am dead and worth $10,000, not for me but you. But before I get home I am going to drop that insurance, since I would never trust myself on 5th Ave. worth that much dead. You and Gertie love me too well. (Money, I mean.)
Well I have one more big boast to make I was, as near as I can learn, the only Nashvillian at the battle of Durazzo. Show this to the papers, if you want to, I don’t care. They can’t say too much for us, the soldiers were not the only people in this. We are still here, they are over there.
Goodbye, love to all,