Just yesterday: Uncle Sam wants you

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A few issues ago, we had a sailboat in a swimming pool. Here’s a battleship in Union Square.

Patriotic fervor was running high in 1917, with the United States engaged in the first World War, and recruits were needed for all of the armed forces. The Navy thought a battleship would help lure young men into the service. The result was the USS Recruit, a wooden “landship” officially commissioned and manned by a crew of Navy sailors.

Rising in New York’s busy Union Square, the plank-on-frame behemoth drew quite a crowd as it took shape, surrounded by office buildings. Once it was commissioned, the Recruit served as the Navy’s sign-up headquarters in the New York district.

The fully rigged ship looked the part, with its distinctive dreadnought “cage masts,” a conning tower and a dummy smokestack. And it was no empty hull. The interior was laid out with officers’ quarters and crew cabins for its complement of around 40 men. It even boasted a “modern” wireless station.

On deck were wooden mock-ups of a dreadnought battleship’s normal armament: six 14-inch main battery guns and 10 5-inch guns. Capt. C.F. Pierce commanded the officers and crew, gathered from the Navy’s Newport Training Station in Rhode Island. Pierce also ushered VIPs and the public on tours, educating all in how a battleship was run.

When the war ended, so did the vessel’s role as a recruiting tool. The ensign was lowered for the last time in March 1920. Navy personnel took the ship apart and prepared to move it to Coney Island, where it would live on as an attraction at Luna Park. However, the USS Recruit never made it to the amusement park, and its fate is unknown. Nevertheless, the landship had served its purpose, drawing some 20,000 men into the Navy during its years “afloat.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.