Diary of a Cutterman: The Story of John Isermann

Diary of a CuttermanRecently, our friends at the Kenosha Museums transferred an extraordinary collection containing the personal effects of a World War I sailor. Included in the grouping are wartime diaries that provide a detailed account of John Isermann’s experiences. Follow the naval exploits of Isermann aboard the USS Tuscarora, a Coast Guard cutter-turned-US Navy Ship during WWI. Isermann’s diary entries provide an intimate look at Atlantic duty from 1917 to 1919.

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USS Tuscarora: From White to Gray

John Chester Aloysius Isermann enlisted on May 5, 1917, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The Kenosha native was just shy of his twenty-second birthday when the United States entered World War I. His records show that he enlisted in Milwaukee where he was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Tuscarora.  His association with the Coast Guard was brief, however.

First Day Onboard (May 16, 1917)

Isermann’s first diary entry is brief, but interesting. On his first day aboard the U.S.C.G. Tuscarora, he declines comment on his feelings, hopes, or fears. Instead, he notes something at least as important—his first meal.

Orders Received (September 22-25, 1917)

When the crew of the Tuscarora received orders for the East Coast, Isermann visited his family in Kenosha and spent a final few days in Milwaukee before getting underway.

Waiting in the Windy City (September 26-29, 1917)

Aboard the Tuscarora, Isermann traveled ninety miles down the coast of Lake Michigan to Chicago, stopping along the way to drop some new recruits off at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He would grow restless over the next three days in the Windy City as he waited for the Tuscarora to continue her journey to the East Coast.

Awful Blow Outside (September 30, 1917)

As Isermann and the Tuscarora left Chicago and headed out onto Lake Michigan, he described rampant seasickness, perhaps exacerbated by rough weather.

Making Good Time (October 1, 1917)

Isermann named points of reference as the Tuscarora traveled up the west coast of Michigan and, finally, into Lake Huron. He also noted that the color of the Tuscarora would soon change from Coast Guard white to Navy grey.

Lake Huron is in Turmoil (October 2, 1917)

Moving into Lake Huron, Isermann and the Tuscarora encounter more stormy weather and take refuge in an appropriately named bay.

Anchored off of Detroit (October 3, 1917)

Isermann and the Tuscarora continued their journey, entering the St. Claire River that separates the U.S. and Canada. While anchored at Detroit, he met a Canadian veteran of the fighting overseas.

O Canada (October 5-6, 1917)

While the Tuscarora continued to receive her new paint job at Detroit, Isermann crossed the St. Claire River to take his liberty in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

The Battle of Lake Erie (October 7, 1917)

Leaving Detroit and proceeding into Lake Erie, Isermann and the Tuscarora pass the site of a famous naval battle from the War of 1812.

The von Papen Plot (October 8, 1917)

As Isermann and the Tuscarora passed through the Welland Canal into Lake Ontario, he noted an interesting German plan to destroy the waterway earlier in the war.

The Abandoned Castle (October 9-10, 1917)

Entering the St. Lawrence River, Isermann commented upon an abandoned castle that the Tuscarora passed.

Russian Man-of-War (October 11-13, 1917)

Continuing on toward the East Coast, Isermann and the Tuscarora encounter a Russian warship.

Ready for Action (October 14, 1917)

Isermann noted that the mood aboard the Tuscarora changed as she entered the Atlantic, where German U-boats might be lurking.

Sprung A Leak (October 15-18, 1917)

As the Tuscarora continued toward the Atlantic past New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, the ship sprung a leak.

Approaching the Atlantic (October 19-20, 1917)

The Tuscarora stopped in Nova Scotia, a mere six miles from the Atlantic, while the Isermann and the rest of the crew tried to wait out a large storm.

The Ship Did Everything But Turn A Somersault (October 21-24, 1917)

Isermann and the Tuscarora hit a rough patch as they finally reach the Atlantic Ocean.

End Of Our Cruise (October 25-29, 1917)

At last, Isermann and the Tuscarora reach the East Coast of the United States, ending the first part of their journey.

Only A Volunteer

Isermann's first diary closed soon after the Tuscarora's arrival on the East Coast. After his final entry, Isermann shared a poem that explores the differences between draftees and volunteers.

Diary #2 (December 29, 1917-August 23, 1918)

After the Tuscarora reached the East Coast, Isermann took a two month break from recording observations in a diary. At the end of the year, though, he began again by filling in some personal information at the start of a new diary.

Beginning at the End (December 29-31, 1917)

Isermann began his second diary at the end of the year in 1917. He described the Tuscarora's role in assisting two other American ships out of trouble.

Cold New Year (January 1-2, 1918)

The year 1918 began very frigidly for Isermann and the Tuscarora, as they received special gear and helped ships stuck in ice.

Patrol Duty (January 3-5, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora spent three straight nights patrolling off the Rhode Island Coast.

Cape Cod (January 6-8, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora stop at Cape Cod while patrolling the East Coast.

Fought Our Way Through Ice (January 9-11, 1918)

Isermann wrote about moving through ice that was up to a foot thick to rescue trapped vessels.

Rescue of an Ice Bound Ship (January 12-13, 1918)

Isermann describes a difficult, two day mission to rescue a ship trapped in thick ice off the coast of Massachusetts.

Sailors Treated Royally (January 14-16, 1918)

Isermann wrote about living on short rations, supplemented with some wild ducks, while the Tuscarora continued patrolling the icy Atlantic. He also mentioned a dance he attended at which sailors were treated well--something Isermann felt was a rare occurrence. 

A Sigh of Relief (January 17-18, 1918)

Isermann described another mission to rescue two ships from the ice, and the relief he felt upon reaching safe harbor in Newport.

Hard Luck! (January 19-20, 1918)

After missing out on liberty with the starboard watch one night, Isermann laments being transferred to the port watch and missing liberty for a second night in a row.

Keep A Vigiliant Watch (January 21, 1918)

Isermann described the increased security necessary while guarding munitions on bridge watch.

The Ocean State (January 22-25, 1918)

With the Tuscarora continuing to operate out of Rhode Island, Isermann described several more missions to rescue ships trapped in the ice, including one from the Caribbean.

Explosion on Goat Island (January 26, 1918)

Isermann mentioned a tragic event that left 13 Americans dead.

Daily Routine (January 27-31, 1918)

Isermann wrote about the Tuscarora continuing its mission of rescuing ice bound ships, and also visiting Torpedo Station, site of a recent explosion that killed 13 men.

Delaware Breakwater (February 1-4, 1918)

Continuing down the East Coast, Isermann and the Tuscarora escort a ship to the historic Delaware Breakwater.

Transports Bound For France (February 5-6, 1918)

After noting his promotion to first class, and the raise in pay that accompanied it, Isermann described seeing several US warships as well as transports waiting to take troops to the war in France.

Breaking Liberty (February 7-10, 1918)

With the Tuscarora operation out of Norfolk, Virginia, Isermann is unable to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city.

Return to Rhode Island (February 11-17, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora depart the warmer climes of Virginia to return to chilly Newport, Rhode Island.

Always Was Lucky (February 18-22, 1918)

As the crew of the Tuscarora settled back into its routine in Newport, Isermann lamented his "luck" in missing out on a party to celebrate Washington's birthday.

New London (February 23-25, 1918)

Isermann correctly predicted that the Tuscarora was about to leave Newport when liberty was only granted till midnight. The next day they left for New London.

Repairs (February 26-March 1, 1918)

Isermann described repairs being made to the Tuscarora

"I was afraid I was going to die about 5 minutes ago, now I'm afraid I won't." (March 2-5, 1918)

As the Tuscarora made way for South Carolina, Isermann experienced his first bout of seasickness.

Charleston (March 6-9, 1918)

The Tuscarora arrived at Charleston, and Isermann commented upon the diversity of the southern city.

S.O.S. (March 10-13, 1918)

On their way back to Rhode Island, Isermann and the Tuscarora receive a distress call near Long Island and rescue over 130 people from a wrecked ship.

Don Juan de Austria (March 14-15, 1918)

Isermann wrote about the Tuscarora rescuing the U.S.S. Don Juan de Austria, a ship with both an interesting name and an interesting history.

Docked (March 16-20, 1918)

After several days of excitement, Isermann and the Tuscarora settled in for resupplying and some recuperation.

Noank & Mystic (March 21-25)

While the Tuscarora underwent some repairs at the docks in Noank, Connecticut, Isermann enjoyed a couple of dances at the nearby small town of Mystic.

Preparing For A Long Journey (March 26-29, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora dock in New London and get ready for a new mission.

On To Bermuda (March 30-April 4, 1918)

After a long winter rescuing ships that were trapped in ice, Isermann and the Tuscarora head south for the Bermuda Islands.

The Only Spotless City I Have Ever Seen (April 5-7, 1918)

The capital of Bermuda makes a favorable impression on Isermann.

A Drink Ashore (April 8, 1918)

On special liberty in Bermuda, Isermann managed to find some good Wisconsin beer.

Pass the Time (April 9-12, 1918)

In these entries, Isermann conveyed both the boredom that sometimes accompanied Navy duty as well as an activity to battle said boredom.

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (April 13-16, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora made a stop in Cuba on their return from Bermuda, giving the sailors time to visit the island and enjoy some recreation.

Sea Like A Mill Pond (April 17-21, 1918)

Leaving Cuba, Isermann and the Tuscarora encountered smooth seas on their way to Florida.

Mr. Thomas Edison (April 22, 1918)

As the Tuscarora stopped in Florida to take on two prisoners, Isermann wrote about seeing a famous inventor.

Charleston (April 23-27, 1918)

The Tuscarora reached Charleston, where Isermann witnessed a drunk driving accident and some intense weather to the north.

U.S.S. Olympia (April 28-29, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora encountered a historic ship at Charleston.

Visit a Friend (April 30-May 2, 1918)

Isermann was able to visit a friend on shore while the Tuscarora took on coal and fresh water.

Uncle Sam's Latest Super-Dreadnaught (May 3, 1918)

Isermann remarks on the ship anchored next to the Tuscarora at Norfolk, Virginia.

My Time is Up (May 4, 1918)

Isermann noted that his term of enlistment had ended. Is this the end of his adventure aboard the Tuscarora?

No News in Newport (May 5-9, 1918)

Isermann had nothing of interest to report as the Tuscarora returned to Newport, Rhode Island.

Nothing To It (May 10-13, 1918)

Assisting two ships on the way, Isermann and the Tuscarora return to New London, Connecticut.

Coaled Ship (May 14-15, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora take on coal and fresh water.

Sad News (May 16-17, 1918)

Isermann watched almost twenty fellow sailors leave the Tuscarora for good and two dozen new recruits come aboard.

Back to Bermuda (May 18, 1918)

Isermann and the Tuscarora began a return trip to Bermuda as part of a large convoy.

Submarine Warning (May 19-21, 1918)

As the Tuscarora headed south toward the Caribbean, Isermann wrote about the measures taken when enemy submarines were reported nearby.

Limeys (May 22, 1918)

Arriving in Bermuda, Isermann and the crew of the Tuscarora interact with British sailors, "limeys," by taking on a damaged submarine and drinking beer in their canteen.
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