Minesweeper USS Kenneth L. McNeal

The German navy planted more than 43,000 mines in the shipping lanes around Great Britain and France during the course of World War I, successfully sinking more than 500 merchant vessels and 400 Allied warships. The US Navy took the lead in clearing the dangerous explosives, a challenge which has gone largely unheralded.

United States Navy minesweeper, USS Kenneth L. McNeal (S.P. 333), was built in 1913 as a commercial fishing trawler by M. M. Davis of Solomon’s Island, Maryland. Its owner, McNeal Dodson Co., Inc., of Reedville, Virginia, sold the vessel to the Navy on May 31, 1917. McNeal was delivered to the Norfolk Navy Yard on June 14, where it was fitted out as a minesweeper. The vessel was 128 feet long with a 21-foot beam and an 11-foot draft. Its camouflage paint scheme was that of a cloud formation. Commissioned on August 10, 1917, the vessel left Norfolk for Boston on August 17, and on August 26, McNeal sailed for Brest, France. It arrived at Brest on September 18, where it began conducting minesweeping patrols and escorting Allied ships along the coast of Brittany.1

USS Kenneth L. McNeal, Norfolk Navy Yard, August 19, 1917
USS Kenneth L. McNeal, Norfolk Navy Yard, August 19, 1917. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NH89790).

The Robert Loder Papers

Ensign Robert L. Loder was among the men aboard USS Kenneth L. McNeal. The Robert Loder Papers at The Mariners’ Museum, a collection of 129 letters, postcards, and photographs dating from 1917 to 1918, provide compelling, personal insights into this sailor’s wartime experience. The collection’s correspondence, written by Loder, is mostly to his wife, Edna.

Ensign Robert Loder
Ensign Robert Loder. (MS0065.01.46.01)

Robert Loder was born in Princess Ann County, Maryland, in 1862. By 1910, he was living in Fairport, Northumberland County, Virginia, married to Edna, and the father of three children, Mildred, Mary, and Robert. A marine engineer, Loder worked on commercial fishing boats out of Reedville, on Virginia’s Northern Neck, and home to the vessel McNeal. In March 1917, at the age of 55, Loder joined the US Naval Reserve Force. Initially stationed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, he was transferred to the minesweeper McNeal where he served for several months at Brest, France. Loder was promoted to ensign in December 1917, assigned to shore duty at US Naval Base No. 19 in Lorient, France.

Joining the Navy meant a chance for new experiences for Loder. On June 18, 1917, while stationed at Norfolk, he writes his wife: “I am having the time of my life…I feel just like I have started a new life.”2 He comments that the food and pay are good, and everyone is treating him well. Because of Loder’s age, sailors aboard the ship called him “Pop.” Several times he mentions that he is well regarded by the officers and his fellow crew members. After Loder received his promotion, he writes, “he [the captain] knew I was to do my part to help end the war and was sorry they didn’t have all like Pop Loder.”3

While in France, Loder eagerly visited various cities. He writes how impressed he is with Paris and its architecture, but observing troops returning to the front from furloughs is “the sades[t] sight … the poor me[n] leaving their wives & children.” In the same letter, he states “the one[s] that is meeting theare [their] dear ones coming home that is greates[t] sight.”4 From Paris he writes that there are at least 4,000 orphans in France who will never see their mothers or fathers again due to the war. Loder writes, “that is the sight I am seeing day in and out so a man just gets harden[ed] to it so I do all I can to get home.”5 He often expresses that he is homesick, and after seeing the orphans, he is more eager than ever to return home.

In this excerpt from a letter dated March 23, 1918, Loder writes his wife
In this excerpt from a letter dated March 23, 1918, Loder writes his wife, describing the orphans he saw while in France. His description of the orphans as well as the women and children show his personal thoughts on the war and his longing to be home. (MS0065.01.32.01)

Providing for his family and ensuring they had enough money to get by seems to be Loder’s biggest concern. Most every letter home asks whether or not his family received their monthly allotment. At the beginning of his service, his wife did not receive her check and Loder encouraged her to write the government office in Washington, D.C., to inquire about it. According to his correspondence, she did not receive the funds until December, almost three months after his first attempt to set it up. In a letter dated October 15, 1917, Loder writes, “I am trying hard to get money to you, I am in just as bad a fix as you…but getting money home is my hardest work.”6 He even sends money home with a doctor from the McNeal who was traveling back to the United States. Throughout his correspondence it is apparent that Loder cared deeply for his family and was ever concerned about their well-being.

Ensign Robert Loder (center) with Lt. Commander Clarence N. Hinkamp and Lt. Charles A. Muller, c. 1918.
Ensign Robert Loder (center) with Lt. Commander Clarence N. Hinkamp and Lt. Charles A. Muller, ca. 1918. (MS0065.01.46.02)

In March 1918, Loder writes his wife, “… I would like for the war to end and every body get back to the good old USA for I long to see the sweet faces wa[i]ting for me to com[e] and then a joy to know I have done my part for the grate victory…”7 Although Loder was not at the front lines in France, he believed his service aboard Kenneth L. McNeal and on shore duty in France was important, and that he was doing “his part” to support the war effort. Although he assures his wife in a letter dated November 2, 1917, that he is in “know [no] danger,”8 this was without doubt, extremely dangerous duty, and critical to the Allied victory.

After the war, Loder returned home to Fairport, Virginia, and resumed working on commercial fishing boats. He died on October 14, 1944, at the age of 82, and is buried in Reedville, Virginia.

As for McNeal, the minesweeper was damaged while on patrol off of Brest in February 1919. It was offered for sale on May 11, decommissioned on September 8, and sold to Union d’Entreprisen Marocaine of Casablanca, French Morocco, certainly a long way from its origin as a fishing trawler on the Chesapeake Bay.

Suggested Reading

Account of the Operations of the American Navy in France During the War with Germany, Vice Admiral Henry B. Wilson, United States Navy Commander, United States Naval Forces in France, August 27, 1920. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/a/account-operations-american-navy-france-during-war-germany.html (accessed August 14, 2018).

  1. DANFS, Kenneth L. McNeal (S. P. 333), https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/k/kenneth-l-mcneal.html
  2. Robert Loder to Edna Loder, June 18, 1917, MS0065, box 01, folder 03, item 02, Robert Loder Papers, The Mariners’ Museum.
  3. Loder to Edna Loder, March 23, 1918, MS0065, box 01, folder 32, item 01.
  4. Loder to Edna Loder, November 4, 1917, MS0065, box 01, folder 13, item 02.
  5. Loder to Edna Loder, March 23, 1918, MS0065, box 01, folder 32, item 01.
  6. Loder to Edna Loder, October 15, 1917, MS0065, box 01, folder 10, item 03.
  7. Loder to Edna Loder, March 23, 1918, MS0065, box 01, folder 32, item 01.
  8. Loder to Edna Loder, November 2, 1917, MS0065, box 01, folder 13, item 01.