War Service and the U.S.S. Petrel
It is a testament to William Alexander's intelligence and mechanical skills that despite his lack of formal education he was made Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve Force in June, 1918, fourteen months after enlisting, and promoted to Lieutenant jg. only three months after that, with tours of duty in Newport, New London, and New York City.
After training in Newport he spent much of his tour there instructing members of the Reserve Force in "practical steam engineering," as he described it in a form he filled out as a candidate for promotion.
A temporary New London assignment, beginning in January, 1918, was to inspect and make ready the steam propulsion systems and perhaps other mechanical systems, of two vessels about to be commissioned in the Navy: the revenue cutter Manhattan and a wooden ferry, the Narragansett. The Manhattan had been launched that summer in Balboa, U.S. Canal Zone, while the Narragansett was a ferryboat built in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, in 1905.
Note: After commissioning, the U.S.S. Narragansett was deployed as a ferry linking Newport with nearby Goat Island, site of the Newport Torpedo Station. This research and testing facility dating from the post-Civil War era evolved over many years into one of the two locations of the Naval Underwater Sound Lab, the other being at Fort Trumbull in New London. The Fort Trumbull operations were relocated to Newport in 1996, and the choice waterfront land and buildings were transformed into Fort Trumbull State Park.
Not long after his New London duty Mr. Alexander was assigned to the Naval Auxiliary Reserve at New York City's Municipal Ferry Terminal, and was soon sent to Key West, Florida, for duty aboard the U.S.S. Petrel as Chief Engineer. By this time he had been promoted to Lieutenant jg. and held that rank from October, 1918, to the end of his service in July, 1919. The armistice ending World War I was signed only six weeks after the young lieutenant had joined the Petrel.
The Naval Auxiliary Reserve, founded in 1913, later became the Merchant Marine Reserve, which consists of members of the Merchant Marine who are also members of the Navy.
The U.S.S. Petrel was a heavily armed 4th rate gunboat launched at Baltimore in 1888 and commissioned a year later. At 867 tons she was not much larger than James J. Hill's 803-ton steam yacht, Wacouta, mentioned earlier. Petrel's early years were spent in the Pacific, notably with Admiral Dewey's fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 marking the start of the Spanish-American War. Another assignment saw her patrolling the Bering Sea to discourage seal poaching.
U.S.S.Petrel was decommissioned after the war, but re-commissioned in 1910, serving in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico until the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. Little is known of the ship's later activities up to 1919. She was based at Guantanamo, Cuba, and later at Key West. When Lt. Alexander was discharged in 1919 the she was in New Orleans, where she was decommissioned after thirty years of service.