During World War I, Zrinyi served with the Second Division of the Austro-Hungarian Navy's battleships and took part in the bombardment of the key seaport of Ancona, Italy, on May 24, 1915. However, Allied control of the Strait of Otranto meant that the Austro-Hungarian Navy was, for all intent and purposes, effectively bottled up in the Adriatic. Nonetheless, their presence tied down a substantial force of Allied ships.
After the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918, the Austrians wanted to turn the fleet over to the newly-created State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (later Yugoslavia) in order to prevent the Italians from getting their hands on the ships. However, the victorious Allies refused to acknowledge the conversations between the Austrians and the south Slavs and, in due course, reallocated the ships.
Zrinyi had apparently been turned over to the fledgling south Slav state, as it was a Croat naval officer, Korvettenkapitän Marijan Polić who turned over the ship to representatives of the United States Navy on the afternoon of November 22, 1919 in Split harbor. Simultaneously she was commissioned as USS Zrinyi and Lieutenant E.E. Hazlett, USN, assumed command. The initial American complement consisted of four officers and 174 enlisted men -- the latter entirely composed of United States Naval Reserve Force personnel.