The Royal Navy had already contained the German High Seas Fleet by 1917, when the United States entered World War One. Just in case the USN dispatched some of their coal burning battleships to Britain, where they formed the 6th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. The threat was not from the battleships and battlecruisers of the German Fleet but from the submarine.
When World War One started, Germany had the 5th largest submarine fleet in the world. Admiral Tirpitz, the father of the German Fleet, had been against Germany building submarines. He considered them merely experimental "gimmick" ships. However, Germany did eventually start building submarines, the last major naval power to do so. With the early success of the limited number of U-Boats in 1914, Germany adopted the weapon with eagerness. As the war progressed it became the primary threat to Great Britain, rather than the massive ships of German Fleet, which rusted away at anchor.
With the entry of the USA into the war, shipbuilding priorities shifted to the submarine war. There were two imperatives. One was to replace the huge merchant tonnage lost by Britain to the U-Boats. The second was to quickly develop and produce warships that specialized in anti-submarine warfare. The USN response to this threat gave rise to the development of the first modern USN small combatants, which in turn gave rise to a variety of small warships from PT Boats to the large variety of specialized ASW vessels of World War Two. There were two types of small combatants developed in World War One as a result of the submarine threat. One was the 110 foot subchaser (SC) and the other was the 200 foot Eagle Boat (PE).
The 110 foot subchasers were effective in coastal waters but the wooden hull design was too small and fragile for deep ocean work. The subchasers were used for patrolling comparatively shallow waters not for convoy escort. What was needed for deep ocean patrolling was a much larger vessel made of steel. The original requirement was for the new design to have a 4-inch gun and two torpedo tubes, which was subsequently changed to two 4-inch guns with the deletion of the tubes. The new design should also have been capable of sustaining 18-knots for a least four hours. It was hoped that the new design could be built upon the inland waterways and on the Great Lakes. The problem with the plan was there were no existing facilities available inland and the workforce skilled in shipbuilding were already completely occupied with the merchant ship and heavier warship construction programs.
Design work for the steel subchaser began on November 5 and preliminary sketches were completed by November 9, 1917. The preliminary design gave the ships one 5-inch gun, one 3-inch HA gun and 24 depth charges carried in stern racks. The design called for a speed of 21-knots but sacrificed some sea keeping allowing the depth charges to be rolled off the stern. The estimate called for a 200-foot vessel of around 400 tons. The power source would be a 4,000 bhp diesel engine, which was the same plant allocated to the newest USN submarine design. To simplify production, framing and plating, the design minimized the use of curves, creating an extremely slab sided appearance. There was no sheer forward. The deck ran straight from the cutwater to the bridge, only then did it slope. Also to simplify production, a steam turbine plant was substituted for the diesel engine with a corresponding drop in speed from 21 to 18-knots.
In June 1917 President Wilson had invited Henry Ford to become part of the Shipping Board. On December 22, 1917 Ford told the Secretary of the Navy that he could manufacture the new large steel-hulled subchaser by using the same manufacturing principals that he had developed for his automotive empire. Whatís more, he said he could do it without using skilled shipyard labor. The Navy gave full faith and credit to Fordís claims and jumped at this offer. The Navy inked a deal with the Ford Company in January 1918 for the construction of 100 of the new steel subchasers, as they were still called. An additional twelve vessels were added for the Italian Fleet. This contract between Ford and the Navy was touted in the press to be a major innovation in shipbuilding. Ford asked for the design to have more parallel lines and it was possible to have 60 feet at the bow and 40 feet at the stern on the waterline in a straight line.
The name of the type was changed from subchaser to Eagle Boat, which was taken from the content of a Washington Post editorial that called for, "an eagle to scour the seas and pounce upon and destroy every German submarine." Construction of the boats would be in an enclosed shed at the Rouge River production facility near Detroit, Michigan. The first Eagle Boat was laid down on May 7, 1918 and launched July 11. This boat was not commissioned until October 30, 1918.
U.S. Small Combatants: An Illustrated Design History
|The drawing and photographs above are from U.S. Small Combatants: An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman, Illustrations by A.D. Baker III with Alan Raven and Al Ross, which also is the source of the history for this article. The title is a great read for all of the small craft of the USN from World War One to the Viet-Nam War. An outstanding photograph reference for the Eagle Boats is found at Navsource at http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/04idx.htm Three of the many photographs of Eagle Boats found at this site are shown below.|
The contract with Ford stipulated that all of the ordered boats be delivered by December 1, 1918. As late spring turned to late summer, Henry Ford realized that he had been wrong in his assessment and claims. Building warships was not the same and did not use the same principles as the mass manufacture of automobiles. The first boats had poor riveting and other quality control problems. The techniques and skills needed for warship construction were far more extensive. By August Ford reported that he could only finish 28 Eagle Boats by the end of the year as opposed to the 112 that were contracted. The contract requirements were greatly relaxed by extending the delivery date of the last vessel to November 1919. With the end of the war the Italian boats were cancelled and the USN order was reduced to 60 boats. The last boat was delivered October 15, 1919. No Eagle Boats were operational at the end of the war.
After the program was declared a failure, the Secretary of the Navy put a happy face on the Ford program by stating the delays had only amounted to teething or startup delays to be expected in any new venture. He further stated that if the war had continued, the Ford Eagle Boat program would have met its completion goals. There was a lot of truth to his statement. The first Eagle Boat had taken two months from date of laying down to launch. With the last boot, the time had been reduced to 10 days. Although the construction rate was far slower, Henry Ford was right in one very important point, his program did not draw from or detract from the conventional shipbuilding programs.
By 1924 of the 60 Eagle Boats, 30 were laid up, 22 were assigned to the naval reserve and 5 were handed over to the Coast Guard to intercept "rum runners" during prohibition. Throughout the 1930s the Eagle Boats started disappearing as they were put up for disposal. By 1941 there were still eight on duty with the USN, Eagles 19, 27, 32, 48 and 55 through 57. At that time they mounted one 4-inch/50, one .50 caliber machine gun and depth charges but armament variations occurred as the war progressed. During the war Eagle 56 was the only one lost. The last surviving Eagle Boats had disappeared from the inventory of the USN by 1946. (History From U.S. Small Combatants: An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman, Illustrations by A.D. Baker III with Alan Raven and Al Ross)
Eagle Boat with Dry-Fitted Parts
|These photographs show the ISW Eagle Boat with the pilothouse, aft superstructure deck, stack, two 4-inch, one 3-inch and two winches dry fitted to the hull. There is a mistake in that I placed a winch on a base plate on the quarterdeck. That base plate should be for the 3-inch deck gun. So donít throw rocks at Ed Grune. Instructions are not yet available and Ed didnít tell me to put a winch on the base plate, I did it on my own. The winch on the base plate on the forecastle is correct as it raised and lowered the anchors.|
The Commanders/Iron Shipwright Eagle Boat
The test run sample had a few minor pits that could be easily filled. There was a slight warp on the forward end of pilothouse deck as well as on the mast. There was a resin pour post that was removed with a dremel and the bottom sanded smooth. Some of the minor parts had some voids, which could be corrected and a few might need replacement. However, as stated these parts were not from a production run.
In a childrenís tale, the ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan. It didnít work that way with Henry Ford. His ugly duckling simply turned into an ugly duck. However, the Eagle Boat is an ugly duck with style. It is so ungainly and such an affront to aesthetics, that it compels interest. It appears to be an easy to assemble model with a lot of character. With the Commanders/Iron Shipwright Eagle Boat, you can added a slab sided, flat line, ugly duck to your fleet to keep the marauding subs at bay.