Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Ford's Eagle Patrol Boats

Eagle 27 (PE-27)

By Frank A. Cianflone

U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1973

In the summer of 1917, Henry Ford was invited to Washington by President Woodrow Wilson who hoped to induce him to serve on the U. S. Shipping Board. Ford discussed with Edward N. Hurley, chairman of the board, the possibility of applying his mass production knowledge to solving the ship shortage problem; he accepted membership on the board on 7 November 1917.

As losses to submarines increased, it was felt that a new design of ship other than destroyers, should be developed for antisubmarine detection and warfare.

Commander Robert Stocker, under the capable direction of Admiral P. W. Taylor, worked out the hull design, while Commander S. M. Robinson, in close association with Admiral R. S. Griffin and Admiral Dyson, designed the power plant. Henry Ford’s particular contribution to the design was limited to his suggestion that the Navy use steam turbines instead of reciprocating engines. He also suggested the use of flat hull plates so as to be able to take full advantage of mass production methods.

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels found that no shipbuilding facilities were available to construct this proposed new design of ship and asked Henry Ford if he could build such a ship under contract at the Ford River Rouge plant, using mass production techniques and factory workers, instead of the various shipbuilding skilled trades normally required. The ships were to sail from Detroit via the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal, the Hudson and Passaic Rivers to Newark Meadows (Kearny), New Jersey, for fitting out. The New Jersey plant not being completed in time, the hulls were fitted at River Rouge plant and subsequently navigated the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Coast.

Henry Ford was concerned with possible interference by the Navy with his production methods. This liaison with Ford was admirably handled for the Navy by then Lieutenant Julius A. Furer, U. S. Navy.

The original concept of size for a small ship grew with the addition of 4-inch/50 broadside guns (for fighting surface actions with U-boats), anti-aircraft guns, underwater listening devices (designed by Edison), and extensive radio communication equipment. What started out to be a boat evolved into a ship, although the designation “Boat” was retained.

Nicknamed “Pickle Boat” or “Cheese Box” by the men who served in them, no doubt because of her cramped living quarters and wedge-shaped, box-like appearance, the origin of the designation “Eagle” was more in keeping with naval tradition. In an editorial in the Washington Post on 23 December 1917, by Ira E. Bennett, titled “A Challenge to America,” he described the destruction being wrought by U-boats and said, “the crying need of this hour is an eagle that will scour the seas and pounce upon every submarine that dares to leave German or Belgian shores.” The new antisubmarine ship under consideration seemed to fill this description and was thus assigned the name “Eagle.”

Launch of Eagle 1 at Ford's River Rouge Plant

On 14 January 1918, Henry Ford agreed to build 100 to 500 Eagle Boats, the first to be delivered in five months or less. The schedule called for ten the following month, 20 the next, and 25 each month thereafter. A tentative price per ship was set at $275,000 and, although the Navy considered this high, it placed the initial order for 100 ships on the same date.

By Armistice Day, seven ships had been sent to the Atlantic coast, but only two had arrived. The other five, being in transit, were not accepted until 24 November 1918. The original contract for 100 ships, having been increased to 112, was then reduced to 60. By the time Eagle 59 was completed, production time had been reduced to ten working days after keel-laying.

The seaworthiness and handling characteristics in rough weather of Eagle Boats have been the subject of much speculation over the years. Those who have served in these ships report them to ride like the four-stack destroyers in high seas. Ship-handling was also similar. In a letter written from Brest, France, on 17 August 1919, the commanding officer of USS Eagle 1, stated that during the first six months of service “there were no defects in the hull, hull fittings, and equipment of this vessel. The ship has been almost constantly underway since April 11, 1919, serving mostly in Russian ice covered waters. It speaks very well for the construction of these vessels that, in bucking heavy ice, no damage was experienced to the hull, frames or bulkheads.” Eagle Boats 2 and 3 encountered the same conditions and handled equally well.

The Eagles’ square stern and box-like, wedge-shaped lines gained them the reputation of being less seaworthy than the PC and SC type patrol craft of World War II. Eagle 25 was sunk in a sudden squall in the Delaware River south of New Castle, Delaware, when she capsized with the loss of nine men on 11 June 1920. This may be what gave rise to the numerous stories as to their seaworthiness.

Originally, Eagle Boats were known merely by their number, e.g., “Eagle Boat No. 1,” but when the Navy’s classification system came into effect on 17 July 1920, the vessels then became known as Eagle 1 (PE-1).

Click on Image to Enlarge

A summary of the general characteristics of these boats is as follows:

  • Length overall: 200 feet 9 inches
  • Extreme beam: 33 feet one inch
  • Maximum draft: 8 feet 6 inches
  • Maximum speed: 18.32 knots
  • Full load displacement: 615 tons
  • Engines 2,500-s.h.p. Poole geared turbines
  • Boilers: (2) Bureau Express
  • Armament: 

two 4-inch/50-caliber

one 3-inch/50-caliber

two .50-caliber machine guns

one Y-type gun (Eagles 4 through 7 only)

It was not until World War II that any Eagle Boats really served the purpose for which they were built and actively engaged in ASW operations. Of the original 60, only eight remained; they were assigned to antisubmarine warfare, sonar training, target-towing vessels, and aerial bombing practice. None were given duty outside U. S. continental waters. Except for Eagle 56 (PE-56), which was sunk by a German submarine, the remaining vessels were decommissioned following the war’s end and subsequently sold or disposed of.

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