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.”
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 the 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. Shiphandling was also similar. In a letter written from Brest, France, on 17 August 1919, the commanding officer of the 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).”
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
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.
In January 1942, the hottest waters had become those off the Delaware Capes. The U-boats were so bold in this area that often ships were being torpedoed within sight of people on the beach. It was in these coastal waters that the Eagle 56 was assigned. Her armament at that time included one 4-inch/50 mounted forward of the bridge, two 30-caliber Lewis machine guns mounted above the bridge, a 50-caliber Browning AA machine gun on the after deckhouse, and one manually operated depth charge rack mounted on the stern. Unlike the yard craft which scurried for port at sunset, the Eagle 56 remained almost constantly at sea, with her crew standing watches of four on and four off. When her depth charges were expended, a YMS out of Cape May, N.J., would be sent out to replenish her in the middle of attacks.
An example of just how vulnerable this area was early in the war can be best understood by examining the official “Combat Intelligence Reports” for a one-week period which have since been declassified.
Saturday, 28 February 1942.
0845—Army plane sighted six liferafts, a wherry and motor boat
0920—USCG picket boats numbers 2398 and 4345 left Lewes, Delaware, to investigate. CGC-471 (83 feet) and motor lifeboat #4052 dispatched to area from Indian River Inlet.
0935—Eagle 56, reported to INSPAT, she was picking up survivors.
1020—Eagle 56, ordered to take survivors to Cape May.
1030—Eagle 56, sent message, “AM PICKING UP SURVIVORS OF USS JACOB JONES—DETAILS LATER.”
Excerpts from the Combat Intelligence report sent from ComFOUR to CNO on 2 March 1942, reports the following:
“0500 USS JACOB JONES (DD-130) sunk 38° 42’ North, 74° 29’ West.
“First warning two or possibly three torpedoes struck port side in rapid succession. One struck aft of bridge, sheering off bow forward of the Fire Room. Another struck approximately 40 feet forward of the Fantail, sheering off everything above the keel plates and destroying the crews’ quarters.
“One officer, manning machine gun in Crow’s Nest, reported no torpedo wakes although he had been looking to starboard at the time. Submarine itself not sighted but survivors reported seeing a spot of light 8 inches in diameter, 100 yards to one mile away. One witness stated that he believed he saw a conning tower, yet no effort was made to hail, board, shell or machine gun the floating mid-section. This was confirmed by a survivor who remained on board until just before she finally went under. No boats were launched because of insufficient uninjured personnel available to hoist them from their skids. The mid-section sunk as the result of the depth charges on the stern section not being set on ‘Safe,’ finally exploding.”
There is some question as to what actually happened, since official reports based on statements taken two days after the sinking vary greatly from the remarks made by survivors of the Jacob Jones to the crew of the Eagle 56 at the time of their rescue. Their story was that a submarine was dead in the water on the surface, flashing a light in the same sequence as a channel buoy. At the same time as it was discovered that there were duplicate buoys, they were hit bow and stern with torpedoes. The bow and stern sections sank immediately, which accounts for the loss of all officers and chiefs. One badly injured engineering officer did survive the initial explosions, as did 34 of the crew. This gives doubt to the statement about the witness in the Crow’s Nest.
A radioman, who was among the final 11 survivors, was asleep in the crews’ compartment. He awoke to find that he was still in his bunk, suspended over the water. The original survivors broke into the cold weather gear locker and dressed themselves warmly. They took time to prepare something to eat. Since the mid-section continued to float, the survivors could not agree as to whether they should remain on board or take to the life rafts. Thirteen men elected to take to the rafts and the rest remained.
Inasmuch as none of the initial survivors who regained aboard the floating portion survived the final explosion, it is doubtful if the statement of the survivor who verified the lack of follow-up action by the submarine can be accepted.
During this time, the mid-section continued to drift clear of the bow and stern, which carried it well clear of the point of the original sinkings, thus posing some question as to the final explosion being due to her own depth charges not being set on “Safe.” This confusion may be owing to a chance remark by a survivor who had no knowledge of depth charges at the time of his rescue. The Chief Gunner’s Mate who went down with the ship was Charles M. Proffitt, a veteran of over 20 years of service. Known to be a very thorough and capable person, it is doubtful if he would have violated safety precautions. At 0600, the mid-section exploded, killing those survivors who had remained on board. It could not be ascertained at that time, if one of the several submarines reported to be in the immediate vicinity, had fired another torpedo or, if the cold water had gotten into her boilers. The Eagle 56 picked up the survivors in three liferafts while underway. Although all were in lifejackets and cold weather gear, two had perished of exposure. All except two were wet and covered with fuel oil. These were two apprentice seamen who had only the day before been enlisted, given a full sea bag and sent aboard without benefit of training. Rather than sit in the liferaft, they had perched on the rim to protect their newly issued dress blues. Except for exposure, no survivors had visible injuries when transferred to the hospital at Cape May, N.J. Throughout the remainder of the day, the Eagle 56 remained at General Quarters and made numerous depth charge attacks. Two blimps and one Army bomber came out to assist, but since radio communication between them and the Eagle 56 was not possible, they were of very little help.
Sunday, 1 March 1942.
0900[—]INSPAT message from Eagle 56, that she made contact at 0725 at a position 7 miles from Five Fathom Buoy, bearing 130° and she was attacking.
0915—Eagle 56 reports definite oil track and heard screws making 60 RPM after dropping five depth charges.
1030—Eagle 56 assisted by Airship K-1, made third attack leaving her with only 3 more depth charges. Her position at the time was 38°41’ North, 74°22’ West.
1400—Eagle 56 delivered fourth depth charge attack which resulted in a large quantity of oil surfacing. All depth charges having been expended, the USS Roller was sent out to replenish the Eagle 56 supply.
It is interesting to note here, that because of their inexperience and fear of depth charges, previously mentioned, the charges the Roller brought out had not been assembled and the components, including the pistols, boosters, and detonators were hastily thrown aboard and had to be assembled in the dark while engaged in tracking a sound contact.
2028—Eagle 56 made sound contact at a position of 38°36’ North, 74°30’ West, and dropped three more depth charges without visible results.
Wednesday, 4 March 1942.
0708—HECP message of CCG-653 report that British ship, Gypsum Prince which had arrived at Cape Henlopen at 0640, had sunk in the channel a few minutes after arrival, on a line between Harbor Refuge Light and Cape May point.
0710—Eagle 56 ordered to stand by and pick up survivors.
1248—Eagle 56 collided with wreck. Her engines would not turn over and she had lost her propeller. She anchored at a point bearing 360° from the east end of the breakwater and 310° from Harbor Refuge Light, awaiting arrival of the USS Allegheny (AT-19) which had been dispatched to tow her into the Philadelphia Navy Yard for repairs.
1405—Eagle 56 reported her position as, Overfalls Light Ship 098°; Delaware Breakwater Light 252°; Harbor Refuge Light 300° and in 60 feet of water.
1820—USS Allegheny (AT-19) with Eagle 56, in tow, standing up river.
Although the official reports are correct, it does not account for the cause of the collision at noon on a clear day in a relatively calm sea.
The Gypsum Prince had apparently rolled over and sunk as stated, but she was not visible on the surface. As the Eagle 56 passed over her, the Gypsum Prince rose up from the bottom and collided with the Eagle 56, keel to keel. Using her anchors, the Eagle 56 was kedged free of the wreck and awaited the arrival of the Allegheny scheduled to arrive at 1745.
Repairs were made in less than a week with parts cannibalized from a stricken Eagle Boat, located at the Boston Navy Yard. Drydocking facilities not being immediately available, plus the need to get this ship back into service in the shortest possible time, repairs were made alongside the dock by lifting her stern clear of the water with the large crane and submerging her bow into the mud. Repairs were completed and the Eagle 56 was back at sea in less than one week.
After assignment to the Sonar School at Key West in May 1942, the Eagle 56 not only engaged in the training programs, but also in occasional convoy and antisubmarine actions.
On 28 June 1944, the Eagle 56 was assigned to the Naval Air Station at New Brunswick, Maine. It was while on this assignment that, on 23 April 1945, she exploded and sank at the estimated position 43°29’2” North, 70°05’6” West. The cause of the explosion is not known, but possible cause is given as “Enemy mine or torpedo.” The reports from the USS Selfridge (DD-357), which was in the immediate vicinity, do little to clarify this point. It was a clear bright day with visibility of 20 miles, wind was 310° True at 1157 when she observed the Eagle 56 dead in the water. At 1214, a heavy explosion astern caused the Selfridge to reverse course and proceed at 27 knots while at the same time going to General Quarters. Arriving at the explosion site at 1245, they put boats in the water to pick up survivors. Reports by those who observed the explosion claim that a column water or steam vapor over 100 feet high rose into the air and persisted for over 20 seconds. This appears be much larger than could have been made by depth charges and was felt to have the appearance of an external, rather than an internal explosion. From a distance the stern section seemed larger than the bow, which would indicate an explosion forward of midships.
The stern section sank in two minutes, with the bow sinking vertically at 1228.
No doubt the crew was at mess and, since the survivors did not wear lifejackets or cold weather gear, exposure in the 42° Fahrenheit water accounted for the high casualty rate of 49 men lost. All but one of the 13 survivors were from the engineering department, which would seem to eliminate a possible boiler explosion.
At 1248, the Selfridge picked up a sharp, well-defined contact on their sonar, bearing 072° True (040° relative) at a depth of 150 feet, course 102° True, and speed of 1.5 knots. Target width was 15°. The Selfridge cast off the rescue boats, increased speed to 15 knots and commenced a depth charge attack at 1253, with negative results. All told, nine Mark IX Mod 2, depth charges were dropped at depths of 50 to 150 feet. After ten minutes, the sound contact being doubtful, the Selfridge turned the search over to the USS Woolsey (DD-437), which had arrived on the scene, and proceeded into Portland, Maine, to transfer the survivors (all of whom had required morphine and plasma) to the Naval Dispensary.