Attention turned to building steel patrol vessels. In their construction, it was necessary to eliminate the established shipbuilding facilities as possible sources of construction as they were totally engaged in the building of destroyers, larger warships, and merchant shipping. Accordingly, a design was developed by the Bureau of Construction and Repair which was sufficiently simplified to permit speedy construction by less experienced shipyards.
Earlier, in June 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had summoned auto-builder Henry Ford to Washington in the hope of getting him to serve on the United States Shipping Board. Wilson felt that Ford, with his knowledge of mass production techniques, could immensely speed the building of ships in quantity. Apprized of the need for antisubmarine vessels to combat the U-boat menace, Ford declared: "What we want is one type of ship in large numbers." On 7 November, Ford accepted membership on the Shipping Board and an active advisory role. Examining the Navy's plans for the projected steel patrol ships, Ford urged that all hull plates be flat so that they could be produced quickly in quantity ; and he also persuaded the Navy to accept steam turbines instead of reciprocating steam engines.
At this point, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was drawn into the project. He recognized that no facilities were available at the Navy yards for building new craft and asked Ford if he would undertake the task. Ford agreed; and, in January 1918, he was directed to proceed with the building of 100 of them. Later on, 12 more were added for delivery to the Italian government.
Ford's plan for building the ships was revolutionary. Establishing a new plant on the Rouge River on the outskirts of Detroit, he proposed to turn them out as factory products, using mass production techniques, and employing factory workers. He would then send the boats by the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic coast. However, Ford had little part in the design of the boats. Except for his insistence upon simple plans and the use of steam turbines, he contributed little of a fundamental nature to the design concept.
The assembly plant was completed in five months, and the first keel was laid in May 1918. The machinery and fittings were largely built at Ford's Highland Park plant in Detroit. At first, Ford believed that boats could be sent down a continuously moving assembly line like automobiles. The size of the craft made this too difficult, however, and a "step-by-step" movement was instituted on the 1,700-foot line. The first Eagle boat was launched on 11 July. The launching of these 200-foot craft was a formidable operation. Not built on ways from which they could slide into the water, the hulls moved slowly from the assembly line on enormous, tractor-drawn flatcars. They were then placed on a 225-foot steel trestle alongside the water's edge which could be sunk 20 feet into the water by hydraulic action.
The original contract called for delivery of 100 ships by 1 December 1918. Although the first seven boats were completed on schedule, succeeding ones did not follow as rapidly, even though the labor force reached 4,380 by July and later peaked at 8,000. The chief reasons were Ford's excessive initial optimism and the inexperience of labor and supervisory personnel in shipbuilding. Upon the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the number under contract, previously raised from 100 to 112, was cut to 60. Of these, seven were commissioned in 1918, and the remaining 53 were commissioned in 1919.
The entire Eagle Boat operation came briefly under challenge by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts in December 1918. At the ensuing Congressional hearings, Navy officials successfully defended the boats as being a necessary experiment and well made while Ford profits were proved to be modest.
The term "Eagle Boat" stemmed from a wartime Washington Post editorial which called for ". . . an eagle to scour the seas and pounce upon and destroy every German submarine." However, the Eagle Boats never saw service in World War I. Reports on their performance at sea were mixed. The introduction, at Ford's insistence, of flanged plates instead of rolled plates facilitated production but resulted in sea-keeping characteristics which were far from ideal. In the first years after the war, a number of them were used as aircraft tenders. Despite the handicap of their size, they serviced photographic reconnaissance planes at Midway in 1920 and in the Hawaiian Islands in 1921 before being supplanted by larger ships. A number of the Eagle Boats were transferred to the Coast Guard in 1919, and the balance were sold in the 1930's and early 1940's.
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