The Eagle Boats - Henry Ford's Fabricated Fleet
Little remained visible along the shoreline of Amagansett in May of 1928. At an extreme low tide though, the faint remnants of the once proud Eagle Boat No. 17 could be seen poking out of the sand. Six years earlier, in the early morning hours of May 19, 1922, the patrol boat had been run aground during a thick fog and surging swells. After years of exposure to the elements, shifting sands and crashing waves, she was slowly entombed under the sands for perpetuity. Though she ended her days in Amagansett under very unceremonious conditions, she was once a part of a fleet of submarine chasers that the United States Government and the United States Navy saw as a vital link in the battle against the Kriegsmarine’s underwater menace during the First World War.
With shipbuilding facilities operating at maximum capacity during the heady days of 1917, options were limited for the production of what the U.S. Navy had determined was an integral component to ensure a viable option against the undersea boats of the German Navy. The United States Navy’s wooden hull fleet of submarine chasers was no match for the lethal U-boats and mine fields. The United States Navy wanted a new fleet of submarine chasers to meet the challenge. With shipbuilding facilities already backlogged with demands, a new player to the shipbuilding field had to be identified. The United States Navy had an idea.
In February of 1917, Henry Ford travelled to Washington, D.C to meet with the Secretary of the United States Navy, Josephus Daniels. This would not be a social call for the American businessman but rather a call to action. Ford had revolutionized the automobile manufacturing industry and the U.S. Navy thought that it might be a perfect opportunity to enlist Ford to assist in ensuring that the shipbuilding efforts of the nation progressed forward. Though Ford had initially protested the war and had even taken action to see that none of his products supported the warring nations in Europe, he stood ready to answer his nation’s call to arms. After the productive meeting with Secretary Daniels, Ford offered remarks to members of the press. “I cannot believe that war will come but if it does then it is our duty and the duty of every man to help all he can, and not to make money out of the distress of his country. I can build 1,000 small submarines and 3,000 motors a day, and I stand ready to do that or any needed proportion of it without profit.” In November of 1917, he accepted a position as a member of the United States Shipping Board. Two months later, Ford agreed to build, utilizing the techniques he had mastered with the production of the Model T, the United States Navy’s newest submarine chaser. The tenets of the agreement required Henry Ford, confident in his abilities in mass-production, to build between one hundred and five hundred Eagle Boats with the first to be delivered in five months or less. The cost of each “boat” would be $275,000. Though the cost was high by United States Navy standards the order was placed. Now all Henry Ford had to do was to become a shipbuilder. It would prove to be one hell of a transition.
Henry Ford envisioned a method for production of the ships that would alleviate the long snags associated with shipbuilding practices. He established a new factory on the River Rouge in Dearborn, Michigan. 1 The sprawling factory, built in five months and including three assembly lines, would permit the vessels to be built on the principles of mass production. Ford’s vision was to keep the ships moving down the line as work was completed just as he had revolutionized the automobile manufacturing process with his famous Model T. The ships would be built atop tractor pulled flatcars that would slowly pull the ships along the seventeen hundred foot long assembly line. Based on the design, each of the three assembly lines would have space for eight Eagle Boats. With three complete assembly lines available, a total of twenty-four ships would be built at any given time. Seven specific building stages were identified for the assembly line and construction process. Once the ship was built it would be lowered into the River Rouge and then they would be transited via the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal and the Hudson and Passaic Rivers to Newark, New Jersey where they would be fitted out.
The United States Navy’s original vision of a “boat” quickly evolved into a ship. The final design provided for a ship that was two hundred feet, nine inches in length, with a beam of thirty-three feet, one inch, and a draft of eight feet, six inches. A single screw would be propelled by a twenty-five hundred steam horsepower Poole geared steam turbine that provided a top speed of eighteen knots. The boats would be set to sea with a complement of five officers and fifty-six crewmen. The boats would be armed with two four inch fifty caliber guns, one three inch fifty caliber gun, and two fifty caliber machine guns. While the design was left up to U.S. Navy officials, Ford was adamant about utilizing flat steel hull plates and utilizing steam turbine engines for propulsion. Both of these components, Ford argued, would be crucial if he was going to utilize the mass production method for construction. A full-scale model was constructed at the Ford Motor Company Highland Park factory. Standing before the model, Henry Ford remarked to a group of reporters in February of 1918. “It is believed that this fleet of boats will solve the submarine problem. I’m for peace, if I have to fight for it. That’s why I’m undertaking this work for America…We will spare nothing in getting out a fleet of ‘killers’ which will, in my belief, drive the submarine from the seas.”
The keel for Eagle Boat No. 1 was laid in May 1918. Immediately, issues arose with the construction process. Scaffolding, which had long been utilized in ship construction because it offered riveters the ability to apply adequate pressure when riveting plates into place, limited movement. Ford scoffed at the idea and insisted his workers utilize ladders. Using the ladders meant that the finalized rivets were weak. Effective Arc-welding, not a common practice by Ford employees, was also identified as a problem area. The welding efforts by the factory employees accustomed to automobile manufacturing raised serious concerns by the U.S. Navy. As a result of these two problem areas many of the initial Eagle Boats suffered from leaky fuel oil compartments and less than water-tight bulkheads.
Though its construction had been mired in miscalculations and manufacturing mayhem, Henry Ford was successful in launching Eagle Boat No. 1 on July 11, 1918. Over the course of the following days, several more of the Eagle Boats were shifted from the assembly line to the waters of the River Rouge. Plans to transfer them to New Jersey for final “fitting out,” were cancelled. As only the shells had effectively been completed in the factory on the assembly line, the fitting out process, which included the placement of turbines, weaponry, wiring and other final touches to formally complete the ship building process quickly, “became a choke point due to the cramped spaces on the boats themselves,” and ultimately “violated Ford’s own mass production ethos.” The Eagle Boats languished in the waters by the factory as the fitting out process was completed which further delayed their delivery to the United States Navy. Despite the delays, several of the initial Eagle Boats were sent forward to European waters and performed their duty to the U.S. Navy though the Armistice had already taken place.
Though problems plagued the construction of the ships, their efficiency in the fleet was reported as more than satisfactory. The commanding officer of Eagle Boat No. 1 reported that “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.” Henry Ford might not have produced the maritime equivalent of his famous Model-T, but he had been successful in his shipbuilding vision.
With each keel laying, the builders at the River Rouge factory increased their efficiency. Over the course of the next fifteen months, fifty-nine more boats were completed. Only sixty of the Eagle Boats would be produced with the contract cancelled for the remaining forty ships on November 30, 1918. The most efficient building time was of the Eagle Boat no. 59 which took place in ten days, twenty-two hours. On average the company was able to complete three and a half ships per month. Though efficient in retrospect, it was not in keeping with Henry Ford’s initial grandiose plans for his factory to produce one ship per day.
In January of 1919, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, representing Massachusetts, instituted an investigation against Henry Ford’s contracts for the Eagle Boats with the U.S. Navy. The main source of concern by Senator Lodge was a charge of possible profiteering due to the cost of three and a half million dollars expended in the construction of the shipbuilding facilities. U.S. Navy Admirals Taylor, Griffin and Earle, commanding the Bureau of Construction, Bureau of Engineering and the Bureau of Ordnance, respectfully, actively countered skepticism in the worthiness of the completed Eagle Boats. They also indicated that the contractual obligations for the boat of their design had been met satisfactorily and that the vessels in the fleet, though limited in numbers, were useful in “convoying, patrolling and training work.” Admiral Taylor also explained to the senators that delays with shipbuilders and their contractual timelines was not solely relegated to the River Rouge plant and Henry Ford’s Eagle Boat fabrication process. The attack on Henry Ford summarily drowned on the floor of the Senate shortly after the accusations and the commencement of the investigation. 2
Out of the sixty Eagle Boats constructed, forty were sold between 1923 and 1940. Five were transferred to the United States Coast Guard and then quickly sold. Four were used as targets, one was destroyed, two were wrecked, and eight remained in the fleet at the outbreak of World War II. During World War II, the most famous Eagle Boat was No. 56 which was instrumental in the rescue of sailors from the torpedoed U.S.S. Jacob Jones in 1942. Sadly, the Eagle Boat No. 56 was torpedoed and sunk by the U-853 in the waters off of Portland, Maine on April 23, 1945. Forty-nine officers and crew were killed in the attack and sinking. There were only thirteen survivors. The remaining seven Eagle Boats were sold following the end of hostilities.
Henry Ford’s foray into the fabrication of submarine chasers ended with the completion of sixty total Eagle Boats. While his plans for roughly one Eagle Boat a day had not been realized, significant contributions to manufacturing processes were identified which would greatly assist Henry Ford and other manufacturers in gaining a better understanding of assembly-line processes and manufacturing. This information and insight would prove pivotal when a call to action occurred in the months leading up to World War II and once again the United States and her manufacturing industries were needed to supply the world with aircraft, tanks, jeeps, and of course, ships. Despite the setbacks and delays, Henry Ford had answered the call of his nation to support the war-effort. Though the Eagle Boats may not have provided a huge contribution to the United States Navy’s submarine woes, the Eagle Boats were an additional asset that saw action and served their crews admirably in the inter-war years and during World War II, with one notable ship, the Eagle Boat No. 17, ending her days on the sands of Amagansett, New York, in our waters.
1 Ford had begun purchasing parcels of land as early as 1915 with a vision to build the most technologically advance factory in the world. Initial plans were to utilize the factory for building tractors. The U.S. Navy’s need for the new class of submarine chasers would provide Ford “the impetus for him to develop the Rouge site into what would eventually become the largest manufacturing site in the world” as noted by Vincent Curcio in his book Henry Ford.
2 Arguably, Henry Ford benefited greatly both during the war and more importantly, after. The total cost of the Eagle Boat Program – which included the building of the River Rouge facility – amounted to forty-six million dollars. As noted by Austin Weber in his article “Ford’s Rouge Assembly Plant Turns 100,” noted that “between 1919 and 1926, it grew to include 93 buildings capable of producing 4,000 vehicles a day.” The River Rouge factory remains in operation.