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The Little Ships That Could
by John R. Ward, USS LANSING (DE-388)

This article appeared in INVENTION AND TECHNOLOGY, Fall 1999

The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest battle of WWII, began in 1939 as German U-boats began prowling the seas between the US and Europe. The battle lasted until 1945. During the early years, German U-boats sent Allied ships, and therefore Allied troops and supplies, to the bottom in alarming numbers.

The submarines were quick, easy to maneuver and difficult to detect. The standard convoy proved an easy target and the Allies realized they would need a new weapon if they were to survive.

Winston Churchill would say later that "everything elsewhere, on land, sea and air, depended ultimately on the outcome of this battle." It was not an exaggeration; it was common sense. Every ship lost was a major victory for Germany. Just after he became Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill anxiously appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for escort vessels specially designed to destroy U-boats. In response, the Navy's Bureau of Ships developed a plan for what would be called a destroyer escort (DE), drawing on characteristics of British and Canadian small destroyers called corvettes.

The sole purpose of the DE would be to seek and destroy U-boats.  After the concept was agreed upon, it took time for the wheels of military bureaucracy to turn. Not until May 1941, a year and one-half into the Battle of the Atlantic, was Navy brass ready to start building. Almost as soon as the first order was placed, Admiral Harold R. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, changed his mind. He believed the resources needed to build ships would be better used elsewhere and he canceled the 50-ship deal. An alarmed Churchill once again turned to Roosevelt and the President approved an order in August to build 50 DEs for the British. A final design was worked out in November and the first keel was laid in February 1942. Six months later, the first destroyer escort was launched. The US Navy's first DE was not commissioned until 20 January 1943.

Conventional destroyers were built for speed and firepower. The DE, taking on smaller and wilier prey, needed maneuverability above all else. The most important feature of the DE was her narrow turning circle of 400 yards or less, a good match for the U-boat. A destroyer generally required 880 yards.

At sea, the trim but deadly fighting ship was a challenging match for her underwater adversaries. In the words of Captain Richard Rea, "The DEs were good sea boats. You could take a sea on either bow and, with her length, ride through it comfortably. They were not bad rollers by design, as many complained, and were responsive when maneuvering." DE Sailors spoke with pride in describing their sturdy little ship, even though it was never still, but lurched, lunged, pitched, rolled, and otherwise accommodated restless waters.

The DE was also armed with an impressive battery of underwater weapons: two depth charge racks, eight depth charge projectors (K-guns) and the Hedgehog, a cluster of 24 mortars which could fire forward at an underwater target. In addition, each DE was equipped with sonar and radar, not to mention three torpedo tubes and long- and short-range antiaircraft guns. If DEs could take care of U-boats, fleet destroyers would be free to operate elsewhere with strike forces, where their greater speed and offensive gun and torpedo power were more effective and more urgently needed.

That was the plan. The reality was that the Navy was already engaged in a massive shipbuilding program and the new DEs were low on its list of priorities. The carefully designed ships became the receptacle for whatever was left over, incorporating a variety of power plants and weapons. In the end, there would be six classes of DE, each with a different power source, ranging from diesel to turboelectric. To the casual observer, they all looked alike, but every Sailor knew the difference.

Although the DE was essentially made up of spare parts, her basic design was simple enough to allow for mass production. The Navy assigned the manufacture of its highest priority vessels, such as battleships, to experienced naval yards at Mare Island, CA; Boston; and Puget Sound. These facilities were already overburdened in 1941, but officials at Mare Island accepted a contract for DEs, even with the facility overwhelmed by the construction of larger vessels. Mare Island had a plan.

How could the yard possibly cope? It suffered not only from a lack of ways on which to build and launch the ships, but from a shortage of space for the additional assembly of hull sections, decks, bulkheads, floor sections and superstructures. The answer was simple, or at least simply stated: It would farm out the work. Less than a week before Pearl Harbor, Mare Island announced 2 December 1941 it was contracting the building of DEs to a factory in Denver, CO. Denver was a mile high and 800 miles from the sea, but it did have two advantages: no existing war industries and a ready supply of labor and housing. Mare Island would furnish the blueprints, building schedules and leadership; Denver would provide the steel and sweat.

This introduced a policy of ordering out for pieces of the ships that would later be taken up by many other yards building DEs around the country. It was the first of many shipbuilding innovations that the desperate need for mass production engendered. The war and the U-boats would not pause and wait. An army of untrained workers, men and women, struggled to cope not only with enormous demands for vessels of a fresh, untested, design, but also with a new technique of putting them together - arc welding.

In the 1930s, John Lincoln of Lincoln Electric had created an improved flux, which for the first time made a weld as flexible as steel. As a result, the US Maritime Commission, established in 1936 to regulate and subsidize merchant shipping, had decided to replace riveting with welding wherever possible. Not only did welding have structural advantages, it was faster and easier; in fact, it would turn out to be the only way to mass produce ships.  Builders could now use prefabricated parts assembled hundreds of miles away and weld those parts into a whole at the end, thus greatly simplifying and speeding up the building process.

Building an all-welded ship was like putting together a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, except the pieces might weigh a ton or more. On this particular puzzle, there was opportunity to innovate, improvise and learn through trial and error. "There is no limit to what you can do with a welded ship," says Omer Blodgett, a wartime welding superintendent at Globe Shipping, Duluth, MN. "What you end up with is a one-piece ship. Early experience quickly revealed it took a longer time to train a riveter than a welder. Riveters worked in three-man crews; welders worked independently. Not only that, welding saved up to 30% in weight and time."

Horace Jackson, who began as a welder and later became a Vice President at Thompson Pipe and Steel Company, Denver, says, "Finding welders and training welders during the war was one of our major challenges in building ships."  Because the technique was so new, experienced welders were hard to come by, so shipyards had to train their own and "as soon as we trained a few good welders, the armed services would grab them after about six months and the training would start all over with new recruits." Annual employee turnover at some yards ran above 200%.

In arc welding, a worker first has to create a current between an electrode and the plates to be joined. This is called "striking an arc." The welder must keep the torch moving; creating the weld is like squeezing a tube of caulking. Getting the hang of welding is difficult and, even with an abundance of training, new problems arose daily.

Cracks were an ongoing problem. A crack can't jump across a rivet from one plate to another, but if a crack appears in a welded configuration, it can go anywhere because the ship is all in one piece. By 1942, cracks in welded merchant vessels and some warships appeared to be a major problem. Blame went in every direction and shipyard inspections and training were improved. Only later did the Navy realize the main cause of the cracking problem was the steel itself, so the alloys were changed.

The Navy required X-ray analysis and microscopic inspection of all welded steam pipe joints to find cracks, but there was no X-ray equipment in some localities, including the Great Lakes region. "In an old copy of Welding Encyclopedia by Ted Jefferson, we found a description of a possible solution to the problem," Blodgett remembers. "It was called the Whiting Test. A test weld with an intentional hairline crack became the work piece. We then applied 3-in-1 penetrating oil to the weld. Adding powdered carpenter's chalk mixed with carbon tetrachloride (Pyrene) from our fire extinguisher created a volatile solution which quickly dried. In a few moments, a fine, discolored line appeared on the chalk, indicating the crack below." The Navy bought the idea.

Thereafter, all high-pressure steam piping inspections followed the procedure.  Still, the advantages of welding were enormous. Sometimes, multiple cranes, each capable of lifting ten tons, would be used in tandem to hoist fabricated deck superstructures, equipment and weapons onto and into the cavernous openings in the hull, to be welded together. As the workers learned their jobs, building times decreased; the first DE took six months, but before long they were being constructed in a matter of weeks. Competition between yards and cash awards fueled the increases in efficiency.

In an unusual display of ingenuity, Defoe Shipbuilding in Bay City, MI, decided to try building ships upside down, from the deck up to the keel. Bill Defoe, son of the founder, says, "Since it was easier and faster to weld downwards, we saved many man hours of work and our workmanship greatly improved. The process virtually eliminated 90% of all overhead welding."

As a platform for the construction, a cradle had to be devised to match the exact shape of the ship's main deck. Once the deck was laid down, frames and bulkheads affixed to it appeared bottom-side up. The complete bottom section of the vessel, including keel, floors and from four to six strakes (flat steel support sheets) of shell plating, was dropped into position on top of the frames and bulkheads.  The remaining shell plating added shape and form to the hull. With the vessel upside down, all the machinery that normally hangs from the underside of the deck was easily positioned.

The erection sequence for hull steel also made it possible to eliminate most of the conventional shipbuilding scaffolding. On completion of the hull section, two semicircular steel wheels were clamped around the hull and the cradle was dropped out of the way, leaving the hull entirely supported by them. Cables thrown around the vessel in opposite directions allowed a steam crane, pulling on one cable and holding back on the other, to roll the hull into an upright position. The whole process took no more than two and one-half minutes. Once the hull was upright, cranes would then drop additional machinery in place and install the prefabricated deckhouses.

Most yards, however, built their DEs the conventional way, from the keel up.  A visit to any yard would present a similar picture: tangles of electrical cables, compressed air lines, oxygen and acetylene hoses, ropes, rigging, huge cranes and scaffolding. Amid a cacophony of clanking metal, chipping hammers and the groans of giant cranes, workers were at their tasks 24 hours a day, seven days a week, illuminated by the showers of blue sparks that swarmed like fireflies around the welders.

Compared with solving all the welding problems, launching the ships and delivering them to naval ports was almost trivial. Usually, ships are launched directly into port, but DEs built at the inland yards of the Great Lakes region were launched into the lakes, then towed to Chicago. Sometimes, there was so little room at the yards they had to be launched sideways. In one case, a ship was launched without her engines installed. Top heavy, she almost rolled over and the mistake was never repeated. In Chicago, the ships' masts and propellers were stowed on deck and they were fitted with special pontoon boats to reduce their draft. They were then floated through canals and rivers to the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Amazingly, it all worked.

East Coast shipyards also added their muscle to the DE program. Toward the end of production, Bethlehem Steel's yard in Hingham, Massachusetts, was able to deliver a DE in just 25 days. By contrast, the construction time for a fleet destroyer before the war had been eight to ten months. Competition between shipyards swelled as new records were made and broken. Hingham's claims to fame include launching one DE in four and one-half days, ”a world record for building a major war vessel”, delivering ten DEs in one month and laying 16 keels in one day. The overall safety and efficiency of these ships guaranteed the future of welding. The large numbers of identical vessels permitted economies of scale in the provision of assembly jigs, the adoption of repeatable procedures and material-supply planning.

See photos of DE construction

The destroyer escorts finally plunged, lurched and rolled into the Battle of the Atlantic in the fall of 1943, each about 300 feet long and 35 feet across, capable of a top speed of 20-24 knots and carrying 216 officers and men in cramped, no-nonsense quarters. Even though U-boats by then had passed the zenith of their destructive power, they still represented a significant threat. The DEs quickly racked up impressive records in terms of both Allied ships protected and German U-boats sunk. They also won a large share of the glory in the 4 June 1944 capture of U-505, the first taking of an enemy ship by the US Navy since the War of 1812.

The DE was built in less than half the time of a fleet destroyer and at a third of the cost. She was part of a massive effort in which the number of ship ways climbed from 130 to 567 at nearly 80 commercial shipyards. The battles of WWII were won as much on the assembly line as on the firing line.

As the Battle of the Atlantic wound down, DEs made further history in the Pacific as transports, antisubmarine warfare platforms, radar picket ships and screens for kamikaze attacks. USS ENGLAND (DE-635) destroyed six subs in 12 days during May 1944. The US produced 563 DEs between 1942 and 1945. Of those, 561 saw service before the war's end.

The ships lost their usefulness soon after the war, when a new generation of fast submarines appeared who could outrun them. Their ranks were gradually reduced by sale to foreign governments, use as cannon fodder in weapons tests or simply trips to the scrap heap, where bits and pieces were melted into steel soup for use elsewhere.

Today, only two remain [in the US]: SLATER (DE-766), currently undergoing painstaking restoration as a floating museum in Albany, NY, and STEWART
(DE-238), landlocked and deteriorating at Seawolf Park in Galveston, TX. But their legacy and that of the men and women who built them, lives on. The little ships that could, did.

John R. Ward is a writer and consultant in Albuquerque, NM.

Note: War losses came to 22 and another 12 badly damaged. DEs were instrumental in sinking 64 U-boats as well as 30 Japanese submarines.

Article submitted to web site by Anne McCarthy.


For the history of an individual ship, visit these websites:
Destroyer Escort Library and NavSource Online

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