The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Bert C. Brennan
Sprawled along the marshy banks of the Saginaw river at Bay City, Michigan, lies the home of the Defoe Shipbuilding Co. where, some 45 years ago, the founder, 69-year-old Harry J. Defoe and two associates started their first contract, for two 30-foot fishing boats. During the last five years, nearly 135 fighting boats have been spawned here with the help of some 4,000 employees and sent to saltwater duty. Since Pearl Harbor Day, 1941, four 220-foot minesweepers (MS), four rescue vessels (RV), fifty-four 173-foot patrol craft (PC) or submarine chasers, forty-seven landing craft infantry (large) (LCI-L), seventeen destroyer escorts (DE) and now auxiliary personnel destroyers (APD) and some small navy YF freighters, have made Defoe one of the largest producers of Navy ships on the Great Lakes.
Pride of the Defoe fleet is the 307-foot destroyer escort type, largest navy ship ever built on the lakes. Virtually the same size and armament as destroyers but designed primarily for convoy duty, the DE has incorporated in its design 5.6 miles of pipe, 93,655 foot or 15 3/4 miles of electrical cable which is made up of 105 miles of single conductor wire, plus 2,010 valves, 2,650 pipe flanges, and 9,018 pipe fittings. Topside, she bristles with powerful fighting weapons, boasting a 5-inch gun both fore and aft, each housed in a pivotal mount resembling a steam shovel cab. Four 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon are supplemented with a formidable array of machine-guns distributed throughout her superstructure. K-guns, for hurling depth charges, are mounted on both sides back aft, while available also are three torpedo tubes mounted topside amidships. Powered by steam turbo-electric drive, oil fired express type boilers, the DE glides through the water minus engine room noise, or mechanical vibration. Her anchors each weigh 3,500 pounds and are held in place by a massive chain some 105 fathoms long and weighing 5,500 pounds.
Conceived and perfected in the Defoe yards is also the unique “rollover” method of building ships. This method plus assembly line technique, has enabled the yards to win the coveted Navy “E” award six times. This revolutionary idea, first used in August, 1941, on a 173- foot PC and subsequently on the 307-foot DE and APD, helped defeat the submarine menace early in the war, by delivering ships for fewer man-hours of labor than any construction method ever devised.
Construction of the hulls is started upside down on a flat deck on which bulkheads are placed. Plates, set by an overhead crane, lie in position by their own weight and allow downhand welding. Man-hours are but one-third to one-quarter of the total needed in following conventional methods. When the hull is finished, two 50-foot eccentric steel wheels are clamped into position. Actual roll-over, controlled by a single locomotive crane, requires but five minutes and the work of only 12 men. The two huge wheels roll on tracks to right the hull, setting it in position for other work which precedes the ship’s sidewise launching into an adjoining slip. No other shipbuilder is known to be using this method, although, it is available to any firm designated by the Navy.
For the earlier boats, some destined for the British Navy, crews were brought to Bay City who sailed their own ships to the sea, via Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Welland Canal, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence river and out into the Atlantic Ocean. Likewise, the United States Navy brought its own crews for the LCI, giving the sailors a chance to get the feel of their future abode by sailing her around the lakes to Chicago. But the PC, DE, and APD procession has been sailed by a freshwater, civilian crew captained by William H. Booth, Sr. Starting at Bay City the boats move into Saginaw river and bay, north in Lake Huron, through the Straits of Mackinac, south into Lake Michigan, ending at Chicago. Entering the drainage canal at Chicago, the boats then pass into the Illinois river which in turn empties into the Mississippi river and the ship finally ends up at New Orleans, some 2, 100 miles away from her birthplace.
Since the waters between Chicago and the Mississippi are not deep enough to accommodate the DE or APD 10-foot draft, nor are bridges high enough to clear the mainmast, special measures have to be taken. So the mainmast either is laid down and spot welded to the deck to hold it securely in rough weather or is setup in temporary fashion for the trip to Chicago. There the mast is taken down, if it is not down already and the passage down the Chicago drainage canal begins. When the canal’s too-shallow section is reached, the ship stops and divers remove her two propellers. Ballast is adjusted and pontoons are employed to raise the ship sufficiently to negotiate the passage. At New Orleans, the ship is refitted, handed over to the Navy and commissioned. At the point where the ship loses her screws, she also loses most of her crew of 85 men. Up to this station she has been moving under her own power but the remainder of the journey is accomplished with assistance of river pusher boats. The warship is lashed securely to barges of freight, southbound and then pushed along as another parcel of freight. Twenty men (cooks and maintenance crews) remain aboard until the Navy claims her.
Captain Booth began his Great Lakes career back in the lumber barge era when he was 14 years old. His grandfather, father and brothers preceded him on the lakes and now two sons join the Booth dynasty as lake skippers. This 5-foot 7-inch, 66-year-old skipper and his crew of lake sailors and converted landlubbers, have had their share of novel experiences getting their ships through to Chicago. Since Christmas, 1942, a steady flow of boats has passed through the lakes on their way to the fighting fronts. Neither holidays, seasons, storms, weddings nor babies interfered with this crew and summer and winter the boats sailed.
Late in the fall of 1943, a DE was bouncing along like a cork on Lake Huron off Tawas bay. Snow was blowing in a 40-mile gale and in the lightweight ship (ammunition and stores are stowed aboard at New Orleans) many cases of seasickness were being caused by her pitching and tossing. The captain decided to lay to until the storm abated somewhat, so changed his course and headed into the cover of the protecting bay. As the ship started changing her direction, the full fury of the storm struck, picked up the DE and dropped her in her own trough.
There were not many men aboard ship who didn’t expect her to continue her rollover and as she wallowed and fought her way clear, her horn suddenly blasted through the din of the storm. Many, believing it was the signal to abandon ship, raced for their Mae West life jackets, but soon they were informed through the bull horn (public address system) which covers all points of the ship, that the boat was blowing her own horn because of the antics of the storm and her own bucking and weaving. Dishes were hurled across the mess halls, the galley was a jumble of pots, pans, and foodstuffs, chairs were spun crazily about and men attempting to sleep were thrown from their sacks. Reaching the quieter waters of the bay, the ship rode at anchor until the storm subsided and then continued her trek to Chicago.
Christmas Eve of that same year found the Defoe crewmen chopping ice off the hull of a patrol craft at Mackinaw City. A few PCs had been sublet to a Detroit firm to finish, and the crew had battled their way up Lake Huron from Port Huron all day in subzero temperatures. As darkness closed in, the thermometer kept falling and the little ship became encased in ice, causing her to list and making her difficult to handle. After her decks had been cleared and her superstructure lightened from ice, she continued on her way.
Many cold, blustery nights for the last two winters were spent on the open or flying bridge by deckhands, peering through the wind, rain, snow, sleet or fog, reporting any strange obstacle or floating icebergs to the officer on watch. Sometimes the captain never left the pilot house for hours on end, guiding his million-dollar ship and the hundred or more lives through to safe water with only his vast knowledge and keen judgment for a guide, as navigation aids, for the most part, do not operate from December 1, until after the spring breakup in the lakes.
Numerous trips were made through solid fog, causing the horn to be blown from the moment the lines were cast off until reaching the inner harbor at Chicago. Many times during the long winter nights, sleep was hard to find because of the continued thumping, pushing and crashing of the huge ice blocks against the steel hull. Howling winter storms cost officers many hours over charts and maps, zig-zagging their course the length and breadth of the lakes, attempting to out-smart and outmaneuver the unpredictable elements. Deep February of 1944 saw a DE slowly nudging the ice blocks left in the wake of a small coast guard ice cutter as she eased along Saginaw River and Bay and finally into Lake Huron. A blizzard had delayed sailing for a day and the below zero temperatures had frozen the channel ice to a depth of many feet.
A normal voyage from Bay City to Chicago ranges from 30 to 60 hours, depending upon conditions. This journey ended some two and one-half weeks later. After plowing her way painstakingly through ice-clogged Lake Huron, getting stuck in the ice fields many times, she finally fought her way into St. Ignace harbor. Waiting a few days for a shift in the ice flows, and after taking on fuel and supplies, she started out through the frozen, treacherous Straits of Mackinac. The DE had also acquired the assistance of another ice cutter and the large icebreaking car ferry Ste. Marie. The four ships battered a path through the seven-foot windrowed ice packs clogging the Straits and after an all-day encounter, the Defoe ship finally shook herself clear and raced into Lake Michigan. Late the next day she slipped into her dock at Chicago. Ice had pounded her plates into a washboard of wrinkled steel. Sturdily built, not a seam gave to the elements, and aside from some of the paint being broken and scraped off her lower bulkheads, she was none the worse for her harrowing experiences.
Not to be outdone, a sister ship, some three weeks later, got herself caught off Point Au Gres for 24 hours, nosed her way up to Point Lookout, where the ice closed in and locked her in tight for a five-day session before the Ste. Marie came to the rescue and broke her clear.
Last winter, no such experiences were encountered owing to the efficient ice crushing ability of the Coast Guard’s new $10,000,000 icebreaker U.S.C.G.C Mackinaw. The ice crusher would meet the ships eight miles out in Saginaw bay and escort them through to Lake Michigan and clear water. With the help of the Mackinaw, the U.S.S. Donald W. Wolf. an APD, early in January, 1945, set a record for the fastest winter trip on the Great Lakes. The running time for the trip was fifty-one and one-half hours over a distance of more than 600 miles. The time is remarkable because 260 miles of the voyage was through a lane which was broken in the thick lake ice by the Mackinaw.
Before the boats make their final trip to Chicago, many of them are required to make trial runs. These runs, made in Lake Huron, consist of numerous maneuvers, circling movements, crash dives, speed runs, and anchor tests. Probably the most interesting of these trials were those held by the LCI-L. These flat-bottomed crafts would hold all their exercises far out in the lake and then search for a sandy beach. Being successful, the officers would open wide the throttles and ram the craft high upon the sand. So powerful would be the run that after lowering her landing ramps a six-foot man could wade ashore and water would reach below his armpits. After making her run she would drop a pull off anchor off her stern, some distance from shore, and when required to pull herself clear of the beach a strong cable and tractor-like motor wound up the slack and yanked her free. Her final fling was had, when, after securing her anchor and making her way back into the lake, she put up a cloudy smoke screen which obliterated the shore from view while she sped away in the mist. When the wind lifted the haze the LCI was far away, headed home.
VE day saw another Defoe built ship leaving her berth for the fighting fronts and so will it be, regardless of storms, floods, or ice, until complete victory is won and again fishing tugs and pleasure craft can be “roll-overed” like so many of their ancestors.
See more about the Launch and Roll-Over at Defoe Shipbuilding: