SC-432 moored in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin, linen postcard (Author’s Collection)
I am a very visual person and I enjoy looking at antique postcards and historic photos much like many others of my kind. The inspiration for this research came from the image above. It is a linen postcard that shows a naval ship parked in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The postcard itself says nothing about the vessel but, I was curious and wanted to know everything about it.
Wisconsin has a long history of shipbuilding, including building various warships for the navy. This tradition continues today with the current construction of Freedom class littoral combat ships by Marinette Marine. What Wisconsin is most well-known is for the construction of submarines during World War II. During the war, Manitowoc shipbuilding company produced 28 submarines. There is a whole museum dedicated to this history at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum with the U.S.S. Cobia, a Gato class submarine preserved on display.
U.S.S. Cobia, Wisconsin Maritime Museum (Author’s Collection)
A General History of the SC-1 Class Subchaser
Prior to building submarines, Wisconsin constructed submarine chasers for use in the First World War. At the beginning of World War I, the submarine was still an unproven weapon. This uncertainty lasted until September 22, 1914, when the German submarine U-9 was patrolling the North Sea. During this patrol, the U-9 encountered the British warships Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue. In the span of an hour the U-9 sunk all three vessels with a loss 1,450 sailors. This attack proved the lethality of the submarine.
In 1916, the United States was still neutral and after refueling in Newport, Rhode Island the German submarine U-53 sunk five vessels off the Nantucket lightship. This act caused an international incident with Britain and polarized public opinion at home. After this action, the need for a defense against submarines was realized. Franklin D. Roosevelt then secretary of the Navy ordered the design and construction of a small anti-submarine vessel with the provisions that the vessel be quickly built in civilian boatyards as larger shipyards would be concerned with large projects for the war effort. The vessel was also to be constructed from wood, as steel would be committed to larger vessels. The task of designing this vessel fell to experienced naval architect Albert Loring Swasey.
SC-1 Class Subchaser Vital Statistics
The final design was a 110-foot long wooden vessel with a 16-foot beam powered by three standard motor construction company 220 hp engines. 85 GT. Capable of reaching speeds of 18 knots but the primary cruising speed was 12 knots. The SC-1 class subchaser had a range of roughly 1,000 nautical miles. White oak was used for the frame and floors, planking was yellow pine and the deck planking was also pine.
SC-1 class subchasers were armed with a 3″ 23 caliber cannon, two 30-caliber machine guns, 1 DCP Y gun (depth charge projector) and depth charge racks. Early subchasers were initially armed with two cannons but, these were quickly replaced with the Y-gun. In a time before sonar, these boats were equipped with SC type C tube hydrophones, K tube hydrophones MIB tube hydrophones and trailing wire. Hydrophones were essentially stethoscopes attached to metal tubes that projected into the water. The different hydrophones were for different ranges. Subchasers listened for their quarry. Trailing wire was a long spool of wire with a metal weight on the end when it came into contact with a metallic object an alarm attached to the spool would sound. Subchasers were top of the line technology for their time, due to their advanced quarry. These vessels were also equipped with radiotelephones, in order to communicate and coordinate with each other during the hunt. They were the first innovative approach to anti-submarine warfare.
Y Gun Ordnance Pamphlet No. 63 Depth Charge Projector Mark 1
Wisconsin built a total of seven subchasers between three boatyards. The boatyards were Northwest Engineering, a subsidiary of Hartman-Grieling in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Great Lakes Boat Building of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. and Burger Boat Building Co. of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
The first subchaser, SC-140 was built at Northwest Engineering in Green Bay, Wisconsin on October 1917. The SC-140 was the very first vessel constructed at the Northwest Engineering. The vessel was immediately sold to France to bolster French submarine defenses. After an Atlantic crossing, SC-140 was renamed C-43 and joined the 10th Escadrille de Patrouille. It was sunk on July 3, 1918, after a collision with the French destroyer Fronde.
SC-141 was completed December 1917 at Northwest Engineering. The SC-141 was also sold to France and was due to be transferred when it was sunk in a collision with another subchaser SC-174 off of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania later in December 1917.
The SC-328 was constructed at Great Lakes Boat Building Company in October 1917. The SC-328 served as part of the mine force in Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. The mine force was a gigantic minefield that extended across the North sea from the Orkney Islands to the coast of Norway in order to prevent the movement of German submarines to Atlantic shipping lanes. The SC-328 could have been hunting submarines that have been caught in the minefield. The SC-328 participated in the cleanup of the minefield following the war in 1919. After the war, the SC-328 was converted into a fishing tug and named Sea Roamer in 1937. The vessel was renamed again to the Katherine & Mary in 1948. The Katherine & Mary foundered May 28, 1955, off the coast of New Jersey. At the time of its sinking, the SC-328 was owned by Abraham Yetman.
SC-328 at Annapolis, Maryland Navsource.org
The SC-329 was constructed at Great Lakes Boat Building Company alongside the SC-328 in October 1917. It served in Unit 21 from Plymouth, England until it was later reassigned to Queenstown, Ireland. The SC-329 also participated in minesweeping the North Sea following the war. The vessel was sold in 1922 to Charles A. Schieren and moved to the east coast where it was rebuilt as a gas yacht. The former SC-329 was renamed the Siwash III a year later in 1923. The vessel was sold again to interests in Panama in 1926.
SD-329, Barge Canal Bulletin, November 1917, Subchaser.org
The SC-330 was the only subchaser constructed at Burger Boat Company in February 1918. Assigned to Division 12 of submarine chaser squadron 4 alongside the U.S.S. Jouette (DD-41). When the fighting was over, the SC-330 was briefly stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For a time, the subchaser was laid up until it returned to the Great Lakes. The SC-330 served as a naval reserve training vessel through the 1920’s and 1930’s. Although sources state that the SC-330 served through WWII it is unknown in what capacity. Possibly it continued its service as a naval reserve training vessel. The SC-330 was transferred to the War Shipping Administration October 8, 1946. Possibly the War Shipping Administration had the SC-330 scrapped.
SC-330. Mid-Atlantic 1918. Navsource.org
The SC-419 was constructed at Great Lakes Boat Building Company. The SC-419 was completed November 22, 1918. 11 days after the armistice and as such, was never commissioned by the Navy. The SC-419 was used a naval reserve training vessel at Michigan City, Indiana. Sources state that the SC-419 was sold in 1927 to Alfred J. Lowengrund of Kodiak, Alaska. Though recorded history regarding this vessel may be incorrect. This will be addressed later.
SC-419 Moored in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan 1919. Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green University
The SC-420 was built in 1918 at Great Lakes Boat Building Company and was completed alongside its predecessor the SC-420. Like the SC-419, the SC-420 was never commissioned by the Navy. The SC-420 was sold February 3, 192o to the Edward P. Farley & Co. of Chicago, Illinois. It was quickly sold again to Canadian interests and named Opco. The SC-420 was sold again in 1921 and named the Mareuilendole. The SC-420 spent the rest of its life in the paper trade on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The Obscurity of the SC-1 Class Subchaser
It is ultimately unknown how effective these vessels were in their task of pursuing submarines. Some sources state that they never scored one kill or that they were one of the most important weapons in the Great War. Nevertheless, they were an effective deterrent. Submarines were a deadly, new weapon in WWI and hunting and sinking them was a new undertaking. Tactics had to be honed on the fly. The Navy gave subchaser captains & crews a lot of leeway and independence in the execution of their duty. Very little is known about these vessels and this article is due to the work of a dedicated few. Research into them reveals scant information, inconsistencies, and conflicting information. For example, one source used for this article lists Burger Boat as incorrectly being located in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Many of these vessels including two described in the article found vastly different lives outside of military service and when the Navy sold them off as war surplus they were marketed for their versatility. Wisconsin was not the only state on the lakes to produce these vessels, there were also two boatyards in Ohio that also produced subchasers. Many of these vessels made it into use as naval reserve training vessels, including the one on the postcard, the SC-432. It would be interesting to see how these vessels were modified to suit different uses. Outside of photographs, there is very little to mark these vessels passing.
The Lost Subchaser
I recently gave a lecture on this article at the 12th annual Wisconsin Underwater and Maritime History Symposium. At this event, I met a member of the Underwater Archaeology Society of Chicago who informed me that there is a wrecked subchaser sunk in Lake Michigan located off Zion, Illinois in shallow water. (Which is precisely what symposium are for) This wreck was located in 1998 by UASC members Dale Bennett & Tori Kiefer, though locals knew of a wreck in the area. The wreck was documented in 2000. At the time of its discovery, the divers were shocked at the high level of preservation but, now with personal contact with the discoverers, they note the high level of deterioration in the 15 years since they have found it. They are very sure that the wreck they have found is the SC-419 but possibly could be SC-418 but, the final number is obscured.
Apparently, the possible SC-419 was purchased and sunk as a breakwater back in the 1930’s in order to protect a beach house. Through their research, the UASC was able to get in contact with the man’s great-granddaughter who had 16 mm film of the boat being towed to the beach. This is where they saw the number painted on the side. How they were able to find this wreck was a search through aerial photos going back decades. A photo from 1954 revealed a shadow and in a 1937 photo, the beach looked different. A coordinate grid was overlayed and it revealed the vessel would’ve been just off the beach exposed in 1937.
As a researcher this is exciting news because not only is recorded history wrong, there is one still extant. It could very well be the only example of these vessels left. If it is the SC-419 how did it end up being sunk off a beach in Illinois rather than going with a man to Kodiak, Alaska? According to the UASC, they were unable to find any official records of the vessel being purchased for use as a breakwater. The divers also note that this wreck has copper hull sheathing. It is the goal of this researcher to dive this wreck and take notes and photos of my own. I also hope to collaborate with the researchers of the UASC to learn about the wreck and their work with it. There will be updates as further information is gathered.
Wisconsin Built Subchasers first appeared as an article in Wisconsin’s Underwater Heritage publication of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association. Vol.26 No. 3, September 2016.
Baillod, Brendon Fathoms Deep But Not Forgotten: Wisconsin’s Lost Ships
Long, Jeff Answer to A Lake Mystery Surfaces. Chicago Tribune, December 10, 2000.
Woofenden, Todd Hunters of the Steel Sharks: The Submarine Chasers of WWI
Navy Department Bureau of Ordnance Ordnance Pamphlet No. 63 Depth Charge Projector Mark 1
www.subchaser.org (I really can’t state what an excellent resource this website is. It is created and maintained by Todd Woofenden the author of the book on this subject and where most of this information comes from)
New Jersey Maritime Museum Shipwreck Database: Katherine & Mary http://njmaritimemuseum.org/shipwreck-database/