by Mike Cox
but forgotten today, in the early months of World War II a Rockport shipyard sent
two dozen wooden-hulled subchasers down the ways to face iron-plated German U-Boats
in the North Atlantic. The subchasers came to be called the "Donald Duck Navy"
but a sailor with a penchant for poetry got closer to the truth when he dubbed
the service the "Splinter Fleet." |
Similar to wooden hulled subchasers
used in World War I but better armed, the vessels extended 110 feet, displaced
95 tons and could make 12 knots. Called SCs, the warships (smallest in the American
fleet) had a high, sharp prow and an elegant deck line, but a plain-Jane deck
As gunner's mate O. E. Moore rhymed in 1942:
|They sing the praises
of the battleship, |
The carrier is queen of the sea,
The cruiser is tops
on the sailor's lists
For a fighting ship is she.
The destroyer sails
the sea with pride,
The submarine's work is neat,
But we are the legion
of forgotten men,
The sailors in the SC fleet.
1939, a graduate student at then Southwest Texas State Teacher's College in San
Marcos did her thesis on the history of Rockport.
She noted, "There are two small shipyards located here both of which turn out
boats from skiffs to sailboats, most of which boats are used in Aransas Bay."|
That soon changed.
With German submarines playing havoc with Atlantic
shipping, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a massive U.S. re-armament. Eventually,
U.S. 39 shipbuilders got defense contracts to produce the subchasers at $325,000
Westergard-Rice Brothers and Co. of Rockport landed one of those
contracts. The first Rockport-built Navy vessel splashed into Aransas Bay on July
4, 1941, a little over five months before the Japanese attack on the American
Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.
By the summer of 1942, the Rockport yard
had hit its stride, building a warship every six months, sometimes two at a time.
"Tenth Sub-Chaser Launched Saturday" the banner headline in the Aug. 20, 1942
Rockport Pilot proclaimed.
A poster-size image of that front page, now
displayed in Rockport's Texas Maritime Museum, noted that the launch of the SC
1042 (the vessels got only numbers, no names) had followed the launch of SC 1041
by only two days.
"These two ships will soon be out at sea doing their
part toward keeping the shipping lanes free of subs," said Rob Roy Rice, one of
the shipyard's owners.
An earlier Rockport-built vessel, the PC 498,
had recently been featured in Business Week Magazine, the newspaper article continued.
A picture of the ship, which had been under the command of Capt. U.V. Martin when
it left Texas waters, showed it "bristling" with weaponry.
is on schedule," Rice told the Pilot. "Ten on the water and ten to go."
understanding the importance of recognizing his employees, Rice continued: "We
are appreciative of the way the workmen cooperate in the job we are doing. They
want to work and they want to turn out a good ship, every man realizes that he
is a producer in the war effort and they deserve the thanks of the company and
the whole country."
The men who went to sea in those wooden ships also
deserved thanks. The sailors got only six weeks of training. And with a compliment
of 24 enlisted men and three officers, a subchaser's crew had a living space about
the size of a refrigerator.
The enemy submarines they hunted were faster,
heavier and better armed than the U.S. surface vessels. The only hope the SC sailors
had was that enough of the depth charge-carrying warships could keep a submarine
below periscope depth - destroying its ability to accomplish its deadly mission
if not destroying the submarine itself.
If a U-Boat captain chose to surface
and fight, the subchasers amounted to sitting ducks, perhaps the origin of the
fleet's Walt Disney-inspired nickname.
of the Rockport-built subchasers survived the war, but not the government surplus
property salvage process. Only a few of the 438 subchasers are still afloat, and
so far as is known, none of them had their keels laid in Rockport.
Jennifer Rogers, the Maritime Museum's education director, says the museum - which
has several other Texas-specific vessels in its collection -- hopes to someday
get one of the subchasers and have it restored to its World
War II appearance.
"I don't know if we'll ever find one of the ships,"
she said, "but we would certainly like to hear from anyone who worked at the shipyard
here or served on one of the sub-chasers."
One of those sub-chasing sailors,
the poet Moore, deserves the last word on the subject:
|Wooden ships with
Is a tradition centuries old,
We live up to that in the Splinter
When on convoy and patrol.