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Rockport Ships

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
All 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 house.

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.
In 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 each.

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.

"Production is on schedule," Rice told the Pilot. "Ten on the water and ten to go."

Obviously 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.

Most 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 iron men,
Is a tradition centuries old,
We live up to that in the Splinter Fleet,
When on convoy and patrol.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >

November 9, 2006 column

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