Warship Wednesday Sept 17, the slow gunboats of the Canal
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Sept 17, the slow gunboats of the Canal
Here we see the two Erie-class gunboats USS Erie (PG-50) and USS Charleston (PG-51) at Balboa in the Panama Canal Zone in a photo courtesy of the Erie Memorial association.
These two ships were built under the specifications of the Washington and London Naval treaties on ‘slow gunboats.’ While carriers, battleships, cruisers, and submarines all had several very strict limits as to the maximum number of vessels of each type that could be produced by signatory powers, there was no limit how many small patrol-type combatants (such as gunboats, coast guard cutters, sloops, armed yachts, etc.) each navy contained on their list so long as the ships were generally built for what we would term littoral, convoy escort, and sovereignty type operations, not general fleet use.
To limit these ships to that spectrum of the naval diet, as described by Article 8 of the 1930 London Treaty:
Subject to any special agreements, which may submit them to limitation, the following vessels are exempt from limitation: Naval surface combatant vessels exceeding 600 tons (610 metric tons), but not exceeding 2,000 tons (2,032 metric tons) standard displacement, provided they have none of the following characteristics:
(1) Mount a gun above 6.1 inch (155 mm) calibre;
(2) Mount more than four guns above 3 inch (76 mm) calibre;
(3) Are designed or fitted to launch torpedoes;
(4) Are designed for a speed greater than twenty knots.
So there you had it, a ship, at 2000-tons or smaller, with no more than four large guns no bigger than 155mm, no torpedo tubes, and go no faster than 20-knots. This rough specification gave the U.S. Navy an outline for a pair of ships that they could use to patrol the Panama Canal Zone, freeing more flexible destroyers and cruisers for other missions. Naval architects Howard C. Fletcher and Mandell Rosenblatt crafted the design of these ships, which were budgeted at about $4-million apiece (in 1933 dollars, which is about $71 million today—a bargain when you consider an LCS, which is about the same size, is over $300 million).
Erie, patrol gunboat #50, was laid down on 17 December 1934 at New York Naval Yard while Charleston, #51 was laid down about the same time, appropriately at the Charleston Navy Yard. It should be remembered that most other PGs of the day were “China” patrol boats that were much smaller, and much less heavily armed.
With their economical Parsons geared turbines coupled to a pair of Babcock and Wilcox boilers, these new patrol gunboats were rather beamy, with a 327-foot long hull and 41-foot beam giving them a length to beam ratio of 1:8. With everything lit they could just touch 20-knots, but running on one boiler they could churn up the seas at 12 knots for a pretty impressive 12,000nm, meaning they could go a long time between port calls if needed.
A quartet of 6-inch/47 cal low-elevation guns in single mounts (150mm bores– just under the limit!) gave the boats enough punch to capture random enemy merchantmen and run off smuggler, pirates, and small warships. These MK 17 guns were a single-mount improvement over the guns carried in triple mounted turrets on U.S. light cruisers of the Brooklyn, Cleveland, classes et al. Only mounted on the two Erie-class ships, they were neat in the respect that they used 3.5hp motors for both powered elevation and training, which wasn’t very common for the time. They could fire the same 105-pound “Common Shell” used by the rest of the 6-inch guns of the fleet out to 19,000-yards, at a rate of up to 8 rounds per gun. They also used bagged charges, which were a pain compared to full-up once-piece shells. However, firing these big guns on a short boat led to some issues. According to reader Ed Foster, whose father served on Erie, they had to fill ballast tanks before firing a broadside.
I believe him.
Four quad 1.1-inch AAA mounts largely felt to be the worst AAA mount ever fielded by the U.S. Navy, gave the ships a modicum of protection against random air attack. Novel for the time, these 327-foot ships had accommodations for up to 44 Marines to put ashore (back then Marine detachments were just for cruisers, battleships, and come carriers). They could also carry an OS2U Kingfisher floatplane. Overall this ship type was designed as something of a force projection platform in low-threat areas. A mini, if somewhat slow, cruiser if you will.
Their plant was an experiment of sorts and helped advance naval engineering designs that followed them. According to the Naval History Command:
Although their propulsion powering requirements were far lower than those of a destroyer, Charleston, and Erie’s machinery plants incorporated numerous advancements in marine engineering that had been first introduced aboard the Farragut Class destroyers, which were designed in 1932 and entered service in 1934 and 1935. These advancements included the use of superheated steam at higher pressures, air encased boilers, semi enclosed feed water systems, an AC electrical distribution system, an emergency diesel generator, and a number of other improvements. The ship had a single rudder operated by an electro-hydraulic steering engine. Prior to 1930, steam steering gears had been standard aboard naval vessels. Although Charleston was not a destroyer, a number of these design features carried over to the design of surface combatant ships that were built up through and during World War II
If these boats look familiar, you should realize that the U.S. Coast Guard’s ‘Secretary‘ class of high endurance cutters (originally classified as gunboats), were based on the design of these two Navy ships. We profiled one of these, Spencer, here earlier this year. Instead of the 6”/47 MK17s, the Coast Guard went with 5”/51’s and saved money in other areas, building their cutters out at about 30 percent less cost than the Eries.
This produced the simultaneous phenomena of the Navy ships of the class being among the slowest and most poorly armed in the fleet, while the Coast Guard ships, which were even more lightly armed, were the fastest and best equipped in that service’s armada! Different strokes for different folks.
Erie rolled down the ways and was commissioned 1 July 1936 while sister Charleston followed just a week later. These ships proved popular with the U.S. Navy of the Great Depression-era due to their small crew size, just 180 officers, men and marines (fewer on a peacetime cruise), and an economical cruise speed. Even though they were designed originally as the Panama Canal’s guard force, this allowed the ships to deploy far and wide for several years, waving the flag on the cheap. Remember, we have “Hope and Change,” the sailors of the 1930s had the “New Deal”, but money had to be saved for both.
Erie went to Spanish waters in 1936 to be an armed observer of American interests in the Spanish Civil War and then served as a midshipman trainer at Annapolis the next year. Charleston, meanwhile, did a Med cruise with stops that included Yugoslavia and Algiers and then spent a period poking around the coast of Canada’s Pacific shoreline and the Alaskan Territory.
Of course, they did still spend time in the Canal, as witnessed in the image at the top of this post. Ideally, one would be based at Balboa, on the Pacific end, while the other would be at Cristóbal, on the Atlantic. However, this did not go down as planned.
When World War II came to the Americas, Charleston was still in Alaskan waters and proceeded to spend most of her wartime service there.
She avoided Japanese torpedoes and bombs and bombarded shore positions in the Aleutians during the recapture of those islands from the Imperial Army– making her one of the only U.S. Navy ships in history to fire weapons into U.S. territory in wartime since the Civil War. Even when the Japanese were kicked out in 1943, Charleston spent the next two years on quiet anti-submarine patrol in Alaskan waters, after the addition of depth charge roll-off racks, while the rest of the fleet moved on. While assigned to the Aleutians the ship completed 130 escort missions involving a total of 253 convoyed ships. She performed a needed if unsung war, being decorated with but a single battle star.
Erie, however, had a much different wartime experience.
When the balloon went up on Dec. 7, 1941, Erie was in the Canal Zone where she was designed to be. Based at the Pacific end, she shuttled around in a mad dash for several weeks picking up interned Japanese citizens and directing questionable ships to authorities. Then, with Nazi U-boats haunting the U.S. East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, Erie was called up to the majors and sent through the Canal and into the Caribbean.
One of the small regional convoy routes established at the time was the Trinidad to Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) run. These “TAG” convoys shuttled across the Caribbean at low speed due to the nature of the small coasters and tankers that often made them up, which made them the perfect target for U-boats. On 12 Nov 1942, not even a year into her war, Erie was escorting TAG Convoy #20 when U-163 came across the little gunboat just out of Curacao. Being the most valuable ship in the convoy, KrvKpt. Kurt-Eduard Engelmann fired three torpedoes at her. In a testament to her sturdy design, she suffered just 18 casualties and was able to beach rather than sink.
However, a resulting fire left Erie at a near-total loss. Towed to Willemstad harbor in the Dutch West Indies (now Curacao), she capsized three weeks later and settled in the harbor. Struck from the Naval List on 28 July 1943, she was salvaged in 1952, and her hulk sunk in deeper water. Today her memory is kept alive for posterity online by a most excellent association from which we used much information for this piece.
(Note: Erie‘s death was avenged. U-163 was sunk on 13 March 1943 just four months after Erie‘s attack. The boat was sent to Davy Jones in the North Atlantic northwest of Cape Finisterre by depth charges from the Canadian corvette HMCS Prescott with all hands, to include Engelmann, lost).
Erie‘s sister Charleston, after World War II, was largely unneeded. The Navy had hundreds of new ships and no naval limitations treaty requirements to adhere to anymore, which made the lone survivor of a two-ship class that carried a unique main gun and propulsion plant very much surplus.
Even the Coast Guard, who still operated six half-sisters (one, Hamilton, was torpedoed and sunk 10 miles off Iceland 29 January 1942), didn’t need the aging and in need of refit Charleston for their fleet since they had picked up 13 brand new Owasco-class cutters as a result of wartime spending that they were having a hard time finding crews for. The Owascos, and Secretary class cutters, augmented by a few WWII-built fleet tugs and seaplane tenders transferred from the Navy, carried the Coast Guard through the 1960s and 70s when two new-built classes took their place.
This led Charleston to be disarmed (except for a single aft 6-incher), her wartime camo removed, and transferred to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on 25 March 1948, where she served as a training ship for a decade. Accordingly, this led to other modifications:
A number of changes had to be made in order to make the ship suitable for duty as a school ship. All of the ship’s wartime armament had been removed with the exception of one of the after 6” mounts. The removal of all of this topside weight resulted in an increased metacentric height, which, if anything, made the ship too stable. Naval architects refer to this as being “stiff.” During the first few days of the annual training cruises, the ship often encountered a seaway off Cape Hatteras and it would start violently rolling. The majority of the cadets and some of the instructors would become seasick. This condition would last until calmer waters were reached in the Caribbean. When it was originally commissioned, Charleston was fitted with portholes along the side. These had been sealed up in its wartime configuration but they had been reinstalled to provide at least some degree of ventilation as the ship had no air conditioning system. Invariably some would be found to be leaking under the conditions described above resulting in water with a very unpleasant odor sloshing around in the berthing compartments.
According to CAPT. George W. Stewart, USN Ret., 1956 MMA alumni who sailed on USTS Charleston as a start to his thirty-year (SW) Navy career, she was a good ship to learn on.
“Despite its limitations, Charleston was an excellent ship to learn the basics of marine engineering aboard during the 1950s. The lack of automation was actually an advantage because there were plenty of underway watch stations with things for the Midshipmen to do. The experience gained aboard Charleston would prove to be extremely valuable to me aboard both naval and commercial steam-powered ships during a seagoing career,” wrote Stewart.
By 1958, however, she had become too expensive to operate and was turned back over to Uncle. Disposed of by MARAD in 1959 just past her twentieth birthday. Rumor is that she was sold to an Italian developer for use as a floating casino, but I cannot find anything on her past 1960 (so if you know what happened to PG-51, share please!).
Although Erie and Charleston are no longer with us, and five of their Coast Guard sisters have likewise vanished, two of that class are preserved as floating museums.
Erie‘s Kingfisher knocked off the ship by U-163‘s torpedoes in 1942, is a popular dive site off Curacao today as is her final resting place offshore for deepwater ‘bounce’ dives.
The USCGC Taney is currently a museum ship at the Baltimore Maritime Museum, in Baltimore, Maryland and the USCGC Ingham is part of the Key West Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida. Please visit them if you have a chance and when you go, give a moment’s respect to the noble Erie and Charleston as well.
Length overall: 328 feet, 6 inches
Length on waterline: 308 feet (at standard displacement)
Extreme beam at/below the waterline: 41 feet, 3 inches (at standard displacement)
Mean draft: 11 feet, 4 inches (at standard displacement)
Maximum draft in service: 14 feet, 6 inches
Design displacement: 2,000 tons
Displacement in service: 2,830 tons
Maximum speed: 20 knots
Range: 8,000 nautical miles at 12 knots
Engines: 2, Parsons geared turbine
Boilers: 2, Babcock and Wilcox
Generator sets: 3 (2 turbos, 1 diesel), all A.C.
6-in., 47 caliber, Mark 17 guns: 4, with Mark 35 battery director
1.1 in., quadruple anti-aircraft guns: 4
20 mm, single anti-aircraft guns: 4
Depth charge roll-off racks: 2, Mark 6 (each holding 15 depth charges)
Smoke pipes: 1
Armor: 3½ inch side belts (over vital spaces)
Armor: 1 inch on six-inch gun shields
Armor: 1¼ inch on main deck
Armor: 4 inches on conning tower
Radar: 1, Mark 3 (mounted atop battery director)
Sonar: 1, ASDIC
Scout plane: 1, OS2U “Kingfisher”
Captain’s cabin: 1
Admiral’s cabin: 1
Guest cabin with 2 staterooms: 1
Officers’ wardrooms: 15
Chief Petty Officers’ quarters: 18
Enlisted men’s berths (inc. 44 Marines): 213
36-ft motor launch (70 men): 1
35-ft motorboat (27 men): 1
30-ft motor launches (40 men each): 2
26-ft motor whaleboats (24 men each): 2
Balsa life floats (25 men each): 2
10-ft punt: 1
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