Warship Wednesday, June 17, 2020: Mohican Motorboat

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, June 17, 2020: Mohican Motorboat

Courtesy of Commander Donald J. Robinson, USN (Medical Service Corps), 1974. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 78973

Here we see the future section patrol craft, USS Chingachgook (SP-35), described in the 1916 photo as a “Submarine Chaser,” flying a Yachting Ensign but with a pair of deck guns installed, presumably as part of the popular civilian preparedness movement, in preparation for service with the new Naval Coast Defense Reserve.

The tradition of the Navy quickly acquiring commercial or consumer vessels in times of war and, after a quick retrofit with a few guns and, perhaps, a coat of paint, placing them back into service as a patrol craft or armed dispatch boat, dates back to the Revolutionary War. The tactic remained through the Civil War and saw a huge resurgence in the brief conflict with Spain in 1898. During the latter fashionable little war, whole squadrons of yachts, readily made available by scions of Wall Street, became plucky auxiliary patrol boats sent willingly into harms’ way.

Fast forward to the Great War and the terrifyingly incremental lead up to America’s involvement in that terrible conflict, and the Navy Department took steps in that period of armed neutrality to expand their reach.

Under provisions of the “Big Navy” Act of August 29, 1916, which established the Naval Reserve Force to be composed of six classes:

First. The Fleet Naval Reserve.
Second. The Naval Reserve
Third. The Naval Auxiliary Reserve
Fourth. The Naval Coast Defense Reserve
Fifth. The Volunteer Naval Reserve
Sixth. Naval Reserve Flying Corps.

The Naval Coast Defense Reserve was to be composed of:

“Members of the Naval Reserve Force who may be capable of performing special useful service in the Navy or in connection with the Navy in defense of the coast shall be eligible for membership in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve.”

The NCDRF, seen today as opening the door for women to serve in the Navy, also started cataloging in at first hundreds and then later thousands of craft like the Chingachgook for future inclusion in the fleet.

Dubbed “Section Patrol” craft, these boats were given SP hull numbers that they typically did not carry while they retained their pre-war civilian names. Reporting to the Naval Districts they were mobilized in, they would be responsible for keeping an eye peeled for spies, saboteurs, submarines, and assorted other strange goings-on. Keep in mind the Black Tom Island explosion had occurred on July 30, just under a month before the Act was put into effect and German cells were active along both coasts to one degree or another. 

As for Chingachgook, she was built by the Greenport Basin & Construction Co. of Long Island— best known for fishing craft, tugs, and yachts– in 1916, not as a civilian craft, but in hopes of offering her as a prototype sub-buster along motor yacht lines to the U.S. Government. Some 60-feet long, she could make a reported 40 knots on her two 300hp Sterling gasoline engines.

The below 23 January 1917 image shows Chingachgook, not yet in Navy service, lifted out of the waters of New York’s East River and placed on a truck for transport to the Motor Boat Show at Grand Central Palace. Note her stern gun, “10” pennant number on her pilothouse, and twin screws/rudders. Keep in mind that Bannerman’s military surplus, located in Manhattan, would sell both vintage and modern artillery pieces of all kinds, cash and carry, as the NFA of 1934 was still decades away.

War Department image 165-WW-338A-19, LOC ARC Identifier: 45513537

Our hearty little craft, of course, borrows her name from the supporting character of Chingachgook, the fictional Native American warrior featured in four of James Fenimore Cooper’s five Leatherstocking Tales, including his 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans.

Chingachgook was purchased by the Navy 25 May 1917 from Theodore W. Brigham of Greenport– six weeks after the U.S. entered the war– and placed in service on 6 June 1917, assigned to the 3rd Naval District (New York) for patrol duty. At least nine other dissimilar Greenport-built motorboats went on to become SP craft including USS Ardent (SP-680), USS Atlantis (SP-40), USS Beluga (SP-536), USS Perfecto (SP-86), USS Quest (SP-171), USS Sea Gull (SP-544), USS Uncas (SP-689), USS Vitesse (SP-1192), and USS Whippet (SP-89).

Chingachgook underway at high speed, October 1916. Like the first image in the post, she is flying yachting flags but is armed with a Colt M1895 “potato digger” machine gun forward and a small (1-pounder) cannon aft, probably for service with the pre-World War I Coast Defense Reserve. Note, while the mate up front is in naval-style crackerjacks, the two men in her wheelhouse are wearing boaters and bespoke suits. Photographed by Edwin Levick, of New York City. NH 101040

Chingachgook’s wartime service ended just two months later.

As noted by DANFS: “On 31 July 1917 her gasoline tank exploded, injuring members of the crew and igniting the ship. A survey of 13 October found her hull worthless and beyond repair, and she was subsequently disposed of by burning.”

She was struck from the Navy Register 19 February 1918.

A one-off design, the Navy went much bigger on their 110-foot sub chaser designs which, like the smaller Chingachgook that preceded them, were wooden-hulled gasoline-engined vessels developed by yacht makers that were intended to be mass-produced in small boatyards. The subsequent “splinter fleet” of SCs grew into the hundreds by 1919.

Later, in WWII, the Navy also used hundreds of small trawlers, yachts, drifters, former Coast Guard Cutters and the like in the same role as the Great War’s myriad Section Patrol craft, but typically designated them as Patrol Yachts (PYc), Patrol Craft (PC), Civilian Vessels (ID), or Yard Patrol Craft (YP) which were, perhaps, more descriptive terms, some of which continue to this day.

As for the Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding Company, which is still in business, they went on to build coastal minesweepers, subchasers, and LCM landing craft in WWII.

Specs:
Displacement: 13 tons
Length: 60 feet
Beam: 10 feet
Draft: 3 feet
Propulsion: Two 300hp Sterling gasoline engine, two shafts.
Speed: 40 knots (although listed as “22 mph” by some sources)
Armament: One 1-pounder (37mm) and one Colt 30.06 machine gun

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2 comments

  • Alexander Magoun

    A great description of the follow-on sub chasers and the amateur sailors who operated them can be found in Capt. Alexander W. Moffat’s memoir, Maverick Navy (https://books.google.com/books/about/Maverick_Navy.html?id=oMAfAAAAMAAJ). Moffat was a Harvard grad and part of the northeastern elite of gentleman amateurs who loved coastal sailing and volunteered for antisub service in both world wars (see his sequel, A Navy Maverick Comes of Age, 1939-1945). What I recall from reading these long ago (he was our neighbor when these books came out), was that he and his fellow sailors were barely competent to work with the increasingly sophisticated procedures of the USN and were largely put to work for morale purposes rather than any effective deterrent to U-boats. As he observed in his first book, his SC 143 followed his convoy because no one on board knew how to navigate.

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