The Torch and the Torpedo Boat

For Liberty’s sake, enlist in the Navy!

Recruiting poster showing the Statue of Liberty beaming brightly over the distinctive bow of a circa 1900s torpedo boat. Issued by the City of Boston Committee on Public Safety. Boston: Smith & Porter Press, [1917]. LOC LC-USZC4-6264

Although some would bemoan the above image of an old torpedo boat running patrols in New York harbor in 1917 to be more artistic license than likely, it happened.

While the U.S. Navy commissioned 35 Torpedo Boats (TB) in 18 evolutionary classes between the 105-ton/140-foot USS Cushing (TB-1) in 1890 and the 165-ton/175-foot USS Wilkes (TB-35) in 1902, the overall poor showing of such types in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, the 1898 Spanish-American War the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the Italian-Turkish War of 1911– coupled with the entry of larger and much more capable destroyer types– led to these slim green sea dragons to be retired by the Great War.

By 1917 when the U.S. entered the Great War, many of these obsolete boats had been scrapped or disposed of as targets already but a few newer models still swaying quietly in mothballs.

Note the difference between these five boats of the Reserve Torpedo Flotilla in Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, circa 1907. They are (l-r) BAGLEY (TB-24), BIDDLE (TB-26), BARNEY (TB-25), DUPONT (TB-7), PORTER (TB-6). Color-tinted postcard photo, published as a souvenir of the Jamestown Exposition by The American Colortype Company, New York. Courtesy of R.D. Jeska, 1984. NH 100041-KN

These unloved and forgotten vessels were dusted off and used for coastal patrol/harbor defense along the East Coast.

This included USS Bailey (TB-21) and USS Bagley (TB-24), who would head to the Big Apple.

Armed with a quartet of 6-pounder (57mm) rapid-fire guns and just two forward-firing 18-inch torpedo tubes, the 205-foot-long Bailey is a giant compared to the later WWII-era PT boats. Capable of only 30 knots with all four Seabury boilers lit and twin screws spinning at maximum revolutions, Bailey required a 59-man crew, versus the 14-man complement of a WWII mosquito boat. NHHC NH 397

Bagley, while smaller than Bailey, only mounted three 1-pounders (37mm guns) but carried a third torpedo tube to make up for it. She made 29.15 knots on her speed trials in 1901, a benchmark likely far away in 1918. NHHC NH 64056

These two boats, assigned to the Harbor Entrance Patrol of the 3d Naval District, operated from Brooklyn on a series of regular patrols and scouting ahead of the convoys leaving the harbor until they were demobilized in 1919 and subsequently discarded.

However, during this wartime service, they suffered the indignity of being stripped of their names in August 1918. Bailey was renamed simply Coast Torpedo Boat No. 8 while Bagley would become CTB10. Their historic names were needed for shiny new four-piper destroyers (DD-269 and DD-185) that would go on to make their own pages in history in the next World War.

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