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, Nov. 18, 2020: Ely’s Shotgun
Here we see a famous shot, taken in Hampton Roads, Virginia some 110 years ago this week, of aviation pioneer Mr. Eugene Burton Ely flying his “Hudson Flyer” Curtis pusher aeroplane— the first to take off from a warship of any kind. While Ely flew from USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2), a storied ship we have covered in the past, this Warship Wednesday is focused on the unsung first carrier plane guard– the Paulding-class tin can USS Roe (Destroyer No. 24), visible in the background.
The 21-vessel Pauling class, built across four years from 1908 to 1912 were smallish for torpedo boat destroyers, tipping the scales at just 742-tons. Overall, they ran 293-feet long, with a razor-thin 26-foot beam. Using a quartet of then-novel oil-fired Normand boilers (although a range of other boilers was experimented with) pushing a trio of Parsons direct-drive steam turbines, they could gin nearly 30-knots when wide open, although they rattled and rolled while doing so. This earned them the “flivver” nickname after the small and shaky Ford Model Ts of the era. Armament was five quick-firing 3″/50 cal guns and a trio of twin 450mm torpedo tubes, to which depth charges would later be added.
Constructed by four different yards at the same time, the class had vessels completed with either four or three stacks, of which Roe was in the latter category.
Roe was the first ship named in honor of RADM Francis Asbury Roe (USNA 1848) who explored the Northern Pacific and fought off Chinese pirates on the brig USS Porpoise before the Civil War, during which he served first as XO of the gunboat USS Pensacola before skippering the gunboat USS Katahdin in the fight against the Confederate ram CSS Arkansas. He finished the war as captain of the sidewheeler USS Sassacus and again fought a second Rebel ironclad, CSS Albemarle. Post-war he helped escort the French out of Mexico and exercise gunboat diplomacy in Brazil. Promoted to Commodore in 1880, he gained his star on the retired list in 1885 and is buried at Arlington.
Laid down by Newport News Shipbuilding on 18 January 1909, USS Roe commissioned 17 September 1910, built for $642,761.30, which adjusts to about $17 million in today’s dollars.
Like the coal-fired Smith-class that preceded them, the Pauldings used a layout of three Parsons turbines with a high-pressure center turbine exhausting to two low-pressure “cruising” turbines on outboard shafts, with the latter used to conserve fuel at low speeds.
Roe was a testbed for her type, being the first of her class to run trials and enter service although she was technically the third ordered. Departing from the standard quartet of Normand boilers, she was fitted instead with Thornycroft boilers, two in each engine room, fed by Sirocco forced draft fans. Each room was supplied with 22 oil sprayers and two oil heaters, doing away with coal.
“The enlisted man in the navy is said to be very much interested in oil fuel and in the consequent abolition of the dirty job of ‘coaling ship,’ an expression which will now have to give way to ‘oiling ship,” noted the October 1910 Marine Review.
Designed for a top speed of 28-to-29-knots, she bested that on her all-oil-fired suite of geared turbines, making headlines.
Attached to the Torpedo Flotilla, Atlantic Fleet after commissioning, Roe would spend the next six years in a cycle of winter maneuvers in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, followed by summers cruising off the mid-Atlantic and southern New England sea coasts, completing exercises, interspaced with downtime spent in reserve with a reduced complement– a common fate for the vessels of the rapidly-expanding manpower-poor American steel Navy of the era.
That’s not to say during that time she didn’t see some interesting events.
In November 1911, Roe, with her paint still fresh, was partnered with a quartet of other vessels in an aviation experiment. Besides the already mentioned scout cruiser Birmingham, the little task force included the torpedo boats USS Bailey (TB-21) and the USS Stringham (TB-19), and Roe’s recently completed sistership, USS Terry (Destroy No. 25). The two destroyers were selected to accompany Birmingham and to follow the course of Mr. Ely’s aeroplane and render service if necessary while the two torpedo boats were ordered to standby as backups.
On that fateful day in the Chesapeake Bay, as superbly detailed in an essay by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Roe embarked the aviator’s wife, Mabel Ely, a collection of naval officers, “and a corps of newspapermen from Washington to cover the flight, as well as Brig. Gen. Allen (who may have been aboard Birmingham).”
While the short flight went off without any disastrous hitches, Roe stood by a recovered Ely after the event and was the immediate host to the celebration for the daring young man and his flying machine.
The launch took Ely and the officers to the Roe, where, gathered in the mess room, they were photographed by cameramen. Everyone congratulated Ely and they talked about the flight as they returned to Norfolk.
“The spray got on my goggles,” Ely explained, “so that I could not see or tell which direction I was going for a time. When I got my goggles clear I saw I was heading for a beach that looked like a convenient landing place, so I kept on.” “The splash in the water was my own fault. “The front push rod was a little longer than the one I am used to and I didn’t handle it quite right. Then of course the fact that the ship was not under way was a great disadvantage to me.” The naval officers agreed. They were unanimous in declaring that the flight was rendered much more difficult by the fact that the ship had not gotten underway when the aeroplane left her deck. They observed that Ely had lost all the advantage of the head-on breeze. If the ship had been going ten knots the aeroplane would have arisen much easier. “Had it been necessary I think I could have started right back and landed on the Birmingham” he said. “I think the next test along this line might be that of landing on a ship in motion. There should be no difficulty in accomplishing this. This would mean that an aeroplane could leave the deck of a ship, fly around and then return to the starting point.” While discussing the flight someone brought it to his attention that Ryan had offered a prize of $500 for the first flight made by a USAR member from the deck of a warship more than one mile out at sea to shore. Ely said he had not heard of the prize
Her initial flight activities behind her, Roe got back to fleet work.
In January 1912, Roe, along with four other destroyers battled a two-day storm at sea off Bermuda that scattered the group. As a result, Roe suffered some pretty gnarly damage from a rogue wave during the storm, crumpling two of her three funnels.
She frequented Pensacola throughout 1916 in further support of the Navy’s aviation operations, with local newspapers in that Navy town running numerous articles on her activities pier-side. Her crew’s “strong” baseball team even repeatedly crossed bats with the local Pensacola Peps and Old Timers clubs.
When America finally joined the Great War, Roe was ready on day one, seizing the interned 5,800-ton German steamer SS Hohenfelde on behalf of the U.S. Shipping Board, 6 April 1917, at Savannah, Georgia, the same day that Congress responded with the declaration of War requested by President Wilson. The fine British-built Hohenfelde was captured in fairly good shape and would go on, like most captured German ships in 1917, to be repurposed for U.S Navy use, entering the fleet as the cargo ship USS Long Beach (AK-9), 20 December 1917.
Meanwhile, Roe made ready to go “Over There,” sailing for France in early November 1917, where she would spend the next year on coastal patrol and escort duty.
She crossed paths with at least one German submarine. Per DANFS:
On 8 August 1918, Roe went to the rescue of the U.S. freighter Westward Ho, a 5,814-ton steamer, which had been torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay by U-62 (Kapitänleutnant Ernst Hashagen commanding) while en route from New York to LaPallice, France, in convoy HB-7. The destroyer took on board the 46 members of the sunken ship’s crew. While in formation the next day, 9 August, Roe received a signal of “submarine ahead.” The ship maneuvered until a wake was visible on which she dropped depth charges, but with no discernible results.
Arriving back in the States on 1 December 1918, she was given a much-needed overhaul at Charleston then was placed out of commission exactly a year later on 1 December 1919.
In all, Roe only served nine years and three months with the fleet but in that abbreviated decade had been the Navy’s inaugural plane guard, survived a tempest, and fought in at least one shooting war. With that, she joined her fellow low-mileage greyhounds in mothballs.
As deftly retold in a paper by the USCG Historians Office, the service, then part of the Treasury Department, was hard-pressed to chase down fast bootlegging boats shagging out to “Rum Row” where British and Canadian merchants rested in safe water on the 3-mile limit loaded with cases of good whiskey and rum for sale.
Rumrunners in Canada and in the Bahamas had the cry, “For some, there’s a fortune but others will die, come on load up the ship boys, the Yankees are dry.”
This led the agency to borrow 31 relatively new destroyers from the Navy, an act that would have been akin to the USN transferring most of the FFG7 frigates to the Coast Guard during the “cocaine cowboy” days of the 1980s.
From the USCG Historian:
In the end, the rehabilitation of the vessels became a saga in itself because of the exceedingly poor condition of many of these war-weary ships. In many instances, it took nearly a year to bring the vessels up to seaworthiness. Additionally, these were by far the largest and most sophisticated vessels ever operated by the service and trained personnel were nearly nonexistent. As a result, Congress authorized hundreds of new enlistees. It was these inexperienced men that made up the destroyer crews and contributed to the service’s greatest growth prior to World War II.
A total of 31 destroyers served with the Coast Guard’s Destroyer Force. These included three different classes, the 742-ton “flivver-class,” “1,000-ton class”, and the 1,190-ton “Clemson-class” flush-deckers. Capable of over 25 knots, the destroyers had an advantage in chasing large rumrunners. They were, however, easily outmaneuvered by smaller vessels. The destroyers’ mission, therefore, was to picket the larger supply ships (“mother ships”) and prevent them from off-loading their cargo onto smaller, speedier contact boats that ran the liquor into shore.
Roe was reactivated and transferred to the Treasury Department on 7 June 1924 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for service with the Coast Guard and was among the first group of destroyers loaned to the Coast Guard for the war on booze. Commissioned as CG-18 at the New York Navy Yard 30 May 1925, she was stationed at Boston.
As described by CDR Malcolm F. Willoughby, USCGR, ret, in The Rum War at Sea, the 229-page 1964 work on this period in Coast Guard history, these destroyers, which in many cases were mothballed in poor shape, were run on a shoestring once transferred, at least until a larger force was literally created from scratch.
Outside of a half dozen old-time Coast Guard men, the crew were enlisted and shipped directly from the recruiting office to the ship. They might have been shoe salesmen or clerks one week, the next week they were on board a destroyer with the rating of apprentice seaman or fireman third class. Great were the difficulties of running a specialized ship with an inexperienced crew.
One of Roe’s most curious cases during her career as a Coastie involved that of the two-master John R. Manta— who in 1925 had been the “last vessel to complete a whaling voyage in New England.” Found aground in shallow water off Nantucket in May 1929, once towed in, the converted whaler was founded to have no Americans aboard, no manifest, no log entries, and, besides a few guns and bottles of booze, also held 11 “aliens all in exhausted conditions” hidden in a compartment secreted under a linoleum deck. Each had paid a whopping $250 for their undocumented passage– $3,800 in today’s greenbacks.
In poor condition, Roe was placed in a reduced-manning status 25 October 1929, her now-experienced crew transferred to the newly-fielded Coast Guard destroyer Trippe (CG-20), a Paulding class sistership who had served in the Navy as USS Trippe (DD-33).
Officially returned to the Navy on 18 October 1930, she was returned to the Navy List and stored in Philly but never rejoined the fleet. Instead, she was stricken and sold for scrap in 1934 per the London Naval Treaty, a fate shared by the rest of the class.
RADM Roe’s name was reissued to the new Sims-class destroyer (DD-418), commissioned 5 January 1940. The hardy new tin can served from Iceland to the Torch Landings and Iwo Jima, earning six battle stars during World War II. She was sold in 1947 to the breakers. There has not been a third Roe on the Navy List.
742 long tons (754 t) normal
887 long tons (901 t) full load
Length: 293 ft 10 in
Beam: 27 ft
Draft: 8 ft 4 in (mean)
Installed power:12,000 ihp
4 × Thornycroft boilers
3 × Parsons Direct Drive Turbines
3 × screws
31kt on Trials
Range: 2175(15) on 225 tons of oil
Complement: 4 officers 87 enlisted U.S. service. 75 in Coast Guard
5 × 3 in (76 mm)/50 caliber Mark 3 low-angle guns
6 × 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes (3 × 2)
Depth charges, in two stern racks and one Y-gun projector, added in 1917, removed in 1924
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