Traveling through the naval blockade zones of World War I, trained lookouts aboard American merchant ships scanned the hypnotic landscape of rolling waves for evidence of the German U-boat menace. While watchmen stared along the vast expanse of the ocean in an endless search for periscopes emerging from the water, or whitecaps created by a submarine’s conning towers, it was a futile effort. The German Unterseeboot was capable of torpedoing an enemy combatant without warning. With sonar yet to be invented, the diesel powered submersibles moved silently and undetected beneath the cover of the water's surface. Apart from out-maneuvering or ramming a surfaced sub, little could be done to save a vessel traveling unaccompanied by military convoy. The camouflage of evening's darkness offered those aboard merchant ships little comfort. Travelers slept in clothes, with a life preserver on hand. Smoking cigarettes, operating flashlights, or the lighting of matches at night was punishable by a prison sentence. The helpless sensation of traveling through the U-boat zone on a merchant ship was described by Clevelander W.C. Coleman in 1918 as being "like that of a child who imagines something coming after him in the dark."
Coleman’s concerns were well grounded. Since Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare throughout the eastern Mediterranean and waters adjoining Great Britain, France and Italy in February of 1917, a small fleet of submersibles waged a relentless campaign to decimate the world's available tonnage of merchant shipping. The submarine proved to be Germany's most effective and feared naval weapons, and the Central Powers were relying on its relatively small fleet to disrupt existing trade routes. In the year following the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, German U-boats sank more tonnage than they had cumulatively destroyed throughout the entire war.
Across the ocean, thousands of miles away from the battlefields of World War I, employees of the Rocky River Dry Dock Company speedily labored to complete construction of an effective deterrent to the German Unterseeboot. The small, wooden vessels being built were known as submarine chasers. Each 110-foot long subchaser was equipped with three gas-driven Standard 6-cylinder engines of 220 horsepower, underwater hydrophones to detect engine noises, ample offensive firepower, and delivery systems for depth charges. Built for speed and maneuverability, the vessel could effortlessly change course to face an enemy combatant. The ships were uniquely suited for construction at small boatyards like the Rocky River Dry Dock Company. Designed by Albert Loring Swasey for the United States Navy, the craft could be assembled quickly by woodworkers employing standardized construction methods. The average time set for the delivery of a vessel was between 70 to 180 days.
A fast turnaround time was critical; success in the war depended on it. Soon-after waging war on Germany in April of 1917, the United States had found itself ill-prepared. Americans previously relied on Europe’s merchant fleet, which now littered the ocean floor. Germany's submarine campaign threatened to compound severe shortages of food and supplies in Allied nations, and the United States needed to transport goods and troops 3,000 miles across the ocean into war zones. Military success necessitated not only the construction of new vessels for naval warfare, but the rebuilding of a depleted merchant fleet. Revitalizing America's shipbuilding industry became a top national priority.
Ten days after declaring war, the United States government established and funded the Emergency Fleet Corporation; the agency was charged with overseeing the construction and delivery of a shipping fleet sufficient to meet wartime demand. With initial financing of $50,000,000 and the authority to both acquire and construct vessels, the Emergency Fleet Corporation spearheaded efforts to resurrect and modernize America's shipbuilding industry. German boats in American ports were immediately confiscated, and steel ships already under construction in shipyards were requisitioned by the government. These efforts proved insufficient to meet wartime demand, and a massive shipbuilding program was initiated. While priority was given to constructing massive steel vessels in large shipyards, boatyards such as the Rocky River Dry Dock Co. were commissioned to build a fleet of medium sized ships capable of engaging in combat with U-boats and carrying supplies through war zones.
This revival of America's wooden shipbuilding industry during the Great War presented the Rocky River Dry Dock Co. with new opportunities for growth. Incorporated in 1914 by Theodore R. Zickes, the boatyard specialized in the repair and construction of yachts, dredges and scows prior to the war. Located an eighth of a mile from the mouth of the Rocky River, across the banks from what is now Cleveland Metroparks Scenic Park, the Rocky River Dry Dock Co. could dock vessels up to 200 feet in length. The shipyard was equipped with electricity, up-to-date machinery and its own blacksmith shop.
Despite the infrastructure for merchant shipping having atrophied elsewhere in the United State since the turn of the century, the transportation needs of industry on the Great Lakes supported the continued activity of shipbuilding and boat repair yards. The Rocky River Dry Doc Co., not only repaired large barges used in local industry, but specialized in building leisure and racing crafts for Cleveland's most affluent citizens. This shipping industry along the southern shore of Lake Erie rapidly transitioned to wartime production. Although the demands of war prompted many investors to speculate in shipbuilding and construct shipyards across the nation, the Rocky River Dry Dock Company's modernized plant and experienced staff presented Zickes a distinct advantage in acquiring multiple contracts with the Emergency Fleet Corporation.
The Rocky River Dry Dock Co. submitted a bid and received its first contract for the construction of a submarine chaser shortly after the establishment of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. The company delivered the ship to the United States Navy in November of 1917. The small business was subsequently awarded contracts to build an additional seven subchasers and five Junior Mine Planters for the U.S. Navy between 1918 and 1919. The government contracts were accompanied by expansion; the workforce grew from around 75 men in 1916 to nearly 200 by the end of World War I, at which time the boatyard had been working at full capacity for over a year. As an indication of the boatyard's accomplishments in transitioning to wartime production, Zickes was sent by the U.S. Navy to oversee the completion of vessels at an under-performing plant in Alexandria, Virginia.
In total, 441 submarine chasers were built at Navy and private boat yards across the United States for the Emergency Fleet Corporation. Upon delivery to the U.S. Navy, the ships were used by the United States Coast Guard or sent on their way to the war zones of Europe. One hundred subchasers, including five built in Rocky River, were sold to France.
The contributions of submarine chasers to the Allied war effort were difficult to measure. Their agility and speed effectively deterred German U-boats from surfacing and attacking larger vessels. They were employed to escort troop and cargo ships, and safeguard large steel vessel against unexpected submarine strikes. Submarine chasers also patrolled waters, generally in hunting units of three, to both attack and identify the location of U-boats. Successes in combating submarines proved less decisive. Artillery mounted on subchasers posed little threat to a U-boat's heavily armored conning tower or deck, the latter of which was generally protected by over two feet of water. The deployment of depth charges, mines rigged to blow at a predetermined depth, required correctly guessing the location and distance downward of a submarine. While commanding officers claimed a handful of submarine kills, subchasers were more likely to inflict damage to a U-boat or force it to submerge.
America's fleet of submarine chasers still aided in diminishing the effectiveness of Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare campaign. In consort with the Navy's fleet of steel ships, the wooden crafts protected American troops and merchant ships traveling through unsafe waters. Collectively, the rebuilding of an American merchant and naval fleet made possible the transportation of supplies and soldiers to the battlegrounds of Europe. Achieved in under two years, the industrial feet helped secure an Allied victory in the Great War. The construction of submarine chasers at small boatyards like the Rocky River Dry Dock Company illustrated this incredible revitalization of America's shipbuilding industry during World War I.