In the summer of 1917, Henry Ford was invited to Washington by President Woodrow Wilson who hoped to induce him to serve on the U. S. Shipping Board. Ford discussed with Edward N. Hurley, Chairman of the Board the possibility of applying his mass production knowledge to solving the ship shortage problem; he accepted membership on the board on November 7, 1917.
As losses to submarines increased, it was felt that a new design of ship other than destroyers, should be developed for antisubmarine detection and warfare.
On January 14, 1918, Henry Ford agreed to build 100 to 500 Eagle Boats for the U.S. Navy, the first to be delivered in five months or less. The schedule called for ten the following month, 20 the next, and 25 each month thereafter. A tentative price per ship was set at $275,000 and, although the Navy considered this high, it placed the initial order for 100 ships on the same date.
Each ship was 200ft long and weighed 550 tons, with single screw, geared steam turbine, oil burning engines. The boats were fitted with 4-inch guns, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, depth charge projectors, radio equipment, and submarine listening devices. They had a speed of 18 knots and a cruising radius of 3,000 miles.
The work site was set for the east bank of Rouge, the stream was widened and dredged, and the first building went up in February 1918. Stretching 18 acres along the river, the site included storage yards, shops, an assembly building, sheds, docks, and a slip and launching platform. The assembly building was designed by Albert Kahn and measured 1700 feet long, 350 feet deep, and 100 feet high, inside were three assembly lines capable of carrying seven boats each.
On October 11, 1918 Ford launched the first WWI Eagle Boat built at the Rouge plant. After production, they had to proceed down the Detroit River to Lake Erie and from there up the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Coast.
Problems encountered: Ford workers were unfamiliar with naval construction, and few had riveting or welding experience, the company also was unfamiliar with building boats, which slowed down the process and led to some problems. In addition, there was a scarcity of manufacturing materials, difficulty getting workers, lack of worker housing, and because the Rouge was so far from Detroit, difficulty getting workers to and from work (in fact because there was no public transport to Rogue, the company set up Model T trucks with trailers attached to bring men to factory). However, as time went on employment began to rise, with 4,380 workers in July 1918 and peaked at almost 8,000.
By November 1918, production was picking up and many of the problems had been worked out, however, only seven boats were dispatched before Armistice, and the contract was cut to 60 boats. By January 1919, two boats were being launched each week, the last Eagle boat was launched August 13, 1919.
Although the Eagle Boats did not get much service against German submarines in World War I, they did provide service in the icy waters off the Russian coast in late 1918 and 1919. Five were assigned to Coast Guard duties during prohibition.
It was not until World War II that any Eagle Boats really served the purpose for which they were built and actively engaged in ASW operations. Of the original 60, only eight remained; they were assigned to antisubmarine warfare, sonar training, target-towing vessels, and aerial bombing practice. None were given duty outside U. S. continental waters. Except for Eagle-56 (PE-56), which was sunk by a German submarine, the remaining vessels were decommissioned following the war’s end and subsequently sold or disposed of.
Do You Have Information on Eagle Boats? The Henry Ford, November 10, 2017.
Frank A. Cionflone, “The Eagle Boats of World War I“, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Magazine, June 1973.