A deep freeze captured this subchaser in Camden in 1918.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Photo Courtesy Camden Public Library/Walsh History Center
It had probably seemed so simple to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1917, when the United States ordered construction of a fleet of wooden, 110-foot-long “subchaser” patrol boats to fight the war in Europe, FDR looked to the Maine yards he knew could get the job down properly, quickly, and within each ship’s $30,000 budget. The Camden Anchor Works-Rockland Machine Company had already built several thirty-five-foot-long battleship tenders for Uncle Sam as well as scores of launches and yachts, so FDR knew well the quality of Camden’s shipbuilders.
What he couldn’t have predicted was that the winter of 1917-18 would be one of the coldest on record in Maine, and so when the Camden yard launched this warship, No. 252 in a line of 441 built nationwide, there was simply nowhere for it to go. Historian Jack Williams wrote that the cold spell had begun at Christmas; by February, Penobscot Bay “was frozen as far as the eye could see,” there was up to eight inches of solid ice in Camden Harbor, and on nearby Megunticook Lake the ice was a whopping three feet thick.
The freezing temps weren’t enough to keep three people, at far left, from heading down to the company’s dock — now Camden’s public landing, the site was cleared by a fire seventeen years after this photograph was made — to check out the latest launch. Three other people, at center, have ventured onto the ice to chat with the man clearing snow and ice around the stranded warship. Finally, of course, there is the unseen photographer, likely hired by the shipbuilders so that the surprising scene can be used in advertisements.
Icicles aside, the ship looks ready to cross the North Atlantic and start hunting the Kaiser’s submarines. Its lifeboats are strapped down, life-rings installed, and crow’s nest stands ready to accommodate whoever from among the twenty-four-person crew might be selected to go aloft. The only thing missing is the three-inch, twenty-three-caliber gun that was the ship’s primary armament; this and the depth charges would be added after delivery to the navy.
Though subchasers like this one were used only relatively briefly during the Great War, everyone who sailed aboard them testified to their seaworthiness. “Every officer of the squadron has remarked on their excellence as sea boats, and they are seaworthy to a remarkable degree, more so than the yachts,” wrote Rear Admiral Newton A. McCully. “They take seas from any direction easily and gracefully, were never observed to ship a sea, and if carefully handled would probably last through any sea.”
Unless, of course, that sea happened to be solid.
- By: Joshua F. Moore