1918 | April 13

Fire!

One hundred years ago today, a fire broke out in the engine room of subchaser SC 121, badly injuring CPO Henry W. Robinson.

The New York Times reported, "... Robinson's craft was well under way when the main engine began to backfire and some gasoline in the bilge was ignited. The flames spread to Robinson's clothing and to a can of gasoline. With a fire extinguisher he put out the blaze in the bilge and with the burning can under his arm climbed the ladder from the engine room to the deck. He hurled the burning can into the sea and then jumped overboard. He was picked up twenty minutes later by the tug Pinner's Point in a semi-conscious state and was then taken to Portsmouth, Va."

The chasers were powered by enormous, open crankcase engines. In addition to oil collecting in the bilges, gas fumes often built up in the engine room. Further, gasoline engines on marine craft were fairly new, and the danger of explosion wasn't always fully appreciated. This early incident on SC 121 was comparatively minor. Many other chasers suffered significant engine room fires, and two were lost to fire during the war, SC 117 and SC 219.

The problem continued after the war. In a notable case, SC 256 was lost to fire on the homeward journey in 1919, after having survived through antisubmarine warfare during the war, minesweeping duties after, and service in the Northern Russia Expedition.

Hunters of the Steel Sharks: The Submarine Chasers of WWI

Hunters of the Steel Sharks: The Submarine Chasers of WWI
Woofenden, 2006. Softcover, 224 pages. $23.95. Available on Amazon.com

In 1918, a war time fleet of 303 U.S. submarine chasers formed a new offensive against the enemy, armed with depth charges, deck guns and an array of new, top secret submarine detection and pursuit devices.

These miniature wooden war ships, the smallest commissioned vessels in the American navy, were the first major deployment mechanism for early antisubmarine warfare equipment, and were remarkable in their capabilities and service: Chasers crossed the Atlantic Ocean on their own power; performed submarine hunts and attacks from bases in Plymouth, Queenstown (Cobh) and Corfu; assisted with post-war diplomacy along the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea; helped facilitate troop evacuation in northern Russia; and participated in the clearing of the North Sea mine barrage.

This is the history of the submarine chasers of the Great War, extensively illustrated with period photographs and diagrams, and rich with personal anecdotes, an up-close account of the early days of ASW based on rare, unpublished documents.