A Tale of Wooden Ships now long since gone (a book review)
A Fleet to Be Forgotten by Louis A. Hough
San Francisco Maritime History Press 2009
In 1917 Allied merchant shipping was going to the bottom faster than it could be built, until the United States Shipping Board was organized by the federal government to counter the threat with American industrial might. Though the Hog Island ships are well known, the story of their their wooden sisters—A Fleet to be Forgotten—has never until now been told. In shipyards all around the country, many of them created in response to the call, hundreds of wooden hulls were rising frame by frame in the last great hurrah of the wooden ships. By 1925 most of them were already consigned to ignoble ends, looted and dismantled, or rotting into oblivion on mudflats.
Their wood construction saved steel for the naval fleet. Cranked out at an amazing rated, these wooden steamers of 3,500 tons were never intended for a nobler fate than to be thrown as sacrificial lambs before the wolf-pack. When the war emergency was over, there was no market for them.
“In good hands, they had endurance and went about their business, unsung heroines of
the merchant trade.” Even so, they were too small to make a profit in most trades, many of them poorly built—victims of war profiteering—and badly maintained, they had no future. “The business at hand was to get rid of the remaining ships as fast as possible and relieve the government of the mounting costs to maintain them. . . . In a grisly disassembly line, the steamers were systematically. . .torn apart at the rate of about two per week.”
Hough’s book, the product of thirty years’ investigation into the untold story, unearths a storehouse of detail and lays it out in a fast-paced narrative of war-bred panic, of instant bureaucracies dispensing unlimited millions of dollars in government contracts. The resulting fleet of ships bred in panic, obsolete before their launch, unwanted soon after the war’s end, and before a decade had passed, gone and forgotten. Most of them.
Also forgotten, until now, were the stories of the amazing productivity of American
industry where wooden hulls were framed and launched at a rate never equaled before or since—345 of them in two years’ time. Each ship has a story, and Hough tells many of them in loving detail, with a wry wit good for many a laugh, and a haunting romanticism becoming to these doomed vessels. The author’s storytelling, drawing on survivor accounts, rises to the task of well-told yarns of foundering, disaster, and shipwreck, compelling in their simplicity.
The book ends, as all the best ship histories do, with lengthy appendices of all the details of voyages, passages, skippers, cargoes, and miscellany so beloved by their woodenheaded readers. For what, after all, is the historian’s job but to bring his readers all the facts at his command, with all the skills of the storyteller to bring them all to life.