When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the nation’s Navy was shockingly short of combat ships—particularly the submarine chasers that would be vital to combating the German U-boat menace.
A prodigious ship-building program was hastily implemented, but because of heavy demands on the country’s steel industry for destroyers, cruisers, and battleships, the only material left available for submarine chasers was wood. Small, privately owned shipyards soon received contracts to build wooden submarine chasers.
The design approved by the Navy Department called for a sturdy vessel with an overall length of 110 feet, a displacement of 85 tons, and a maximum speed of 18 knots.
The new subchasers, nicknamed 110s in honor of their length, were originally armed with two 3-inch cannons and a couple of machine guns. The objective was to provide heavy firepower against enemy submarines running on the surface. In practice, however, the original design proved faulty.
Whenever a U-boat was sighted, it would immediately submerge, leaving the chasers vulnerable to an underwater attack. Subsequently, a Y-shaped depth charge thrower was substituted for one of the ship’s 3-inch guns. Prior to the development of the Y-gun, depth charges were simply dropped off the stern of a subchaser.
The ship then would race away at top speed, putting as much distance as possible between it and the underwater blast. Occasionally, the depth charge would explode prematurely, shaking up the subchaser much more than the submarine. The Y-gun was a marked improvement over the drop-and-run method of fighting U-boats.
It permitted two depth charges to be shot from a ship at the same time. Both canisters would plunge into the sea at a safe distance from the attacking vessel, thereby lessening the danger to surface ships.