During World War I, my grandfather, Joseph S. Kennedy, served in the US Navy aboard Submarine Chaser 256, built at George Lawley and Son Shipbuilders in Neponset, Mass. George Lawley was an Englishman who had worked for the famous East Boston shipbuilder, Donald McKay. In 1866, Lawley founded his own shipyard in Scituate, and in 1874, moved to South Boston.
In 1909, Lawley transferred the operation to Port Norfolk, overtaking the extensive manufacturing complex that formerly housed the Putnam Nail Works. This area was once known as Pine Neck, the peninsular that divides the Neponset River and Pine Neck Creek. The shipyard encompassed all of the land north of Ericsson Street, the present site of Venezia Restaurant.
Before it went out of business in 1946, the Lawley Shipyard produced many famous boats, including the America Cup winners Puritan and Mayflower and the Aquilo, a steam-powered yacht built for William Phelps Eno, the creator of the stop sign. Over the years, Lawley had many government contracts, especially in wartime. In 1917, and 1918, the firm delivered 20 subchasers to the Navy. Subchaser 256 was launched on November 28, 1917.
In the Atlantic, the German unterseeboot, or U-boat, had been attacking Allied shipping lines virtually unchallenged. Unrestricted, one-sided submarine warfare posed a threat that overwhelmed public opinion and helped to push the US into the war. The U-boat was a predator with no opponent – until the US Navy set out to change that by designing and building the subchaser.
Space and material were precious as the Navy geared for war, so economy was an important consideration in the development of the fleet of subchasers, which were constructed of wood, much easier to obtain than steel. The gas engines were of standard manufacture, which made it possible for production to proceed without delay. In little more than one year, more than 300 were built, mostly at smaller shipyards along the East Coast.
The subchaser was maneuverable and responded to commands with an immediacy that would be impossible for a larger ship. The boat’s narrow beam allowed for close turns at full speed, and the engines could be shut down and restarted at will, facilitating swift direction change, or allowing for listening during U-boat soundings.
Along with the full complement of ammunition, the subchaser also carried 2,400 gallons of gasoline. Ventilation was poor and sometimes gasoline fumes would collect and ignite, especially in the engine room, which was located next to the compartment where the depth charges were stored. Because the subchasers were needed for immediate action, there had been little time to test, correct, and repair. As a consequence, the crewmen of the subchasers were constantly on guard, not only against enemy subs, but also against the dangerous limitations of their own craft.
SC 256 was part of the squadron that arrived off the Greek island of Corfu in May, 1918. The subchasers were there to conduct anti-submarine operations along the Strait of Otranto, a 40-mile-long fetch of water stretching from Albania to the heel of Italy. Working with British and Italian navies, the boats began to harass the U-boat fleet and restrict movement to and from the Austrian/German submarine base at Catarro, about 50 miles northeast of the strait on the coast of Montenegro.
In addition, the subchasers saw action in the raid on Durazzo on Oct. 2, 1918. Held by the Austrians, Durazzo was a heavily fortified harbor on the coast of Albania. The SCs guarded Allied ships from mines and submarines during the successful mission. The Durazzo engagement was the only major naval engagement of WWI in which the US Navy participated, and SC256 was there for the action.
After the Armistice in November 1918, most of the subchasers at Corfu were sent back to Brest, France, to await orders home, but a number of them, including SC 256, were assigned to further duty overseas. At that time, the only ships under the American flag in the Adriatic Sea were subchasers. That month, SC 256 went to Bai Castelli, Dalmatia, where the crew assisted in commandeering the Austro-Hungarian battleships Radetzky, and Zrinyi.
During the war, the US Navy, in moving to blockade the movement of German ships, had installed the North Sea Mine Barrage; 56, 571 mines were planted at the entrance to the North Sea, from Scotland to Norway. Now, with the war over, dismantling the minefield was vitally important but extremely dangerous duty. Once again, the subchsubchasers were called into service. By April 1919, SC 256 was in Scotland assisting in minesweeping operations in the waters off Inverness. Subchasers followed the big minesweepers, sinking stray mines with small arms fire; Browning automatic rifles did the job. Acting like floating bomb squads, but insufficiently equipped to sustain blast damage, the subchasers were exposed to a high degree of risk. (The North Sea Mine Force memorial was dedicated in recognition of this hazardous duty and located on Flagstaff Hill on Boston Common.)
In June, 1919, a chaser unit comprisingd SCs 256, 354, and 95, left Scotland for Archangel, Russia, to assist with the withdrawal of US troops who had stranded there. The mission was full of uncertainty because Russia was still engaged in the civil war that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Another concern was the elements. The subchasers charted the Arctic Circle through the Barents Sea and into the White Sea to reach Archangel, traversing more than 2,000 miles each way; the extreme weather conditions of the north tested the men – and their boats – to the limit.
SC 256 never returned to the United States; she caught fire and sank off the coast of France in 1919. As she sank, the war souvenirs that Joe Kennedy and his shipmates had collected and stowed on board were lost. Nothing remains of SC 256 now, except for stories of danger, and memories of the subchasermen who sailed her from Neponset to the ends of the earth.