And Now You Know: USS Sea Otter II (IX-53), A good idea but not practical

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 26, 2019

By Mike Louviere

By the end of the 1930s, it was evident that war was coming. The rapid rise of the Nazi party in Germany was alarming the rest of the world. At some point, to some degree, America would be involved.

One day, in February 1939, two men having lunch began to exchange ideas about ways to ship war supplies to Britain.

Commander Hamilton Bryan, USN (Ret.) and Warren Noble, an automotive engineer for Chrysler, came up with the idea for a very shallow draft bulk cargo ship. Their idea was a ship that had a shallow draft would be hard for German submarines to torpedo. The ship should be small enough to be built in inland shipyards and able to go to sea from rivers and ship channels.

The U.S. Navy was not interested in the project and refused to participate in the development.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was most interested.

Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920. He was an avid supporter of anything naval. He was able to use his political acumen to persuade Britain to order the first ship for a price of $350,000.

None of the major shipyards wanted to undertake the project. It was a type of ship that had never been built and there was a 90 day deadline for construction of the ship.  

Levingston Shipyard in Orange took on the project. Eads Johnson, a noted marine architect, was assigned to the project to design the ship.

Johnson’s design was for a shallow draft ship that would carry 1,500 tons of dry or bulk cargo. The ship would be fully welded from steel plates that were made on rolling machines. She would have a high flanged bow, a small bridge, and low hatches.

Levingston had extensive experience in steel hull welding due to the shipyard having built numerous steel barges and tugboats.

The powerplant of the ship would be comprised of sixteen 110 horsepower gasoline engines. (Navy records state that the engines were GM 6-17 engines. Another source states that they were Chrysler engines.)

Sea Otter II under construction in Levingston Shipyard

Levingston had 250 employees and put all of them on a 24/7 work schedule until the ship was completed.

Completed a few days short of the deadline, the ship was 254 feet long with a beam, or width, of 38 feet. The draft was 10 feet two inches, deeper than expected. The hull displacement was 1,941 tons. Her speed was not recorded, she had no armament. She only required a crew of 15.

The ship was launched on August 23, 1941. She was christened the USS Sea Otter II (IX-53) by Mrs. Eads Johnson, the sponsor of the ship and wife of the designer.

After completion, she was acquired by the U.S. Navy on September 26. The Sea Otter II arrived at the Charleston Navy Yard on November 2 and went out for sea trials November 4.

The Navy was not impressed. The major problem was that the 16 gasoline engines were unmuffled. The engine noise made it almost impossible to conduct conversations on the deck. The engines were so loud that their noise carried an unbelievably long distance over the ocean making it easy for an enemy submarine to home in on the location of the ship by the loud noise.

Due to the 24/7 work schedule and the lack of completed drawings when the work on the ship started, the total cost of the ship had been $550,000. This was more than the Navy thought acceptable.

Critics called the ship “The Stinker” and famous columnist Walter Lippmann wrote several critical articles. He argued that in wartime there was no justification for experimentation of such a radically new idea.

The small shallow draft vessel lacked technical support and political support, especially from the Navy. As a result, no other ships of this class were ever built and the ship was never used as intended. She was taken out of service on May 28, 1942, at Charleston and transferred to the War Shipping Administration.

On December 2, 1942, she was sold to the Pan American Steam Ship Corporation of Panama for $15,000 “as is where is.” The final disposition of the ship is unknown.

Regardless of the negatives of the project, the unusual design and completion time of fewer than 90 days gave Levingston Shipyard a national reputation of being a “Can-Do” shipyard.

“And now you know.”