From Cruising to Combat – Irwin Chase

Irwin Chase, Managing Constructor of Elco, on unidentified PT boat with radio direction finder, July 24, 1941 Print RD.1984.187.23842 from negative 1984.187.101843F

Pictured here is Irwin Chase Sr., the renowned marine architect and Managing Constructor of Elco. The image was made on July 24, 1941, in New London during sea trials. The image was later featured in an article in the January 1946 issue of Motor Boating.

The author of the article, Elco sea trial data analyst Chet Bentley, goes into great detail about the extensive sea trials carried out on every PT boat made by Elco before it was released to the U.S. Navy for commissioning.  Irwin Chase is considered to be one of the “founding fathers” of the extremely successful American PT boat program begun just prior to WWll. As Bentley states in his article, “I know of no one with so vast a store of knowledge, and so well fitted to develop a perfect combat vessel with the amazing speed and punch that the Elco PT’s possess. It was he also who developed the many various trial procedures and devices, and who scrutinized every particle of data connected with the trials.”

Mr. Chase, a University of Michigan naval architecture graduate of 1905, became fascinated early in his career with small, fast power boats and according to Elco, created the first “planing” hulled power boat. In 1915, Chase is also credited for designing the Elco Cruisette, then considered to be the world’s most popular crusing power boat during the years between the two world wars. Mystic Seaport Museum is the repository for the archives of the Electric Launch Company (Elco) – Collection 213 – and there are many testimonial letters addressed to Mr. Chase regarding Elco and the Elco Cruisette in particular.

When Charles Lindbergh became engaged to be married after his famous trans-atlantic flight, he ordered a 38’ cruiser from Elco, which was delivered by Chase under a cover of secrecy in 1929. The Elco archives has an entry in Production Book Vol. C. showing a contract for Hull #2507 (38’) for “Chas. A. Lindbergh” with Mouette as the cruiser’s name and “Dwight Morrow Est”. with a delivery date of May 26, 1929 – one day before Anne Morrow married Lindbergh at the Morrow Estate in Englewood, NJ.

In Feburary of 1939, Elco President Henry R Sutphen asked Mr. Chase to accompany him on the Queen Mary at the request of President Roosevelt (FDR) to evaluate and purchase at their discretion one of England’s motor torpedo boats (MTBs). The boat they purchased, designed by Scott-Paine and named PV 70 (private venture), was shipped to New York and then lightered to  Elco’s Groton plant where it was studied, trialed and deconstructed to eventually become PT 9, the prototype for America’s “small navy” of powerful PT boats. Irwin Chase was a critical part of the design team that allowed Elco to become the largest manufacturer of American PT boats at its newly built extensive facility at Bayonne, New Jersey. By the end of WWll, Elco had built 399 PT boats including perhaps the most famous one, PT 109 skippered by John F Kennedy. After the war, Elco struggled to remain viable and Chase eventually transferred from Bayonne, NJ to the Electric Boat Groton facility in 1949. He created a home in Deep River CT where he raised his family.

Only a handful of PT boats were saved after decommissioning (most were simply burned and sunk in their respective areas of service) but the Bayonne plant did retain many PT boat parts. Most of this war surplus inventory was sold at auction and a number of PT boat parts made it to CT, particularly to Deep River. A December 28, 1997, article by Claudia Van Nes in the Hartford Courant tells the story of the Chase family oil delivery contractor who purchased a number of Elco’s PT boat self-sealing gasoline tanks that were then buried in and around Deep River to hold fuel oil for local customers.

With the gas tank shipment came a number of stainless steel galley stoves which were designed specifically for Elco PT boats. At least one of these was converted locally into an outdoor barbeque and one was converted for in-home use by Chase Sr. himself for his Deep River home. When two previous PT boat veteran crewmen in the area saw Chase’s galley stove, they realized that the stove in PT 617, which is on exhibit at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass, did not have the same type of stove. The director of the PT boat museum in Fall River was notified of this appliance mis-match and the NOS (new old stock) stove was graciously given to him to be used in the restoration of  PT 617 which can be seen today.

Irwin Chase died on May 9th, 1974 at the age of 90, noted by a short and simple obituary printed in The New York Times.

– Guest post by Lee Greenwood, Rosenfeld Collection volunteer