Manitowoc’s Submarines

“Uncle Wants His Boats”

Feature photo: Manitowoc’s first submarine, USS Peto (SS-265) sideways launch into the Manitowoc River on April 30, 1942, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Public domain photo from the U.S. Navy.

Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Karen Rodriguez

“By 1933, only six private yards capable of building a vessel as large as a destroyer or submarine remained in existence on tidewater. The yards were: Bethlehem, New York Shipbuilding, Newport News Shipbuilding, Bath Iron Works, Federal Shipbuilding, and the Electric Boat Company. Of these, the first three were capable of building large ships while Bath and Federal were restricted to ships of destroyer size. Electric Boat was the only private yard capable of building submarines.” Nelson p. 12

The USS Cobia is open for tours at its permanent location, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Permanently docked in front of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, the USS Cobia (SS-245) serves as a memorial to all submariners and to the employees of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company who were contracted by the U.S. Navy to design, engineer and build submarines between 1941 and 1945. The USS Cobia was not one of the submarines built in Manitowoc. However, during World War II it patrolled the Pacific sinking 13 Japanese ships and rescuing seven downed American fliers and is therefore a fitting representative of the type of boat built in Manitowoc.

The USS Cobia being transported by tugboat to Manitowoc.

The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company formerly of Manitowoc, Wisconsin doesn’t build submarines anymore. It doesn’t build landing craft anymore either. But during World War II, this small company in a small city on the western shore of Lake Michigan was the center of Midwestern engineering innovation and construction to help the war effort. Between 1941 and 1945, 28 submarines and 38 landing craft (LCT5) were designed, engineered, and launched or delivered by the Company. The design and construction in other areas of the country of 422 additional landing craft were overseen by the Company.

Charles Cameron West graduated from Cornell University in 1900 in Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture. Before coming to Manitowoc, he worked in Chicago for the Chicago Shipbuilding Company which built and repaired steel-hulled ships. In 1902, after the Chicago company merged with the Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland, West, with shipbuilders Elias Gunnell and L.E. Geer also of Chicago, purchased a shipyard in Manitowoc from Henry and George Burger and founded what was to become the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company.

With West as the Company’s president, the intention was to shift the business from building and repairing wooden ships to steel-hulled ships. (The Burgers continued to build and repair wooden ships across the river from their former yard. Today, the Burger Boat Company builds high-end yachts.) Steel-hulled ships were quickly replacing wooden vessels because iron ore from the Lake Superior region was supplying new steel mills in Chicago and Cleveland, transportation made easy by the new locks connecting Lakes Superior and Huron.

Elias Gunnell started the Gunnell Tool Company in 1904 to manufacture engines and machinery for ships and other manufacturers. During World War I, the two companies built cargo ships called “Lakers”. Eventually, a steel floating dock was built to accommodate ships up to 600 feet long. When he retired in 1920, Gunnell sold the company to West and it became a part of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company.

Post World War I, shipbuilding declined:

“As a result of the Washington Treaty of 1922, which limited the size of the Naval Forces of the signatory nations, a large part of the United States Navy had been scrapped….During the years from 1922 to 1930, expenditures for new ship construction in the United States never exceeded 40 million dollars in any one year, and in 1926, appropriations and expenditures fell to a low of 17 million dollars….The decline in Naval ship construction was paralleled to a considerable degree by a similar decline in commercial ship building.” Nelson p. 11

The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company faired reasonably well during this decline and through the Depression. The Company built two self-unloader ore boats, dump scows, oil tankers, eight Great Lakes-traversing car ferries, large cranes used in constructing skyscrapers, and three Coast Guard cutters during this time. (One of the cutters—the Electra—eventually became President Roosevelt’s yacht and one—the Potomac—was sold to Elvis Presley.) Under West’s leadership the Company diversified and manufactured refrigerators, boilers, and machinery for paper and cement mills.

In 1939 and early 1940, West came up with a plan for building destroyers for the U.S. Navy. His design included building a destroyer in sections, testing it in Lake Michigan, and then routing it through the Chicago River to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and then down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River. Even though bridges in Chicago and the Illinois River would need to be modified to accommodate the height of a destroyer, this route posed less of a problem than an eastern route through either the St. Lawrence River (pre-St. Lawrence Seaway) or the Erie Canal to the Ohio River. He took his plan to Washington D.C. and presented it to the Navy Department.

President Roosevelt signed the 11% Naval Expansion Bill on June 14, 1940, the day Germany invaded Paris. West was approached by the U.S. Navy shortly after and asked to consider building submarines instead of destroyers. After initially refusing due to lack of any experience in submarine design or construction, West met with Electric Boat Company staff who assured him they would help in setting up a submarine-building operation in Manitowoc.

On September 9, 1940, Roosevelt signed a $5 billion appropriations shipbuilding bill. The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company signed a contract with the Navy to build 10 submarines for an estimated $2.8 million each plus a fixed profit fee of $170,000 per boat. Another contract was signed with the Electric Boat Company covering patents, specifications, materials and expertise.

The Electric Boat Company sent Mr. Eric H. Ewertz to head training staff in Manitowoc; he was Chief Constructor of the first successful submarine, the Holland, built in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1896. More than 7,000 people, including 500 women, were bused in from surrounding communities in northeast Wisconsin to work on building the submarines over the next several years. A neighborhood called Custerdale, with street names for each submarine built, sprang up in Manitowoc to house the many new employees.

The Custerdale section of Manitowoc, with its pre-fab houses, as it is today.

New buildings were built in the shipyard for Navy personnel. Lieutenant Ignatius was one of the experienced Navy engineers/submariners who received orders to help supervise and approve the Navy-financed facility and boat construction. He had quite a shock when he arrived in Manitowoc. Banners hung all over town had one word on them: “HEIL”. He was uncertain what allegiance this community of German and Bohemian immigrants would profess if the United States went to war with Germany. He was much relieved when told the banners were to welcome campaigning Wisconsin Governor Heil to Manitowoc.

Lieutenant Commander Weaver, another Naval supervisor, coined the Company slogan—Uncle Wants His Boats—after Pearl Harbor. Weaver accompanied the first Manitowoc submarine, the USS Peto, on the voyage from Manitowoc to New Orleans.

The construction of the USS Peto (SS-265) began in February of 1941 with the construction of a wooden model:

“As one of the first tasks to be undertaken, the Company built a full-sized wooden mock-up of the submarine. This was done with meticulous accuracy by the skilled carpenters of the yard. It was complete to an astonishing degree, with wooden piping, machinery, equipment, gauges, valves, etc., all in place. When this was completed, the workers were taken through it in tours to acquaint them with a submarine since the workmen had never seen a submarine and, in fact, few of the supervisory personnel had had an opportunity to visit the Electric Boat Company.” Nelson, p. 30

On June 18, 1941 the first of seven sections of the submarine was rolled outside onto the ways. The building and welding of the Peto took another ten months. On April 30, 1942, the boat was launched sideways into the Manitowoc River with the entire city watching. Builders’ and Navy trials as well as crew training were carried out on Lake Michigan.

On Christmas Day in 1942, the USS Peto, loaded on a floating drydock, was transported to Chicago on its journey to New Orleans. Periscopes and radio masts had been removed in order to pass under bridges along the route: the Chicago River, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, Illinois River to the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Several bridges were converted to lift bridges, the state police secured all of the highway bridges, the U.S. Army secured the railroad bridges, and the National Guard stood guard along the entire route. Tight turns in the Illinois River required skilled river navigators. The Coast Guard cutter Fern accompanied the floating drydock towed by the tugboat Kansas City of Federal Barge Lines to Lockport, Illinois. Then the towboat Minnesota, also of Federal Barge Lines, took over for the duration of the trip to New Orleans.

“Peto was laid down on 18 June 1941 by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, Manitowoc, Wisconsin (USA). She was launched on 30 April 1942 and commissioned on 21 November 1942. Late in December 1942, Peto decommissioned, was loaded on a floating drydock, and departed Manitowoc for New Orleans, Louisiana (USA), the first submarine to traverse the mid-western waterways to reach New Orleans and the sea from the building yards. The ship recommissioned, completed fitting out and shakedown, sailed for the Panama Canal and arrived Brisbane, Australia on 14 March 1943.” U.S. Navy. All Hands MagazineMay 1943, p. 18

The U.S. Navy submarine USS Peto (SS-265) in a floating drydock on the Mississippi River.

The USS Peto and the nine submarines comprising the first Naval contract were completed two years before the contract delivery date. Total production of 28 submarines was completed for $5 million less than the original estimate for the two contracts. More than 500 tons of combatant and merchant ships were sunk in the Pacific by the 28 submarines built in Manitowoc. Four Manitowoc submarines were sunk in the Pacific.

Former location of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company as it looks today.

The book:

Nelson, Rear Admiral William T., U.S.N. Fresh Water Submarines, the Manitowoc Story. Manitowoc, WI: Hoeffner Printing. 1986.

Other references:

Manitowoc, WI. The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, 1948. Online facsimile at

Pilger, Gerald.

U.S. Navy. All Hands MagazineMay 1943.

Content and photos ©2018 Karen Rodriguez

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