by Stephanie Przybylek
Connections to Delaware’s military history can be found throughout the state. A site with one of the more interesting but perhaps less known stories sits quietly along the scenic banks of the Mispillion River in Milford, Delaware.
In 1896 Milford was a bustling downstate shipbuilding center. Wilson M. Vinyard, a Milford native who had returned to Delaware after working as an engineer for the city of Chicago and building ships in Wisconsin, established the Vinyard Shipbuilding Company along East Front Street. His son, Wilson S. “Sonny” Vinyard, joined the company in 1915 following his graduation from Drexel. Vinyard Shipbuilding Company built pleasure and civilian craft, and ships for the government, holding contracts with the Department of the Navy between 1917 and 1944. The company developed a reputation for fine woodwork and its growing list of vessels averaged 90-115 feet in length.
During World War I, Vinyard Shipbuilding Co. built subchasers and military-use tugboats. Following war’s end, and with the advent of the United State’s experiment with Prohibition, Vinyard was contracted to build ten 75-foot Coast Guard patrol boats that were used to intercept bootlegging activity during Prohibition. The cutters were also called “Six Bitters” because of their engines (two six-cylinder 400 horsepower gasoline Sterling engines). The price per boat in late 1924 – early 1925 was $24,770. Such lucrative government contracts brought money into the Milford economy. Today, a single example of a Vinyard Coast Guard vessel still exists, used as a private yacht in Washington State. Throughout the 1930s, the company built eight styles of cruising yachts with elegant woodwork and finishes and a gasoline or diesel engine.
But with the advent of World War II, Vinyard shifted completely to building ships used for war. The Milford industry played a role in what Ship Defense News, a Navy publication of the period, termed “the greatest shipbuilding race in history.” Vinyard did their part for the war effort by building fourteen wooden subchasers of two classes: the SC497 Class (110’ by 17’ by 6’6” with twin 1540 horsepower combined engines) and the SC1466 Class (110’6” by 18’7” x 5’1” with 1200 horsepower gasoline engines). Between 1941 and 1944 the company’s labor force grew to 120 employees who worked around the clock. The local press noted each launch of a new vessel with patriotic pride: “The Submarine Chaser 1352 was launched at the yards of the Vinyard Shipbuilding Company, this city, on Wednesday morning, April 21,” noted an article in the Milford Chronicle. “The beautiful streamlined craft left the ways at exactly 11:30 o’ clock. “ Among the attendees at this launch were Mrs. W. F. Cope, wife of the U. S. Navy Inspector of Machinery, Lieutenant and Mrs. Edward Deckerhoff of the U. S. Navy Reserve and the 5th grade class from Milford Elementary School accompanied by their teachers.
Subchasers and similar size vessels were referred to as the Navy’s “Mighty Mites” because of their swift striking power and maneuverability despite their small stature. The Navy authorized rapid production of them to counteract the threat posed by German U boats terrorizing ships in the Atlantic. Because they were made of wood, subchasers were also sometimes called “the Splinter Fleet.” More than 40,000 sailors served on subchasers during World War II, mostly in coastal waters. Vinyard’s subchasers SC 520 served in the Hawaiian Sea Frontier, escorting naval vessels and performing soundings for Japanese submarines around the Hawaiian Islands.
Joan and Sudler Lofland purchased the site of Vinyard Shipbuilding Company in 1996. As they gathered information, learned more about the rich history of the site, and spoke to people who remembered the shipyard, materials related to Vinyard and its workers began to come back to them, including issues of industry newspapers published during the war years, given to them by the son of a former Vinyard employee. These publications, meant for the shipyard workers at factories large and small across the US, provide a window into the time and the cause:
“Give us guns and ships and tanks they say
Give us powder, shot and planes today
We want them now – not next year,
To all of us our freedom is dear.”
One stanza of a poem sent to the paper by a shipyard worker, published in Full Speed Ahead, a wartime industry newspaper published by the US Navy, March 23, 1942.
The Loflands have worked diligently to preserve Vinyard’s story. They have restored several of Vinyard’s vessels, including the yachts Kismet and Vignette. This past June, they celebrated the relaunch of the yacht Augusta. The Loflands maintain the boathouse, joiner shop and machine shop that once hummed with activity on the Vinyard property—walking through these spaces gives a tangible sense of the work, smells, and activity related to the construction of wooden vessels, and they echo with the sounds of wartime production connected to Delaware’s military history.
Stephanie Przybylek is the Executive Director of the Delaware Military Heritage and Education Foundation