The Defoe Shipbuilding Company was formed in 1905 with the opening of a small boat shop in Bay City. Engaged primarily in the pioneering construction of knock-down boats, the company developed small pleasure and commercial craft which were shipped unassembled around the world.
The shop flourished. During World War I, owners H. J. and F. W. Defoe obtained the firm's first military contract - a U.S. Army Transport Service order for eight 100-foot Steel Harbor Mineplanters.
To facilitate the military contract, an additional site was acquired and a steel shipbuilding plant was constructed.
Following World War I, Defoe became a major builder of steel-hull, custom yachts, as well as many types of commercial ships.
World War II saw the shipyard again swing into military shipbuilding - an activity in which Defoe engaged in until its end.
Since that first original order for eight minesweepers in 1918 Defoe constructed hundreds of ships for military and commercial use, ranging from 650-foot Great Lakes ore carriers to guided missile destroyers for the United States and the Royal Australian Navies.
With its unique design and engineering experience in the military field, Defoe in 1939 was awarded a U.S. Navy contract for the design and construction of the first U.S. 173-foot Subchaser. After building the first such subchasers to be constructed in this country, Defoe was named design agent for additional subchaser contractors.
The company then built for the Navy Department numerous 220-foot minesweepers, followed by contracts for 143-foot rescue tugs, 110-foot harbor tugs, 157-foot infantry landing craft, 307-foot destroyer escort vessels, 307-foot high-speed troop trasports and 136-foot freight and ammunition carriers.
In order to fulfill the initial subchaser contract in the shortest possible time, an entirely new concept in ship construction was originated and perfected by Defoe.
Widely known as the "roll-over method of construction," the technique was utilized in subsequent wartime operations at Defoe. It functioned like this: a cradle was built to the exact shape of the main deck of the vessel. On this cradle the deck was laid and frames and bulk-heads were erected bottom-side up. The complete bottom section of the vessel, including keel, floors, and from four to six strakes of shell plating, was dropped into place on top of the frames and bulkheads. The remaining shell plating was installed and welding was undertaken.
By using this method it was possible for Defoe to eliminate virtually 90 percent of all overhead welding. This fact alone created immense savings in man-hours because, of course, down-hand welding can be performed much faster with concomitant results of better workmanship.
When the vessel was in the upside-down position, all machinery, which normally hangs or is attached to the underside of the deck, was installed.
The erection sequence for hull steel was arranged so that nearly all of the convential ship scaffolding was eliminated.
With the hull completed, two semi-circular steel "wheels" were clamped around it. The deck cradle was dropped into an out-of-the-way position. The hull, by now supported entirely on these two wheels, then rested on two heavy parallel steel tracks. Cables were thrown around the hull in opposite directions and a steam locomotive crane, by pulling on one cable and holding back on the other, rolled the vessel on the two wheels and tracks into an uprith position. The whole line of process took no more than two-and-a-half minutes.
With the vessel upright, additional machinery was installed and deckhouses placed in position.
The first destroyer escort attempted by Defoe was built on the conventional plan of an upright hull. However, the company determined that the highly-efficient method of the bottom-up hull could also be adapted to the larger ship. From that point, all destroyer escorts and high-speed transports were built bottom-up utilizing the "roll-over" technique.
Defoe Shipbuilding Company delivered over 160 vessels to the Navy Department during the World War II emergency.
The end of the Second World War did not bring a halt to construction of ships for the U.S. Government.
A contract to build two new destroyer escorts for the U.S. Navy was awarded to the company in 1954. These vessels were 315 feet long and pwered by a 20,000 HP steam turbine. The contract was completed in the spring of 1957.
Under a research and development contract, Defoe also designed, engineered and fabricated the first fiber-glass reinforced plastic minesweeper MSB-23 for the Navy.
Capitalizing upon past performance and upon the caliber of its skilled metalworking, machinery and electronics specialists, in 1957 Defoe obtained a contract to build two guilded missile destroyers for the U.S. Navy. A second contract to build an additional two guilded missile destroyers was awarded to the company the following year. These destroyers were 440 feet long, 47-foot beam and have a full load displacement of 4500 tons.
The destroyer were equipped to launce Tartar surface-to-air missiles and carry the latest anti-submarine warfare armament.
When the last of the four vessels was delivered and commissioned by the Navy, Defoe was awarded an additional contract to build three more guided missile destroyers. These three ships were delivered to the Royal Australian Navy Fleet.
Three destroyer escorts of a new and larger class were contracted by the U.S. Navy in 1963. The ships were 415 feet in length, with a 49-foot beam, 35,000 HP steam turbine engine and a displacement of 3400 tons.
Commercial ship construction at Defoe was also a major activity after the end of the Second World War.
Iron ore freighter and super carriers of the 600-foot-an-up class were both designed and constructed by Defoe. Ore carriers of the 650-foot class and diesel harbor tugs were amoung the wide variety of other commercial ships designed and constructed.
During the 1920-30 era, custom steel-hull yachts formed a major part of the Defoe business. Yachts up to the 170-foot class - many of which were designed for transoceanic voyages - were delivered to owners in all parts of the Western Hemisphere.
Following World War II, Defoe introduced a unique technique of combining custom interiors and deck arrangements with standardized hulls and machinery, thus permitting customers to enjoy considerable savings from some standardization without the disadvantage of fixed or standard interiors. Customers can vary interior accommodations extensively to suit their own personal tastes and needs.
While the call for large pleasure craft had generally diminished throughout the industry, Defoe remained geared to design and produce major pleasure craft.
The steel fabrication facilities at Defoe functioned also in the field of general havy-steel fabrication.
The fabricating plant constructed the base for the first steam catapult to be built for the U.S. Navy. Utilized today on aircraft carriers for aircraft launching, the pilot unit was successfully installed and tested at Patuxent, Maryland.
Another example of land-based heavy steel fabrication is the caisson anchorage contract which Defoe executed for the world-famous Mackinac Bridge. Pipe structures for the 26,000-foot bridge were sunk into the Straits of Mackinac and caissons were sunk between them to form the major bridge piers.
Steel fabrications for major industrial plants, schools, office buildings and banking structures in the Midwest were also constructed by Defoe.
Defoe also actively engaged in both the reconstruction and conversion of Great Lakes and ocean-going freighters. Fabricating, repair and installation service was offered by Defoe. Reboilering, repowering and the modernization of hulls and ship quarters were also included in custom reconstruction activities.
The converting of ore carriers into self-unloaders was just one of the many types of conversion operations performed at the Defoe yards.