Recently, the Naval War College temporarily made available to another facility its handsome model of a highly significant war craft, the USS Stiletto. The loan prompted this writer to share the story of its influence on modern naval warfare.
The Herreshoff brothers had already earned a reputation for small boat design and construction as well as integrating their exceptionally well-designed steam engines. When launched as a private yacht in 1885 by John and Nathaniel Herreshoff at their Bristol yard, it was clear Stiletto was built for both beauty and speed. To prove the point, the Herreshoffs brought her to New York Harbor to race the Hudson River’s fastest steamship, the 300-foot long Mary Powell.
On June 10, 1885, the little Stiletto (at 94 feet) handily beat the much larger steamer in a 30-mile run finishing two miles ahead of her competitor and averaging a speed of15 knots. She went on to repeat a similar performance the very next day in the American Yacht Club Regatta, between Larchmont, NY and New London, CT. She beat the large schooner yacht Atalanta by 40 minutes. Unfortunately, Stiletto failed to properly round the finish line buoy and was not awarded the regatta prize. But, she had gotten the attention of the U.S. Navy.
Around the same time, the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, RI, established in 1869 on Goat Island, had begun to engage in the development of self-propelled torpedoes. Already in use in Europe, the Navy had dragged its heels on importation of the so-called automobile torpedo. It preferred to develop a homegrown weapon. Initial experiments were not successful. However, the Navy found a winner in the Howell torpedo, the brainchild of Navy Lieutenant John Howell, who had perfected his design in 1870. The Navy now needed a vehicle to launch this new weapon and that was the Stiletto.
In 1887, the US Navy purchased Stiletto from the Herreshoffs for $25,000 and converted her to use in Newport, RI, as an experimental torpedo boat. She was officially commissioned in July of 1888 as Wooden Torpedo Boat 1 and continued in that role for nearly 25 years. She spent her entire service life at the Naval Torpedo Station. During that time, she was outfitted with bow and deck launch tubes.
She was the first vessel to launch the self-propelled Howell torpedo. Stiletto began her life as a coal-burner and was converted to oil in 1897 (but that experiment proved to be disappointing). Nevertheless, Stiletto continued to serve and was joined in 1890 by the 138-foot USS Cushing (TB-1), the first purpose-built torpedo boat (and also a Herreshoff product), quickly followed by several more such craft, each a little more sophisticated in design and performance. The Cushing was named for Civil War Lieutenant William Cushing, who sank the Confederate ironclad Albermarle using a crude spar torpedo and proving the value of such weaponry.
Stiletto was a familiar sight on Narragansett Bay. She augmented a barge-mounted test launcher used at the Torpedo Station and in the Sakonnet River. She was a tough little craft, sustaining repeated damage from storms over the years and was even sunk by accident in 1897 when her boiler was accidentally dropped through her hull during maintenance. She was raised and put back in service. In 1900, she successfully participated in major naval maneuvers simulating an attack on Newport Harbor.
Moments after firing a dummy torpedo at the “enemy” battleship Massachusetts, Stiletto’s pilot was blinded by the warship’s searchlight and the little torpedo boat rammed the pier at Fort Adams,Newport, RI. In 1908, she suffered another major accident when the Navy’s oldest serving torpedo boat was rammed by the torpedo station’s steam launch near the north end of Goat Island. Stiletto managed to make the Newport shoreline and was beached near Walnut Street before she could sink.
Stiletto never saw active duty, although her successors were involved in the Spanish-American War with the Atlantic Fleet. She was finally struck from the Navy list on January 27, 1911 and sold in July of that year to James Nolan of East Boston for scrapping. As though she hated to leave the familiar waters of Newport, Stiletto gave up the ghost on October 23, 1912 and sank at her mooring at the Newport Foundry and Machine Works.
By then, the Navy had perfected the role of the torpedo boat destroyer, making further major strides during World War I. The Howell torpedo was superseded around the turn of the century by an American licensed version of the European Whitehead device (manufactured in New York and here in Rhode Island). The little Stiletto and the early torpedo boat destroyers were quickly eclipsed by initial incarnations of what would evolve into the famed four-stackers of World War I.
The legacy of the Stiletto, however, eventually emerged in the famed PT boats of WW II. A little smaller than Stiletto (at 78 and 80 feet), they were familiar sights as their crews trained on the Bay from their base in Melville). Considerably faster and better armed than their ancestor, they carried on her tradition as fast attack torpedo boats. The many classes of Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts ably demonstrated the effectiveness of the technology pioneered before the turn of the 20th century by the speedy little Stiletto.
At the Naval War College Museum, the only surviving example of the Navy’s original and unsuccessful automobile torpedo, known as the Fish, sits beside one of only three existing examples of the Howell. The handsome model of the Stiletto is displayed with other examples of torpedo delivery vessels as part of the overall story of the evolution of undersea weaponry that began here in 1869. Although the Torpedo Station ceased operations in 1950, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Newport, RI, adjacent to Naval Station Newport continues to advance underwater weaponry and technology.
If you visit the Naval War College Museum (and it is well worth the trip), my fellow docents and I will gladly share in greater detail the development of undersea warfare pioneered right here in Narragansett Bay.