Emergency Shipbuilding program

Emergency Shipbuilding program

The Emergency Shipbuilding Program (late 1940-September 1945) was a United States government effort to quickly build simple cargo ships to carry troops and materiel to allies and foreign theatres during World War II. Run by the U.S. Maritime Commission, the program built almost 6,000 ships.


By the fall of 1940, the British Merchant Navy (equivalent to the United States Merchant Marine) was being sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic by Germany's U-Boats faster than Great Britain could replace them. Led by Sir Arthur Salter, a group of men called the British Merchant Shipping Mission came to North America from the UK to enlist U.S. and Canadian shipbuilders to construct merchant ships. As all existing U.S. shipyards capable to constructing oceangoing merchant ships were already occupied by either work of building ships for the U.S. Navy or for the U.S. Maritime Commission's Long Range Shipbuilding Program which had begun three years previously to fulfill the goals set forth in the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, the Mission negotiated with a consortium of companies made up of the existing U.S. ship repairer Todd Shipyards which had its headquarters in New York City in league with the shipbuilder Bath Iron Works located in Bath, Maine. The new yard, called the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation was to be an entirely new facility located on a piece of mostly vacant land located adjacent to Cummings Point in South Portland, Maine for the purpose of building thirty cargo ships. The Mission likewise, negotiating with a different consortium made up of Todd along with a group of heavy construction companies in the Western U.S. for the building of a new shipyard in the San Francisco Bay area for construction of thirty ships identical to those to be built in Maine. That yard was to be called the Todd-California Shipbuilding Corp. It was slated to be built on the tide flats of Richmond on the east side of the Bay. The construction companies that made up the second half of that corporation had no experience building ships but did have an extensive resume with the construction of highways, bridges and major public works projects such as the Hoover Dam, the Bonneville Dam and the massive Grand Coulee Dam. Known as the Six Companies, the members included two companies which were to become driving powers in wartime merchant shipbuilding during the ensuing years and the men behind those companies were Henry J. Kaiser who headed the Kaiser Companies and [http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKmccone.htm J.A. McCone] who lead the Bechtel/McCone Company.

Contracts for both yards and the ships was signed on December 20, 1940. All the ships to be built were collectively called the "Ocean" class and to be of an existing British design for 5-hatch cargo ships of about 10,000 tons' load displacement and 11 knots' service speed using obsolete, but readily available, triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine and coal-fired Scotch-type fire tube boilers. The first of these vessels, the SS "Ocean Vanguard" was launched at the Todd-California yard on October 15, 1941.

The early years

With the defense of both the U.S. and its overseas possessions along with a very strong national interest in assisting Great Britain in its struggle to keep its supply lines open to both North America and its overseas Colonies, President Franklin Roosevelt announced what was to become known as the Emergency Shipbuilding Program on January 3, 1941 for the construction of 200 ships very much similar to those being built for the British. He designated that the Program be implemented and administered by the Maritime Commission which since 1937 had been the Federal government department tasked with Merchant Marine development and which had worked very closely with the British Mission in placing its 60 ship order. Immediately the Commission authorized that the two yards building for the British build ships for the U.S. upon completion of their current contracts. The Maritime Commission also funded the yards to add building ways and realizing that more that two yards would be needed for the program they were expecting to enter into contracts to build new shipyards on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts of the U.S. In this first wave of expansion seven additional yards were added to those in Maine and California and like those yards were to be for the sole purpose of building only the Emergency type of ships. While all the yards were to be built by private contractors and operated by commercial shipbuilding companies, the new yards were financed by the Maritime Commission with funds authorized by Congress and thus owned by Federal Government. One of the new yards planned for construction was to be in Baltimore, Maryland by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. That facility became known as the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard for the Fairfield section of Baltimore where it was located. Bethlehem Steel was one of the nation's largest shipbuilding companies having construction yards on the East Coast in Quincy, Massachusetts, on Staten Island, New York and at Sparrows Point, also in Baltimore. On the West Coast it had yards in San Pedro and San Francisco. Another was to be in Wilmington, North Carolina and managed by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Newport News, Virginia, which had one of the largest commercial yards in the U.S. and by 1941 was exclusively building large combatant ships for the Navy. That yard was to be called the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company.

Additionally, yards were authorized to be built on the Gulf of Mexico coast at Mobile, Alabama which was to be operated by the Mobile based Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company, in New Orleans on the Industrial Canal to be known as the Delta Shipbuilding Company and operated by the American Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio, one at Houston, Texas on the Houston Ship Channel to be operated by Todd Shipyards and called the Todd-Houston Shipbuilding Corp. On the West Coast, one yard was contracted to be built in Los Angeles at Terminal Island and managed by the Bechtel/McCone Company. That yard would be called the California Shipbuilding Corporation or CalShip for short. The Kaiser Corporation itself received a contract to build a new yard on the Columbia River at Portland, Oregon which would be known as the Oregon Shipbuilding Corp.

The emergency ships

The ships which all the yards were contracted to build were first designated by the Maritime Commission as EC2-S-C1 but because they were designed for capacity and rapid construction as opposed to speed and gracefulness lacked streamlined appearance of the more modern ship designs of the Maritime Commission such as the standard freighters type C2 ships or type C3 ships, the President had declared them to be "dreadful looking objects" and from that the term "Ugly Duckling" became the unofficial name for the emergency vessels. It was not until April 1941 that the vessels collectively were being officially referred to as the "Liberty Fleet" ships and not long after the term "Liberty Ship" became the standard name applied to all vessels of the class. Like their British counterparts, the Ocean class, the Liberty ships were of a 5 hatch design of approximately 10000 tons loaded displacement powered by the same size triple expansion reciprocating steam engines but using more modern oil fired water-tube boilers. Overall they were somewhat antiquated for the era and there was some quiet objection on the part of some of the members of the Maritime Commission to devoting so many valuable resources to their construction. Some believed that fewer although faster ships would be able to move as much cargo since with their added speed they could make more voyages in any given year, but faster and more complex ships required more time to build and more importantly, required steam turbines in order to gain the additional speed. In 1941, the manufacturers of steam turbines in the U.S., companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse and Allis Chalmers, did not have adequate production capacity to build all the turbines demanded the Navy or for the Maritime Commissions standard dry cargo ships or tankers it was intending to still build. In the end, it was decided that what the looming war was going to require were ships which could be built quickly using prefabrication by workers relatively unskilled in shipbuilding and in greatest numbers with the available resources. With that, the Liberty ship was adopted as the only emergency type to be built and thus shared by all of the new emergency shipyards. While all the new yards were able to get their first keels laid in a very short period of time, the first of the Liberty ships to be launched was the SS Patrick Henry which rolled down the ways at the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard on September 27, 1941.

The program grows as war nears

As 1941 progressed, the construction of the emergency yards accelerated rapidly and keels laid upon the new building ways. Well before the first wave of expansion was underway or the original sixty British ships were delivered, shortly after the Lend-Lease Bill was passed by Congress in March, a second wave of 306 additional ships were ordered. The ships ordered this second wave included 112 emergency type, the remainder were standard type vessels and tankers. This additional number of ships required additional building ways, so the Maritime Commission authorized new ways to be added to the yards in both the Long Range and Emergency Programs and also contracted for a second yard to be built for the Kaiser managed yards in Richmond, California. After this time the original Kaiser yard became known as Richmond #1 and the new yard as Richmond #2.

After the May 27 [http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/052741.html Declaration of Unlimited National Emergency] by the President, the Emergency Program was further expanded in a third wave. To accommodate the addition of more ships to be built, additional ways were added to the yards in the program and the schedule of construction accelerated to build more ships per shipway per year. In total this increase raised the planned output of all merchant shipbuilders to approximately 500 ships (5 million total deadweight tons) for 1942 and 700 ships (7 million tons) in 1943.

Further expansion after the U.S. entry into World War II

The December 7, 1941 Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of the U.S. into the war caused all previously established production schedules to be further revised dramatically upward. With the need to assist Britain replace its lost tonnage and to provide adequate ships to the Army to transport troops and supplies to foreign theaters, in January 1942 President Roosevelt asked that 8 million tons of shipping be built in 1942 and 10 million in 1943. This Fourth Wave of Expansion involved further shortening the time for building the ships as well as the further addition of building ways at the existing yards and to add new yards to the emergency program. In early 1942, yards for building Liberty Ships were contracted to be built in Vancouver, Washington to be managed by the Kaiser Corporation and a yard in Savannah, Georgia which was to be operated by a new company named Savannah Shipyards although they had no previous experience with building ships. New yards also contracted to be built at this time, but not for the emergency type ships, were a third yard in Richmond, also to be managed by the Kaiser Corporation, a yard in Alameda, California to be managed by Bethlehem. This Fourth Wave brought to total number of building ways available to the Commission to 221.

Incredibly, the 18 millions tons of cargo ships (roughly equal to 1800 10000 ton Liberty ships) was determined by early February 1942 by the Joint Chief's of Staff to not be adequate for anticipated needs and thus the President directed the Maritime Commission to increase the orders to the equivalent of 24 million tons. With no certainty that astonishing quantity of ships could be built before the end of 1943, the Commission increased their contracts with the existing yards for more building ways and to contract for more shipyards to build Liberty ships as well as to build other types of vessels such as tankers, troop transports and military type vessels. For the construction of Liberty type ships, a new yard was ordered to be built at Providence, Rhode Island to be managed by the Rheem Corporation, a new yard in Brunswick, Georgia which would be managed by the J.A. Jones Construction Company, another in Jacksonville, Florida which would be operated by the Merrill-Stevens Boatbuilding Company of Miami, a yard in Panama City, Florida which would also be managed by J.A. Jones and,, a yard at Sausalito, California to be managed by the Bechtel/McCone Group. For non Liberty ship construction the Commission ordered another addition yard in Richmond to be managed as the others there, by Kaiser, to be known as Richmond #4 and a yard at Swan Island on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon for the construction of tankers.

Impacts of the program on war production and to society

Material shortages

While this rapid expansion was taking place, all other defense industries were also in a maximum production mode to accommodate the orders being placed by the Federal Government for all other manner of military equipment which included the massive wartime Naval Expansion program begun in 1940 with the passage of the Two Ocean Navy Act. So much growth in demand happening simultaneously in industries sharing common materials inevitably led to shortages in steel, propulsion machinery and most all other manner of ship equipment. In many cases the shortages effected the Emergency Program more than it did the Navy's since its programs were deemed of higher priority in the eyes of the many wartime boards set up for deciding on where scare resources would be allocated. All along the way, the Navy made claim to as much of the raw materials, steel, machinery, manufacturing plant allocations, and labor that it could get. Mostly, this imbalance occurred because the Maritime Commission lacked the clout that the Military Branches possessed and that clout ultimately swayed entities such as the Supply Priorities and Allocation Board (otherwise known as SPAB) to decide in favor of the Navy's demands. This disproportionate allocation regime often left the Maritime Commission without the resources needed to accomplish the goals established for it by President Roosevelt and it was only through direct appeal to FDR by Admiral Land that enough of the critical resources made it to the Emergency Program. These shortages were their most severe during all of 1941 and through much of 1942, but additional steel rolling and plate mills as well as expanded propulsion machinery manufacturing capability reduced many of those shortages in the course of 1943, however they were never fully eliminated up until the end of the war.

Manpower shortages in early days of the program and recruitment of new sources of labor

Another effect of the breakneck growth in production in the early years of the War, was a labor shortage in the towns and cities that the emergency shipyards were being built. Since there had been a de facto drought in shipbuilding work in the U.S. for nearly two decades, the number of experienced shipbuilders was quite small at the war's start. Additionally, many of those towns and cities which new yards were to be built had not been major shipbuilding centers before 1941, it was in these yards where the shortage of men skilled in the shipbuilding trades was most felt. In order to overcome this shortage, an aggressive recruiting program was undertaken by both the Commission and the companies operating the shipyards. Since many of the Emergency yards were being managed by established ship building or repair companies, they could send some of their more skilled men to get "the new facilities on their feet and running". What was needed however was a labor force with abilities to accomplish heavy industrial and mechanical work. To find this labor, recruiting was directed towards areas of the nation's hinterland which had only a few years before found themselves in the depths of the Great Depression in the not mistaken belief that men used to keeping farm machinery operating could built ships as well. To get these former farmers to decide to take up shipbuilding was not too difficult an undertaking because the wages offered to these previously poor men were much higher had ever been offered to such working class Americans before. This opportunity to earn a good working man's wage showed the way to a possible future where life might provide better security than in the poverty years of the 1930s and that was all that was needed to get people on the move. It was not uncommon for entire families to make the pilgrimage from places such as the Dust Bowl regions of Texas and Oklahoma to the shipbuilding centers on the West Coast or the Gulf of Mexico. With such a rapid influx of new workers to these communities however there were acute shortages in housing, schools and other needed services. Along with building new shipyards and ships, there was a need to build all the necessities for many workers to live in most of the largest shipbuilding centers such as Richmond, California and Portland, Oregon. Needless to say that just about any skilled trade had steady employment in those communities throughout the course of the war.

Women and minorities enter the shipbuilding workforce

Before the War, shipbuilding had been exclusively a male occupation, but the need to reach out to new sources of labor for the Emergency yards created opportunities for women to gain employment in the many trades which are needed to construct a ship. While there was not as much riveting as welding in the building of the emergency ships, the popular symbolic figure of Rosie the Riveter partly sprung from the wartime shipyard where a new cadre of female ship fitters suddenly developed. Additionally, in the deep South where African Americans had been excluded from the higher paying industrial and manufacturing employment, there was such a shortage of labor for the yards on the Gulf that reluctant employers had to accept that black labor was required in order to meet production goals. In the end, it was shown the record productivity for Negro labor in the Gulf Shipyards was no lower than for any other group employed.

Training for new workers and new shipbuilding techniques

Since many of the workers hired for the new yards had no shipbuilding experience prior to being hired, schools were set up in the individual shipyards as well as in the local school systems of the host cities. One of the factors that led to the great success of the Emergency Program was to change the shipbuilding arts from one where a man had to progress through a many years long apprenticeship up to become a journeyman and then many years later, a master in their chosen trade. The use of welding allowed ships to be built in modular sections eliminating the time consuming and highly skilled shipfitting of individual hull pieces to be riveted in place on the building ways. Prefabrication allowed a much more streamlined approach to the building of a ship more akin towards modern manufacturing assembly processes where a worker would be tasked with doing one small task in the many thousands of tasks required to assemble a ship. With volume production, that worker could be employed doing that same task repetitively which would ultimately lead to high productivity due to a worker becoming a master of his assigned task very quickly. Old-timers would scoff at the way the Liberty ships were built by "farmers" as they would say, but the results were far beyond what anyone might have imagined in 1940 when the program began.

Movement of workers to and from the wartime shipyards

As successful as the Maritime Commission and the shipbuilding companies were in their recruiting efforts, the scale of the national wartime economy was so great that there was always a degree of a labor shortage in the yards although the shortfall in manpower became more severely felt in the later years of the war. Many of the men employed in the yards in the first years of the program were of age for the draft and as the war progressed more and more of these men left the wars to serve in the military. Other war industries also competed for labor and many of the cities and towns that hosted shipyards also had other labor intensive wartime industries such as aircraft plants. In many cases, the wages were close to what could be earned at a shipyard for work which was not as physically taxing so there was a slow but steady movement of labor from one defense industry to another and often shipbuilding lost more labor than it gained.

The program reaches full production

By the 2nd half of 1942 the yards contracted in the first waves of expansion were fully built and those yards had completed three or more ships per building way. The time for building the ships fell dramatically as experience was gained by the workers in their jobs and by the management in each yard in the most effective means to do the construction. One factor which played a major part in getting the productivity so high was the use of welding and prefabrication in which large sections of each ship's hull or superstructure would be built off the building ways and then moved into position only when the assemblers were ready. This method became so efficient that a single Liberty ship to be fully assembled, launched, outfitted and delivered went from a program average of almost 240 days at the beginning of 1942 to only 56 days at the end of the year. At the most productive yards on the West Coast, Oregon Ship and Richmond #2, the time a single vessel spent on the ways before launching was only a little more than two weeks. Two particular ships were built in record breaking amounts of time. First in September 1942 the Liberty ship SS Joseph N. Teal was built Oregon Shipbuilding in 10days. Two months later in November at Richmond yard #2, the SS Robert E. Peary was launching in only 4days15hours29minutes from the time her keel was laid. While not ever met or repeated during the remainder of World War II, these "stunt" ships came only a little more than one years after the first ships ordered as part of the Emergency Program were launched themselves.

As coming into play during this time was a de facto combining of the both the Long Range Shipbuilding Program with the Emergency and oversight of the yards became decentralized into four separate Regional Directors. The Programs added together at the peak of output in mid 1943 ultimately employed 650,000 workers in all the Maritime Commission contracted yards and unknown tens of thousands more manufacturing the components need to assemble the ships. It was not without hurdles which needed to be overcome to reach the levels of production achieved. The Maritime Commission struggled throughout 1942 and the first half on 1943 to get enough steel allocated to it from the War Production Board. With plate mills around the country running beyond their normal capacity, the demand for plate by all war industries, but especially the Navy's shipbuilding was still more than could be made. It was not until the 2nd half on 1943 when new or expanded plate production facilities came online, that the shortage to steel plate abated. Additionally, there were constant shortages of many of the parts which were shared between Navy and Merchant vessels such as pumps and valves. Still with all the hurdles faced, the Maritime Commission and the yards contracted to it were able to deliver 8million tons of shipping to the war effort by the end of 1942 and more than 12million tons in 1943.

Changes to ship design and types during 1943

By the time that Liberty ship construction was reaching its maximum output rate in early 1943, it became clear to military planners and the Maritime Commission that it was preferable to slow the rate of the building Liberty class vessels and begin building a class with a higher operating speed. What was decided was to begin building a class no larger than the Liberty class but with steam turbine propulsion. The shortage of turbines having been relieved by the expansion of turbine manufacturing capacity during 1941 and 1942. Beginning in March 1943, with enough turbines, the Victory ship or VC2 type cargo vessels were contracted for at all of the West Coast yards which had been previously building Liberties as well as at the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard. The first of the new class, the SS UNITED VICTORY being completed and delivered at Oregon Shipbuilding in February 1944. All the other yards building Liberty ships continued to do so although many of those yards would begin building specialized military type vessels for the Navy such as landing ships, troops transports, frigates and escort aircraft carriers. Originally, military types were not expected to be a part of the Maritime Commission's wartime building programs but the Joint Chiefs of Staff required a high number for specialized vessels be built for upcoming military operations. When was determined that there was an inability for Navy contracted yards to meet that demand, the Maritime Commission was tasked if it could switch some of its production to meet the Navy's needs. Some types of very designed with only military purpose but which could be built along the standards of merchant vessels. This was especially true of the auxiliary naval vessels which supported the combat ships and landing ships such as LSTs which had been one of the types in especially short supply in 1943.

Similarly, it was determined early in the Program that having a sufficient number of oil tankers would become as important, if not more so, than dry cargo ships for the war effort. In the fourth wave of expansion in 1942, the Commission increased the Programs orders for the construction of T2 and T3 type tankers . Ultimately, five yards would become committed to tanker construction . Sun Shipbuilding in Chester, PA and Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point which had both been principally building tankers since the beginning of the program. Alabama Shipbuilding yard in Mobile & the MarinShip yard at Sausalito switched from building Liberty ships to tanker construction and the previously mentioned new yard at Swan Island in Portland, OR managed by the Kaiser Group was built to construct tankers exclusively.

Program summary

hipyards in the program

By the end of World War II, the list of shipyards building for the Maritime Commission comprised the following (yards in "italics" were yards which did not exist prior to the Emergency Program's start in 1940):

hips built by type

(1)includes 60 British type


*Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II, by Frederic C. Lane. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950. ISBN 0-8018-6752-5
*The Shipbuilding Business in the United States of America, By Frederick Gardiner Fassett. Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1948, ISBN (not available)

External links

* [http://www.usmm.org History of the U.S. Merchant Marine since the Revolution]
* [http://www.us-maritime-commission.de/ Shipbuilding Under the U.S. Maritime Commission 1936 to 1950]
* [http://www.coltoncompany.com/shipbldg/ussbldrs/wwii.htm Construction Records of U.S. Shipbuilding in World War II]

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