The Ships That Broke Hitler’s Blockade
THE UNITED STATES IS A SEAFARING NATION, AND HAS BEEN SINCE prerevolutionary war shipwrights first trimmed pine trees into masts. During the nineteenth century America pioneered steam power, the fast clipper, and the ironclad, and after World War 1 the U.S. fleet was one of the biggest in the world. But in the years between 1922 and 1937, the nation’s shipyards built only two oceangoing, dry-cargo freighters.
This astonishing figure is easily explained: Nobody wanted to buy new freighters from American yards. Other countries were building them for less, and, even worse for shipyards here, any buyer could choose among harborfuis of cheap freighters left over from World War I. Then the thirties arrived, and Hitler and Mussolini laid the road to another war. Even before the Pearl Harbor attack it was clear that we couldn’t escape this second conflict, whether as combatant or neutral. We would need ships by the thousands. How could we obtain them from a collapsed shipbuilding industry?
Seemingly overnight, the Navy and the Maritime Commission mobilized our heavy industry into spitting out enormous numbers of ships: destroyers, small aircraft carriers, tankers, and freighters. The Maritime Commission alone had 5,695 new ships built. The most numerous of these were the Liberty ships. More Liberties were produced in four years than any other kind of ship before or since: 2,708 of them, from eighteen American shipyards. Intended to last only five years, many remained in service through the sixties. The techniques of mass production and préfabrication and the lessons learned from the occasional failures of these ships have contributed much to the shipbuilding technology of today.
West Coast shipyards headed by Henry J. Kaiser, a can-do construction man with no expertise in shipbuilding, built one-third of those Liberties and almost seven hundred other vessels, from frigates to aircraft carriers. Kaiser’s phenomenal success made him the most famous industrialist of his day. His fastest ship factory was in Richmond, California, on San Francisco Bay. The Richmond plant worked so fast that some ships were finished before the shipyard was; it was so efficient that costs and construction time dropped simultaneously.
The ancestry of the Liberty ship begins in England. In September 1939 Adm. Karl Doenitz of the German Reichsmarine undertook to starve Britain into submission by cutting its shipping routes to America with his submarines. Gathering freighters into convoys helped for a time, but then the U-boats grouped into wolf packs and were deadlier than ever. Finally the crisis reached a point where Britain was using more supplies each month than it received.
After a year of this, Britain needed ships to replace the dozens of freighters being sunk. In September 1940 a small group of British shipbuilders came to the United States with a stack of plans and the authority to order sixty new freighters from American yards. The ship they wanted was almost antique in design; models similar to it had been toting cargo since the late 180Os. It would burn coal, because England was short of oil. It would use an oldfashioned reciprocating steam engine (similar to a locomotive’s engine) rather than powerful steam turbines. But the 135-ton engine was simple and sturdy. A good blacksmith could fix just about anything on it.
Unfortunately the British could not find an established shipyard willing to drop everything and build their ships. Premier American yards like Newport News Shipbuilding, Sun Shipbuilding, and Bethlehem were already glutted with orders, mostly for warships, and anyway their yards were set up to build small numbers of complicated vessels. The British needed something approaching mass production.
With some trepidation the British delegation heard an offer from a group of upstarts headed by Todd Shipyards, a New York company specializing in ship repair. Joining Todd was a consortium of heavy construction companies guided by a builder named Henry J. Kaiser. Kaiser’s only background in ships was the fact that he had bought two old ones to move cement to Hawaii. Todd and the consortium joined to form a company called Todd-California Shipbuilding and offered to build all sixty ocean-class ships in short order, at two new yards: one on San Francisco Bay and another in South Portland, Maine, in partnership with the Bath Iron Works. The British accepted, and the pile driving started in December 1940.
Kaiser brought some special things to the partnership. He had enormous energy and boundless self-confidence. He was so sentimental he named his first blast furnace Big Bess, after his wife. When angered, he was terrifying. And he had the manpower to move real mountains; five thousand seasoned construction workers were finishing up big jobs for him around the country and urgently needed more work. Under his leadership his employees were soon building Liberties faster than anyone else.
Henry Kaiser quit school at age twelve to go to work; before he was twenty, he owned three photography stores and was shuttling between New York and Florida to follow the tourist trade. Dissatisfied, he moved West and entered the construction industry. By 1927 Kaiser was a successful road contractor known for his honesty and speed; he virtually lived on the highway, driving from job to job.
A tough road-building contract in Cuba gave him the money and confidence to try for the mammoth job on the Colorado River called Boulder Dam (later Hoover Dam). He pooled with several other large construction companies and won the contract. Each company did what it knew best; Kaiser’s firm took responsibility for the mountains of sand and gravel required. He personally persuaded Congress and the Roosevelt administration to make timely payments on work completed and took up residence in Washington, D.C., for the duration. The dam went up two years and two months ahead of schedule.
Over the next ten years his companies and partners also built the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams on the Columbia River. They built the piers for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. They erected the world’s largest cement plant, as well as dry docks, subways, aqueducts, roads, a naval air station in Texas, and a third set of locks for the Panama Canal. Everything connected with Kaiser, whether business or pleasure, was done at a dead run. When Kaiser decided to build himself a vacation house on Lake Tahoe, he brought in a huge crew and worked the men night and day. The stone house, complete with guest cottages, boathouse, and lawn, was finished in less than a month.
The first sign that Todd-California would be equally fast at building ships was the fact that just three months after crews had started putting down pilings in the mud alongside San Francisco Bay, the first British freighter began to take shape there. The shipbuilders kept modifying the yard before it was finished, as they came to understand what they were doing. Above all, they learned, they needed space—hundreds of acres to stockpile steel plate and assemble and store large sections like bows and deckhouses. The existing shipyards back East were cramped by comparison.
Virtually nobody at Richmond brought any knowledge of shipbuilding to the employment office. “The shipyard was organized to take care of the fact that I had inexperienced people,” remembers Clay Bedford, who managed the complex for Kaiser. “Out of the ninety-six thousand workers I had, probably eighteen to twenty were experienced shipfitters.” Schools sprang up to train workers by the thousands. So what if certain kinds of arc welding took years of practice? The shipyard would subdivide and rearrange the work to make it so easy that just months of training would suffice. And some inland skills proved valuable. One crew of riggers at the yard was composed largely of ex-ballet dancers, who proved adept at tiptoeing across bulkheads.
By the time Richmond’s first British freighter, the Ocean Vanguard , slid into the water shortly after Pearl Harbor, the United States had decided to build hundreds of ships like it for the American-flag fleet. The only major changes were a shift to oil for fuel and a more efficient boiler. Like the British, we would have preferred a turbine engine, but turbines required precision-cut reduction gears, and gearcutting machinery was in short supply.
Designated the EC-2 and soon dubbed the Liberty ship, the vessel weighed about 3,500 tons empty, was 441 feet long, and could carry more than 9,000 tons of cargo—440 light tanks or 3,000 jeeps. It was adaptable enough to stand conversion into an oil tanker, a mule carrier, a collier, or a troopship (although it proved unpopular with the soldiers; it was slow and rolled unpleasantly).
As the demand for Liberty ships grew, yards to build them were erected all over the country. Kaiser soon built three new shipyards at Richmond and even more elsewhere. The Liberties had to arrive quickly; during 1940 and 1941 the Axis continued to pull ahead in the Battle of the Atlantic, and non-Axis countries lost more than 6 million tons of ships while building less than 2 million tons. In spring 1942 alone, 680,000 tons of ships sank to the ocean bottom.
President Roosevelt and the Maritime Commission remembered that America had attempted a similar crash shipbuilding effort during World War I and failed. We had built more than a thousand ships in record time—but fewer than a dozen were finished before the armistice. There were several reasons World War I shipbuilders couldn’t approach the speed that builders were to achieve just a quartercentury later, even though they did employ some massassembly methods. (The World War I speed record was seven months to build a freighter about two-thirds the size of a Liberty.) One reason was riveting. During World War I arc welding was a stranger to shipyards. Ships were still laboriously stitched together with hundreds of thousands of rivets, each heated to red hot in a small portable furnace, flipped to a catcher, shoved into a hole, and hammered tight by two men with air hammers. Another reason was the small size of the cranes available at the time; preassembled sections were limited to a few tons each. That meant much work had to be done on the launching ways, inside the erowine hull, where space was at a premium.
Still another problem was the nationwide organization of the effort. World War I yards competed fiercely with one another for workmen, tools, and ship’s gear. Nor were the ships standardized. Yards wasted time developing and perfecting their own designs. The Maritime Commission of 1941 avoided these difficulties with the Liberty largely through standardization, arc welding, and the use of huge cranes that made large-scale préfabrication possible.
The commission bought its components from five hundred plants in thirty-two states and passed them out to yards as required. The design was so standardized that virtually every plate, beam, winch, and chain in each ship was completely interchangeable with that in any other. That way components moved from central storage to wherever they were most needed. The commission paid a flat fee per ship completed, with bonuses if the ship required fewer man-hours to build than the commission estimated was reasonable. As time went on, production grew so efficient that the commission kept lowering both the man-hour figure and the fee. In two years of constant innovation and streamlining, shipyards nationwide slashed the average construction time for Liberties by about 80 percent.
Because of the standardized approach, each worker could learn just a few operations and never have to understand what—even in the case of the Liberty—was a very complex structure. To build one required about a half-million manhours and more than a quarter-million pieces. The paperwork required to keep track of everything, Bedford recalls, was staggering.
As in the British design, Liberties were nearly completely welded. The only important riveting fastened the hull, or “shell,” plates to the frame. The Maritime Commission knew that arc welding would be faster than riveting and would produce a lighter and stronger ship: lighter because overlapping joints could be eliminated; stronger because a welded joint is often stronger than the plates it fastens. The disadvantages of arc welding were also known: a weld had to be done right the first time, and this wasn’t easy. Arc welding was comparatively simple when done downhand— flat on a level surface, such as a deck. But it was difficult on a vertical surface and even harder overhead.
The Liberties’ builders didn’t worry about how the ships would take heavy seas; all the engineering was done in advance. They just focused on spreading the work out so the maximum number of workers could preassemble numerous small pieces into the heaviest units cranes could lift. That way work at the shipway would be kept to a minimum. The Kaiser men sent down the huge cranes they had been using on Grand Coulee Dam to pour concrete.
As orders for Liberties and other emergency ships rose, the Richmond complex grew, until it contained four separate shipyards. By late 1942 deckhouses—the three-story accommodation structures at midships—were being put together on a moving assembly line, supported on frameworks that doubled as jigs. Periodically cranes turned the pieces over to allow welders to continue their work downhand. The deckhouse was built in four pieces, hauled to within crane reach on huge trailers, and joined on the ship. The largest section, at seventy-two tons, still didn’t overburden the crane’s capacity because two cranes could share the load simultaneously. The tangle of steam, water, and fuel piping in the engine room, long a time burner, also surrendered to préfabrication. Workers erected the pipes in a mock engine room far from the shipway, complete with a full-size wooden dummy of the engine.
Most of the steel that went into a Liberty was thick plate. World War I shipyards had had to cut and trim steel with huge shears and presses; now shipworkers used oxyacetylene cutting torches and arc welding machines that allowed them to shape and join plate steel as easily as a carpenter works with wood. Arc welding in shipbuilding was about ten years old, though it had been used for decades in steel fabrication. For joints that were straight and flat, a semiautomated welding machine called a “Unionmelt” sped up the process.
When the shipyards outraced the ability of American mills to make plate steel, Kaiser began building his own mill in California. The first furnace started producing just nine months later. Valuable as any machine, though, were Kaiser’s expediters, men who made sure the shipyards received vital equipment on time. During a war, when almost anything useful to industry was on back order, this was no small task. Operating under only two rules—"Never give up” and “No bullying”—the expediters would investigate a delay and find out what was holding the supplier up. Once when an order of cranes for Richmond was backlogged, an expediter found out that the factory had all the materials but no space. He rented a lot and corralled enough workmen to put the cranes together outdoors. Other problems called for rush visits to a supplier’s supplier, to break logjams there. Occasionally the expediters threw off their coats and ran tools themselves. To make sure a vital order didn’t get lost, Kaiser’s men would label a boxcar and pursue it all the way to its destination.
The Richmond complex reached its peak of efficiency with the Robert E. Peary , a ship it built and launched in just over four days, during November 1942. Like so many other achievements, the Peary had its roots in the sort of brisk competition Kaiser encouraged between worker groups. Back at Grand Coulee Dam his managers had divided the dam in half, entrusting each half to a different set of workers. A billboard, changed daily, let everyone know which half was winning. In September 1942 a similar competition started when the Kaiser shipyard in Portland, Oregon, set a record by launching a Liberty ship ten days after the keel had gone down. President Roosevelt himself came out to watch it hit the water.Record-Breaker: The Robert E. Peary
Many of the Oregon Shipbuilding employees were friends with Richmond shipworkers down south, and the chaffing started immediately through the mails: Why was Richmond being so slow? That fall Clay Bedford came across a prefabricated bulkhead in Richmond’s Yard No. 2 that didn’t belong there, and he hunted up the supervisor to ask about it. Bedford discovered that the workers had already started preparing to build a ship in record time that Oregon Shipbuilding couldn’t beat. Bedford obtained the official goahead to prepare for a record-breaking effort on Hull 440.
Workers contributed hundreds of suggestions for quicker work. More than half of the welding and riveting was finished before any pieces of the Peary started appearing on Shipway No. 1. The bow arrived on the shipway as two pieces; the stern, as three. Work was so hurried that the name was even painted on the bow while it was still in sections. Altogether the ship was subdivided into ninetyseven large sections.
The clock started running just after midnight on a Sunday morning in November. Two hours later the ship’s bottom shell was done. By noon the engine was in place. After a day half the ship’s steel was attached. After two days the hull all the way up to the upper deck was done, and the engine was running. The superstructure went on during the third day, and the fourth day was spent on finishing up details like painting and wiring. To save time at the outfitting dock, the deckhouse went onto the ship complete with inkwells, coat hangers, electric clocks, mirrors, and life belts. At four days and fifteen hours, the ship slid down the launching ways. After three more days at the outfitting dock, the Peary left Richmond for its sea trials.
Though founded in schoolboylike rivalry, the record was not a hollow one. Even counting the time spent in special preparations for speed, the Peary took thousands fewer man-hours to build than previous Liberties. Many lessons were learned, and the average time on the shipway dropped by almost a quarter for subsequent ships. (Altogether Richmond built about five hundred Liberties.)
By then merchant ships were sliding down the ways around the country at the rate of three a day, but it still wasn’t fast enough. In 1942 the Allies floated eleven million tons of new ships, eight million built in the United States, but lost twelve million tons to war. Finally, in 1943, the shipbuilding juggernaut, working together with improved antisubmarine warfare, overwhelmed Axis warships and submarines. America delivered twenty million tons of ships, including the new Victory ships, which were longer and faster than the Liberties. A maximum speed of eleven knots was the Liberty ship’s weakest feature; the Victory offered seventeen.
Another problem with the Liberty was a scary tendency to crack—usually in cold weather and in rough seas. One summary of an accident aboard a Liberty crossing the North Atlantic in March 1944 states: “A loud report, followed by two smaller ones, was heard .… Immediately afterward, the forward end of the ship separated from the after end and floated away.” Few Liberties actually split in half, but hundreds sustained cracks in their steel plates. When reports started reaching the press, there was no shortage of theories: poor workmanship, too much cargo, or substandard materials. The most widely held theory was something called “locked-in stress.” This held that welding always sealed a certain amount of heat-related stress into a structure and that this stress could escape later to break the ship apart. The Navy convened a panel to find the cause.
What they found is still important to ships being built today, according to J. Harvey Evans, a professor emeritus of naval architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It turned out that the simplest way to solve the problem was to change the composition of the steel,” says Evans. Carefully controlling the ratio of carbon to manganese in the steel plate made the steel tougher.
A contributing problem lay in the original design of the Liberties. Stress was gathering at a few weak points and causing cracks that spread faster than the speed of sound. When a ship rides the waves, the hull bends up and down at the center, depending on where the waves are. The upper decks of a ship absorb a lot of the tension and compression this bending causes; unfortunately these decks are interrupted frequently by openings for ventilators, stairways, and hatches, and stress carried by the steel deck has to detour around these holes. Round holes are safest, because stress runs smoothly around circles without bunching up excessively. But the Liberty had hatch openings with businesslike square corners. Invisible lines of stress gathered at these sharp corners. Of the serious fractures suffered by Liberties, about half started at hatch corners. Another quarter started at a notch in the ship’s side near the deckhouse that was there to make room for a ladder.
Welding was indeed part of the problem, because a welded ship is a continuous, single piece, while a riveted ship is really a bunch of plates sewn together. A crack running through one riveted plate comes to a halt at the edge and has to begin all over again at the adjacent plate. A crack in a welded ship, on the other hand, can pass effortlessly through a weld to the next plate and the one after. But retreating to an all-riveted ship was out of the question. The solution adopted was rounded corners and braces at weak points. Liberties also got riveted seams at key points to stop the spread of cracks. Altogether the number of ships suffering fractures each month (several types of freighters, not just Liberties, shared the cracking problem) fell by more than 80 oercent after the changes were made.
The important thing about the Liberty fractures, adds Professor Evans, is that this was the first time ship designers really got a close, thorough look at a given ship’s performance. The population of these nearly identical ships was so large that everything that could happen to a ship happened. Liberties were exposed to horrible conditions: decks were overloaded; the ships plunged through the worst storms; they took torpedoes and bombs. Some Liberties survived attacks that would have sunk earlier freighters.
Shipbuilders around the world have applied the lessons learned from the Liberty fractures, says Professor Evans, mainly in understanding the importance of precisely alloyed steel. But there are no mass-production shipyards like the Liberty shipyards anymore. Today American shipyards concentrate on small numbers of expensive and sophisticated ships like missile cruisers. Most new freighters emerge from yards in Japan and Korea. “The Japanese took the [Liberty ship production] technology with them after the war, and now they’re killing us with it,” comments Charles Cherrix, the chief of naval architecture at the U.S. Maritime Administration. “Now we’re learning from them.” Shipbuilding is more automated now, and the prefabricated sections are much heavier, but the techniques of unit assembly perfected during World War II are still recognizable.
Ironically, one reason the United States has allowed its shipbuilding industry to dwindle into a weak shadow of its wartime past may be the happy memory of the Liberty program. “I can’t help but think that the models of production efficiency we achieved during World War II are responsible for some of this complacency,” Professor Evans says. “There is the feeling that if we could turn ships out in five days then, we could do it again if we needed to.”
The last Liberty was built in June 1945, and almost all the Liberties are gone now. Most went to ship-breakers’ yards for scrap. Some have been cut up and reassembled into barges for the coastal trade. A few, deliberately sunk in shallow waters, serve fish as artificial reefs. Only one is known to survive intact: the Jeremiah O’Brien , docked at a San Francisco pier as centerpiece of the National Liberty Ship Memorial. Several times yearly volunteers fire up the original boiler and cruise around the bay.
The O’Brien carries no freight but holds a lot of cargo nonetheless. It carries some of the credit for ending the blockade that almost won Hitler World War II. And it represents a feat of production, started almost overnight and led by amateurs, unrivaled in history.