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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sail On

Allan Nevins

published by
United States Lines

The text is in the public domain.

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 p87  Chapter Six

Frontiers of the Seven Seas

Shipbuilding in a World Crisis

"One of the most important events to take place in the world this year" — such was President Roosevelt's comment upon the launching of the liner America, the largest ever built in the United States, on August 31, 1939. For most Americans that event was almost lost in the spate of news that attended the opening of the Second World War by the Nazi invasion of Poland the very next day. Built at Newport News for the United States Lines, the America had been intended to enter the New York-Europe service alongside the Manhattan and Washington. Instead of proudly taking the North Atlantic waters, the splendid ship had to make her maiden voyage to West Indian islands.

Was her launch really, as Roosevelt said, an event of the highest importance in a year which will be remembered as one of the most momentous in modern history? No, of course, simply as the addition of another great liner to the passenger fleets of the world. But as a symbolic event, as a token that the United States reawakened to the maritime ambitions of its earlier history, as heralding to the globe the fact that the republic intended to reestablish a leading position among seafaring nations, the launching might really prove to be an epochal occurrence. We were at least entitled to hope so.

 p89  The construction program upon which the Maritime Commission had embarked in 1937 was comparatively modest. That government agency made no effort to replace all the ships of the old merchant navy then approaching obsolescence. To do that would have meant building at least 250 ships every year, of about 1,500,000 gross tons, and might have cost $750,000,000 annually — and the world had no place for that many ships. But the Commission did propose to see that 500 good new ships were built within ten years. The first of these to be completed were twelve high-speed tankers constructed for the Standard Oil of New Jersey, with the government paying the cost of certain national defense features. By the end of 1938, the Commission had contracted for fifty‑two new ships, at a total cost of almost $146,000,000. That was a beginning.

But as the Second World War burst upon the world, it became imperative to expand and accelerate the shipbuilding program. The Commission took immediate steps to do so, ordering in 1939 a total of 89 vessels. This made a total of 141 ships for which contracts were let in 1938‑39, with a value of approximately $350,000,000. Work on the vessels was pushed with all possible speed. By the end of 1939, no fewer than thirty‑six of them (including the America) had been launched.

As the flames of war spread and the sinister purposes of the fascist powers declared themselves, it became the policy of the American government to support the democracies of western Europe in every way possible short of war. When in the late spring of 1940 the Nazis overran Holland and Belgium, overthrew France, and threatened the invasion of England, the United States was eager to lend the British Commonwealth of Nations — then left standing alone — every possible assistance. A desperate cry for help on the high seas came from the British government. Once more  p90 the German submarines were threatening to cut the vital arteries connecting the British Isles with the rest of the world. The transfer of fifty over‑age destroyers to the British flag furnished a partial solution of the problem. But it was only partial; more shipping was needed, and that at once.

What could be done? The American neutrality laws still forbade our vessels to enter British waters. British shipyards were overburdened, and much of their facilities and manpower were devoted to the repair of damaged vessels and the building of essential naval units, leaving little room for new merchant ship construction. Faced with disaster, the British appealed for an opportunity to build vessels in American yards.

This meant the creation of new yards, for the existing ways on our side of the Atlantic were crowded with Maritime Commission vessels and with new warships for the American Navy. The British had a well-tested design ready; a 10,000‑ton freighter which, though slow, was sturdy and serviceable, and could be built in a hurry. American naval architects adapted this design to American materials and methods, and work was swiftly gotten under way in two new yards built in Maine and California. This British program was invaluable to hard-pressed Britain. It was also important to the United States for the new enterprise, new construction facilities, and new ideas it had brought into the shipbuilding industry.

The American Miracle

Meanwhile, as the danger of American involvement in the war grew, the Administration enlarged its own shipbuilding program. Before 1940 ended, President Roosevelt ordered the construction of an emergency fleet of 200 vessels in addition to those for which the Maritime Commission had already contracted; and  p91 he shortly added 112 more ships to this schedule. Immediately making available to the Commission fifty million dollars out of the funds granted him for emergency defense purposes, he appealed to Congress for more money.

The Commission therefore undertook in 1940‑41 an immense expansion of the shipbuilding facilities of the nation. The Todd Corporation and the Kaiser interests played a part in furnishing the new yards needed, rapidly constructing shipyards on the East, West, and Gulf coasts. But other important new companies were now brought into activity. The Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipbuilding Company began erecting a tremendous new yard near Baltimore, the Newport News Shipbuilding Company put up another near Wilmington, and the Delta Shipbuilding Company, anxious to make use of Louisiana capital and labor, a third at New Orleans.

As shipbuilding ways were thus multiplied, almost unlimited sums of money were made available for new vessels, and, as government officials and businessmen labored frenziedly to get the new keels laid down, the question arose of the design to be followed. The Maritime Commission studied the British model carefully. It had stood the usage of long years in many rough services, for Tyneside builders had made the world familiar with it; it was so simple that construction would be easy; and though slow, it would be fast enough for general freight service in the war. The fact that it used reciprocating engines was an advantage, for the country lacked manufacturing facilities for making more Diesel motors and steam turbines than were already needed by the navy and for other essential purposes. The government therefore decided to improve the British design and put it into quantity production. The result was the Liberty ship, the center of the first phase of the war‑emergency effort in the new shipyards. The first of these vessels built for the Maritime Commission, the Patrick Henry, was  p92 launched by the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard at Baltimore late in 1941, and delivered to the Commission on the last day of the year.

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Before it was delivered, Pearl Harbor had stunned the country. The United States was suddenly fighting the first two‑ocean war in its history. It was confronted with the necessity of transporting armies of millions of men simultaneously to Europe and to the farther Pacific. It would have to supply them with a far greater mass of war material than American forces had used in any previous conflict. The Navy, fighting literally in every sea, needed hundreds of auxiliaries great and small. Once more the submarine, cruising sometimes singly and sometimes in savage wolf-packs, and covering far greater distances than in the previous war, menaced the lifelines of the democracies. During the first half-year after Pearl Harbor the Atlantic and Gulf coasts were littered with sunken ships. Some were destroyed within sight of the Long Island shore, some inside the mouth of the Mississippi. Grandiose in size, and frenzied in haste as the shipbuilding effort of the First World War had been, an incomparably greater and more urgent demand  p93 was now laid upon the country. Everyone realized the magnitude of the crisis, but few foresaw that American industry would perform almost a miracle in meeting it.

The Presidential Program

President Roosevelt, addressing Congress and the country in January, 1942, announced that among his directives to industry was one for the construction of 18,000,000 deadweight tons of shipping in the years 1942‑43. A few weeks later he issued a second directive fixing the goal for these two years at 23,000,000 deadweight tons.

To ordinary Americans this program, like that set up in the airplane industry, at first seemed slightly preposterous. It was an impossible quota, many people said, heralded to the world to discourage our enemies and stimulate our shipbuilders to the highest possible activity. But the Administration knew what ordinary citizens did not, that the carefully planned activities of the Maritime Commission since 1937, the British ship orders which had brought the Todd-Kaiser forces into action, and the recent emergency program for 312 Liberty ships under the American flag had laid a broad and solid foundation for future achievement. President Roosevelt knew that novel methods were being developed; that, vastly enlarging the principles used in fabricated ship construction in the First World War, the shipbuilding corporations were applying the assembly line system and mass production ideas to their work. He knew that already more than five hundred manufacturing plants in thirty‑two states were supplying materials and parts for the Liberty ships, and that they would accelerate their production with astonishing speed. He was confident, in short, that his quotas could be met.

 p94  The way in which they were more than met is without doubt the most impressive single page in the history of the American shipbuilding industry. Within thirty-four months after Pearl Harbor, the war program directed by the Maritime Commission produced 40,884,226 deadweight tons of shipping. Instead of the 23,000,000 tons for which the President had asked in 1942‑43, the yards delivered in these two years more than 27,000,000 deadweight tons. Between Pearl Harbor and the first day of November, 1944, American builders placed some 4,020 ocean-going vessels in the service of the United Nations. Of these, slightly more than half were the sturdy, slow Liberty ships, turned out by mass assembly methods in specially created yards. The Patrick Henry, built while the yard itself was under construction, had taken 244 days before delivery; but the average building time for later Liberty ships was brought down to forty‑one days.

Born of the emergency, the Liberty ships met that emergency so well that long before the conflict ended it was possible to turn to newer, faster designs; to ships of a type that would have greater postwar utility. As 1944 opened, therefore, the Maritime Commission announced that thereafter it would place its emphasis upon fast and highly efficient cargo ships and tankers. The last Liberty ship contracts were let in the summer of 1943. Already shipyards were then being converted to a new design — the Victory ship. This new vessel, which came into production late in 1943, was slightly larger than the Liberty ship, possessed finer lines, and made better speed. It was driven by geared turbine propulsion machinery instead of reciprocating engines. Yet, though it had these superior features, it also was adapted to mass production methods. To make it, the great shapes and frames that came from the fabricating shops, often fifty and seventy-five tons in weight, ranged in as orderly a sequence as the automobile parts in a factory, were lifted  p95  into place by giant cranes. It also could be turned out at need by a few weeks of intensive labor.

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The first Victory ship was delivered in February, 1944, and by the beginning of November that year, eighty‑two of them had gone into commission. The American yards then had an annual capacity of 20,000,000, deadweight tons of shipping, or about twice the tonnage of our whole merchant fleet when Japan struck at Pearl Harbor. The number of men employed in merchant shipbuilding, after reaching in 1943 a peak of 700,000, had declined, but it was still about 600,000. The war emergency was over, so far as its acuter stages went; but still, with the conflict reaching its final crisis in Europe, and our Pacific forces planning the reconquest of the Philippines, the shortage of shipping was keenly felt — still the vessels were hurried to completion and hastily manned for service.

 p96  Wartime Record of the Merchant Navy

On May 22, 1944, the government asked the nation to celebrate National Maritime Day, the 125th anniversary of the departure of the Savannah, in commemoration of the services of the merchant marine during the conflict. On that day almost five thousand Mariner's Medals were presented to the next of kin of American seamen killed or reported missing on active service. The sailors who manned the transports and freighters faced perils no less than those who fought in the Army and Navy. By midsummer of 1945, the casualty lists for the merchant marine showed 5,579 seamen dead or missing, and 487 more prisoners of war. Some twenty thousand combat bars had been awarded to men of the merchant marine.

It will be long years before the full story of the ships that braved submarines, mines, shellfire, and bombs to ferry our huge armies overseas, and to keep them equipped with planes, guns, shells, tanks, food, and oil, can be told. To Europe alone more than 4,450,000 American fighting men had to be carried. To place them on the battle lines, nearly all had to take two sea voyages, and some more. We know that the American and British merchant marines (with some help from other Allied ships) carried these tremendous forces with the loss of only 3,604 soldiers. This was at the rate of only four men lost for every ten thousand embarked, a far more favorable figure than in the First World War. We know that a great part of this efficient work of transportation was done by American ships. We know, too, that the United States lost up to June 13, 1945, no fewer than 538 ships, of 3,310,000 tons. But in spite of these sinkings, the work of troop carriage and troop supply was performed far more efficiently than in the first global conflict. We had more ships, and better trained men to perform it.

p97 Maintenance of the flow of ocean traffic, wrote Admiral E. J. King in his official report of 1944, was a vital element of all war plans. Operating on exterior lines of communications, the United Nations had to depend on maritime transport. "The success of overseas operations, landing attacks, the maintenance of troops abroad, and the delivery of war materials to Russia and other Allies concerned primarily with land operations, has depended to a large extent upon the availability of shipping and the ability to keep it moving. Shipping potentialities have been the major factor — often the controlling factor — in most of the problems with which the Allied High Command has had to deal." Where delays occurred in launching offensives, lack of adequate shipping was often one of the reasons. When the offensive began, shipping was a primary and indispensable element. It was shipping, carrying lend-lease and other supplies from America as the arsenal of democracy, that kept Britain and the Commonwealth fighting in 1941 and afterward. It was shipping, carrying 3,447,000 tons of lend-lease cargo from the United States in the last six months of 1944, that kept the Russian Army in success­ful action on the eastern front in the winter of 1944‑45. It was shipping that, under the protection of the Navy and Air Force, moved the American panoply of war across the Pacific to the very gates of Japan.
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When victory came in Europe and the Far East, the new merchant marine took up the colossal task of returning the American armies and a large part of their materials to the home shores. Between V‑E Day in May and the beginning of September, 1945, very nearly a million American troops arrived from war zones at the ports of Boston, New York, and Hampton Roads. Of these, 857,239, or 87.4 per cent of the whole, were brought on vessels carrying the American flag. The remaining 124,057 arrived on foreign vessels, chiefly British. Every type of ship was used. Some  p99 soldiers came on colliers carrying only ten or twenty men. But all of America's prewar passenger liners were engaged in the task, while a special fleet of Victory and Liberty ships was converted to transport duty. The specially fitted Victory ships could carry 1,500 men, the Liberty ships as many as 550. Meanwhile, passenger ships, converted freighters, and other vessels took up a similar burden in the Pacific.

Some vessels performed specially conspicuous service. The liner America, launched just as the European war began, presently joined the Washington and Manhattan in war service under the name West Point. By the end of 1945 she had clocked some 400,000 miles in war duty, carrying approximately half a million troops. There could be no question that the Maritime Commission program opened in 1937‑38, when the first tankers, passenger liners, and freighters had been begun, had magnificently justified itself. Nor could there be any question for America that the great passenger ships had been invaluable as naval auxiliaries.

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Outlook for the Future

Once more, as the Second World War ended in the late summer of 1945, the world possessed a heavy surplus of shipping — and most of that shipping was in American hands. Entering the conflict as a third-rate maritime power, the United States emerged from it with almost six thousand merchant vessels aggregating nearly 60,000,000 deadweight tons; much the greatest merchant fleet in the history of mankind. After the First World War most of our shipping had been wretchedly inefficient, and the wooden and cement vessels were practically worthless. But we came out of the second global conflict with a great fleet of the best shipping ever built. Of our former rivals, Germany had lost practically all her merchant marine, while Great Britain, the Scandinavian nations,  p100 and Holland had, at most, half their pre‑war tonnage. That this situation presented grave new questions of national policy was clear.

It was also clear that no precise formulations of policy would be possible until men knew at least in general terms what the postwar commerce of the world would be. Admiral Land, in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee early in 1945, declared that the United States should try to keep in operation a postwar fleet of 15,000,000 or 16,000,000 deadweight tons. That estimate was based upon the postulate of a heavy increase — a virtual doubling — of American foreign trade. Officials in the Department of Commerce hoped that this trade would soon be 100 per cent greater in value, and 50 per cent greater in weight, than before the conflict. If it were, a 15,000,000‑ton fleet might be kept in service without injury to the vital economy of Britain, Scandinavia, and other countries. No sensible American wished to use our great merchant fleet to deprive other nations of income badly needed for postwar restoration. The Act of 1936 had declared it the national policy to claim a fair share of the world's shipping business — not an exorbitant one.

But it was clear that our experience had taught us certain lessons, and that certain principles had gained a widespread acceptance among intelligent observers. Twice, in 1917 and in 1941, the United States had been caught seriously unprepared in the matter of ships and shipyards. We did not have anything like enough merchant tonnage to meet our needs, nor did we have facilities to furnish a rapid supply. We had to improvise a program at vast expense; we had to divert men and materials to emergency shipbuilding when they were sorely needed for producing other implements of war; and we had to delay military and naval operations. The major reason for this unpreparedness was a failure  p101 to think hard about the problem and to appraise it realistically. Before 1917 that failure, considering the widespread American belief that we would never be involved in a world struggle, was more or less excusable. Before 1941 it was much more serious and blameworthy. A third failure might be a terrible disaster.

"National welfare," stated a report by the Graduate School of Business Administration of Harvard University in 1945, "demands that the same mistake shall not be made again, and that a third failure to have adequate ships shipyards shall be avoided. There is, however, real danger that another failure will occur, and there is real danger that the country will suffer tremendously if that failure is not prevented."

What is important, as the Harvard investigators and other experts point out, is not merely that the United States have a considerable number of ships and of shipyards. It must have the right kind, both of vessels and of vessel-building facilities. It must have liners capable of serving as naval auxiliaries, fast freighters, tankers, and a variety of smaller craft. It must have these ships in operation, so that they can be training sufficient numbers of merchant seamen. It must have yards of various types, each with the latest equipment in welding, lifting, and other construction work. It must have these yards in operation, too, so that they can be training an effective corps of workmen, and testing new materials, designs, and products. It must provide all this with a due regard for defense on the one side, and for passenger and freight services on the other. Needless to say, in making such provision it must think of the taxpayer. It must tread a nice line between the extravagance of lavish subsidies and the false economy of pennypinching.

In formulating a national policy, the United States has the advantage of being able to build upon the experience furnished  p102 by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. That law marked a long step forward in meeting the demands of national commerce and national defense. It made possible a sound approach to the rehabilitation of our merchant marine. It had begun to put us in a position of true maritime preparedness when the storm of 1941 broke. In various ways our policy can unquestionably be improved, while the changed world situation will demand certain new measures. But some of the law's basic ideas — private owner­ship, and the encouragement of free enterprise generally; adequate parity payments where proved necessary; generous government advice of expert character; restricted government controls — had demonstrated their validity.

Never again can a republic so rich and power­ful, its political, commercial, and cultural life so closely interwoven with that of other nations, neglect what is still the primary instrument for promoting world trade and friendly world contacts. Properly used, a strong merchant marine can help enrich the peoples it connects, can promote a true cosmopolitanism of the mind, and can strengthen the fabric of international peace. A country that has turned its back upon isolationism must turn its face toward the sea.

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