The Arsenal of Democracy: Liberty Ships


Figure 1.---These Califirnia Boy Scouts are raising the flag at the lunching ceremonies for the "USNS Mission San Luis Obispo". The ship was a Type T2-SE-A2 tanker, Mission Buenaventura-class oiler. By 1944, American yards could turn out ships in days. Large numbers of ships were built in only a few weeks. The "USNS Mission San Luis Obispo" was constructed at the Marine Ship Corp. in Sausalito. It was laid down (April 18, 1944) and launched (June 18)--all in only 2 months. The launching of a ship is a major event. During World war II, there were so many ships launched that the ceremonies were much less elaborate. Here these Scouts played a major role in the ceremony.

The Kriegsmarine and its U-boat arm was assigned the task of cutting Britain off from its Empire and the United States. Had they succeeded, Germany may well have won the War. The goal was to sink more ships than the Allies could build. Part of the American response was to increase ship construction and here the Liberty Ship was the center-piece of the American effort. American industrialist Henry Kaiser played a key role by developing a revolutionary new way of shipbuilding--assembling mass produced parts. Kaiser had never built a ship before. The unfamiliarity of Kaiser and others with ship building was undoubtedly a factor in their success in developing an innovative construction system. [Sawyer and Mitchell] More than 30,000 parts were mass produced by factories in 32 states. The modular construction techniques developed changed shipbuilding forever. With American shipyards working flat out to build critically needed naval vessels, the liberty ship cargo vessels were built in what amounts to virtual shipyards all along the U.S. coast. This allowed the United States beginning in 1941 to harness skills, resources, and facilities to an extraordinary degree. The output was almost unbelievable. Not only were labor requirements to build a ship reduced by two-thirds and it was done largely by workers who had never worked in shipyards--many had never even seen the sea before. The first Liberty ship prototype was built in 244 days. Eventually the process was reduced to an incredible 42 days. One ship as a publicity exercise was actually built in 4 days and 15 hours. Most of the Liberty yards in 1943 began producing Victory ships, a larger and faster freighter that was to be capable of commercial use after the War. The United States, despite the U-boat offensive finished the War with a merchant fleet larger than it had begun with. The United States expanded its shipbuilding capacity by more than 1,200 percent. American yards built over 2,700 Liberty Ships, 800 Victory Vessels, 320 T-2 Tankers, and various other ships. In all, more than 5,200 ships were built.

Significance

America had a vast industrial capacity. It was much larger than that of Germany. That capacity, however, could not be brought to bear to assist the Allies in 1939-41 or after Pearl Harbor to pursue the War unless ships could deliver the military equipment and supplies to Britain and the fighting fronts. Thus the major limitation was not production, but the merchant cargo vessels to deliver that production as well as American soldiers.

German Naval Strategy

The Kriegsmarine and its u-boat arm was assigned the task of cutting Britain off from its Empire and the United States. Had they succeeded, Germany may well have won the War. The goal was to sink more ships than the Allies could build. Neither the British Royal Navy or the German Kreigsmarine before the War understood just how effective the U-boats could be. For a while the Germans were winning the battle of attrition with the British. Here it was not just that the supplies were not getting through to Britainm but that the Germans were sinking merchant shipping faster than the British could replace them. Thus the carrying capacity of Britain's merchant navy was being steadily reduced. This became an increasingly serious problem when the Germans began increasing U-boat production and after the fall of France, French Atlantic ports became available to the U-boats.

Battle of the Atlantic

The naval campaigns are often given superficial coverage in assessments of World War II in Europe. In fact, the most important battle of the War was the Battle of the Atlantic. Churchill was to write after the War that it was the the loss Battle of the Atlantic that was the only thing he feared. Battles could be lost or won, but the cutting of Britain's life lines to the Dominions and especially America would have made it impossible for Britain to have continued the War. It was no accident that Anglo-American military cooperation began in the North Atlantic well before America entered the War. Hitler on the other hnd gave lttle attention to the U-boat fleet until after the War began. Hitler and approved Plan-Z, a secret plan to prepare the Kriegsmarine for war with Britain by 1944. It involved the construction of massive capital ships and two aircraft carriers. The Germans with U-boats, a surface fleet, and long range aircraft hoped to cut off Britain from its Empire and supply from the United States. Although neutral in the early years of the War, President Roosevelt was determine to support the Allies. A few days after the fall of France in 1940, a sjocked American Congress approvd the Naval Construction Act. The immediate impact of the fall of France in 1940 tremendosly increased the effectiveness of the German naval campaign, providing indespenseable French Atlantic ports. The Royal Navy had ben strongly depleted during the inter-war era by naval limitations traties. After France fell, the Royal Navy stood alone againt the German and Italian navies. The Germans had a growing surface fleet and the Italian a fast modrn fleet that threatened to seize control of the Mediterannean. The the German u-boat operations proved highly effective, despite the fact that Hitler launched the War years beore the Kriegsmarine was prepared. Even before America entered the War, the U.S. Navy was deployed in the North Atlantic to protect British convoys. Anglo-American naval and scientific cooperaion resulted in the defeat of the u-boat campain by 1943. Combined with American construction of liberty ships, not only was Britain kept supplied, but America assembled a massive force of men and supplies in England that in 1944 was unleased on Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

Hurry up Henry

The man who solved the poroblem of delivering American war production was Henry Kaiser, the son of German immigrants. Kaiser was a remarakable individual, the proverbial self-made man. He didn't like to study so he quit school at 13 years of age. He ran a photographic studio for a while. He then made some money as hardwear salkesman. With that he entered the cnstruction business. He then made it big when he bought the patent for an earth mover. He was part of the consirum that built the Hoover Dam during the Depresion. He was also the man who solved one of the central problems of World War II.

Support for Britain

President Roosevelt (FDR) from the outset of World War II in Europe was destermined to assist the Allies. There were major legal limitations to this (especially te Neutrality Laws) as well as strong isolationist sentiment led by the American Firsters. The President confronted the American Firsters and led a struggle in Congess to change the Neutrality Acts so America could support the Allies. One of the actions taken by FDR while Luftwaffe bombers wee waging the Blitz on London was a pledge to build 60 new mercahnt vessels to replace vessels lost to the u-boats and deliver them to Brittain fully loaded with war supplies. The America Firsters were outraged.

Basic Problem

President Roosevelt's decire to assist Britain was limited by the fact that American shipyards by 1940 were already working at full capaciy, many building bnadly needed new ships for the Navy. There were no shipyards able to take new contracts to build merchant ships for Britain.

Mass Produced Ships

American industrialist Henry Kaiser along with a partner, Todd Shipping, in took on the job of building merchant ships. Kaiser's idea was to mass produce ships and he developed the production systm to do just this. They won the contract to build 60 cargo ships to assist Britain (Decmber 1940). The Liberty Ship was to be a central part of the American effort to increase ship construction. Kaiser played a key role by developing a revolutionary new way of shipbuilding--assembling mass produced parts. Kaiser had never bult a ship before. The unfamiliarity of Kaiser and others with ship building was undoubtedly a factor in their succees at developing an innovative construction system. [Sawyer and Mitchell]

Virtual Shipyards

With American shipyards working flat out to build crtically needed naval vessels, the liberty ship cargo vessels were built in what amounts to virtual shipyards all along the U.S. coast. The first yard was st up at Richmond, California. Other yards were built in Portlan, Oregon, Newportnews, Virginia, and dozens of other sites. Kaiser and Todd set out to build new yard. Estimates suggested it would take at least 6 months to turn the swampy sit into a shipyard. They did it in 3weeks. This allowed the United States begining in 1941 to harness skills, resources, and facilities to an extrodinary degree. The output was almost unbelieveable. Not only were labor requirements to build a ship reduced by to thirds and it was done largely by workers who had never worked in shipyards--many had never even seen the sea before. FDR's initial order of 60 vessels was soon expanded. The President now forsaw tge need for hundreds of new vessel.

The Process

More than 30,000 parts were mass produced by factories in 32 states. The modular construction techniques developed changed shipbuilding forever.

Liberty Ships (1941-45)

President Roosevelt's commintment to make America the Arsenal of Democracy was meaningless if the output of American factoriesmines, and farms cold not be delivered to Europe and the Pacific. More merchant shipping is needed during war and peace time and the U-bots were steadily reducing merchnt fleets. The result was the rush forward of an emergenvy effort to build basic merchntmen. The idea was to use American-style asssembly-line production to ship building. The result was standardized ships which became knowbn as Liberty Ships. Construction began in early-1941 before America entered the war. Nearly 2,600 Liberty Ships were constructed between (1941-45). They are easily the largest class of ships ever built by any country. The design for a liberty ship was based on the basic design for a tramp British freighter of the 1920s. There were many names for the Liberty Ships. FDR who had a special love for the sea and beautiful ships called them 'ugly ducklings'. Kaiser saw them as the "Model-T" of the sea, referring to Ford's mass produced cars. Liberty Ships were built with one design, shape, and speed--slow. The name came from FDR's speech in which he reffered to Patrick Henry's speech, "Give me liberty or give me death". Nor suprisingly, the first Liberty Ship was the Patrick Henry. On the day the Patrick Henry was launched so were 13 other Liberty Ships. The results weren't pretty, but they floated and by the end of the War were carrying the bulk of American war production and suplies to both American forces as well as American allies.

Construction Time

The first liberty ship protype was built in 244 days. Eventually the proces was reuced to an incredible 42 days. One ship as a publicity exercise was actually built in 4 days and 15 hours. The German U-boats as the War developed and the number of U-boats increased, substantial numbers of cargo vessels were being sunk, far more than the British yards could replace, especially as there was a pressing need for naval vessels. The America ship was able to build new ships so rapidlt that by the time the Allied navies had turned the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic that the ships sunk had already been replaced.

Victory Ships (1943-45)

Most of the Liberty yards in 1943 began producing Victory ships, a larger and faster freighter that was to be capable of commercial use after the War. Liberty ships were a rush response to an emergency situation in 1940. There were not only engineering problems wih these ships, but they were also slow making them vulnerable to U-boat attacks. As the war progressed there was time to improve the basic design and to install more powerful steam turbine engines plnts to increase speed. Workers and the new yards became increasingly skilled. The result was the Victory Ships. They were slightly larger and were capable of joining the high speed convoys that were much safer. THey had better trim and stability, stronger hulls, and more efficient, electrically driven winches and windlasses sppeding loading and unlodung. Ultimately some 531 Victory ships built. [Jaffee, p. 14.] This was only a fraction of the numbr of Liberty Ships built. A factor here is that the Liberty Ship construction not only replaced the number of ships sunk by the U-boats, but significantly added to merchant fleet capacity. And by the time that Victory Ships began to be delivered, the Allies had turned the tide of war in the North Atlntic. The U-boat Fleet experienced Black May. The month opened with the battle for ONS-5, the hardest fought battle of the entire campign. There wee heavy losses, 13 Allied hips and six U-boats. The tactical improvements of the escorts finally was taking the battle to the U-boats. And after ONS-5 Allied losses steadily decreased and U-boat losses invreased. Adm Dönitz was forced to withdraw the U-boats from the North Atlantic sea lanes. After May massive Wolf Pack operations were over. Small scale operations were ontinued to force the Allies to devote major resources to the campign.

Escort Carriers

If Kaiser had done nothing more than made theLiberty Ship possible, he would have been a major figure in Woirld War II. He was not, however, content with jusy building merchant cargo vessels no matter how important that was. Kaiser wanted, however, to do even more. There was a desperate need after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor for aircraft carriers. American shipyards began building the new Essex class fleet barriers. But these large carriers would take months to build and not begin reaching the fleet until 1943. Kaiser came up with the idea of building small 11 small carriers using existing Liberty Ship hulls. He delivered the ships to the Navy in 1942. They were called escort or jeep carriers as well as baby flattops. He also suggested building 50 slightly larger escort carriers using Victory Ship hulls. He suggested this to the Navy, but the admirals focussed on larger carriers rejected the idea. Kaiser was not one to be turned down. He knew FDR personally and took the idea to him. FDR bought the idea of small carriers which could be quikly built. Yhe first of these carriers, the Casablanca was delivered to the Navy on July 8, 1943. The last of the 50 carriers were delivered 365 days later. These carriers carried less than 30 planes, about a third of the Essex class carrier compliment. They played an important role in closing the Mid-Atlantic Air Gap, providing air cover throughout the North Atlantic convoy route. Air cover was the most important weapon against U-boats, and the escort carriers meant that the entire North Atlantic could be covered. The esscort carriers turned the North Atlantic into a grave yard for u-boats. The escort carriers also provided air cover for the lengthy Pacific convoy routes as well as support many combat operations. A group of escort carriers even turned back the Japanese Northern Force, a poweful task force of battleships and crusiers, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf--the largest naval engagement in history.

Production

The United States, despite the u-boat offensive finished the War wih a merchant fleet larger than it had begun with. The United States expanded its shipbuilding capacity by more than 1,200 percent. We have seen some variation in production figures. One source reports that American yards built over 2,700 Liberty Ships, 800 Victory Vessels, 320 T-2 Tankers, and various other ships including escort carriers. In all, more than 5,200 ships were built.

After the War

The Liberty ships were extensively used after the War. Most lasted long after their expected life span. This depended of course on how well built they were and this varied substanyially. HBC readers haveprovided us some details about their experiences with Liberty Ships.

British student

A British reader writes, "In 1948 I had a gap year and returned to America on a 'student' ticket. The return fare was £25. We were practically all students and travelled on a 'Liberty ship',. which I think was one of the most mass produced ships. It had been a troopship, and we slept in bunks stacked eight high in vast dormatories. Fortunately we were far from full. The roops would have had very unpleasant time. I remember asking one of the crew how they fed the vast numbers and it was almost on a conveyor belt system 24 hours day. The ships were prone to break down. I didn't make the return journey on that ship as its propellor fell off. We got an upgrade and returned on the United States Line flag ship, called the United States." [Ardouin]

American GI

An American reader writes, "Interesting page. It brought back memories. I was sent to Germany as an 18-year-old G.I. just after the war in 1945, the means of transport was a Liberty Ship. We left from Fort Dix in New Jersey and landed at Bremerhaven. From there we went to Bamberg by train for reassignment. I ended up in the Headquarters battalion of the First Division and served in the Medical Corps for a couple of years. But I had a brief stint as a guard at the Nuremberg War Crimes trial, and was in the city when Göring committed suicide just minutes before his scheduled execution. We were carrying a whole group of German POWs on the ship, who had been interned in places like Arizona and were then being repatriated. Some of them feared being put in the occupation zone controlled by the Russians, perhaps their homes were in eastern Germany. Two jumped overboard to escape this fate. They apparently thought drowning in the Atlantic was preferable. This was ironic because they were intended for the British zone, but of course the Army never tells any soldier anything in advance--at least at the lower levels."

Sources

Ardouin, Alan. E-mail message, September 29, 2009. Alan and his brother were London boys evacuated to America (1940). He has provided us a wonderful account of his family experiences.

Jaffee, Capt. Walter W. The Lane Victory: The Last Victory Ship in War and in Peace (Glencannon Press: Palo Alto, 1997).

Sawyer, L.A. and W.H. Mitchell, The Liberty Ships (Lloyd's of London Press, 1985).






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Created: May 5, 2003
Last updated: 8:35 PM 7/29/2017