“Henry J.” (A Reprint of Vol. XXI, Art. 15 – two years ago today)

Right after World War II, we began seeing a new kind of automobile built by some guy named Kaiser Frazer … or something like that. This fellow was either related in some way to Kaiser Wilhelm, the German leader who had so much to do with the ruckus in World War I, or he might well have been a newcomer. Maybe Frazer was a family name, or maybe even his wife’s name.

In any case he didn’t strike us as being too bright because he was challenging the likes of Studebaker, Packard and DeSoto, those giants in the automobile industry that would surely do him in. He wouldn’t have a prayer against those companies.

His whole name, we eventually learned, was Henry J. Kaiser, and he even named one of his pipe dreams, the “Henry J”. We also learned eventually that this brazen newcomer just happened to be Henry J. Kaiser, the industrialist who owned the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company, and his seven West Coast shipyards built almost 1,500 vessels during the war effort, an amount equal to 27% of the total Maritime Commission construction during the Emergency Shipbuilding Programs.

Mr. Kaiser established his company in 1939 in order to help the construction goals set by the U.S. Maritime Commission for merchant shipping. Four of the Kaiser Shipyards were located in Richmond, California, and these yards produced 747 of the famous Liberty and Victory ships. The Kaiser yards also produced the Casablanca-class escort carriers.

After receiving orders for ships from the British government, Kaiser established his first Richmond shipyard in December of 1940. In April of 1941, the Maritime Commission requested an additional Kaiser yard, to be used for Liberty ship construction, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kaiser started his third and fourth yards for the construction of troop transports and LSTs.

Kaiser yards developed new methods of shipbuilding, which allowed its facilities to turn out ships in two-thirds the time and a quarter of the cost of the average shipyard. Liberty ships, for example, were typically assembled in a little over two weeks, but as a part of a special competition between yards, the SS Robert E. Peary was assembled in less than five days, and the SS Joseph N. Teal was built in ten days.

As long as we’re talking about shipbuilding achievements during demanding times, let’s review our present crisis. If we mastered the techniques of building cargo-type ships a half-century ago, there’s no reason why we can’t do the job again. At least 58 new World War II shipyards sprung up almost overnight back then, and they were shuttered just as quickly. More than 30 million workers were required to turn out the 11,000, or so, ships over a seven-year period, and that mind-boggling endeavor brought an end to both a Great War and a Great Depression.

Today an even Greater Depression is staring us in the face, but the patented ship design we’ve written about and the 30 million workers (now unemployed) are both available to repel the threat. Revitalizing a few dozen shipyards would be a cinch. All that’s lacking is sensible leadership.