Hingham: ‘E’ for Excellence

Writing about Emergency Shipbuilding Programs brings to mind the amazing changes that took place in the small town of Hingham, Massachusetts, about 20 miles south of Boston. We’ve referred to that town in past commentaries and the shipbuilding miracle that took place there during the World War II years.

Because German U-boat successes against Eastbound supply convoys called for emergency countermeasures by the U.S., and because the larger U.S. yards had previously been committed to the construction of major warships and cargo vessels, the design and construction of a new type of convoy escort vessel became a pressing issue. Bethlehem Steel was selected by the Navy to be the major contractor of these new vessels, Destroyer Escorts (DEs), and because of the efficiency and shipbuilding savvy of Bethlehem’s personnel at its Fore River facility in Quincy – for more than half a century one of the world’s greatest shipyards – men and women from that yard became part of a team that would transform, from scratch, some 150 acres of nearby Hingham’s quiet shoreline into what would become one of the world’s most proficient shipyards.

The new shipyard needed thousands of workers, historians recall, but because most of the able-bodied were already in the armed forces, the task of turning out those needed DEs fell upon the shoulders of the young and the not-so-young. The assignment was eagerly embraced by those who had struggled through the jobless years of the Great Depression.

As more and more men went to war, the labor shortage intensified, so the shipyard began hiring and training women. More than 23,000 workers were employed when the yard was fully operational, including almost 3,000 women. The next problem to be addressed was how to produce ships as fast as they were needed. As officials were aware, warships were highly complex vessels that were usually made one at a time, but time was of the essence. Engineers had to simplify the process so that fabrication could be done quickly by shipyard workers, the majority of whom were hardly more than neophytes. A system of mass production was devised by those engineers in which many ships could be built simultaneously. Sheets of steel were cut using patterns creating hundreds of individual parts. Each part was numbered and the parts would be assembled into large sections of ships. The sections were laid next to one another, the welders fused them, and the cranes would properly position them. Within days the workers built entire ships, simultaneously, from the keel up.

Until recently, evidence of the determination and capability of the Bethlehem-Hingham team could still be seen at the site of the former shipyard. During the brief period of time allowed for the construction of the facility, the builders erected, under one roof, the world’s largest steel mill. It was known to exceed in size even the largest of the renowned Krupp steel mills in Germany, and thus made possible the shipyard’s unique system of mass production.

According to historians, “in less than two years, Hingham had transformed itself into one of the largest shipbuilding centers in the entire country. Workers were pounding out ships at the rate of over six a month, and each one was a cause for celebration.

“The Navy pushed Hingham hard, demanding 60 Destroyer Escorts in 1943 alone. But the shipyard ground out 90 – 50% more than the Navy thought possible. In August, the Navy recognized the shipyard’s hard work by awarding Hingham with an ‘E’ for Excellence, an honor usually reserved for sailors in action. On the day of the ceremony, work halted for one of the only times in the life of the shipyard.

“The Destroyer Escorts guarded thousands of convoys across the ocean and on each crossing they faced the threat of submarine attack. Several Hingham ships engaged and sank U-boats in battle. By late 1943, the fight against the U-boats was largely won but to win the war the Allies would have to land in Europe. Blocking the way was the heavily fortified French Coast. With conventional ships, a beach landing was impossible. The Allied plan was to crash land on the beaches with a fleet of flat-bottomed ships.

“Hingham was flooded with orders for new ships. The largest of these could carry ten tanks and equipment or 1,000 men. It was called the Landing Ship Tank, or LST.

“On June 6, 1944, D-Day, thousands of flat-bottomed ships landed on the coast of France. In the months following, other crucial landings would take place on beaches in the Pacific.

“All in all, 227 ships were built in 3Ω years at the Bethlehem Hingham Shipyard. A record not claimed by any other shipyard.

“It was years before people came to realize the importance of work done on the home front, and how ships built at home make victory possible overseas.

“We can now only begin to wonder how small towns like Hingham could have done so much in so short a time.”

No need to wonder how so much could have been done in so short a time. That became obvious when the STAR OF OREGON, one of our first Liberty Ships, was completed by West Coast workers at the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. It was widely acknowledged then that energy, devotion, safety-mindedness and the high resolve of American shipyard workers were the determining factors that produced such startling results in our Emergency Shipbuilding Programs and, as a recent Maritime Administrator, Sean Connaughton, reminded us, during those World War II years U.S. shipyards and U.S. shipbuilders were responsible for the largest shipbuilding effort in history.

An even larger shipbuilding effort is needed now. In the mid-1930s, when the Great Depression was at its lowest point, a second world-encompassing war was already on the horizon. Our nation’s leaders knew ahead of time, however, that wartime preparations here and abroad would eventually and inevitably restore sagging economies and guarantee an end to economic stagnation.

But today’s leaders have no such guarantees. Stimulus plans and bailout programs have never succeeded – and never will – and with no other form of “relief” in mind, the administration’s failure to act will inflict unbearable stress upon U.S. citizens. Just one avenue is open to us – it’s that shipbuilding program we’ve been touting. It’s worked for us already. There is no other way.