Honorably Mentioned … (A reprint of Vol. XVII, Art. 14 – Four years ago today.)

In the October issue of “Marine Log”, Tim Colton writes about the demise of one of the world’s greatest shipyards. Tim’s article is front-page stuff, but unfortunately, it was relegated to Page 52, that periodical’s very last page. Shame on the editor. The shipyard, Quincy’s renowned Fore River Shipyard, and Tim as well, deserved better treatment. Neither has a peer.

Tim’s story begins with the headline: “Quincy Shipyard’s astonishing journey”. It makes great reading, and because we played a small part in the incredible work at “The Yard” back then, we’d be remiss if we didn’t provide Tim’s report for you in its entirety. Here it is:

“Quincy shipyard was started by Alexander Graham Bell’s famous assistant, Thomas A. Watson, in 1886, as the Fore River Engine Company, in East Braintree, Mass. Soon, it moved to Quincy and became the Fore River Ship & Engine Company. Although its first three hulls were yachts, the yard’s next deliveries were two destroyers. By 1901, it was building battleships, demonstrating early on that this was going to be a yard to be reckoned with. In fact, it was to become one of the world’s great shipbuilders.

“By the time Watson sold it to Bethlehem Steel in 1913, the yard had already built 217 vessels, including six battleships and the Thomas W. Lawson, believed to be the only seven-masted sailing ship ever built.

“The yard was expanded for the World War I effort and turned out 57 submarines and 71 destroyers, 35 of them at a special-purpose facility at nearby Squantum. Employment reached 15,000.

“The years between the wars were bleak for most yards, but Quincy was able to keep reasonably busy, building such ships as the battleship Massachusetts, the aircraft carriers Lexington and Wasp, and Matson’s large passenger vessels, Mariposa, Monterey and Lurline.

“By the late 1930’s, both the Navy and the U.S. Maritime Commission were building up shipbuilding capacity and the Quincy yard was one of only a handful of large yards that was still going strong. The yard was expanded further with $ 21 million from the Navy. Employment was already at 17,000 by Pearl Harbor and peaked at 32,000. The WWII effort produced 125 ships, including a battleship and five aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, another mass-producing facility was established, in Hingham, with another $ 35 million from the Navy; this yard reached 23,000 employees and turned out 92 destroyer-escorts and 95 LSTs in two-and-a-half years.

“After the war, the Quincy yard continued as both a merchant and a naval shipbuilder, building the liners Independence and Constitution, and the nuclear cruisers, Long Beach and Bainbridge. The yard was not as successful as Bethlehem’s other big yards, however, and in 1963, they sold it to General Dynamics. GD concentrated at first on naval shipbuilding, but then invested heavily in becoming a builder of large tankers and LNG carriers. The yard was still not financially successful, however, and it closed in 1986.

“From here on, the story of the Quincy yard is a series of humiliating embarrassments. GD sold the 130-acre property to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Water Resources Authority, which, for ages, did nothing with it. Then, in 1997, up popped a Greek named Sotirios Emmanouil, with a start-up company called Massachusetts Heavy Industries, who bought it for only $ 10 million. He applied to MARAD for $ 55 million in Title XI financing to modernize it. MARAD, to its credit, rejected the application, but the Massachusetts Congressional delegation forced it through. MHI defaulted in 1999 before it could complete the modernization. Title then passed to MARAD, which sold it at auction in Jan. 2003, for only $ 12 million.

“The yard has now been liquidated, the final insult being the recent sale of the yard’s 1,200-ton gantry crane to a shipyard in Romania. As we reported on August 14, 2008, the crane’s disassembly resulted in a fatal accident.”

Bravo, Tim … and thank you. You’ve just given us another reason to endorse shipbuilding, and we’ll do so by reprinting something we wrote in our Vol. VII, Art. 2.

“It was 1941. We were just emerging from the Great Depression and getting back on our feet again, but we were caught napping on December 7th by a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, our Naval Base in the Hawaiian Islands, some 2,500 miles from the U.S. mainland. The more recent attack on September 11th, 2001, differed in a number of ways. The blow fell upon the World Trade Center, right in the heart of New York City … More people were killed at the WTC (2,742) than at Pearl Harbor (2,117) … There was no possibility of a followup attack against the civilian population after the Pearl Harbor strike in 1941, but since 9/11/01, the threat of a followup terrorist attack on our mainland continues ‘to keep us awake at night’.

“All things considered, why aren’t we dealing with today’s assault on our nation as we dealt with the 1941 assault? There was no threat to our mainland or its citizens back then, as there is now, but starting from scratch, here’s what we did from 1941 to 1944:

– We revitalized our shipyards … about 100 of them.
– We built 2,751 Liberty Ships … and one of them, the SS Robert E. Peary, was built in the remarkable time of just 4-and-a-half days!
– We built 534 Victory Ships.
– We built 1,198 LSTs
– We built more than 800 DDs and more than 800 DEs.
… and that was just the small stuff.
– We built the world’s most powerful navy … 35 Aircraft Carriers, 10 Battleships, 2 Battle Cruisers, 15 Heavy Cruisers, 36 Light Cruisers … and hundreds and hundreds of Auxiliaries.

“All told, we delivered 5,150 vessels to the U.S. Navy from 1941 to 1944, yet none of the time and effort devoted to shipbuilding stood in the way of those who were simultaneously building the more than 125,000 aircraft needed for the conduct of the war. Tanks, artillery, ordinance, wartime equipment and supplies of every description … all in a day’s work … and unlike today’s bewilderment, there was no terrorist scenario to ‘keep us awake at night’ because the war was being fought in someone else’s back yard. We’re a lot worse off today.

“Check out this response. In 1942, out of the blue and on 150 acres of Hingham (Mass.) Harbor shoreline, a shipyard sprung up under the auspices of Bethlehem Steel and the Navy Department. At its peak this new shipyard employed 30,000 people, produced an average of six ships per month, and delivered a total of 277 vessels before it was shut down. This marked the first mass production of ships, and as many as 16 at a time were under construction on 16 different ways.

“The construction time for a fleet destroyer before the outbreak of the war had been eight to ten months, but that stopgap shipyard in Hingham could build a DE in just 25 days, and 100 of these Destroyer Escorts were delivered to the Navy. Among the other record-setting achievements were; the launching of one DE in four-and-one-half days, ‘a world record for building a major war vessel’; delivering 10 DEs in one month; and laying 16 keels in one day. And that was just one shipyard. One of the nation’s smallest.

“Did we ‘outsource’ our maritime needs during those fateful WW II years? We could have found cheaper labor all over the globe but it never crossed our minds. We knew better than to trust anyone with our security, especially after the events at Pearl Harbor. How times have changed. Except for an occasional carrier, frigate or submarine, our shipbuilding resources are now confined to the construction of utility vessels. The U.S. Merchant Marine, once the world’s largest, is a thing of the past and the need to rely on commercial vessels flying other flags has brought us a peck of trouble.
“‘We can’t compete with the foreign yards’, the authorities keep telling us. ‘They pay such low wages to their workers, it makes no sense for us to sink billions into a non-competitive shipbuilding program,’ is the parroted rationale. These same authorities fail to see that the reliance upon vessels built and operated by foreign entities has created a myriad of unsolvable problems for the entire country. First of all, we’re not saving billions of dollars by not paying Americans to build ships. Let’s be clear on that point. The truth of the matter is that we’re dissipating trillions of dollars trying to gain some measure of security precisely because we chose to save those few billions and opted instead to surrender our dominant maritime position. So now it’s crunch time, and we’re trying to spend our way out of the mess we’ve created. The way we spend money, however, is akin to a hunter who fires a spread of birdshot into the air hoping that a bird will come along and fly into it.
“Let’s go back a little to the part about being non-competitive. That alibi never held water and it’s even more porous now. We need security and we need to create jobs, and the revitalization of our shipyards will guarantee those two goals. On a number of occasions in these commentaries we’ve described our patented container ship design. We designed that revolutionary shipboard system and we’ve patented it in every country having shipbuilding capabilities. That means that, having the title to this patent, we have the right ‘to exclude others from making, using or selling’ the invention. It also means that if we permit only U.S. shipyards to build these newly-designed ships, wage scales of foreign workers will be of no concern. And finally, it means that our seamen, on our ships, will be inspecting 100% of the containers shipped to us from overseas sources … and these inspection procedures, using the latest technologies, will be completed prior to the cargo’s arrival at U.S. ports.

“We’ll be spending just a fraction of the trillions of dollars we’re now obliged to throw away, we’ll be doing it judiciously, and there will be no ‘terrorist scenario to keep us awake at night’.”