The Hingham Shipyard …
In the spring of 1940, World War II seemed a million miles from Hingham, Massachusetts. But in June, the world began to crumble. Germany occupied France, and Nazi U-boats sank hundreds of British ships. In order to save England, the United States offered to lend ships to that country. The thinking was that if we sent material, we could avoid having to send our own boys over there. But the U.S. merchant fleet was small and outmoded. Most ships were remnants from World War I.
In order to reduce maritime losses the Navy began designing a new ship, the Destroyer Escort. It commissioned Bethlehem Steel to be the major contractor for this new DE-type vessel, but Bethlehem’s shipyards were already working at full capacity. A new shipyard had to be built from the ground up. A site was found on the Massachusetts coast not too far from the renowned Fore River Shipyard in Quincy. The quiet town of Hingham had a deep harbor and few existing buildings, but life in Hingham was about to change.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. Within weeks of the attack, a survey party arrived in Hingham. The construction team would have to build a shipyard at lightning speed and crews began working around the clock to clear 150 acres. After the land was cleared, workers erected the world’s largest steel mill under one roof – a building that stretched more than a third of a mile. Wooden cradles to house each ship were built and more than a dozen giant cranes were brought in. The Navy spent the equivalent of 250 million dollars on this astonishing effort.
Shipyards need thousands of workers to build a single ship but in this emergency most men over the age of 18 were going off to war. Boys too young to fight or men who were injured and couldn’t fight were all that were readily available at the time, and some hadn’t worked in years because of the Depression. In order to train these men, Bethlehem imported a team of 400 veteran workers. In less than a year, there were over 15,000 workers in the yard, and by the end of the war the number of workers in the Hingham Shipyard increased to 30,000.
As more and more men went to war, the labor shortage intensified. So, like other factories across the
country, the shipyard began hiring the only workers left — women. The Hingham Shipyard began an active program to recruit women. Soon, over 2,500 women were punching the clock.
The problem was how to churn out ships faster than ever before. Fighting ships were highly complex
machines that were usually made one at a time, piece by piece. The engineers needed to simplify the
process so that it could be done quickly by inexperienced workers. They invented a system of mass
production in which many ships could be built at the same time. Sheets of steel were cut using patterns creating hundreds of individual parts. Each part was given a number and, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, the parts would be assembled into large sections of a ship. The first sections were laid one next to another. Then, the welders fused them together. Next, the crane operators lowered the upper sections in place, and within days, workers built the entire ship from the keel up.
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 a rate of over six a month. Each one was a cause for celebration, and by late 1943 the yard had built over 100 Destroyer Escorts.
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. On each one, they faced the threat of submarine attack. Several Hingham ships 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, and because a beach landing was impossible with conventional ships, the Allied plan was to crash land on the beaches with a fleet of flat-bottomed ships.
Hingham was flooded with orders for this new type of ship. The largest of these could carry ten tanks and equipment, or 1,000 men, and they were referred to as Landing Ship Tanks or LSTs.
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. The Hingham-built DEs and LSTs helped turn the tide of the war.
All in all, 227 ships were built in 3-1/2 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 helped 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.
Today we’re faced with another emergency. Like the Great Depression years, joblessness has become a seemingly insurmountable problem. Unlike the Great Depression years, however, there’s no threat of an upcoming World War that would create employment opportunities for the many millions of desperate Americans.
Shipbuilding, as we’ve seen, bailed us out of that 1930s predicament, and shipbuilding will once again bail out this nation. Eventually, someone in authority will heed our e-mails and faxes, and realize that the patented container ship we’ve been describing is the key to a real “recovery”.
We have highly efficient shipyards already in operation, and if they can’t keep up with the demand, we’ll just build a few new Hingham-type facilities. Remember Irving Berlin’s wartime tune, “We did it before, and we can do it again”? – That should be the country’s new theme song.