Victory on Land and Sea

Today is January 3, 2010, and it brings to mind one of the most important events in our nation’s history. Although not generally known, on January 3, 1941 – 69 years ago today – President Roosevelt announced a $ 350 million Emergency Shipbuilding Program. It was an endeavor that would involve building, in just three years, the equivalent of more than half of the pre-war merchant shipping of the world, while simultaneously building the greatest fleet of warships the world had ever seen. The endeavor was all the more noteworthy because the urgent need for these new cargo ships came at a time when most of the facilities for producing modern marine equipment were fully engaged by the requirements of the 1936 Naval Expansion Program.

As one famous author had already stated; “In May 1940, Britain’s fortunes were low …” and they were even lower in the autumn of that year when U.S. shipyards received an order from England for sixty tramp steamers of about 10,000 ton deadweight capacity. The original British design for these cargo ships dated back to 1879, and this type of vessel had been produced until the mid-1930s. With simple modifications these sixty tramp steamers were designated as Ocean Class ships, and these sixty British “Ocean” types were built in Portland, Maine and in Richmond, California.

For our shipbuilding requirements, however, the Maritime Commission made a number of alterations to the Ocean design. A number of these changes were made to conform to American manufacturing and shipbuilding standards, and though others were made to accommodate the scarcity of certain materials, all changes were made to meet the need to build as rapidly and as cheaply as possible.

The result was designated EC2-S-C1, and though originally known as “emergency ships,” they were more commonly called “Ugly Ducklings”. When the first of the new ships, the SS Patrick Henry, was launched in 1941, FDR recalled Patrick Henry’s speech of March 23, 1775, that ended with the unforgettable statement: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Because FDR then went on to tell the nation that these new vessels would bring liberty to Europe, these ships became known as “Liberty Ships”, and 2,751 of them subsequently justified FDR’s prediction.

But the Liberty’s maximum speed was 11 knots, making it easy prey for submarines, so in 1942 designs for a 15-knot ship was begun. Designated as “Victory Ships”, 534 were delivered before hostilities ended, and these faster, large capacity carriers served honorably in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. But honorable service was provided by many others as well in that period.

Records show that 108 shipyards produced 5,558 vessels from January 1939 through August 1945, and thousands of offsite supporting firms participated in the construction of those vessels. The Bethlehem Steel Company alone had over 6,000 individual sub-contractors, many of whom in turn were served by other firms, so that a total of more than 30,000 enterprises – and millions of workers – were involved in the construction of Bethlehem’s vessels as well as the vessels in other U.S. yards.

[Need to create millions of jobs for today’s unemployed? FDR’s Emergency Shipbuilding Programs brought an end to World War II and to the Great Depression as well. We’re running out of time.]