Book Review: Ships for Victory: How the US pioneered the mass production of ships

Who builds commercial ships?

Well, in 2022 China built the lion’s share of large oceangoing vessels according to a report by the Barry Rogriano Salis (BRS) Group. China built 121.3 million deadweight tons (DWT) of ships based on its order book at the end of 2022 up from 111 million DWT in 2021. And as a result, China’s share of the global market rose from 47.7% to 50.3%.

South Korea, a distant second in the global shipbuilding sweepstakes, built ships of 69.8 million DWT in 2022, up from 68.3 million DWT in 2021, but its market share inched down from 29.6% to 29.0%, according to a November report by Business Korea. And in the number three slot was Japan. Japan’s order intake shrank from 47.7 million DWT in 2021 to 36.5 million DWT last year, and its market share fell from 17.6% to 15.1%.

So where was the greatest industrial power on the planet, the United States, in the commercial shipbuilding ranks? The US market share was a measly 0.2%.

It is no surprise the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) cited the data and noted that 90% of military equipment needed for overseas wars is transported by cargo ships and expressed a concern about the United States lack of competitiveness and the possible negative impact on America’s national security. But this is nothing new as this situation has existed for decades.

The U.S. Shipbuilding Mobilization of 1939-1945

It wasn’t always so.

Before the United States allowed its shipping industry and shipbuilding to decline, the United States pioneered shipbuilding mass-production during World War II.

During the period of 1939-1945, 5,777 ships including the Liberty ships, Victory ships, tankers, and military ships were constructed at U.S. shipyards.

The shipbuilding program produced a Liberty ship that could transport 10,800 deadweight tons (the weight of cargo a ship can carry). In total, the 2,708 Liberty ships that were built collectively generated the capacity to transport 29,246,400 tons of weapons, food and supplies to European and Asian military theaters that helped win World War II.

The shipbuilding program employed 650,900 American workers. African Americans and women were employed by the shipyards in large numbers and the shipbuilding employment boom helped pull the United States out of the Great Depression financed by federally financed war orders.

It may be time to review that success and why it may be relevant in 2024.

The Liberty Ship

The centerpiece of the U.S. shipbuilding success was the construction of 2,708 Liberty ships that were primarily built between 1942 and 1945. According to the Smithsonian, the first ships required about 230 days to build while the average construction time eventually dropped to 42 days, with three new ships being launched each day in 1943.

According to the publication Professional Mariner, the need for vessels to transport war materiel was so urgent that corners had to be cut in their design: “The underpowered Libertys were very slow. They cruised at only 11 knots, making them easy targets for both German and Japanese submarine and air attacks. But without the Liberty ships, the Allies could not have won the war.” The Liberty ships were succeeded by Victory ships which addressed some of the concerns, along with T1 and T2 tankers that supplied vast amounts of fuel to the wartime effort.

The mass-production success was due in large part to the ability of the U.S. Maritime Commission (today the U.S. Maritime Administration - MARAD) to mobilize new and existing shipyards to support the mass production of ships.

Ships for Victory

In his seminal book, “Ships for Victory: A History of U.S. Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II”, Frederic C. Lane in a nearly 900-page history detailed how new and existing shipyards were mobilized to mass produce the ships that helped win World War II.

The shipbuilding effort was one of the most outstanding achievements of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration and a stunning display of industrialization that helped reverse the tide of the war.

The U.S. shipbuilding effort was directed by Admiral Emery Land, Chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission and by Vice Chairman and Vice Admiral Howard Vickery. Land had a long-standing relationship with Roosevelt dating back to World War I. Land was also instrumental in overseeing the establishment of the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York.

Kaiser and Bechtel and Mass-Production

Lane describes how new and innovative shipbuilding methods were deployed, thanks in part to new shipbuilders that included the Kaiser and Bechtel construction companies.

Both Henry Kaiser and Warren Bechtel had previously worked together on the mammoth Hoover Dam project that helped bring electrification to America’s Southwestern states. The construction of the Hoover Dam required temporarily re-directing the Colorado River. The river diversion around the dam site was constructed “through four 50-foot-diameter tunnels, two drilled through the canyon walls on each side of the river.” Both men were hardened to handling heavy pressure and delivering through innovation…and the mass production was the innovation needed for shipbuilding to address the wartime demands.

As mass production took hold in the shipbuilding industry, Henry Kaiser soon emerged as one of the leaders in the mass-production effort, possibly because he was not a traditional shipbuilder and approached the problem with a fresh perspective. Kaiser built new shipyards in California, Oregon and Washington and revolutionized the shipbuilding process as a 2007 Professional Mariner report noted: “In their (Kaiser) shipyards, bow units, stern units, deckhouses and other major sub-sections were pre-assembled and then welded together to form the ship. This approach resulted in ever-shorter delivery times.”

Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, CA during World War II

In his Ships for Victory history, Lane describes important developments that aided mass-produced shipbuilding:

  • New design and engineering drawings. The original Liberty ship was based on a British design that was reengineered to accommodate shipyard workers with little to no shipbuilding experience. The U.S. firm of Gibbs and Cox modernized the British design and provided more detailed drawings to allow for novice workers to follow the construction plans as a company history attests: “Gibbs & Cox also designed the famous, standardized cargo-carrying Liberty ships of World War II. We were instrumental in the implementation of modular construction, centralized material and equipment procurement, and design-for-production features that became the foundation of cost-effective shipbuilding today. Gibbs & Cox was responsible for the central procurement of all materials and equipment. At its peak, the firm issued 10,000 blueprints a day.”
  • Pre-Assembly. The use of pre-assembly meant that: “More and more, as the ship was put together in sections before going on the ways, methods were found to make the production not only faster but less costly.”
  • Welding. The adoption of the new system of welding steel plates together instead of using the older system of riveting the plates together was a major innovation: “Welding added to the advantages of preassembly because downhand welding could be done much more easily than either welding or riveting could be done in crowded or overhead positions in the hull. Accordingly, both time and manhours were saved by welding on the ground or with a jig that held the steel plates and shapes in the desired position.”
  • Mobilizing Untrained Shipyard Workers. The cumulative effect of preassembly, welding and simplified engineering drawings was: “Better than 90%, had never worked in a shipyard before, and had never worked in the craft that they went to work in in our yard,” according to Kenneth Bechtel, President of Marinship then located at Sausalito, California.
  • Reduction in Manhours. Lane reports that manhours per ship for vessels built in the shipyards operated by Kaiser and others declined by over 50% by the end of the war: “In summary, it may be said that multiple production increased labor productivity in shipyards about 100% both when it was applied to the construction of the relatively simple Liberty ship and to the building of standard cargo and tanker vessels.”
  • Employment. The effect on employment in the U.S. economy by the shipbuilding effort was substantial: “The numbers working on contracts with the Maritime Commission were 47,300 in January 1941, and 650,900 at the peak in July 1943.” Over 400,000 of those workers were employed on the West Coast in newly built shipyards.
  • Women and African-Americans. As a result of shortages in the labor market, African Americans were employed in large numbers for the first-time during World War II at shipyards. However, there was still resistance to their employment and resistance to integrating African Americans including in labor unions that represented shipbuilding workers. It is, therefore, not surprising to learn: “For the country as a whole, no figures are available to show how many Negroes were employed in the shipyards or how many attained the grade of skilled mechanic… Certainly some progress was made.” The employment of women in shipyards was more accurately recorded: “It reached its maximum in 1944 and 1945 when female workers formed 10% to 20% in most yards. The percentage of women was lowest in the yards of the north Atlantic and the Gulf, highest on the West coast… once the yards started hiring women, they hired them to do practically everything.”

Not surprisingly, the mass production of ships also led to ships being launched with many defects. Some of the more obvious errors were ladders and stairs to no place. Or conversely, hatches with no connecting ladders. But there were other more serious defects as a 2007 issue of Professional Mariner, pointed out: “A series of structural failures occurred with these newly welded ships that became major problems. Some of the failures were the result of defective welds. In other cases, the structural failure was the result of inappropriate uses of welding. The hulls of several ships split apart in Arctic waters. It was found that the Arctic cold makes ordinary mild steel very brittle.”

What we learned and can re-learn from wartime shipbuilding?

The success of the U.S. shipbuilding mobilization resulted in American shipbuilding innovations and methods being replicated in Japan, Korea, and China.

Unfortunately, the US allowed its maritime and shipbuilding industries to decline by not investing in modern shipbuilding technologies and methods. It became economically imperative to rely on foreign built ships and shipping.

But the US is entering an era of opportunity with offshore wind power to revitalize the maritime infrastructure of the country, as the University of Maine’s Dr. Habib Dagher, a first rank marine engineering innovator, remarked in an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, to create a new Marshall Plan for ports and maritime industries.

To that goal, U.S. policy makers might benefit from a reading of Ships for Victory so as to discover how there might be a value in a revived U.S. shipbuilding industry and how the lessons of 1941-1945 might be worth relearning in 2024.

Stas Margaronis
Stas Margaronis


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