THE LIBERTY SHIP:

UNIQUE CARGO SHIP OF WORLD WAR II

 

Peggy Pelt

Gulf Coast Community College

 

 

World War II's beginning created a need for large numbers of cargo ships.  It also required that these ships be built quickly.  This, in turn, necessitated additional shipyards.  The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 provided the foundation for such a massive building program.  This legislation replaced the Shipping Board with the U.S. Maritime Commission and emphasized the importance of a Merchant Marine to the defense and international commercial development of the United States.(1)

 

The U.S. Maritime Commission began as a New Deal agency with the goal of modernizing the United States fleet of large merchant vessels, 90 percent of which were over twenty years old.  The Commission was responsible for regulating the merchant industry.  It was also empowered to increase the construction of ships by subsidizing private companies or contracting for the ships directly.  Joseph P. Kennedy was the Commission's first chair.  Rear Admiral Emory S. Land, a personal friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was appointed to replace Kennedy when he resigned in 1937.(2)

 

The Liberty Ship's ultimate design was a modified version of a British tramp cargo ship.  Initially, as part of the shipbuilding program begun in 1937, the U.S. Maritime Commission had designed three standardized ships to meet the needs of different trade routes.  The designs were for turbine-driven ships capable of averaging fifteen knots.  The U.S. Maritime Commission's long-range plans were to build fifty ships annually for ten years.  President Roosevelt doubled this goal to one hundred per year in 1939.  Construction of ships using these designs began in 1940.  The first, all-welded version was completed in November, 1940, and weighed six hundred tons less than the average riveted ship.

 

A British Merchant Shipbuilding Mission team came to the United States in September, 1940, to order sixty ships.  Admiral Land of the U.S. Maritime Commission assisted them.  The British brought a J. L. Thompson & Son design with modifications that made it simpler to build than the American model.  This "Ocean" hull design, capable of carrying ten thousand tons and travelling at eleven knots, became the basis for the Liberty Ship.  Admiral Land disliked this slower ship and disassociated the U.S. Maritime Commission from this design by making arrangements for the British to contract directly with private shipyards.

 

Land changed his opinion of the British design when German destruction of British cargo ships necessitated faster construction.  President Roosevelt suddenly increased the U.S. Maritime Commission's quota to two hundred ships annually in August, 1940.  The propelling machinery necessary for the turbine-driven design in use was not available in quantities necessary to meet the new quota.  Consequently, the U.S. Maritime Commission had to change to a simpler ship design.  There was no time to completely design a new ship.  After considering alternatives, the Commission decided to use the British "Ocean" hull design with modifications.  The President informed the American public of the emergency shipbuilding program in a February 1941 broadcast in which he described the ships as "dreadful looking objects."(3)

 

The U.S. Maritime Commission's official classification of this ship was "EC2-S-C1," which described many of its characteristics.  The "EC" designated an "emergency cargo" ship.  The "2" indicated the ship's large size with a waterline length between 400 and 450 feet.  The "S" designated a steam engine and "C1" the specific ship design and modifications.(4)  Despite its official classification, the ship was initially referred to as an "ugly duckling," a name the press borrowed from President Roosevelt's initial reaction when Land showed him the plans.  "Admiral, I think this ship will do us very well," President Roosevelt said.  "She'll carry a good load.  She isn't much to look at, though, is she?  A real ugly duckling."(5)  Admiral Land referred to the ships as the Liberty Fleet and further attempted to counter this negative image by  proposing September 27, 1941, as "Liberty Fleet Day" to coincide with the launching of the first Liberty Ship, the Patrick Henry.(6)  He undermined this in 1943 when he referred to them as "the expendables," a phrase the press quickly adopted.(7)

 

The Americans modified the British "Ocean" hull design for several reasons.  The U.S. Maritime Commission needed a ship that could be produced quickly using mass production techniques.  The design had to be as simple as possible, because many builders would be new to the shipbuilding industry.  Steel was scarce; wood was not.(8)  Therefore, wood was used for interior items such as furniture, fittings, ceilings, linings and hatch covers.  The wooden hatch covers could double as life rafts.  Anchors were reduced to 240 fathoms from the 300 fathoms in the design.  A further decrease to 210 fathoms, divided between two anchors, one 135 fathoms and one 75, was later required.  Some vessels had only one anchor.(9)

 

War zone service required greater protection than a peacetime cargo ship.  Chain rails were replaced with bulwarks, solid walls to protect people and cargo on deck.  Crew members on watch had booths protected by bridge plating rather than canvas wind dodgers.(10)  According to Evon Brewton, their slow speed made Liberty Ships "sitting ducks for submarines.  So all ships were reinforced by concrete from [the] bottom up to three feet above water line. . . ."  They were also "fitted with a degouzing (sic) cable around the inside of [the] ship.  An anti-magnetic field created by a generator current sent through this cable caused the ship to repel magnetic mines and torpedoes."(11)

 

Weaponry consisted of two three-inch naval guns and eight 20mm machine guns.  The naval guns were placed at the bow and stern of the ship and could be used against U-boat or aircraft attacks.  The machine guns were located in shielded tubs along the sides of the ship.(12)  Barrels with ingredients to provide a smoke screen were located at the ship's stern.(13)  The Liberty Ships traveled in escorted convoys.  The key protection was staying with the convoy.  The ship was too slow to outrun an enemy ship.

 

The war effort demanded ships built to maximize cargo capacity.  The decks were steel, rather than wood.  Liberty Ships often sailed with full hulls and decks covered with cargo.  This required a design modification that replaced the arched deck with a straight deck from the sides of the hatches to the sides of the ship.(14)  The decks had metal "eyes" welded onto them to tie down deck cargo.  Liberty Ships seemed capable of carrying anything; a ship could hold as cargo "2,840 jeeps, 440 light tanks, 230 million rounds of rifle ammunition, or 3,440,000 C-rations."(15)  Each ship had booms and cranes built into them to load and unload cargo.

 

Liberty Ships were operated by private shipping companies on behalf of the US government.  Consequently, a Liberty Ship crew included civilian officers and crewmen, plus an Armed Guard.  The officers had private rooms, but the crewmen and Armed Guard personnel shared rooms.  There were separate dining areas for all three groups.(16)  These accommodations were in the center of the ship, another modification in the British "Ocean" hull design.  The U.S. Maritime Commission preferred this central location for safety reasons during Atlantic Ocean crossings.  It also minimized materials for plumbing, heating and outfitting.(17)  A distillation system made sea water drinkable.(18)

 

Welding rather than riveting was a relatively new concept in shipbuilding.  Though used with some ships, welding had not been used for cargo ships operating with heavy deck loads and under wartime conditions.  One of the resulting modification mistakes was a square hatch opening, a source of cracks in some ships.  A crack in a welded ship could continue indefinitely, with the result that ships could break in two.  This was a particular problem in the frigid Arctic waters which made the steel more brittle than usual.  In a rivetted ship, the crack ceased once it reached the edge of that sheet of metal.  A curved reinforcement strip welded to each corner of the hatch corrected the problem.(19)

 

With these modifications, the British "Ocean" hull design became the American Liberty Ship.  Speed of construction was a major consideration in selecting the Liberty Ship design, and contractors received rigidly uniform specifications, which made it possible to minimize construction time.  The average production time declined from 108 days in 1942 to less than 50 days in 1943.(20)

 

Prefabrication and preassembly were the key elements of the mass production process used by Liberty shipyards.  The vast majority of the 250,000 pieces that went into a Liberty Ship were prefabricated (pre-shaped) and preassembled into approximately one hundred sections to assemble on the ways.  The last two hundred pieces were added at the outfitting dock, an area where workers added equipment to the ship after its launching.(21)  This process minimized the length of time the ships were on the ways, an important consideration given the limited space along the waterfront.(22)

 

Uniformity was vital to the Liberty Ship's successful  construction.  The mold loft department's work was critical to this goal.  It built a complete full scale model ship and then developed a pattern from each part of this model.  The pattern pieces, called templates, were used to cut each part of the ship.(23)

 

A standardized design allowed for interchangeable parts, and the ability to exchange parts in foreign ports was particularly beneficial to the ship's operation.(24)  The uniformity of the Liberty Ship made it possible to make a "new" ship by joining the parts of two ships.  After the war the Albaro was constructed using the afterpart of the Josephine Shaw Lowell, built by Wainwright Shipyard,(25) and the forepart of the Samdaring, built by the New England Shipbuilding Corporation.(26)

 

The U.S. Maritime Commission modified the basic Liberty Ship design for specialized cargoes.  Wainwright Shipyard produced eight Z-EC2-S-C2s, a Liberty Ship designed to carry army tanks.(27)  Wainwright was the only shipyard contracted to build these and only eight were built.  In 1944, the shipyard  contracted to build another Liberty design, the Z-EC2-S-C5, to transport boxed aircraft.  Wainwright was one of only two shipyards contracted to build these.(28)  In 1945, Wainwright Shipyard began work on six T1-M-BT2 oil tankers as part of a U.S. Maritime Commission contract, although they were built for the British government as part of a lend-lease agreement.(29)

 

The Liberty Ship performed well despite the misgivings of traditional shipbuilders to the mass production concept of the Liberty Ship program.  Several articles in The Wainwright Liberator lauded the design's success.  One vessel required three days to sink in the South Atlantic after receiving two torpedo hits.(30)

 

The U.S. Maritime Commission sent a congratulatory telegram to the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation with a report of its Edgar Allan Poe's exploits.  This ship assisted in sinking a Japanese submarine after having been hit by five-inch and eight-inch shells.  After the battle the Edgar Allan Poe was towed to port.  The crew prevented damage to the cargo by plugging the holes with bedding.  In response to criticism of the welded construction, the telegram noted:  "This was made possible by welded construction, which confined the shell holes to the immediate points of contact.  Riveted plates would have torn apart under the strain, causing openings too large for temporary plugging."(31)

 

The George Ade, built by the Wainwright Shipyard, returned to service after surviving torpedo damage and a hurricane in one trip.(32)  In fact, only one of the seventy-four Liberty Ships built at the Wainwright Shipyard was lost during World War II.  This was the John Bascom, sunk December 2, 1943, by a German air attack while docked in Bari Harbor, Italy.(33)

 

Companies new to shipbuilding could successfully construct the Liberty Ship because of its simple design.  Only five of the eighteen firms involved in producing Liberty Ships by the end of World War II were operated by established shipbuilding firms.  Even then, the shipyards were sometimes newly built and located far from the established parent company.  The American Shipbuilding Company, with headquarters in the Great Lakes area, operated the Delta Shipbuilding Company, located in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The J. A. Jones Construction Company was one of the firms new to shipbuilding, having entered this industry at the U.S. Maritime Commission's request.  The Commission also asked the Jones Construction Company to take over the Brunswick, Georgia, shipyard when the original operators could not produce.(34)

 

Some suggested that the use of new firms was, perhaps, beneficial, because these nontraditional shipbuilders were willing to try nontraditional building methods, such as prefabrication, welding, and assembly line techniques.  It was said that Henry Kaiser, the leader in mass production, "did not build ships but simply produced them."(35)  Fittingly, businesses new to shipbuilding were in charge of workers new to industry.(36)

 

        Staffing the shipyards was another challenge.  Manpower was, perhaps, in even shorter supply than was steel.  The pre-war national shipyard labor force was less than 100,000.  An estimated 700,000 were needed in 1943 to meet the president's goals, and the number of experienced shipbuilders were inadequate to meet the sharp increase in demand for ships.  Additionally, men were required for military service.  Therefore, the Liberty Ship program had to rely on an inexperienced work force.  The simplicity  of the design made it possible to hire unskilled labor, provide minimal training, and produce ships.  Not only were these workers inexperienced in shipbuilding; most were new to any industrial environment.  The manpower shortage necessitated the introduction of non-traditional workers, such as African-Americans and women, into the factory setting.(37)  Although the standardized design of the Liberty Ship made it possible to hire unskilled workers, over forty trade skills were still necessary for its construction.(38)

 

The U.S. Maritime Commission used a "cost-plus variable fee" contractual arrangement to pay for the Liberty Ships.  In 1941, the government reimbursed the shipbuilder for costs and paid an additional $110,000 fee if the ship was built using the established average of 500,000 man hours.  The fee also varied according to the speed of delivery, ranging from a minimum of $60,000 to a maximum of $140,000.  The fee schedule was adjusted during the war as the average production time decreased.(39)  The Liberty Ships produced by the Jones Construction Company cost an average of two million dollars each.(40)            

 

Reports on the total number of Liberty Ships built vary due to confusion surrounding the various modified versions of the ship.  According to the American Bureau of Shipping, the total was 2,742, inclusive of the various models.(41)  Jones Construction Company's two shipyards built a total of 195 ships, involving four different designs.  This was 7 percent of the ships built.  Wainwright built approximately 4 percent of the total.(42)

 

The Liberty Ship's simple design had made its production under such circumstances possible.  The introduction of new assembly techniques such as prefabricating the parts and welding them together had contributed to the success of this emergency shipbuilding program.  The Liberty Ship performed valiantly in delivering the troops and supplies vital to winning the war. 

 

At the war's end, nevertheless, the fleet was "mothballed."  Later the ships were sold to shipbreaking companies for scrap.  Ultimately, the Wainwright Shipyard was converted to a shipbreaking yard.  In the 1960s, the yard removed steel plates from the old Liberty Ships and rolled and shaped them for welding into prefabricated sections for use in barge construction at a shipyard at Green Cove Springs, Florida.  In a different form, the Liberty Ships continued to serve.  At least seven of the Liberty Ships built by Wainwright Shipyard were scrapped at Panama City, including the George Ade, the ship that survived the torpedo and hurricane.(43)  But neither it nor the shipyard could survive the ensuing peace.

 

***

 

Peggy Pelt recently received her PhD in American history from Florida State University.  Her dissertation is entitled "Wainwright Shipyard:  The Impact of a World War II War Industry on Panama City, Florida," and she has written elsewhere on women and the home front in World War II.  Dr. Pelt has taught at Gulf Coast Community College since 1972.

 

ENDNOTES

 

1. John Gorley Bunker, Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1972), 10-11.

2. Charles Wollenberg, Marinship at War, Shipbuilding and Social Change in Wartime Sausalito (Berkeley, CA: Western Heritage Press, 1990), 17-19.

3. L. A. Sawyer and W. H. Mitchell, The Liberty Ships, 2nd ed. (London: Lloyd's of London Press, Ltd., 1985), 1-4.

4. Ibid., 6.

5. Bunker, Liberty Ships, 6.

6. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 4.

7. Bunker, Liberty Ships, 7.

8. This condition changed in 1943 with a shortage of lumber and an easing of the steel shortage.  The result was a change to using steel, rather than wood, when possible.  Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 5.

9. Ibid., 5.

10. Ibid., 5.

11. Evon Brewton (Panama City, FL), date unknown, personal notes given to Martha E. (Bettie) Ray (Panama City, FL).

12. A. A. Hoehling, The Fighting Liberty Ships (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1990), 39.

13. This device was pointed out to the author by a guide at the Jeremiah O'Brien, the last known Liberty Ship on display in San Francisco, California.

14. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 5.

15. Bunker, Liberty Ships, 7.

16. Ibid., 7.

17. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 5.

18. The Wainwright Liberator, May 26, 1945.  The Wainwright Liberator was a weekly newspaper which, according to its header, was:  "Published by the J. A. Jones Construction Company, Inc. for the Builders of Ships for Freedom."  Its first issue was published July 25, 1942, and cost five cents.  Beginning with the Sept. 19, 1942 issue, the paper was free.

19. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 5.  When the author visited the Jeremiah O'Brien, the last known Liberty Ship on display in San Francisco, California, the guide pointed out this corrective device and explained the problem.

20. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, passim.

21. Wollenberg, Marinship, 28.

22. Bunker, Liberty Ships, 12-13.

23. Earl Boone, interview by Peggy D. Pelt, June 9, 1992, Wainwright Shipyard Oral History Collection, Gulf Coast Community College Library, Panama City, FL.

24. "Libertys Carry-on," Wainwright Liberator, Nov. 13, 1943.

25. Located in Panama City, FL and named after General Jonathan Wainwright, Wainwright Shipyard built Liberty Ships between 1942 and 1945.  Housing for its workers occupied the current site of Gulf Coast Community College.

26. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 90.

27. "Wainwright Yard History Is Bright One," Wainwright Liberator, Aug. 19, 1944.

28. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 200-207.

29. "Work to Begin on Oil Tankers for the British," Wainwright Liberator, Feb. 10, 1945.

30. "New Liberty Ship Proves Worthy of Designers' Claims," ibid., Aug. 15, 1942.

31. "Torpedo, Shells, Fail to Sink Welded Ship," ibid., Aug. 7, 1943.

32. "Our George Ade Survives Sub Attack, Storm," ibid., Nov. 4, 1944.

33. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 89-93.

34. Ibid., passim.

35. Ibid., 8-9.

36. Ibid., 9.

37. Bunker, Liberty Ships, 13-14.

38. Wainwright Liberator, May 26, 1945.

39. Wollenberg, Marinship, 25.

40. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 84, 89.

41. Bunker, Liberty Ships, 17.

42. Sawyer and Mitchell, Liberty Ships, 84, 89.

43. Ibid., 89-93, 207, 219-22.

 

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