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Henry J. Kaiser and the Liberty Ships

By June 1942 the United States was well along in fulfilling President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pledge of becoming an Arsenal of Democracy. But the hundreds of thousands of men in uniform and mountains of materiel were useless for the Allied war effort if they remained within America’s borders. To get both to the battlefields and bases scattered around the world, America needed cargo and transport ships – yesterday. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser couldn’t turn back the clock. But he did the next best thing. He built Liberty ships – fast. Between 1941 and 1945, 18 American shipyards, either Kaiser’s or using Kaiser’s shipbuilding techniques, turned out 2,751 Liberty ships, easily the largest class of ships ever built.

“She’ll carry a good load. She isn’t much to look at though. A real ugly duckling.”

– U.S. Maritime Commission chairman Rear Adm. Emory S. Land upon showing President Franklin Roosevelt blueprints for a Liberty ship

The EC2-S-C1 (“EC” for Emergency Cargo, “2” for its length between 400-450 feet, “S” for steam engines, and “C1” the design designation), as it was formally known, was based on a late 19th century British cargo ship design modified and updated in American shipyards. The ships received their popular name as a result of a public relations effort to counter their homely design. Newspapers and magazines called them “Ugly Ducklings” and Roosevelt, a yachtsman and former undersecretary of the Navy, referred to one that he saw as “a dreadful looking object.”

Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (right) and his wife Bess. Kaiser Permanente photo

Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (right) and his wife Bess. Kaiser Permanente photo

Even though he was guilty of referring to them as ugly ducklings, too, U.S. Maritime Commission Chairman Rear Adm. Emory S. Land wanted to counter that negative impression. To that end he gave the name Liberty Fleet Day to the day the first fourteen EC2 ships were launched, with Roosevelt on hand for the launch of the first ship, Patrick Henry. In his speech, FDR cited the Revolutionary War patriot’s immortal line, “Give me liberty or give me death.” When the president said that this new class of cargo ships would bring liberty to Europe, the name Liberty ship was coined. The Liberty ships were usually named after famous Americans, beginning with those who had signed the Declaration of Independence.

The person most associated with Liberty ships and revolutionizing American shipbuilding was industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, whose company had been the prime contractor for the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and who had never constructed a ship in his life until 1940.

The person most associated with Liberty ships and revolutionizing American shipbuilding was industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, whose company had been the prime contractor for the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and who had never constructed a ship in his life until 1940.

Before Kaiser entered the business ships were constructed from the keel up by one crew of workers; a process that took as long as six months. Kaiser adapted mass production techniques to shipbuilding, instituting modular construction and assembly techniques in which the ship sections were welded together instead of riveted. In addition to being faster, welding required less skill than riveting, an important factor because Kaiser’s yard crews contained workers new to shipyard work, including women, because able-bodied men were being drafted to serve in uniform. In addition, Kaiser was in the vanguard of companies hiring African-Americans.

Instead of the industry average of 230 days, Kaiser shipyards initially reduced construction time to an average of 45 days and ultimately to less than three weeks. One yard crew set a record in November 1942 when it built the Liberty ship Robert E. Peary in four days and 15½ hours.

Liberty Ship Worker

Eastine Cowner, a former waitress, was one of the thousands of African-American women employed by the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California. Here she’s working as a scaler on the Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver. Library of Congress photo

In addition to Liberty ships, Kaiser’s shipyards built Casablanca-class escort carriers, troop carriers, LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) and other vessels. Ultimately his shipyards were responsible for constructing 1,490 vessels during the war, or 27 percent of all ships ordered by the U.S. Maritime Commission.

Kaiser’s accomplishments made him a folk hero, and his speed in shipbuilding inspired an apocryphal story:

Start swinging!

One day a lady visited Kaiser’s office. He asked her if she’d like to christen a ship. Upon receiving an answer in the affirmative, Kaiser went to a locker, took out a bottle of champagne, and motioned for her to follow him. Kaiser then led his guest through the noise and confusion of the shipyard, eventually arriving at a quay. It contained nothing but some trash and a few puddles of water. Kaiser handed her the bottle of champagne. The puzzled lady looked at the empty quay and exclaimed, “But there’s nothing there!”

“Never mind,” said Kaiser as he looked at his wristwatch. “Start swinging!

Liberty Ship At Sea

A U.S. Liberty cargo ship (U.S. MARAD design EC2-S-C1), circa 1941/42. Library of Congress photo

Liberty ships were replaced in 1944 by larger and faster Victory ships. The last Liberty ship was the Benjamin Warner, named after the father of Hollywood’s Warner brothers, launched on July 1, 1944 in Kaiser’s Richmond, Calif., shipyard.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...