The History and Construction of Liberty Ships Essay

Introduction         The term “Liberty Ships” refers to EC2 type ships that were designed and constructed by the United States Maritime Commission for use during the World War II (Elphick, 2006).The World War II had various nations invest huge amount of resources in efforts to improve their attack and defense military strategies (Cynthia,1995).

The liberty ships though built by the US were British in conception. The ships were quick and cheap to build. Between 1941 and 1945, about 2,751 liberty ships were built. This makes the liberty ships the largest number of ships that were built using a single design The US showed immense effort when it came to the building of the liberty ships. These ships carried about 12 to 25 Naval Armed Guard and a crew of about 41. During the World War II, about 200 liberty ships have been estimated to have been destroyed by explosions, torpedoes, mines, and Kamikazes (weaponry used by the Axis).

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Since the liberty ships were constructed for use during the World War II, they had a stein-mounted 4-in (102mm) deck gun. The gun was used to fight against the surfaced submarines. In addition, the liberty ships had several types of anti-aircraft guns. Each Liberty ship had the following characteristics; Length: 441 feet, 6 inches, Beam: 56 feet 10 3/4 inches, Dead Weight: Tonnage 7,000 tons: Cargo carried: 9,140 tons. Draught: 27 feet, 9 1/4 inches, Crew: 41 and Speed: 11 to 11.5 knots.

        One of the liberty  ships referred to as SS Patrick Henry that was launched on September 27, 1941 , while another one referred to as Robert E. Peary was built for about four days. Due to its role during the war, a liberty ship was designed to carry about 440 tanks, 230 million rounds of ammunition, and 2,840 jeeps. The names given to the ships were adopted in honor of prominent Americans such as SS Patrick Henry and those who signed the Declaration of Independence. Apart from naming these ships in honor of prominent Americans, groups that were able to raise about $2 million in war bonds were given an opportunity to suggest a name for the ships.  For instance, one liberty ship was named after the founder of 4-H movement. Examples of liberty ship that survived the war are the SS Jeremiah O’ Brien and SS John Brown.

These two ships survive as “museum ships”.    History of Liberty Ships          Liberty ships were produced in mass in order to assist the allies’ armed forces to fight the Axis forces during the World War II (Foner and John, 1991). The liberty ships were built as a result of the passing of the American Merchant Marine Act in 1936. This Act was passed in order to subsidize the construction of commercial vessels which were supposed to be used as naval auxiliaries by the United States Navy during the World War II. By 1940, about 200 ships were being constructed each year. These ships were powered by steam turbines and they comprised of three types of merchant vessels and a tanker.

However, limited industrial capacity (turbine construction) was one setback in the construction and building of these ships. In 1940, American shipyards built simple and fairly large ships for the British government which had requested for the ships in order to boost the merchant fleet and to replace those ships that were lost during the war. The ships were referred to as Ocean Class ships and they had 2,500 horse power.  The first Ocean Class ship was referred to as Ocean Vanguard. This ship was launched in 1941 (16th August). It was this design that was modified by the United States Maritime Commission with the aim of conforming to the American construction practices.

  Furthermore, the commission wanted to make ships that were quick and cheaper to construct (Klaus and Karl, 1992). The US version was referred to as EC2-S-C1 (where EC stands for Emergency Cargo, 2 for a ship measuring about 140 m long, S for Steam engine, and ‘C1’ for the C1 design). This new design of ships had welding replace riveting and was adopted as the Merchant Marine Act design (Jaffee, 2004).            By 1941, the Defense Aid Supplemental Appropriations Act had the number of lend-lease ships increase to 200. By April the same year, the number again increased to 306, with about 117 of the ships being liberty ships. As compared to ships that were built much earlier, the liberty ships were constructed by welding together sections instead of riveting. The welding together sections of the ships reduced the labor costs.

Since welded ships had not earlier been built, a new work force had to be trained on how to do the welding. As the World War II began, more women enlisted in the armed forces. These women got employed in shipyards to replace men who went to the war. The first fleet of liberty ships was launched on 27th September 1941. One of the ships was referred to as SS Patrick Henry, and it was launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is the Presidents’ Roosevelt statement that the new class of ships would give liberty to Europe during the launch that led to the adoption of the name “Liberty Ships” (Sawyer and Mitchell, 1970).

           On average, it took about 42 days to build a single ship.  The building of Robert E. Peary took about 4 days making it the liberty ship that was built within the shortest time frame during that time. By 1943, about three new liberty ships were built each day.

The first American ship to sink a German-made surface combatant was a liberty ship referred to as SS Stephen Hopkins. This ship sank a German Stier during a ship-to-ship gun battle which took place in 1942 (Fulbrook, 1991).Another Liberty ship, SS Richard Montgomery was destroyed during the war, leaving behind a wreck of the ship with about 1,500tons of explosives aboard. A well known instance is the port Chicago disaster whereby about 320 sailors and civilians were killed as one of the Liberty ships(SS E.A Bryan) was being loaded with 2,000 tons of TNT in July 1944.The ship detonated to cause the death of the sailors and the civilians (Jacob,1995).The SS Albert M.

Boe was the last Liberty ship to be built, and it was launched on 26 September 1945.The ship was named in honor of the United States Army Freighter chief engineer.Boe was being recognized for his courageous act, where he had after a 1945 explosion remained below decks so as to shut down the engine. This even won him a Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal.    The Construction of Liberty Ships            An American Industrialist, Henry J.

Kaiser is acknowledged for his role in the construction of liberty ships. It was him who speeded up liberty ships production by introducing welding rather than the riveting that was initially done in constructing the ships. Kaiser applied revolutionary prefabrication techniques in building the liberty ships. After being built in America, liberty ships were sent to other nations such as the Great Britain and the Soviet Union (Gutfield, 2002). An estimated 250 liberty ships that were built were sent to Soviet Union and Britain under the Lend-Lease program. The US during the World War II required to defend itself and to fight the Axis Forces. This made it necessary for the US to build a high number of liberty ships to use and also to send to other nations that were involved in the war.

For example, the Pearl Harbor attack motivated the US Maritime Commission to embark on more production of the ships (Tucker and Roberts, 1992).                     The liberty ships were considered to be “steamers with a simple design”. The coal-fired steam engine was reliable despite being obsolete. The construction of liberty ships for Britain was encouraged by Britain’s large supply of coal (Ferguson, 2004).In addition, liberty ships had oil-fired boilers. The replacement of riveting with welding during the construction of liberty ships was effective in minimizing the labor costs the mass production of liberty ships had the demands of the construction program satisfied.

The US Maritime Commission sought to meet these demands by having new ship yards established on both the Gulf of Mexico and both coasts. The ship yards that were operated by Henry Kaiser were found on the West Coast. Apart from his role in the construction of liberty ships, Kaiser had been involved in the building of the Hoover Dam and the Bay Bridge. The methods of prefabricating and producing in mass the liberty ships was done in four operating yards (three in NorthWest, Richmond, and California).The ships were constructed to last for about five years.However, those that survived the war continued to ply the sea until 1970s.The ship building techniques that were applied in the construction of liberty ships were adopted to become standard practice in the ship building industry.

Some examples of ship yards where the liberty ships were constructed include; Alabama Drydock and ship building (Alabama),California ship building Corp(Los Angeles),J.A Jones(Brunswick, Georgia),North Carolina ship building Company(Wilmington, North Carolina),and the Oregon ship building Corporation(Portland, Oregon),Richmonds shipyards(Richmond, California) (Lane, 2001).        The then US President Franklin Roosevelt made great contribution in the construction of the ships.

Before the construction of the liberty ships began, the Navy shipbuilding Program in the United States utilized most of the ship building resources that were available. The program was authorized to expand and this called for the establishment of new ship building yards and the re-equipping of old yards. This is because; the merchant ship building had started to be overcrowded by the priorities of the navy in Britain. Efforts to counter this threat had Great Britain turn to the United States for new cargo vessels. The sinking of Allies ships by the German submarines increased the speed of production of the liberty ships( Kennedy,1989).The Allies required ships to replace the ships they were losing to the Axis(German) submarines (David, 2002).The ships were also meant to increase the flow of supply of commodities to England.                     The reality of the World War II made it necessary for ships to be quickly, simply, and cheaply built.

The decision on where to establish ship yards where the liberty ships would be constructed was based on several factors. For instance, the size of the area where the ship yards would be established. In addition, the availability of labor and management, as well as adequate transportation was considered.

It was the availability of new labor supplies that motivated the US Maritime Commission to establish the Kaiser/Todd ship yard sites in Maine and Richmond (California).The ship yards were selected so that the 60 British Freighters would be constructed there. By early 1941, about nine ship yards in America and a total of 65 ways were approved.

The approval was meant to have about 260 liberty ships built under the first Emergency Program. About eleven ship yards were dedicated to emergency-type vessels building. Liberty ships were built in about eighteen shipyards that were located along the Gulf, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts. In the ship yards that were distributed all over America, an estimated 1.5 million workers learned how to weld prefabricated components.

Riveting would also be done then. Each work day in the ship yards was split up into three-8 hour shifts. The Oregon ship building corporation (Portland, Oregon) and Bethlehem-Fairfield ship yard (Baltimore, Maryland) were the first ship yards to be established by the US Maritime Commission. The contract to construct the first liberty ships was given on March 14, 1941 (John, 1972).

            During the liberty ship building program, many technological advances in the ship building industry were experienced (Hal and Hilton, 1996).The traditional ship building industry was done from the keel up, with the vessel being completely constructed on the ways. However, Kaiser’s ship building plan was different. The plan was based on modular hull construction. This type of construction involved the production of more than 30,000 components per ship, which was done in factories across the country. The entire bulkheads at the ship yards were preassembled in various areas of the yards, and then moved in assembly-line fashion for it to be attached to the bow and stern sections.

A smooth hull in the liberty ships was made possible by the replacement of labor intensive riveting with the welding of hull plates. Advancement in welding techniques continued until the first all-welded ship was produced. The perfection of prefabrication was experienced, whereby complete double-bottom sections, deckhouseses, bow units, and stern-frame assemblies were used to speed up the production. There was need for standardization if the ship building emergency program was to succeed. This was very advantageous for the construction of the vessel, since the construction specifications and drawings could then be rapidly reproduced for use in the other shipyards. Through the nationwide standardization, liberty ships production under the Emergency shipbuilding Programs became very successful (War Shipping Administration, 1945).     The Construction process at the ship yards         In the shipyards, there was a linear “conveyor belt” plan where steel plates and shapes entered the yards’ on the inland side. The plates would then go through a large prefabrication this is where   a ship’s major sections were constructed.

Rails or movable cranes were then used to transport the ships’ sections, and lifted onto the hull by large cranes for the final assembly. The bulk of building a liberty ship constituted the welding. It is estimated that about 600,000 feet of welded joints were made for a single ship, whereby about a third of direct labor in construction was related to welding (Jaffee, 2004).           After the main structures of the ship were completed, the ship or vessel would be launched. The vessel was moved to the nearby outfitting docks. Within twenty four hours, a keel would be laid on the vacant way to allow the vessels’ final joinery, painting, and electrical work to be completed. In addition, rigging and adding of lifeboats in the vessel would then be done. The ship would be delivered to a US Maritime Commission representative the same day the final outfitting was done.

The delivery of the ship was done with its crew aboard, after which it was sent to join the other convoys that crossed the Pacific or the Atlantic. During the construction of the liberty ships, the labor productivity is estimated to have reached an average annual rate of 40 percent. The increase in speed of production led to an increase in the number of ships constructed because the duration of production of a single ship was reduced (Sawyer and Mitchell, 1970). Some shipyards during the early stages of building liberty ships lacked adequate equipment and machinery.

This demanded that the construction apply different labor-intensive production techniques.           By 1946, (February), about 362 ships which made up about thirteen per cent of the liberty ship fleet had developed at least one major fracture. For the ships in “class I” (about one third), the structures that developed fractures that threatened the ships’ structural integrity. Some of the well known case of fractures was in the SS John P.

Gaines, where ten people lost their lives after its tragic accident in the sea (Mazzara, 2005). The ship Schenectady broke when it was tied near the outfitting dock, about 24 hours after it was launched.Some of the Structural Defects in Liberty Ships            There were several structural problems or defects that arose from the manner in which the Liberty ships were constructed (Hoehling, 1996). During the first years of the World War II, ship losses were high. These losses were attributed to various factors. It is estimated that about 39 per cent of the overall total number of the ships that were constructed sunk in 1942.

However; the rate of sinking had drastically reduced to 4 per cent by the final year of the war. The early liberty ships experienced structural defects such as deck and hull cracks, which were attributed to the use of inexperienced workers in the ship yards.Furthermore, the workers used new welding techniques to join up together the different sections of the ships. Due to the need to have a large number of liberty ships produced for use during the World War II, the workers were required to build the ships in haste. This is considered as one of the factors that contributed to the structural defects of the liberty ships. An example of a liberty ship that sank was the SS John P.Gaines in 1943.Although breaking down or sinking of the ships was attributed to inexperienced workers and haste during construction, research findings have suggested that it was the poor quality of the steel grade that was used for construction that led to the structural defects (Mazzara, 2005).

The steel is said to have suffered from embrittlement.Due to the change in temperatures in North Atlantic, it became easy for the hull to fracture. This was made worse by the welding, because the cracks were able to run for large distances. Overloading of ships also contributed to their structural defects, while the severe storms at the sea exposed the ships to conditions that made it easy for them to develop structural problems. Due to these problems, efforts to address the crack problems were made.

Various reinforcements were made to the liberty ships. For example, the successor design of the liberty ships was the victory ship which was designed less stiff to deal with fatigue, and was also much stronger than the EC2-S-C1.Conclusion                     The World War II had so many nations involved in the conflict. The two conflicting sides(Allies and Axis)  invested their efforts and resources to ensure that they won the war (Weinberg, 1992).One of the strategy that both sides used to fight was  through armed ships and submarines. The United States was one of the nations that were involved in the conflict, and one way through which it fought the Axis was through the liberty ships that it produced in mass. Though the ships were simple and built quickly, the liberty ships no doubt contributed to the victory the Allies had on the Axis.ReferencesCynthia A.

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