In January 1941, it was becoming obvious that the weapon that created so much trouble in the First World War was once again raising its ugly Spector: The German U-boat. In 1939, 165 ships were sunk and by December 1940, 563 more would join them at the bottom of the ocean.
Britain was heavily dependent on their shipping to feed the island nation as well as continue to make up for the lost aircraft and war materials that were left on the shores of Europe at Dunkirk. Her ability to fight alone in all corners of the theater was heightened by the strangling of vital supplies and oil.
Something had to be done.
America was already beginning its own push in shipbuilding by January. Decades of limited growth in the US Navy was being addressed by the existing shipyards. But even the most ardent isolationist could see that without a British sea going presence, the likelihood of America making up for so many ships would be nearly impossible with existing methods in building.
In the fall of 1940, a British group came to America with the intent of buying as many steamers as they could. They brought with them several very simple designs that while slow, were easy to mass manufacture and could be built in a way that did not take away from the equipment needed for the American Navy and merchant fleet.
From a post war report on shipping:
The British need for additional ships suggested the answer to the ma 98 production question. The British had been purchasing ships in this country from all quarters possible. In October 1940, a British ship mission arrived with the purpose of purchasing newly built vessels. They wished to obtain 60 ships of the tramp steamer type, of about 10,000 deadweight tonnage and 10.4 knots speed. They proposed to order 30 such vessels as soon as possible. The members of the mission discussed their needs with Rear Admiral E. S. Land, Chairman of the Maritime Commission, who advised them on possible sources of supply. Land reported on October 30 to William S. Knudsen of the Advisory Commission that such a British order would make additional shipbuilding facilities necessary. On November 8 , 1940 , Land proposed to Knudsen that two types of vessels be considered for the British, either the standard type of the Maritime Commission program or the simpler British type, The ” C ” type vessels could be constructed in existing shipyards by expanding existing facilities , while the British type could be more readily constructed in new yards.
Furthermore, the British type ships would be powered by reciprocating engines, and thus could not increase the load on the turbine production capacity of the country, already strained by the standard ship program of the Commission and by orders for naval auxiliaries. Land pointed out that ”the production of ships of this class , in quantities , is a contracting assembly proposition more than a shipbuilding proposition.
”New yards to build them, he added, should be located in reference to the ”availability of structural facilities to back them up. ”To get speedy results for either type of construction, modification in Navy ship priorities would be necessary. Land suggested the adoption of the British type vessel and the utilization of 16 ship building ways in two new shipyards, one to be located on the east coast and one on the west coast. It would take two years to deliver 60 ships. The first ship would be ready in one year. With additional facilities production could be increased, and deliveries could be speeded up. He appended a list of 100 possible shipbuilding ways at seventeen possible locations.”
Discussions continued between the agencies involved and President Roosevelt. He was very interested in not having a potential ally starved for all of its basic necessities in the event war came.
January 3 1941
On January 3, 1941 President Roosevelt announced the start of a revolutionary building process that would not only provide the British with over 200 vessels, but ultimately provide the United Sates with 2,710 utilitarian ships that were first describe as “The Ugly Duckling”. Later, the shipping board renamed them “Liberty Ships”. A really good history of the program is listed here:
Eighty years ago, the nation responded to a crisis with a vision to build something that had never been built before in a way that was certainly unorthodox. But the Liberty Ships played a key role in making sure the world was kept safe for democracy.
The challenge we have now is that being able to duplicate this effort in today’s environment might be nearly impossible. In the June 2020 issue of Forbes magazine, it was revealed that a study commissioned by the Marines indicated that with current capabilities, “China Can Sink American Ships Faster Than America Can Replace Them”. That should not be a surprise as America has outsourced most of its merchant ship capabilities for decades and our shipyards are no longer as robust when it comes to building and repairing warships. Frankly, we no longer have the ability to build ships in a meaningful way.
From the Forbes article: “But it’s hard to dispute that, for a major maritime power, the United States in 2020 lacks adequate shipbuilding infrastructure. As recently as the late-1970s, the U.S. shipbuilding industry was thriving, thanks in large part to subsidies and financing guarantees that were part of Pres. Richard Nixon’s economic and military platforms. There were, at the time, 22 large shipyards in the United States.
“Pres. Ronald Reagan withdrew the subsidies and guarantees in the early 1980s. “The shipbuilding industry in the United States collapsed and, in the five years that followed, employment fell by a third and the number of active shipyards was reduced by 40 percent,” Tim Colton and LaVar Huntzinger explained in a 2002 report for the Center for Naval Analyses in Virginia.
“The industry further shrank following the end of the Cold War and the subsequent decline in U.S. defense spending. Meanwhile, countries willing to heavily subsidize their shipbuilding industries—Japan, South Korea and China—came to dominate the international market for large commercial vessels. America’s own shipyards soon were building only military ships and smaller commercial vessels.”
Maybe its time for this country to reexamine its policy on shipbuilding. Or our grandchildren had better start studying Chinese instead of gender studies.
4 thoughts on “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Shipbuilding – January 3 1941”
Side note: General William S. Knudsen was the father of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, who did led Pontiac and Ford in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
A beautiful post thank you so much
“Maybe its time for this country to reexamine its policy on shipbuilding. Or our grandchildren had better start studying Chinese instead of gender studies.”
I’ve been planning on writing about the sordid state of our maritime industry for a while; the pandemic, unrest, and political shenanigans have all combined to render me somewhat speechless…
Your points are extremely valid and this final statement… well, it is my opinion only that we are entirely too far behind the fleet. Being reactionary in strategic logistics is akin to that wise old saying: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”