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LIBERTY: The Ships That Won the War

Jeffrey Syken

“I think this ship will do us very well. She’ll carry a good load. She isn’t much to look at, though, is she? A real ugly duckling.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, POTUS

They may not have been pretty, but without them and their derivatives, the allied victory over the axis powers in WWII, simply put, would not have been possible. Victory on the battlefields of North Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean and the far-flung reaches of the Pacific was contingent upon supplying ours and our allies’ fighting forces with food, ammunition, equipment, weapons etc. in an efficient, timely and on-going manner. With the Fall of France in the summer of 1940, the situation became dire. Great Britain was the last obstacle to Hitler’s conquest of Western Europe, but it was beleaguered by the relentless loss of their merchant ships to the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats. Thus, the British turned to the U.S. for help in reconstituting their depleted merchant fleet. Help would come in the form of a $100 million contract for sixty “Tramp” cargo vessels, built at U.S. shipyards on both the east and west coast/s, under provisions of the “Lend-Lease” program. This was the beginning of the greatest shipbuilding program the world had ever seen.

In the years following the end of the WWI, the U.S. merchant fleet, including its cargo and passenger ships, was becoming obsolete and declining in numbers. A shipbuilding program began in earnest with the passage of the “Merchant Marine Act of 1936.” To oversee the Act, the “U.S. Maritime Commission” was created. As old as the nation itself, the U.S. Merchant Marine transports cargo and passengers in peacetime and is called upon, in times of war, to deliver troops and supplies wherever/whenever needed. The Merchant Marine grew quickly leading up to and during WWII – nearly quadrupling in size; from 55K to 215K. Sadly, it had the highest casualty rate of any service, with 1 in 26 Merchant Mariners losing their life. In March 1938, the Merchant Marine Cadet Corps was established and in 1943, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY, was completed. As well, training facilities for crews that would man the new merchant fleet were established throughout the U.S. (i.e. Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn) and the U.S. Navy established an “Armed Guard” to provide manpower for the defensive weaponry aboard the new merchant fleet.

The key to it all were the ships yet to be built. During WWI, a similar situation developed whereby a need for ships motivated the U.S. Government to create a massive shipyard at Hog Island, Philadelphia. Using prefabricated parts and sub-assemblies produced by dozens of subcontractors, it was the first yard in the world to use modern prefabrication methods rather than traditional methods of shipbuilding. However, by the time the first ship was completed, the Armistice had been signed and the war was over. Not wanting to repeat mistakes made previously, this time ‘round shipbuilding would be decentralized, with multiple shipyards all building to a common, simple design. The “New Emergency” eventually led to a shipbuilding program that would produce 5,500 vessels, which included a tanker and three types of merchant vessels. Among them were +2,700 mass-produced (a/k/a “Liberty”) ships. Modified from a British design, they were slow but could carry a sizable load and were capable of being “converted” from standard dry cargo use to troop transports, colliers, tankers, tank/plane carriers, aircraft repair ships etc. The gap had been filled, earning the Liberty ship its rightful place at the forefront of the allied victory.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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