Ships--and More Ships


FOR the second time in a generation American shipyards are being called upon to perform shipbuilding miraclos. The shipways of the country are crowded to capacity, new ways are under construction, all in a gigantic effort to make indomitable our navy, our merchant marine, and at the same time to supply beleaguered Great Britain. A new era in America’s history as a seafaring nation is dawning. Our sea power is already at an advanced stage, far ahead, comparatively, of what it was during the First World War. We start now with what was our goal then: a navy second to none. And our merchant marine at this writing is four times as great as it was in 1914.

This, indeed, is one of the soundest achievements of the Roosevelt Administration, which set up the Maritime Commission in 1936 as a first step in a long-range program. The present emergency program is, therefore, but a phase, albeit an important one, in the long-range program of building up our merchant marine. The war has not caught us unawares on the sea. Our present shipbuilding program contemplates nearly 10 billion dollars in new construction over a five-year period, double the mammoth efforts of the First World War. This would be impossible of achievement had not plans been laid five years ago for just such a possible contingency.

Navy men and shipbuilders still recall the hectic days of the First World War. How the ground at Hog Island, in the Delaware River, was actually steamheated so that it could be broken during the winter of 1917-1918. How riveters received prizes for speedy work and contests were held between riveters of rival yards, all bent on ‘driving rivets in the Kaiser’s coffin.’ And then there is the story of the enthusiastic Mare Islanders who hoped to set a new record by turning out a ship, keel laying to launching, in 30 days. When word came through that New York Shipbuilding, at Camden, New Jersey, had launched a merchant ship 27 days after its keel was laid, the goal at Mare Island was set at 26 days. And a ship was actually launched in 17½ days. Those times have not yet returned; but they will.

Today America is getting ready to build ships in new yards scattered from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, in Los Angeles, Houston, Mobile, Wilmington (North Carolina), Baltimore, New Orleans, Tampa (Florida), and Richmond (California). Not only is this dispersion a safeguard against bombing, but it taps new labor markets and prevents the transportation tie-ups that occurred in the last war. The fifty ways at Hog Island electrified the nation with the realization of the greatest shipbuilding feat in history. But now we are building ships on more than one hundred and fifty new ways, three times as large as the effort at Hog Island.

We are building six different classes of ships. First and foremost, naval vessels, of the highest possible quality; for, as navy men say, it is no good to have the second-best fighting ship. The twoocean navy is being rushed to completion, ahead of schedule by as much as twelve months on battleships and ten months on destroyers.

Second, high-quality cargo and passenger cargo ships, under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. These are part of the ten-year program of the Maritime Commission, calling for a total of 500 ships by 1948, an average of 50 per year. This program, originally conceived to replace the obsolete ships built during the First World War, is six to eight months ahead of schedule. Although built on order of the Commission, all ships are privately operated on Commission-approved trade routes.

Third, ships built for private owners, without benefit of Maritime Commission blessing or subsidy — largely tankers or other special-purpose industrial carriers. Twelve of these tankers, built for Standard Oil of New Jersey in collaboration with Commission high-speed designs, have already been taken over by the navy for fueling the fleet.

Fourth, the 200 emergency cargo ships ordered in January by President Roosevelt. Dubbed the ‘ugly ducklings,’although they have since been streamlined and christened the ‘Liberty Fleet,’ these low-speed, ten-knot vessels are suitable only for work under convoy. Rear Admiral Emory S. Land, Chairman of the Maritime Commission, admits they have little commercial value for foreign trade under normal peacetime conditions. Necessarily of an obsolete type, they would have to go into layup after the war except for this: the domestic fleet badly needs replacements. It cannot afford the expensive naval auxiliary type, foreign-trade ships, but since speed is unimportant in domestic vessels (the railroads carry perishables and other cargo which must move quickly) these ten-knot ships will be ideal for coastwise and intercoastal commerce. They will be built in seven new shipyards, to avoid interference with existing construction.

Fifth, the 60 emergency cargo ships ordered last December by Great Britain. These are also old-style ships, with bygone-day power equipment. But they are easy to construct, and because they specify old types of equipment used in the early ‘20s, such as reciprocating engines and Scotch boilers, they can tap sources of supply not presently in use.

Sixth, the 212 ’lend-lease’ ships ordered by the President in April following enactment of the bill. Approximately half of these are to be of the standardized Liberty Fleet type and half of the various types under the Commission’s long-range program.

All told, contracts now awarded and authorized call for about 950 merchant ships and 913 naval vessels. In addition, something over 1000 small craft are being built for naval uses. Still more ships may be ordered. When completed, all these ships will make up the greatest armada in history. With them we are revitalizing our merchant fleet and also building a bridge to Britain. Britain’s shipping expert, Sir Arthur Salter, has stated that Great Britain would like to see this country turning out four million tons of ships a year, nearly a fourfold expansion from this year’s estimated production. And President Roosevelt has made a promise: ‘The British people . . . need ships. From America they will get ships.’

Added to this emergency program is the long-range program of the Maritime Commission, wholly apart from the 500ship program to be completed by 1948, which is largely aimed at replacement of existing obsolete tonnage. The goal of the Commission is an American merchant fleet capable of carrying about half of our foreign commerce, compared with the one third which our fleet carried before the present war.

The emergency and long-range programs, therefore, contemplate the greatest shipbuilding effort ever undertaken by any nation. Can American shipyards live up to this gigantic task?


The building of a ship is one of the most complicated operations in the whole industrial process. For a ship is not only a skyscraper (the S. S. America has ten decks), a first-class hotel, a warehouse, or a floating fortress; it is also a gigantic refrigerator, a power plant, a steam locomotive. It must be strong enough to withstand the sea’s buffeting, and, as protection against collision or torpedoes, cut up into watertight compartments, yet sleek enough to slide speedily through the water.

A great advance has taken place in shipbuilding in the past decade — the increased use of welding. Since all the plates and frames have to be tied together, the use of welding instead of riveting is a major advance, a ‘revolutionary’ development, according to some shipbuilders. Some ships are ‘ all-welded ‘ today. ‘All-welded’ oil tankers, for example, in which Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company have pioneered, have only about 200 rivets now, as compared with 1,308,000 before welding was used.

Welding not only eliminates the laborious riveting job, with a crew of three or more men for each rivet, but it also does away with the punching of holes for the rivets and the reaming of these holes so that they are perfectly in line. Welding has other advantages: it saves weight — on an average, 13-15 per cent. This not only is an economy in the cost of construction, but enables more payload to be carried through the life of the vessel. Sometimes, too, welding greatly hastens construction, particularly in the case of oil tankers. The side plates of oil tankers are of somewhat more regular design than on a cargo or passenger ship. They lend themselves to pre-assembly, and are welded together on the ground and hoisted in large masses on the side of the ship. Sun Shipbuilding has developed a particularly efficient welding machine, now in use in many yards, which can weld one-inch plates at a speed of one foot a minute. As a result, a 19,000ton tanker, which would have been six or seven months on the ways, can now be launched within four months. This welding produces greater structural strength than if rivets had been used, for it is not possible to have the rivets fit 100 per cent perfectly. In fact, the efficiency ratio of rivets is sometimes rated as low as 85 per cent. Welding, on the other hand, is based on complete fusion and should leave no open cracks between the plates.

Welding encourages pre-assembly — in such pieces as ships’ bulkheads, for instance, where the work can be more conveniently done on the ground. Preassembly on ground rather than on ship is another major change in shipbuilding of the past decade. As much of this is done as possible, since more hands can work on a piece flat on the ground than suspended on a ship. It is far easier, too, to weld ‘down,’ with the piece being welded on the ground, than to weld ‘up,’ holding the welding rod above one’s head. Whole bows, bulkheads dividing the ship into compartments, and other parts are built and put together on the ground today and then hoisted on to the shipways for the final assembly. Sometimes as much as 50 per cent of a ship is pre-assembled even before the keel is laid.


If you were to look at the most modern cargo or passenger ship and then compare it with one of ten or fifteen years ago, you would observe little difference. The great advances have come within the ship rather than outside. There has been a phenomenal improvement in power efficiency. The reciprocating engines have almost completely given way to turbines, at a saving in fuel consumption of no less than 50 per cent. Speeds have been increased. The tankers are outstanding examples, where speeds have been increased by as much as 40-50 per cent within the past five years. This has been due to the pioneering of the Maritime Commission. Its national-defense tankers, which make 19 knots, were built when other tankers made 10 to 11 knots. One operator found he could make money by operating at near the top speed. Since then new commercial tanker speeds have risen to 15 knots.

Whereas vessels of First World War construction had an average speed of about 11 knots, those of late design average 15½ knots, with the result that three vessels can now do the work for which four formerly were required. Improved cargo-handling gear reduces port time and brings the ratio to two new ships to three of the old. Many lines, in fact, think the Maritime Commission’s new C-2 and C-3 designs have double the efficiency of the older ships, with efficiency including not only speed in travel but economy in fuel and repairs and speed in loading and discharge.

The form of the vessel has been altered so that it can be propelled through the water more easily and with less horsepower per deadweight ton, and the reduction in weight of the machinery per horsepower has been such that much less of the vessel’s space is required for the housing of the machinery. More space is thus allowed for cargo and crew. The use of air conditioning has been extended, higher standards of efficiency are applied to lifesaving equipment, and better sanitary provisions are made for passengers and crew. Electric equipment is installed so extensively that in recent vessels virtually everything except the main engines is controlled by electrical devices. A wider use of fireproof materials has resulted in a much lower fire hazard and greater safety for passengers and crew.


Personnel is to material as three is to one, said Nelson. Good forecastle hands, plus efficient licensed officers, make the ship. In recent years one of the greatest handicaps imposed upon our struggling merchant marine has been the lack of discipline of its seamen. Radical movements have gained a foothold on shipboard. If these were originally caused by what Joseph P. Kennedy termed, in his Economic Survey of the American Merchant Marine, the ‘shocking conditions now prevalent aboard our vessels,’ they no longer have reason for existence. Crews’ quarters have been renovated at more than $1,500,000 expense, and on the new Commission ships they are the best in the history of any maritime nation — so comfortable, say some old tars, that they breed softness. New vessels have recreation rooms and ample crew quarters, with seldom more than two or three to a room. Wages are high, the men aboard ship receiving on average more than $90 monthly, and also most of their living expenses. The Maritime Commission has instituted a seamen’s training program which not only encourages ambitious seamen to learn better jobs but also attracts more young men into the merchant marine. For the Commission realizes that it is building a merchant marine not just for today or tomorrow, but for the future. Not only must our ships be the best ships; our sailors must be the best sailors.

Part of the success of the Maritime Commission is due to the fact that it is not primarily a regulatory agency, a curb on initiative, but an accelerator agency, which above all else has been charged with getting good ships built and aiding American shipping. The merchant marine was in a lamentable state in 1937 when Mr. Kennedy issued his significant report. Government policy was in chaos, although a number of private lines were strengthening their positions on world-trade routes. The navy had been attended to in 1933, President Roosevelt allocating 250 million dollars of NIRA funds to begin ship construction. But affairs in the merchant marine were allowed to drift — no one seemed to know just what should be done.

The Kennedy report, therefore, was a clear clarion call for act ion. It proposed a ten-year building program for the merchant marine of 500 new ships, an average of 50 per year. It recognized the fact that, at the water’s edge, ships constructed under the American standard of living are thrown into direct competition with ships constructed under substantially lower standards of living. Ships built out of steel by men whose wages permit at least one car in their garage cannot compete with those built in the bicycle economies of Great Britain or Norway or Denmark, for example. So ships constructed today under the Maritime Commission’s program receive an outright construction subsidy, which is calculated to be the difference between building a ship in American and in foreign yards. In addition, operators of a ship, whether it be under charter from the Maritime Commission or owned outright, receive an operating subsidy, which is the difference between various costs — such as seamen’s wages, food, repairs, and insurance — in American and in foreign ship operation. These subsidies, which under pre-war conditions had been running at the rate of 13 million dollars a year, seem ridiculously small in comparison with the subsidies given to other groups of our population. And they are paid to the ship operators solely to enable them to stay in business against low-cost foreign competition.

The Maritime Commission early in its career made a most significant decision. It decided that the 500 ships should be of only a few basic designs. So at first, after consulting shipbuilders and shipping interests, the greatest effort was concentrated on the drawing boards, in order to ensure ships embodying the most up-to-date methods of propulsion, holds, and cargo-handling facilities, as well as comfort and speed. The designs adopted must, obviously, be a compromise, for some of these objectives are conflicting. Finally, three basic designs were decided upon: two for cargo vessels and one for a combination passengercargo ship. This does not mean, however, that there are only three types from which a ship operator can choose — which would have been intolerable for the operators, who like their ships to embody part of their own experience and taste. A certain freedom of choice is allowed, provided it does not conflict with the basic features.

This relative standardization of the American merchant marine was a farsighted step and one which will prove most helpful in our current effort to build ships quickly. Shipbuilders are now thoroughly familiar with the basic designs, the makers of propulsion machinery have had valuable experience, and the ship fitters on the ways have an easier time than they would if each ship were different. Only 83 vessels have been delivered so far out of the 500 contemplated under the Maritime Commission’s ten-year program, although 198 have been ordered and are in various stages of construction. Such an effort, in most industries, would hardly constitute mass production, and yet it is mass production from a shipbuilding standpoint.

These ships will be coming off the ways in the very nick of time. Passing, except for those taken by the army and navy, into private hands, they are helping to solve the renewal problems for many lines, enabling them to meet the heavy task of bringing in strategic materials for our national defense. Although America’s merchant marine at the start of the Second World War was larger than at the start of the First World War, the position was still far from admirable. Among the six leading seagoing nations, our merchant marine ranked last in number of ships in foreign trade, next to last in total tonnage of ships, last in number of vessels with average speed of twelve knots and upward, and next to last in number of ships ten years of age or less. By practically every comparison, except in the quality of its passenger services, America’s seagoing fleet was at the bottom or next, to bottom of the list — hardly the place for a nation with the glorious traditions of John Paul Jones, the clipper ships, the Monitor and the Merrimac, and Manila Bay.

However, there is a somewhat brighter side. In addition to its ships used in foreign trade, America has the largest fleet of intercoastal and coastal vessels in the world, and incidentally this fleet, until war broke out, carried 25 per cent more cargo tonnage than the foreigntrade fleet. Moreover, many of these coastal and intercoastal vessels, though they are old, are seagoing, capable of sailing the high seas to foreign lands. This is not true of the Great Lakes and connecting-channels ships, which in 1937 carried three and a half times as much tonnage as the overseas fleet. These Great Lakes ships could not be used on the high seas for the simple reason that they are bottled up in the Great Lakes

— being of too broad a beam or too long for the Welland Canal or other arteries leading from the Great Lakes to the open seas. The 2,298,000 tons of Great Lakes shipping will not be of great help. Our coastal and intercoastal fleet, which totaled 2,356,000 tons in 1939, has already been reduced — by sales to Britain, to the navy, and to private interests —to 1,858,000 tons, and not all of this is available for ocean service. Some of it can be diverted, however, throwing upon the railroads the burden of their own traffic. President Roosevelt acted in May to use part of this tonnage, along with the nearly one million tons of foreign vessels recently seized, for the formation of a twomillion-ton shipping pool to aid the British.

Another source of strength in the American merchant marine is the number of tankers and other special-purpose vessels. These numbered 2,678,000 tons at the beginning of the war and were 2,578,000 tons recently. Not all of them could be converted easily to carry general cargo, but they are all oceangoing. In May, fifty of these tankers, averaging 10,000 tons each, were transferred to Britain. The ‘hidden reserve’ in existence since the end of the First World War is already practically exhausted— our laid-up ‘ghost’ fleet. At one time this totaled several million tons, and at the beginning of the war numbered 776,000 tons. Much of the fleet has been sold to Great Britain and friendly neutrals, with the remainder being taken by the navy and by American lines.


American shipping lines have found the Second World War a boon rather than a detriment. At the start of the war only 30 per cent of the cargoes going to or from America were carried in American bottoms. This compares with less than 10 per cent in 1914. Then, when the Neutrality Act forced American ships to withdraw from North Atlantic trade routes and, in May 1940, from the Mediterranean, ships were tied up at the wharves. The situation changed as British shipping losses mounted and British ships were forced to abandon trade routes which they had dominated for years, thus opening up new opportunities for American ships. The Moore-McCormack Lines, for example, which formerly had a major part of their business with the Scandinavian countries, concentrated on the South American trade, receiving from the Maritime Commission a subsidy for trade from the North Atlantic to the east coast, and have succeeded in quadrupling their passenger traffic in the past three years. The S.S. America, completed for the United States Lines in the summer of 1940 and intended for the North Atlantic, was given permission by the Maritime Commission to ply between the east and west coasts of the United States, through the Panama Canal, plus scheduled cruises in the West Indies. The result is that the America, which is the largest passenger ship ever built in American shipyards, has been loaded to practical capacity.

American Export Lines, which had engaged until May 1940 in the Mediterranean and Black Sea trades and a monthly service to India, now is running weekly sailings to India, taking much of the material going to China over the Burma Road, and bringing back burlap, jute, and other necessary Indian products. The weekly service of the American Export Lines between New York and Lisbon, the only port to which American vessels can now go in Europe, has long waiting lists. The Grace Line, operating for years to the west coast of South America, has not been affected by the war in the sense of altered trade routes, but our greatly increased imports from South America under the nationaldefense program have doubled its business.

All in all, this has been the most golden age for American shipping since the First World War, although profits have been limited both by government statute and by taxation. And some shipping men estimate that American flagships will dominate the overseas trade routes until three years after the end of hostilities, since it will take that length of time for competitor merchant fleets to be replenished and trade routes reëstablished.

Last year American vessels carried 42 per cent of the tonnage going to and from the United States. This is the highest for any year this century. The long-term aim of the Maritime Commission is that about half of our cargoes shall be carried in American bottoms. To achieve this end the Maritime Commission had made extensive studies of the desirable and necessary trade routes for the American economy. The war, of course, has obliterated some of these routes, but twenty-six of them had been found necessary before war broke out. As Great Britain calls in more and more of her tonnage engaged in trade routes other than those connected with at least one member of the Empire, the demand for American tonnage will increase. Already cargoes have been reported as piling up on the docks in certain South American countries where British ships have been withdrawn for service to Great Britain. But the situation is far better than it was in 1914-1915.

The slightly over one million tons of merchant vessels that will be built in the United States in 1941 will not only ease the pinch in our own carrying trade but also provide substantial aid to Great Britain, equivalent to ten or twelve weeks’ losses at sea from German raiders. Not until 1942 — when, according to present estimates, some 3¾ million tons will have been built in American shipyards — will practically the full force of the American shipbuilding program be felt. But 1942 is only six months away — and this represents a truly magnificent achievement when it is recalled that it took three years for 112 ships to be turned out at Hog Island. By contrast, the 200 emergency cargo vessels ordered by the President in January and the 212 ’lend-lease’ ships ordered in April will all be delivered in two years, with deliveries commencing in November. As much of the ship’s component parts as possible will be manufactured outside the seven new shipyards, in order to hold down to a minimum the new buildings and machinery needed. The emergency ships will be assembly jobs as far as is humanly possible. One representative yard plans to take only 5½ months from keel laying to launching, and 2½ months at the outfitting piers. The ships will be built in a definite series, two in the first series, for which all the component parts will be ordered together, — steel, rudder, and so forth, — six in the next series, and so on. It is expected that this will greatly facilitate the securing of the necessary propulsion machinery and materials for assembly on the ways.

In all, 107 new shipways are being constructed to handle the 412-ship program. It is no great trick to build a shipway, which consists merely of a concrete foundation at tidewater, resting on huge pilings driven to solid footing, and large cranes, either overhead or alongside the ways, for the handling of material. But other buildings must be erected behind the ways and outfitted with machinery in order to have a shipyard. It is what goes into a ship that really determines the shipbuilding capacity of a nation: its steel, boiler, and turbine capacity, as well as its capacity for turning out skilled workers. America’s steel capacity is greater than that of the rest of the world combined, and so is our machinery-building capacity. We have a greater reservoir of skilled labor. And our shipbuilding capacity within six months will exceed that of the entire world, perhaps by nearly one third.

Whether the emergency cargo ships, plus the sixty old-type, reciprocatingengine, and coal-burning ships ordered by the English, plus the Maritime Commission’s program and the others, are finished ahead or behind schedule depends upon two things: getting the materials in time — which is essentially a matter of priorities — and labor. The shipbuilders will receive favorable treatment from the Priorities Commission, headed by E. R. Stettinius, Jr., in view of the primary need for ships. But the labor problem is more complex. It necessitates a twofold expansion in our shipbuilding force within a year. Since most of the labor required in shipbuilding is skilled labor, a tremendous burden will be placed upon our training schools. Moreover, a graduate of a training school cannot immediately take his place on the ways, in the mould loft, design room, fabricating shop, foundry, pipe shop, paint shop, or in any of the other multiple operations necessary to shipbuilding. He must first serve as an apprentice, and this has led William S. Knudsen to urge: ‘Give every skilled man three helpers to learn the work.’ So far the situation has been met satisfactorily, although strikes in April and May have slowed output. Long shifts are the rule in many yards today, plus Saturday work. Some yards are working three shifts, although there is general agreement that the third shift cannot amount to much more than maintenance and clean-up work even if there were trained men available, as there are not. Officials are convinced that at the present time we are making the greatest shipbuilding effort that we possibly can with the resources at our command.

Meanwhile the needs of our own navy for auxiliary ships are increasing. As Admiral Land has stated, ‘The merchant marine is the lifeline of the navy. . . . It feeds it, it fuels it and repairs it at sea. In addition, it transports troops when necessary.’ The navy is taking no chances, and aims to be ready for any emergency. It has quietly been buying up tonnage and has acquired about fifty large merchant ships, including twentyseven new vessels built under the Maritime Commission’s program, as well as yachts that can be used for patrol purposes.

How many ships will be necessary? During the emergency that will depend upon the success of the German U-boat campaign as well as upon our own naval requirements. The exact state of the British merchant marine is an Admiralty secret. Great Britain began the war with some 20 million tons of oceangoing vessels, and has since acquired between 7 and 9 million tons from other countries, including 11/5 million from America. Losses of British, Allied, and neutral vessels thus far approximate 6 million tons. Further British tonnage is immobilized, undergoing repairs, sometimes perhaps as much as a million tons. At the current rate of sinkings, Great Britain must count upon a loss of between 3½ and 5 million tons in 1941. Yet both the British Empire and the United States combined will not produce more than 2 million tons this year. That means a net loss of 1½ to 3 million tons, which fortunately will be the first net loss of the war, inasmuch as the accretions from foreign and United States owners have so far kept British tonnage up to the pre-war strength.

This method of calculation understates the British need for ships because of the low efficiency of the convoy method, which is said to raise the need for tonnage by as much as one third. Nevertheless, Sir Arthur Salter stated on May 7 that ‘there is presently available in America enough merchant tonnage to form the so-called bridge of ships, until such time as the combined ship construction efforts of the United States and Great Britain begin sending new vessels off the ways.’ And Prime Minister Churchill declared on the same day, ‘We can probably maintain our minimum essential traffic during 1941. As for 1942 ... I have received assurance of construction of merchant vessels by the United States which, added to our own large program of new building and repairs, should see us through the year 1942.’

By 1942 we shall be launching merchant ships almost at the rate of one a day. The program which the Maritime Commission had carefully developed even before Munich will be bearing fruit. The Liberty Fleet, ordered by the President for the emergency, will be coming off the ways. Our production, plus that of the British, should by that time equalize shipping losses, and be sufficient to maintain a bridge of ships to Britain. Our own merchant marine will be rising, in reaffirmation of the highest traditions of American sea power. Nor will this be just for the emergency. The present is just the first stage in the revitalizing of our merchant fleet, to give it a permanent place in our economy, so that, as in the days of the clipper ships, the American flag will again swiftly, bravely, and proudly sail the Seven Seas.