We Build Ships



APRIL, 1943




THE questionnaire passed out by the shipyard timekeeper had a space for “craft.” I put “rigger” down, and farther along where elaboration was requested I added, “My job is to move any iron or steel of any size or shape from anywhere in the yard to wherever someone needs it.” My age went down as forty-four, and the years I had spent with steel and ships as a baker’s dozen.

The squirming strain of a wire cable in my hands as I bend it around a cargo boom is not like the recoil of a fast-firing gun; that, we middle-aged men are told, is for supple youth. But before many months, down under, this cargo boom will be unloading hundreds of guns where they are most needed.

For our share of the war, we older shipbuilders take the iron plates and bars as they come from the interior mills; we build the hulls, swing the machinery down on its foundations, reeve rope gear through the blocks, lower anchor chain through the hause pipes — and pass some waterfront remarks totally lacking in respect when the corsaged wife of a brass hat breaks a bottle of champagne across the bow of the ship we built.

The sponsoring party and the launching gang will be near the hull when it slides down the ways, but thousands of other people in the yard will give it scant attention. Deep and strong and continuous in tone underneath the scream of the yard whistles heralding the launching of another ship will sound the pound of riveting guns hammering on other hulls soon to float out and join their sisters. The work goes on twenty-four hours a day every day, with pauses only for brief lunch periods. We build ‘em. Let others celebrate our accomplishments.

For we shipbuilders have accomplished much. Ours was an almost defunct industry employing only a few thousand men a few days a week before the war. Now we employ hundreds of thousands of workers, and need half as many more. I write as a West Coast shipbuilder; but as we have done, so have our brother craftsmen from Maine to Texas. We have built shipyards, operating forces, and ships at one and the same time.

Beginning with weed-strewn mud flats for sites; with cowboys, salesmen, and students for workers; with machinery brought from the ends of the country or constructed on the spot by the first comers, we now produce ships in quantities that amaze the world.

Copyright 1943, by The Atlantic Monthly, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

In the First World War, the best launching time for a ship of approximately ten thousand tons was fifty-three days. Last November, in Kaiser Shipyard Number Two at Richmond, California, the keel of the Robert E. Peary, a 10,500-ton Liberty freighter, was laid early on Sunday morning. Before the week was up, the seamen’s hiring halls sent a crew aboard the completed ship. On the fourteenth day, the ship, loaded to the Plimsoll line, was ready to sail with the next convoy.

During the First World War the largest shipyard ever built, the Hog Island Shipyard on the East Coast, was constructed with fifty launching ways. In two years it launched one hundred and twenty ships — slightly better than a ship a way a year. These were not completed ships. This year the most modern yards on the Pacific Coast expect to complete and commission a ship a way each month, and then lower that record. Five such ways could exceed the output of the gargantuan Hog Island plant, and on the Pacific Coast alone we have many times that number of ways.

We intend to build ships faster and faster. Gracie Fields tells about a woman who was invited to sponsor the launching of a Kaiser ship. She was escorted to a beribboned stand at the head of an empty launching way, and handed a bottle of champagne. “But where is the ship?” the bewildered sponsor asked. “You just start swinging the bottle, lady,” a worker replied, “we’ll have the ship there.”


This tremendously increased output of the shipyards results from the increased capacity of transportation machinery, chiefly cranes, and the mass application of new tools, such as welding and burning machines, which permit new methods of construction. Section assembly, ending on the building ways, is carefully planned to make use of this new and stronger machinery. Such a building way is a huge basket sixty feet high, built, on a slope with one end in the water, and shaped to fit the hull of a ship. The sides of the basket are plank staging on which the men can work. The bottom is composed of two smooth timber slides down which the ship can be sent into the water. Above these slides is built a cribbing to carry the weight of the keel, or bottom, of the ship, as it is constructed. Alongside the building way is the craneway where are laid the rails on which roll the towering Gantry cranes.

Usually there is a crane on each side of the ship, reaching its long boom over the side of the basket to deposit inside on the growing hull its burden of plates or other material. These cranes provide the final transportation of material to the ships, and the limit of their power sets the maximum weight of sections that can be moved from the assembly parks to the hull.

The big cranes can safely handle sixty-ton sections forty feet wide and sixty feet long, an area larger than many city lots; and by ganging up two or more cranes, sections of over a hundred tons have been swung into place. The shape and weight of the sections vary as the ship is built. Double bottoms which can hold the fuel oil, transverse bulkheads, the prows, expanses of deckplates with attached beams beneath, and deckhouses which come in three or four sections, are some of the heaviest lifts. In between the lifts of these huge masses, the cranes will make dozens of smaller ones ranging from a hundred-pound riveter’s forge to a skip box full of small triangular brackets.

In former days, the cranes were not so large, and the building ways had to be both assembly park and launching way. Bit by bit, the thousand separate parts that were to make up a ship were carried directly from the plate shop and the material yard, hoisted into place by light derricks and rope blocks, and riveted one upon another as the hull grew. The empty hull was launched as soon as it was strong enough to stand the strain of launching. Then, bit by bit again, the superstructure and fittings and engines were hoisted on the floating hull and secured. In those days, comparatively few men could work on a ship. There is a limit to the number who can occupy any given space — a limit soon reached when a hull is first started. Assembly was confined to the building ways, and each group began its work only after the foundation was laid by the gang before it.

On a typical Liberty ship today, one division of work is welding, which replaces much of the former riveting. Of 230,000 feet of welding, 60,000 feet may be done on assembly parks before the keel is laid; and the rest of the welding is fairly evenly divided between erection work on the building ways as the sections are assembled, and the sub-assemblies being put together on the assembly parks. Today subassembly yards for West Coast ships are not all at tidewater. Many are located a thousand miles inland.

The small cranes of an earlier day have been demoted to the work of unloading freight cars and trucks, or moving material about on the assembly grounds. Their newer, mightier brethren, towering twice or more their height into the air with booms that could knock out top windows in a ten-story building, are the distinctive mark of the new shipyards. From miles away one can see them wading with deliberate might through the maze of buildings and ships, each one like the bare steel framework of a perambulating six-story building on top of which have been built a penthouse and a long derrick. As one watches their mighty booms swing about on top of their lofty framework, picking up a hookful of frames or an assembled section, one feels their alien strangeness, and wonders if these mighty servants have a life of their own, now that they have been created.

Almost as spectacular as the giant cranes in performance are the electric welding machines that join plate to plate and deck to deck, and the gas-burning torches that melt their way through thick metal like a hot knife through butter. By means of the electric arc and the gas torch, the shipbuilder can work in metal more easily than a carpenter can work with wood. With the aid of the torch, any metal can be trimmed or a hole made in it. The electric arc welds together pieces of metal; and if properly welded, the junction is as strong as a solid piece. A Navy inspector after looking over a bombed cruiser I worked on told me that, although the heavy plates had been torn like paper, he could not find one cracked weld.

Almost all the interior metal of a ship now is joined together by the welder’s arc, as is the superstructure that rises above the hull. Besides the hand welding rod and burning torch, automatic and semi-automatic welding and burning devices are now in use, and workers are inventing new ones constantly.

One of these automatic burners employs several torches in a gang, and as the machine moves under its own power along the guide rails above a thick plate, the torches trim and bevel it with perfect smoothness and unbelievable accuracy and with a speed many times that of an enormous machine planer. The automatic welding machine most used in a shipyard joins the deck plates together. The plates are fastened side by side, with edges touching, and then a burner with a hand torch grooves out the junction. In this groove the self-propelled welding machine strikes an arc with the end of a long coil of welding rod. As the edges of the plates grow white-hot, the rod melts and fills the hollow. A preparation similar to ground glass pours down around the arc and molds the hot metal into a perfect continuous bead. The machine progresses forward at the proper speed, leaving behind it one plate instead of two.

A carpenter needing a piece of wood cut will grab a saw, or if he wants two pieces joined together he will take a hammer and nail them. Not so with metal workers. Scattered about the hulls and the yard are many welders and burners who stand ready to cut and weld as other craftsmen direct.

If it is necessary for me, while erecting a section of the ship, to have the crane hook onto the center of a smooth plate, I pick up a piece of scrap metal the size of my hand, have a burner melt out a hole in it the size of a dollar, and then I get a welder to weld it at right angles to the center of the plate. The crane can hook into this and lift the plate. Later, a burner cuts the welded piece off with his torch, and the plate is smoothed out as formerly. Similar uses to which welding and burning of metal can be put are almost infinite in the handling of metal in a shipyard, quite apart from the actual shaping and joining together of the parts of a ship. The time saved in this manner, together with the assembly of sections away from the building ways, accounts for much of our speed in shipbuilding.


A ship is an independent community when in service. It is like a small town compressed into a big building. As such it has to have all the utilities of a town. The shipbuilders must include all the artisans that could build such a town: the steelmen, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, and a host of others. We build many such communities in a year, and have not only the craftsmen to do it, but also the great shops in which to fabricate the thousand and one things needed.

Such are the electrical, paint, and machine shops and the wood mill. Perhaps the most impressive shops are the flangers’ slabs and furnaces where the great iron frames and beams for the hull are shaped. The furnaces are low, gas-fired tunnels sixty feet long where the heat is so intense that the flames of the roaring gas jets are invisible. Into these furnaces long angle irons are shoved, to be slowly heated white-hot, then dragged out on the slab and bent to the exact shape desired. The slab is a steel floor honeycombed with hundreds of small square holes. A wooden template, similar to a dressmaker’s paper pattern, is laid on this slab, and hooked wedges are driven into the square holes to fit the edges of the template. The template is removed, the white-hot angle iron is dragged from the fire, and brawny flangers stripped to the waist grab heavy sledges and bend the iron against the wedges until it conforms to the desired shape.

Ships vary greatly in capacity, function, and speed of movement. It is no detraction from the brilliant achievements of the Kaiser companies to point out that not only is there a great difference between a standardized Liberty ship, one of hundreds of sister ships exactly alike, and a custom-built ship, only a few of which will be built; but there necessarily follows a great difference in the construction.

In the yard where I now work, we have been building specialty ships not much larger than Liberty ships, but bewilderingly more complex. There was one group of three sister ships, one of two sister ships, and one of seven sister ships. One ship that was built was distinctly different from any of the others.

In the Liberty shipyards, a machine can be adjusted for a plate, and ten or more plates run through that machine before changing a roll. On a custom-built ship, one or two plates can be run off, and then the machine must be completely readjusted for the next plate. A dozen “c” plates for a dozen Liberty ships can be cut from one template. A dozen “c” plates for a dozen specialty ships may require any number of templates up to a dozen.

The worker on a Liberty ship frequently operates like the classical Ford mechanic who always gave a half twist to a certain nut. This shipfitter can be given a certain limited responsibility such as erecting brackets in the forepeak, and on each new ship he performs that identical and limited job. On a custombuilt ship, he would perform such a job once or twice, then have to learn about a new part of a new ship. The custom-built method turns out craftsmen, the Liberty methods turn out ships in amazing quantities. The specially designed ships must be built, however, even if they do not inspire headlines.

A similar situation exists in the yards themselves. New yards are constructed according to the most modern plan, and embody all the experiences gained in the old yards. Areas are ample in size, and correctly lined out for a sequence of operations. Material of a definite size and quantity can be moved in orderly procedure through the necessary buildings and machines toward the building ways or outfitting docks.

The old yards are a headache and a heartbreak. Assembly grids constructed for repair work must now rush through enough sections so that a ship a month can be built. Into areas never large enough, more machines and shops must be crowded. Material does not flow in a steady stream: it moves like that stream when the ice is breaking up in the spring. It cannot be moved in large sections, but must follow the old style of trickling piece by piece through the crowded shops and parks. Yet one cannot wipe the old yard out and after a month or two have it rebuilt on the new order. The old yards have in their construction areas new ships on paper, in patterns, and on the building ways. They may be old and some of them inefficient, but they still produce.

Liberty ships were designed, not only to be constructed from standardized, frozen plans, but to be constructed of available material and machinery. The ships are slow, but their upand-down engines can be cast. The custombuilt ships must be fast, and their giant turbines with thousands of blades that have close tolerances must be carefully machined from tool steel. Their huge electric generators and motors are marvels of precise workmanship. The great Eastern shops that make these turbines and electric generators cannot turn out the number required. They haven’t the highly skilled men in sufficient numbers; they have to wait on the building of precision tools by an industry that has not enough toolmakers.

The insides of many specially designed ships are of a complexity that complicates everything — including comparisons. The Liberty freighters have a small crew, so living spaces are few and easily fitted in. They have several large holds that extend in emptiness from tank tops to main deck with two intermediate decks only. A custom-built transport such as we have turned out must have a large crew and accommodations for many soldiers. This community needs everything from a fair-sized hospital to giant evaporators that distill tons of fresh drinking water hourly from the brine the ship floats on. A ship like that is not built in a week, it does not inspire laudatory cartoons; but it is needed, it is built, and it is used.

We also do repair work. Since the war began, our yard has converted or repaired over five hundred ships in addition to the new construction. Some ships needed only a few hours’ or days’ work. Some required many months’ work. Keeping in operation this number of ships is a fair share of the war shipbuilders’ job. These ships have been of all types and almost all nationalities.

During the first year, much of our work consisted of arming merchant ships. That phase is passing, as all that survive are now well armed. At first they had to carry sorely needed freight and passengers, trusting to prayer and life preservers. But, as enemy airplanes have repeatedly found out, they no longer carry wooden or antique armament. There is a satisfaction in knowing that some part of that added safety is the work of our hands.


Flame and steel. An old description of war, and it is war for us today. It is spectacular, this building of ships, even to us who have been identified with ships for years — perhaps most spectacular in the very early morning hours when we of the day shift come to work. The streets are dark in the winter morning along the water front. A steady succession of buses and passenger cars circles slowly at the street corner, discharging men and women by the thousand. We crowd up the street, filling it from sidewalk to sidewalk, a drably clad, hurrying mass, indistinct in the darkness before the dawn. Before us are the gates to the shipyard. Over them rise the dark mass of the buildings, the row of building ways, the upthrust prows of the growing hulls, and the great cranes, all shadowy now against the strings of naked lights circling them.

The eerie, pale light from welders’ arcs washes over the yard in flickering sheets — now here, now there, throwing into relief a crane, a hull, the honeycombed mass of an assembled section. High on a mast a cascade of fire rains down into the night from a burner’s torch. The boom of a giant Gantry swings around ponderously, and the crane seems to stumble onward with its heavy load, like an old man tired after his night’s work. We pour through many gates into the yard, and the workers on the graveyard shift straighten from their work to watch us take over. The ear-wrecking din of the yard — composed of the staccato chatter of air-driven hammers, the moan of crane horns, the wham of flangers’ mauls on iron bulkheads — diminishes, then grows again, with our aid, to full daylight din.

Many of those entering the gates never saw a water craft larger than a rowboat until they came out here. Sometimes I think that the few Okies and Texans who did not enlist in the armed forces came to work in our shipyards. No Grapes of Wrath for them now. Their hard life has made them hard workers, and how we need their breed. The ranchers and fruit growers who used and abused them once now run weeping to Washington, for the ungrateful Dust Bowlers have deserted them.

When the available supply of workers ran short around San Francisco, the shipyard operators sent unreformed California real-estate salesmen back East as recruiters. Kaiser’s agents announced that they would take the unskilled unemployed; and if anyone did not know one end of a wrench from another, the ends would be labeled.

Other recruiters did not go quite that far, but old water-front workers insist that some must have been hired by promising them shoes, and others by tales about how liberal California was with old-age pensions. Lack of housing has put a temporary end to wholesale importation of workers, but more workers are needed, and someday, someway, they will be obtained from somewhere.

In the old days our gangs in the yards were made up of men who spoke as casually of New York, Singapore, and Seattle as the average person does of his main street. In temperament, background, and training they were unique. Those men today leaven the great masses that have made the shipyards productive, but they are few among the many. The shipworkers now come from a thousand communities, with different backgrounds, but almost all who come from out of town are on their first big trek. They belong with the homebodies, the people who live across the street, rather than with the foot-loose construction men who constantly look for the other side of the mountain.

In the yards, it is their ability that counts, and their willingness to carry their end of the work. With few exceptions, the best workers are those who have always worked — not necessarily on ships, but somewhere — at active manual toil. Just as the best office workers are those who have done office work, so in manual labor, skilled or unskilled, those who are accustomed to such work can do it better than newcomers.

Most white-collar people do become a valuable part of our war workers, and are accepted, but there is a small minority who have always looked down on craftsmen with more or less contempt. As superior beings they have felt that they could acquire in a few days a skill and training that took the average craftsman a decade to learn. (To become an ordinary, proficient journeyman in a trade takes as many years as to obtain an A.B. at college.) These people come into the yards expecting to win promotion to leader man almost at once. They accept directions with an ill grace, resent discipline, and become embittered at their resulting failure.

Another annoying characteristic of this group is that they do not have the willingness and ability to swing their weight promptly into a job. Their training has accustomed them to getting the better of the other fellow. In our work there is need for the same close physical teamwork that it takes months of practice to inculcate in football teams — perhaps more need, because among steelworkers sullen response or blunders may result in injury and death to many. We stake our lives and the job on the actions of our fellow workers. Those who can’t or won’t cut the mustard must of necessity be shoved out.

There is one other group we especially dislike, but those we handle promptly and in the old manner without kid gloves. They are the poolroom loafers who have never shaken hands with a real job before, and only do it now to escape the draft. As workers they are sloven shirkers.

One of these, a man about twenty-seven, came on our gang one morning, helped swing the first plate into place, and then wandered off until noon. Directly after lunch he climbed up on an unused scaffold in the forepeak and went to sleep. The leader man found him down in the washroom cleaning up half an hour before quitting time and handed him his time card. He got ugly, and threatened to meet Ted, the leader man, outside the gate. Ted, a veteran rigger and now a quarterman, removed his false teeth to save them from injury, and walked outside the gate; but much to the disappointment of those of us who knew Ted’s ability, the loafer hightailed it as though he had a hot rivet in his pants.

The draft has rid us of practically all of these loafers, and the others walk out the gate almost as quickly as they walk in. Each of us men gets paid for one man’s work, and while we often and gladly carry the work of an older or injured man so that he will not be forced off the payroll, we emphatically and profanely announce that we will not carry able-bodied shirks. For every such man fired by the boss, twenty are ruled off a gang by the other members.

The men we need and get too few of are veterans of our respective crafts, or of allied crafts. Shipwrights, for instance, who are responsible for the correct alignment of every part of a ship, are a small craft with no reserves for our sudden ballooning of personnel. They pray for trained carpenters, as do the shipfitters, who fit the different parts of the ship together, but they get few because of the higher pay and the great demand for carpenters in their own trade. Flangers, who heat and bend the frames and brackets into shape, obtain many of their experienced men from railroads, field jobs, and blacksmith shops.

The riggers seek first for old construction riggers, steelmen who have worked on Boulder Dam, and the great Bay bridges, and many a tall building. Then they ask for seamen, men who know ropes, tackle, and wires. A few riggers drift in from the logging camps, men who string the high lines that yank logs above the forested slopes. Some electric linemen come from the great power companies, and a few riggers from the oilfields.

Around these we mold the green newcomers. Farmers, elevator operators, waiters, butchers, bartenders, schoolboys, salesmen, teachers and men from a hundred other occupations fill our gangs. Gang work is the rigger’s salvation. Machinists must work as individuals with little supervision, but we work in gangs of from four to twelve men, and two skilled riggers can direct many unskilled men.