By U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class John Tomlinson – Retired
Prior to the advent of World War II, Portland Oregon was a sleepy, working class rail hub and industrial port city that possessed no particular glamor or recognition outside of its own region, in that isolated corner of the United States called the Pacific Northwest. The Portland area was primarily known then for its incessant rainfall, salmon canneries, forestry and agricultural industries, and visitors to the city were limited to businessmen, ranchers, and farmers, and a handful of tourists who used the city as a jumping off place for mountaineering, or for hunting and fishing expeditions.
That was all about to change in 1937 with the building of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and the subsequent arrival of the hydroelectric power industry that was later enhanced by even bigger projects such as Grand Coulee Dam and additional dams built along the reaches of the Columbia upstream from Bonneville. Suddenly, Portland and the Pacific Northwest were on the national map as places with vast available amounts of cheap electricity and untapped port and industrial land resources that could be exploited by millionaire industrialists who were emerging from an increasing war-oriented business environment.
One of those industrialists, who would later be looked at as bigger than life, was Henry J. Kaiser, who in 1940 had signed an agreement with the British government, already at war with Germany, to build 31 cargo ships to aid that country in their war effort. Kaiser was at the time an established ship builder in partnership with Todd Pacific Shipyards and Bath Iron Works, when war broke out in Europe. He had already established his reputation as the organizer of the completion of Hoover Dam in half the expected time, and he was known for his social and business connections that made his company a natural choice to win U.S. wartime shipbuilding contracts.
What emerged from Kaiser’s fledgling shipbuilding enterprise with the British government was the story of the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in Portland which, from 1941 to 1945, built hundreds of Liberty and Victory cargo ships that were instrumental in helping smash Germany and Japan’s war machines and ending the conflict of World War II.
Kaiser built his shipyards in three locations in the Portland area. One yard was in St. Johns, near the recently-completed St. John’s suspension bridge, and a second Portland location was known as the Swan Island Shipyard, also in the north part of the city. A third yard was sited across the Columbia River from Portland in Vancouver, Washington.
Along with shipbuilding yards that Kaiser built in other locations on the U.S. west coast, notably in the San Francisco Bay area, his company ranked 20th among U.S. corporations in the value of wartime production contracts. Kaiser was favored as a shipbuilder by the U.S. government because he had developed new methods of shipbuilding, which allowed his yards to outproduce similar facilities in other parts of the country. His ships were completed in two-thirds the time and a quarter of the cost of the average of all other shipyards, and his Liberty Ships were typically assembled in a little over two weeks. Liberty Ships got their name because they were cheap and quick to build, and they came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output. A story goes that President Roosevelt said the new ships would give rise to liberty for Europe, hence, the name Liberty Ship.
Based on ships ordered by Britain to replace vessels torpedoed by German U-boats, they were initially purchased for the U.S. merchant marine fleet, and used for lend-lease deliveries of war materiel to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, routed through Iran. In all, 2,710 Liberty Ships were built by American shipyards between 1941 and 1945, and they were the largest number of ships ever produced to a single design. Estimates of the total number of Liberty Ships produced by Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation range from 400 to 500, according to different sources, but when the Vancouver, Washington shipyard output is included, the number was probably much higher.
In the late 1930’s, cargo ship design, as used by Great Britain, was modified by the U.S. Maritime Commission to conform more to American construction practices, which made the ships quicker and cheaper to build. The U.S. version was designated EC2-S-C1, with the EC meaning “Emergency Cargo,” and the “2″ meaning a ship between 400 and 450 feet long, and the S meaning Steam Engine powered. The new design replaced much riveting with welding, which reduced labor costs by one-third, and a modification included power created by oil-fired boilers.
By 1941, the steam turbine was the preferred marine steam engine because of its greater efficiency when compared to earlier reciprocating engines. However, the steam turbine was complicated to build to precision standards, so the Liberty Ships began to be fitted with 140-ton vertical triple expansion compound steam engines of obsolete design because the engine was easier to build, and more companies could manufacture it. Eighteen U.S. companies eventually built the engine, which had an advantage of ruggedness and simplicity, and parts manufactured by one company were interchangeable with those made by another, and the openness of its design made most of its moving parts easy to see, access and lubricate. The engine, which was 21 feet long and 19 feet tall, was designed to operate at 76 rpm and propel a Liberty Ship at about 11 knots (12.7 mph). Upon delivery from the manufacturer, the engines were placed into ships being built in Portland and other west coast locations.
These ships were assembled in sections welded together, as opposed to riveting. Though riveting was used in traditional shipbuilding practices of the past, it required months, compared to just weeks for final assembly by welding.
Early Liberty Ships developed hull and deck cracks, and a number of ships were lost at sea due to such structural defects. More seriously, during the war, 12 ships broke in half without warning, with much loss of life. At first, the shipyards were blamed for using inexperienced workers and new welding techniques, but after extensive testing, it was discovered that it was the grade of steel used in the ships’ construction that caused the fatal weaknesses. When the war ended, more than 2,400 Liberty Ships survived, some of which were added to the postwar U.S. cargo fleet. Many international shipping magnates profited greatly from acquiring Liberty Ships after the war, including Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Weyerhaeuser operated a fleet of six Liberty ships for many years, using them to carry lumber, newsprint and general cargo. And in the 1960’s, the U.S. Navy converted three Liberty ships into technical research vessels.
The only traces left of the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in Portland are three hulls that serve as the supports for floating docks. The site of the former shipyard in St Johns is now Schnitzer Steel Industries.
We here at USA Military Medals salute the innovative Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation Liberty shipbuilding heroes of the second World War!