The first visit of the last operational Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien to the Pacific Northwest in 1998 brought back many memories to those who remember the war years. The Liberties were the ships that saved Britain in 1942 during the darkest days of World War II and many of them were produced by three northwest shipyards that didn’t even exist in 1941.
Although it’s been 50 years since those yards closed down, they wrote a chapter of seagoing history that is still compelling reading to many younger seamen. In 1940, Portland, Oregon, was still a quiet, river town with a few yards building tugs and ferries, but all that was about to change in a matter of weeks. Almost overnight it would become “The Liberty Ship Capitol of the World.”
Half a world away it was Britain’s “darkest hour” as Hitler’s bombers pounded English cities and his armies massed in France. The Admiralty sent a mission to New York “to endeavour to obtain, at the earliest possible moment, about 60 vessels per annum of the tramp type about 10,000 tons deadweight.”
The kind of ship they had in mind was to be a maid-of-all-trades, ugly but willing. With her outdated, 2,500 HP, triple-expansion, steam engine she could only make 11 knots with a following wind and sea. A ruthless logic dictated the design: a fancier ship would take too long to build, a faster ship would be wasted in a convoy of old freighters, a more powerful engine would burn too much fuel.
Soon enough, the mission met up with Henry Kaiser, dam builder and modern pioneer. Maybe he never actually told them, but the shipyards in Portland and Vancouver on the Columbia River where he intended to build half of the order were actually muddy riverbanks at the time. He put his son Edgar in charge, and 94 days after ground was broken, the first keel was laid at Oregon Shipbuilding.
Soon, there were 11 ways ready for work to begin, each some 1,000 feet long. Advertisements brought workers in by the trainload from all over the country. When the three big Kaiser yards were up and running they employed over 100,000 people. Nearly half of them were women, who quickly became proficient welders, riveters and machinists.
Traditional methods simply wouldn’t get the job done. The action never stopped. Great floodlights turned night into day. Shipyards had been previously thought of in terms of acres, Kaiser yards covered square miles! Vancouver built aircraft carriers, St Johns mass produced Liberties, and Swan Island T-2 tankers.
The traditional piece-by-piece system was scrapped in favor of total prefabrication, using assembly lines where possible. In the First World War a ship used 650,000 rivets, the adoption of welding for ships – pioneered in the late 1930s – cut this to only 25,000. Only lead welders worked overhead; when a part was assembled it was turned over by cranes so all the joints could be welded with gravity assisting.
Then Liberty #1, the Star of Oregon, was finished. 25,000 people cheered and a band played as that very first Liberty ship was launched in 226 days, a U.S. record. That mark didn’t stand for long. Every ship was built faster than the last. In September 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation to mark the launching of , the Joseph N.Teal after less than 2 weeks on the ways. By then, it had become part of the ceremony to lower a new keel into place as soon the previous ship was afloat.
The Columbia River and California yards worked at a frenzied pace to maintain their output; sometimes they put an extra effort. “At the stroke of 12, the ways exploded into life,” wrote one observer.”Crews of workers, like a champion football team, swarmed to their places in the line. Within 60 seconds the keel was swinging into position.” In 24 hours the third shift had finished an entire 441′ X 57′ hull.
The main deck was built in seven sections, the deckhouse in one piece, the bows were completed down to the ship’s name before they were lifted into place. The Willamette-Columbia builders turned over some 1076 ships in four years. Despite the rushed construction, only eight mass-produced ships out of 4,694 were lost at sea due to weld failures. However, the Libertys were easy game for the hundreds of U-Boats swarming the Atlantic.
Life was hectic but never dull in the six local yards which built everything from liferafts on up. Well-designed, glossy, weekly papers kept everyone informed about baseball and bowling leagues, dances and picnics, blood appeals and war bond drives, as well as news of their ships engaging the enemy. When a British crew arrived to take delivery of their “Woolworth” pocket carrier HMS Ravager in 1944, fifteen of them left with American wives!
Captain Eugene Harrower, a member of the Oregon Maritime Center was in command of three Liberties during the war. His first ship was bombed every night in Naples during the Italian campaigns, but was never hit. “They were slow ships,” he agreed, “but we often spent weeks stationary. We were in just as much danger while waiting to unload. We were used like floating warehouses.”
The Liberties only cost about $1 million and lasted far longer than intended; some worked for more than 20 years. Many ended up as barges that are still afloat. Of the 2,710 completed, only two survived, the O’Brien, based in San Francisco, and the John W.Brown in Baltimore.