1936 THRU 1950

Compiled  by Frank A.Gerhardt

The ships built under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936

(Construction, Operating and their Fate)


The shipbuilding achievement of the United States Maritime Commission in World War Two is without parallel in all history. Never have so many men in so short a time produced so much ocean-going tonnage as the shipyards of the United States have sent to sea since the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1936, when Congress, with what Vice-Admiral Emory Land has described as "seemingly prophetic foresight," first authorized a long-range construction program, there were but ten shipyards in this country able to build ocean-going vessels 400 feet or longer. At the peak of production 81 American shipyards in all parts of the coast were building such ships. When the European war began in September, 1939, the U.S. merchant fleet consisted of only 1,150 vessels aggregating approximately 10,500,000 deadweight tons. By December 7, 1941, that fleet was only 1,375 ships of nearly 12,000,000 deadweight tons. (And by July of 1942 enemy attack had reduced that number to less than 1,300 ships.) But by the end of 1944 the estimated tonnage of the American Merchant Marine in all types of ships had grown to approximately 50,000,000 deadweight tons. On that day there were 3,800 vessels under control of the War Shipping Administration, and in the peak year of 1943 the United States Maritime Commission delivered 1,896 ships-or more than 500 more than the entire United States Merchant Marine of December 7, 1941. 

On January 3, 1945, Admiral Land said that the total estimated tonnage of the American Merchant Marine was "in the neighborhood of two-thirds of the entire amount of deadweight tonnage afloat in the world in 1939 - and its possession gives the United States a position unique in its shipping history." And nearly half of this wartime construction was launched from Pacific Coast shipyards, many of which did not exist on December 7, 1941.

The Beginnings

When the Seventy-fourth Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act on June 29, 1936, and created the United States Maritime Commission the enormous task to be achieved by the Commission during World War II was not even contemplated-although it had been given a mandate "to develop and maintain a merchant marine sufficient to carry a substantial portion of the water-borne export and import foreign com-merce of the United States on the best-equipped, safest, and most suitable type of vessels owned, operated and constructed by citizens of the United States, manned with a trained personnel and capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency." These powers, with some clarification and amplification, have proved sufficient to permit the commission to perform its gigantic task of the last eight years. 

Of the temporary commission appointed by President Roosevelt on September 26, 1936, H. A. Wiley, Rear Admiral, U.S.N, (retired), was chairman, and the two other members were M. M. Taylor, Rear Admiral, U.S.N, (retired), and George Landick, Jr. The first permanent commission confirmed by the Senate on April 15, 1937, consisted of Joseph P. Kennedy, chairman; E. S. Land, Rear Admiral, U.S.N, (retired); Ed-ward C. Moran, Jr., H. A. Wiley, Rear Admiral, U.S.N, (retired) and Thomas M. Woodward. By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Mr. Kennedy had resigned, Vice Admiral Land had taken his place as chairman, and the other commissioners were John M. Carmody, Captain Edward Macauley, then Commander, later Vice Admiral; Howard L. Vickery, and Thomas M. Woodward. These five still constitute the commission.

First Program—Fifty Ships a Year

As the first major act of the commission it adopted a long-range building program in the latter part of 1937 calling for the construction of fifty new ships a year for the next ten years, which immediately involved rehabilitation and expansion of the American shipbuilding indus-try-because ten yards in the country at that time possessed only forty-six shipways capable of such construction. Even at that, the program could not have been initiated if the new Merchant Marine Act had not contained a new plan for governmental assistance. The old system of construction loans had been abandoned in favor of differential subsidies, whereby the Govern-ment, after approving the building of the ship, agreed to pay, up to a certain percentage, the difference between the cost of building it in an American and a foreign shipyard. The fifty-ships-a-year program was intended to give the United States a competitively fast and efficient merchant fleet and replace by 1948, at the latest, the obsolete and over-age vessels then under the American flag. But the outbreak of war in Europe soon after the first of the new ships went into service, the withdrawal of many ships of foreign registry from the seas, and the destruction of so many ships of belligerents, immediately put a heavy burden on the American merchant marine. Even doubling the program could not provide tonnage adequate for Ameri-can needs.

Production Increased Rapidly

When Congress and the President determined to follow a policy of aid for the nations fighting defensively against the Axis nations, American shipyards obviously had to produce more merchant vessels in a shorter time than any nation had ever done in the history of mankind. The long-range program of fast C-type 17-knot vessels and tankers, already augmented, was doubled again when the President, early in 1941, directed the Commission to build 200 vessels of the famous Liberty Ship type, of a speed of 11 to 11 1/2 knots. The Maritime Commission was also being called upon, in accordance with the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, to provide an increasing number of auxiliary ships for the Navy. In January, one year later-and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a ship production program which had been set at 12,000,000 dead-weight tons for 1942 and 1943 was increased to 18,000,000; one month later, 6,000,000 deadweight tons were added, and in July, 1942, this was increased by another 2,890,000 tons. This meant that the shipyards, some not even built, were challenged to launch 8,000,000 deadweight tons of shipping in 1942 and 18,890,000 tons in 1943.

Another obstacle to this schedule, anticipated but yet to be combatted, was the terrific attack of Axis submarine and surface raiders on all shipping of the United Nations after we entered the war. This intensified attack brought the loss from torpedoes and gunfire to an all-time high, and by July, 1942, the losses by enemy attack were more than the total production and the Commission faced this situation:

Unless American shipbuilders were able to build tremendously more ships than were being sunk and increase the size of our merchant marine to meet the needs of war, with its long and attenuated supply lines made necessary by the loss of key allied territory, the war would inevitably be lost before our army and navy could even come to grips with the enemy.

Maritime Commission Task Fourfold

The task of the United States Maritime Commission since 1936 has therefore been fourfold:

1. To build shipyards and develop management.

2. To recruit, house and train shipyard workers.

3. To build ships.

4. To train officers and recruit personnel.

How did the Maritime Commission-its commissioners and its staff meet this mighty challenge? 

Getting Ready

To understand the conditions that faced the United States Maritime Commission at the beginning of World War II, consider and use the imagination on this one statement: "In the fifteen years between 1922 and 1937, only two ocean going dry cargo freighters were produced in American shipyards. A few tankers and passenger ships were built."

It is true that late in 1937 the commission's proposal to build fifty ships a year over a ten-year period had been approved, but that was only the beginning. The nation that had built 2,500 ships in World War I had allowed its precious merchant marine to slip out of its hands and in fifteen years had built only two dry cargo freighters.

This means much more than that the nation lacked shipyards. It lacked ships, shipyards and seamen; and the men who had once built ships had been forced out of their craft into other occupations. They had died or were too old, their skills were dulled from disuse and only a handful of men in the nation had kept abreast of modern technique and practice. Just as important-perhaps even more important-was the lack of man-agerial brains and experience in the country. There were many men who had accomplished great construction projects-bridges, skyscrapers, tunnels, and mighty dams - but literally-but few with experience in vast shipbuilding organization, in the training of armies of unskilled workers, in ability to "pour it on" and organize and produce ships swiftly and well. Even the shipbuilders of managerial experience were geared to a pace of taking a year to build a ship; and not one American shipbuilder of the peace-time era even dreamed of the management mir-acle of completing a 10,000-ton Liberty ship in an average time of only forty-three days from keel-laying to delivery.

This was to come with increasing speed; achievement fed on achievement; the difficult was performed immediately; the impossible took a little longer. Ships constructed during the last war, slightly more than two-thirds as age as those of today, were delivered in from ten to twelve months. In January, 1942, the average de-livery time for a Liberty ship was 241.6 days; one year later, in December of 1942, eighty-two Libertys were' delivered in an average of fifty-five days.

The first step in the emergency program was the recruiting of managerial experience and de-vising a fair method of contracting for the payment of the ships the nation had to have . . . and those steps taken by the Commission were explained with humor and vigor by its chairman, Rear Admiral Emory S. Land, before the Sub-committee on Shipyard Profits, Merchant Marine and Fisheries of the House of Representatives on March 22, 1944.

Cost-Plus Method Outlawed

The old cost-plus method of building ships had been outlawed and the commission used an advanced type of contract never used before. Under this contract a shipbuilding contractor built and provided the facilities for building ships at cost without any provision of profit to him, and as Admiral Land explained it:

"The key idea to the plan was that the contractor would have to produce ships before he would get anything beyond costs. We worked out the location of the yards, the arrangement with the contractors to build the facilities and the ships and a contracting plan for the building of the yards and facilities at cost with no profit to the contractor, and the building of the ships on the basis of an estimated cost with a base fee plus or minus bonuses and penalties dependent on meeting, exceeding, or falling short of required bogies in completion dates, man hours and costs."

The Commission had to be both bold and realistic in inducing shipbuilding brains and production management to launch forth on this great program. To persuade private capital into such an undertaking, so transitory that in most cases its life was limited by the national emergency, was impossible. Most of the emergency shipyards were specially built plants adapted to production of a single type of ship, and no contractor could be expected to build a $20,000,000 yard with which he would be stuck at the end of the emergency. The commission therefore placed the emphasis on the shipbuilders' output and not on his capital invested.

Admiral Land Solved Difficult Problem

Parenthetically, Admiral Land made this humorous observation to the Subcommittee on Shipyard Profits: "If we were to attempt to use as a yardstick under these extraordinary circumstances a percentage return on the capital invested by the shipbuilder under some illogical theory that the relations between invested capital and profit are in any way similar to those commonly found in permanently organized businesses operating under private auspices and in ordinary commercial undertakings, I am frank to say that I have not the slightest idea as to what the proper return in percentage would be. If we reached up into the air and picked out 10 per cent return on the invested capital as suitable, it would lead in the case of some of the Liberty ships to a total profit for the shipbuilder of about $65 per vessel before taxes or about $18 per vessel after taxes, this on vessels costing, let us say, roughly, one million and three-quarters each. I do not want you to take this $18 too seriously. I point to it merely as showing the utter absurdity of attempting to relate the shipbuilder's profit to his invested capital under the conditions which had to be met to make our shipbuilding program possible."

One result of incentive payments, however, was to stimulate rivalry between shipbuilders to reduce man-hours and cost and expedite deliveries so that an original estimate of 635,900 man-hours for a Liberty ship was brought down to 520,000 man-hours and in several yards to below 500,000; in one instance even to 350,000. Another result was better ships than those built at Hog Island in the first world war, at lower cost, completed during the war and not after it was over.

And although the shipbuilders would be the first to agree that Admiral Land never spared the rod for fear of spoiling the child, he had this to say about them to the Congressmen:

Shipbuilders Have Performed Splendidly

"These shipbuilders have done one of the greatest managerial jobs of all history. They have provided the 'know-how' and brought to the task imagination, initiative and ability that astounded the world with their achievement. If there is to be a percentage basis for paying them, I think it should be a percentage on brains and not a per-centage on capital. I wish I knew some way to figure the proper percentage of return on brains."

In other words the United States Maritime Commission spent the money and produced the goods.

Mud-flats Into Shipyards

By July of 1942 the Maritime Commission had eighteen shipyards operating on commission con-tracts along the Pacific Coast in Washington, Oregon and California. Ten of those yards had not delivered any ships-in fact, eleven of them had been created on mudflats or wastelands-but the other ten had already smashed all-time records for speed in building and number of ships launched. They had built two-thirds of the nation's ships delivered and on the seas.

For Example

The California Shipbuilding Corporation on Terminal Island in Southern California finished its first ship four months after construction work had begun on a 100-acre mud flat and it was al-ready the second largest emergency shipbuilding yard in the land. . . . Marinship, at Sausalito, on the shores of Richardson Bay sprang partly from the mud on thousands of piles and partly on the site of a hill which had to be cut down to bay level. The site of the Pacific Bridge Company on the Oakland Estuary was not a shipbuilding plant at all in November, 1940, but it laid its first keel three months after the Pearl Harbor attack and had supplied four cargo ships to the British on lend-lease by August of 1942. . . . The Perman-ente Metals Yard No. 1 at Richmond was tidal mudflat at the beginning of 1941 but dredgers scooped out channels and dumped dirt into fills -and three months later a keel was laid and in four months plus two days, the Ocean Vanguard, sponsored by Mrs. Emory S. Land, was launched for delivery to the British Purchasing Commis-sion. Within eighteen months after the mud was so violently disturbed thirty ships had been de-livered to the British. . . . The stories of Yards Nos. 2 and 3 have the same plot of swift action and accomplishment.

The Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation began construction in a river bottom in January of 1941, laid two keels four months later and soon made what was at that time a world shipbuilding record by delivering a ship thirty-one days after its keel was laid. . . . Same story at the Swan Island airport at Portland, swiftly transformed into a huge shipbuilding plant in 107 days; and at Kaiser's Vancouver yard which launched its first ship 165 days after it had been a dairy farm.

These tell the story of the foresight with which the United States Maritime Commission acted in recruiting brains and managerial ability a year before the Japanese struck without warning and made it possible for the new and old shipyards to swing powerfully into production and reach their peak in time to win the war. Consider the terrific acceleration: twenty-eight ships delivered in 1939, and 1,896 in 1943; 341,219 deadweight tons produced in 1939 and 19,238,626 in 1943. 

Bringing in the Builders

But ships do not build themselves. The Mari-time Commission could build yards and ways, move hundreds of millions of tons of steel to the proper spot, set up elaborate systems of purchas-ing and expediting, let thousands of contracts each year for the manufacture of propulsive machinery and auxiliary machinery in more than 2,500 small plants in eighteen different states-some of them far inland-but all this would have been useless if the natural genius of the American worker had not also been drawn into shipbuilding.

And that, too, was done. ... It had to be done because the Commission contemplated a peak of shipyard employment rising to 700,000 in 1943 and that peak was reached in that year, even though the number of shipyard workers had dwindled to 60,000 in 1935. Large numbers of men and women did flock to the shipyards, drawn by true patriotism, by the lure of higher wages than they had received, by the governmental pressure to get into essential industries, by a sense of adventure and a variety of other reasons. Many of these were skilled mechanics, trained in other trades, but 90 per cent of the workers had to be trained for the jobs they were to do-and this involved the setting up of training schools at all yards.

Many Women Employed

At the highest peak, about 13 per cent of the workers were women; this dropped off, in November of 1944, to a total of 584,000, of whom 18 per cent were women. In two West Coast yards as much as 25 per cent of the shipbuilders were women. Early in 1941 the Commission became aware of the need of setting up shipyard stabilization zone standards and with the cooperation of shipyards, contractors and representatives of labor in the industry it evolved standard agreements for four zones: Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf and Great Lakes, with fixed rates of pay, overtime provisions, shift premiums, no strike or lock-out clauses and agreements against limitations on production. It soon became obvious that the concentration of huge numbers of men-and their families-involved problems of grave social import, particularly where shipyards existed near small communities which could not absorb the increase of population. Transportation, housing, feeding, care of small children, medical care, recreation-these became of mounting importance for the maintenance of worker morale and health. In sixteen areas in which the Commission had shipyards acute shortages of housing facilities de-veloped and it was instrumental in arranging for National Housing Agency projects for hundreds of thousands of housing units. Federal money from "Lanham Funds" and money made avail-able by the Federal Works Agency to local school districts financed Extended Day Care and Nur-sery programs for 24-hour care of young children.

Created Housing and Transportation Facilities

It was quickly realized that transportation could not depend on the automobile because of shortage of rubber and curtailment of gasoline. So ferry service was provided in Portland and the San Francisco Bay area; shuttle train operation was established at Vancouver, Richmond, Portland ; new bus lines were set up to such shipyards as Marinship at Sausalito; and the Commission through its Division of Shipyard Labor Relations was frequently called upon to assist shipyards in securing deferments for key shipyard personnel and in providing transportation, housing, food and other necessities for workers. . . . For the year ending June 30, 1943, the Commission spent approximately $50,000,000 in providing housing 

units, although it financed only about one-fourth of the 13 5,883 units constructed in the country. The recruiting of workers, the supervision of health, the maintenance of morale, the stimu-lation of ideas for safety and time saving through award of prizes, the creation of esprit de corps through shipyard publications, sports programs and entertainment were all elements in the vastly complex achievement of building the greatest merchant marine in human history.

The Men Who Go to Sea

But after a ship is launched and outfitted, it must be turned over to its officers and crew and the men who go to sea must have training and experience. In September, 1939, the American merchant fleet totaled about 1,150 ocean-going vessels and in addition to the personnel of these ships there were thousands of men ashore who had quit the sea because of lack of employment or age but their number was far from adequate to meet the demands of the emergency shipbuilding program. Thousands of those men of officer rating also entered the Navy when war was declared. But the Commission under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 was directed not only to construct merchant marine but to "man it with a trained and efficient citizen personnel." In carrying out this injunction it had already established the United States Maritime Service and revitalized the system of cadet training but it was realized that approximately 40,000 seamen and 10,000 officers would be needed by the end of 1943 to man the 1,200 ships constructed by that time. Facilities for training apprentices and prospective officers were greatly increased on both coasts; five training ships were put in service, schools for radio operators, cooks, stewards, gunners and visual signaling were created but within a year it was seen that the new merchant fleet under construction at that time would require 25,000 deck and engineer officers and 100,000 unlicensed seamen. And training and recruitment of personnel in 1944 became a greater problem than ever. However, the number of officers and men increased from 145,000 in 1943 to 195,000 in 1944, and during that year the Training Organization of the War Shipping Administration and the U S. Maritime Service trained 87,136 men, of whom 11,692 were officers. As of October 1, 1944, the number of merchant seamen dead was 725; missing 4,592; prisoners ofwar 581;a total of 5,898. The total number of men in the merchant marine is 185,000; so the ratio of loss is 1 to 33, a rate somewhat higher than in the armed services.

Introduction from: Western Shipbuilders in World Wat II (Tribune Press, Oakland, California 1945)

The Seal of the Maritime Commission was drawed by Mr.Dave Adworth (Project Liberty Ship) and dowloaded from WIKIPEDIA.


About this project

In spring 1992 I was made basic researches for Stefan Terzibaschitsch proposed book about the US Navy Auxiliaries. The only available source at that time were the books from Sawyer & Mitchell. After creating a listing of all ships build under Maritime Commission, I was so deeply impressed about the scale of the effort that I start to find informations about the Maritime Commission shipbuilding. Shortly afterward I placed a notice at the Proceedings "..information wanted". And three weeks later I got an answer from Tom Wildenberg, who had written a book about Navy tankers during WW II. From him I got my first official informations, a report called "Progress Report on Shipbuilding Contracts 1939 thru 1948". The next step was in January 1993 when I visited the National Archive at Washington D.C.for the first time, and checked 200 boxes from the Financial Division of the Maritime Commission. From then on nearly every year I flew over to the US for researchings, starting  first time at the Maritime Administration. And this was the wright place for my work. 

Addendum April 14th, 2006

Since the days, when this page was created in Fall 2004, a lot of things happened and many people has crossed my way. I would like to say thank you to the folowing persons and institutions:

Mrs.Carol Showalter and their husband Gordon, for their hospitallity for many years.

Mr.John Van de Reedt (ret)., Archivist RG 178 at the National Archives II at College Park, Maryland for supporting me during my researches.

Mr.Erhard Koehler, Surveyor Marad, for his friendship and support to get more informations.

Mr.Donald S.Post, Record Management at Marad, for the continuing support.

Mr.Joseph Lewis for supporting me with pictures from his collection.

The people of the Project Liberty Ship (SS JOHN W.BROWN) at Baltimore, Maryland for their continious support and a first hand experiance during a one day cruise aboard the BROWN on May 17th 2006, especially to Mr.John Buchheister and Mrs.Diane Jerby.

To the people at Bay City Models, Sausalito, California for free access to the files and pictures from the Marinship exhibit, especially to Mr.William (Bill) F.Copee (U.S.Army Corps of Engineers).

The people at the Photographic Archive of the Hagley Library and Museum at Wilmington, Delaware, for access to their picture collection and support.

The people at the Richmond Museum of History, giving me access to their picture collection.

Mr.Fred Hicks and the Board of Directors of the Richmond Museum of History at Richmond, California, who managed and handled a unique three day stay aboard the SS RED OAK VICTORY at Richmond, California.

And a special thank to Dave Boone of Oaklyn, New Jersey for his generous and outstanding support with pictures for this project.

Here in Germany to 

Mr.Karsten-Kunibert Krueger-Kopiske, for the growing number of drawings he produce for a pending project.

Mr.Hans Juergen Aberts for his giant task to extract informations from the Lloyd's, ABS and WSS publications.

Mr.Michael Schrunpf, who spend many saturday afternoons together with me to understand what I want and to program this page.

...and all the people I have maybe forget to list.

 By this time a lot is done, but much more lays ahead. 

-  I have create a listing of all ship names ever used for an Maritime Commission build vessel...

-  More than 4,000 pictures are now online...

-  1,000 operating histories from Liberty Ships are online together with the first 100 from Victories...

-  A growing number of outboard profiles, from Maritime Commission and Maritime Administration Designs...

- Have start to add Shipyard magazines for reading and download...

but everything I have archieved by this time, is only a drop in the ocean of information performed by the Commission, their men and everybody ever involved in these programs.

Saulheim (Germany), the April 14th 2006

Frank A.Gerhardt

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Dear Shiplover. Like Shipspotting.com, I would be happy to publish Photos on Maritime Commission built ships. I provide a credit line for the poster. Scan size for 4x6inch and/or 5x7inch 800DPI, and for 8x10inch 300DPI, As additional information if avaiable, when and where picture was token. I can't accept photos scanned with other resolutions. Please only post your own photos. Do not post photos or images from any other sources as this could result in a breech of copywright.

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