Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liberty Ships

This country is already, in effect, an arsenal for the democratic Allies. Let it be proclaimed as such, as an expression of our national policy. Let us cooperate in the one way that we reasonably can.
-- playwright Robert Emmet Sherwood
quoted in The New York Times, May 12, 1940

Sherwood is credited with coining the term "arsenal of democracy," although Franklin Roosevelt popularized it. In the years leading up to the United States' entry into the World War II, no policy would be more emblematic of that term than the construction and deployment of the more than 2,700 Liberty Ships that carried materiel to all theaters of the war.

Originally built to fill British orders for vessels to replace those lost to German U-boats, the production of Liberty ships was stepped up after US entry into the war. These early Liberty ships were coal-powered due to Britain's access to coal resources and petroleum shortages. To speed up production, welding replaced the more labor-intensive riveting and, in another first, women became the main welders as more men entered active military service. Their quick and simple assembly allowed no room for eye-pleasing design and Roosevelt himself referred to the early Liberty Ships as "ugly ducklings" and "a dreadful looking object." He put a better PR spin on it when the first vessel, Patrick Henry, was delivered to the British in September 1941: Roosevelt drew on Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" quote to name the ships, saying they represented the "Liberty of Europe."

All Liberty ships were built according to the same general plan: approximately 450 feet long, propelled by one single propeller (the American versions were oil-fueled), able to carry more than 9,000 tons of cargo 23,000 miles without refueling. The 41 to 44 crew members were complemented by the 12 to 25 armed Naval Guards to man the handful of deck guns the vessels carried. Although relatively lightly armed, it was a Liberty ship, the Stephen Hopkins, which became the the first American ship to sink a German vessel in the war.

Although the first ships took several months to build, the US shipyards eventually filed that down to a mere 42 days. In one famous case, the Robert E. Peary was built in less than five days by the Permanente Metals shipyard in Richmond, California (although it was not fully outfitted for several more weeks). The quick construction was not without it's problems: twelve Liberty ships broke in half, including the John P. Gaines, which sank with the loss of ten men. The average Liberty ship cost less than $2 million; most "paid for themselves" in less than one round trip.

Although a handful of Liberty ships were still in service as late as the 1960s, most were sold off or scrapped in the first few years after the war. Only two are still intact: the John W. Brown (pictured above), based in Baltimore and the Jeremiah O'Brien, based in San Francisco.

For more on the Liberty ships, click here to the website.

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