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Bay Area shipbuilding
October 10, 2011, 03:30 AM By Darold Fredricks

The U.S. Maritime Commission, an independent executive agency of the U.S. government was formed in 1936. It had the task of producing 500 ships in 10 years to replace the vintage ships that existed since World War I.

When World War II began, the U.S. merchant fleet consisted of only 1,150 vessels and only t10 shipyards were constructing ships. The Maritime Commission was to correct this shortfall of ships flying under the American flag. The United States entry into World War II increased that goal immediately. Immediate loss of ships in the Atlantic Ocean by German U-boats created near panic as these ships were needed to deliver munitions, guns, gas, oil, food, trucks and soldiers to Europe as well as the Pacific theater of war. Luckily, the Pacific theater’s threat of submarine warfare was less as the Japanese did not have a sufficient number of subs to cover the vast Pacific.

Between 1922 and 1937, only two ocean-going dry cargo freighters were produced in American shipyards. The U.S. Maritime Commission drastically changed the game of shipbuilding when it decided the government would finance the facilities and the companies constructing the ships would receive incentives in association with the cost of the ships built. It worked out and the facilities could be built almost at once and ships could be constructed faster. The pace of construction was slow up to this time, about a year to construct a ship under the old private enterprise system. We needed ships faster and motivation achieved this. Under the new system of motivation in January 1942, average delivery time for a Liberty ship was 241 days. In December of 1942, 82 Liberty ships were delivered in an average of 55 days.

All types of ships were needed: freighters, tankers, destroyers, submarines, landing ships, frigates, large troop transports, etc. Richmond, Calif. was contracted to build ships for the English before 1940 and their shipyard could easily be converted to a much larger volume of ship building. Henry Kaiser rose to the occasion by using the method of mass production. Components of the ships were made at numerous sites and delivered to the docks and installed almost immediately. The logistics of building ships became almost overwhelming. Richmond’s population was at 23,000 in 1940 and it swelled to over 93,000 by 1943.

Before long, a total of 13 shipyards were building ships — Basalt Rock Company of Napa, Bethlehem, San Francisco and Alameda, Barrett and Hilp (Belair), South San Francisco, Marinship, Sausalito, Moore Dry Dock, Oakland, United Engineering, Alameda and the two Navy shipyards – Mare Island and Hunters Point. South San Francisco’s Western Pipe and Steel shipyards had produced many ships during World War I. They were ready to expand but their output of ships was nowhere sufficient to meet the demands of World War II in 1941. In fact, nearly half of the wartime production of ships occurred on the West Coast, many came from facilities the did not exist prior to Dec. 7, 1941. "Cement ships” were produced to the south of the Western Pipe and Steel yards in South San Francisco, near Belle Air island (just north of United Airlines repair facilities at SFO). The cement ships they produced were intended for use by being pulled by another ship and to move bulk goods. They had no engines.

Henry J. Kaiser Permanente Metals Todd-California Shipbuilding Corporation immediately began enlarging the Yard #1 in Richmond that had been building Ocean Class freighters for the British and improving on the British’s outdated ship by installing oil-burning engines instead of the coal-burning ones. Yard #2 was built by Permanente Metals nearby. What started as a 6-way yard in 1941 was expanded to a 9-way yard and almost immediately enlarged to a 12-way site. After the ships were begun, they were transferred to an outfitting dock for completion. Yard #3 in 1942 had drydocks to service the completed ships. Yard #4 produced frigates, tank-carrying landing ships and baby Liberty ships.

The most heralded ships of World War II were the Liberty ships. All ships were designated "Ships for Victory” at first, then a specific ship was designated the "Victory” ship. Built by the New England Shipbuilding Corp., the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien is a good example of the average Liberty ship. Original identification was EC2-S-C1 and the first was launched June 19, 1943. Its 440-foot length with a 57-foot beam gave it a displacement of 14,245 tons. It had draft of 27 feet and achieved 11-plus knots with use of a three-cylinder, reciprocating, triple-expansion steam engine. It is one of only two Liberty ships that are operational in the United States. It is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It can be seen at the Fisherman’s Wharf area daily.


Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.


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