Liberty Ships were an emergency response to a critical shortage of maritime cargo ships in World War II. Manned by merchant seamen and a naval armed guard, they carried all types of war supplies throughout the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. More than 2,700 Liberty Ships were constructed during the war. They were all built to a standardized design and represent the unexcelled industrial capacity of the United States to prepare and transport war supplies all over the world during the war. Liberty Ships were armed for defense and many of them participated in combat with enemy forces.
In 1939 the German Navy launched submarine warfare in the North Atlantic Ocean to enforce a naval blockade against Great Britain. Their submarines, called Unterseebooten or U-Boats, sank great numbers of merchant ships approaching the British Isles. In the autumn of 1940, Britain placed an order for sixty tramp steamers of about 10,000 ton deadweight capacity. The design was based on an 1879 British tramp steamer. Yet, between 1939 and 1940, only 82 vessels were constructed.
On 14 July 1941, Congress passed the Ship Warrants Act, giving the Maritime Commission power to allot ship construction priorities. Since existing shipyards were working full capacity on naval contracts, the Maritime Commission established 18 new shipyards to work on these identical merchant ships. The United States decided to modify the English design being used for the Lend-Lease ships. The new emergency cargo ships came to be known as the Liberty ships. They were built on a common design in assembly-line fashion along the West, East, and Gulf coasts of the United States. Parts were manufactured in every state in the country.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and US entry into World War II, ships were being sunk by German U-Boats almost as fast as they were being built. The Maritime Commission called for 2,000 ships to be constructed by the end of 1943. The Japanese also inflicted a toll on supply ships in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, but following their naval and air losses at Coral Sea and Midway, in mid-1942, they were less of a problem to merchant shipping than the Germans.
The EC2 program (E for Emergency, C for Cargo, 2 for Large Capacity) was quickly implemented to expand the US merchant fleet to meet its many needs. The United States greatly increased the production of its own merchant fleet. Cargo ships were needed to ferry supplies to allies. The ship building effort was a success. Finally, the United States had enough ships to keep pace with the losses caused by the U-Boats.
"Liberty Ships" were an emergency response to a critical shortage of maritime cargo ships in World War II. Their construction was a significant accomplishment in engineering design for mass production, and the ships were built to a high standard of performance for the time and under the conditions of wartime emergency. Manned by merchant seamen for the most part, they carried all kinds of wartime cargo, including food, fuel, ammunition, weapons and all kinds of supplies, through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Approximately 2,742 liberty ships were built during the war. By 1945 liberty ships comprised the greatest standardized fleet in world history.
The United States designated this new type of ship the EC2 (E for emergency, C for cargo and 2 for a medium-sized ship between 400 and 450 feet at the waterline.) American ship builders began to construct these ships using an old, but reliable, British tramp ship which originated in 1879. Based on plans obtained from Sunderland, England, the New York naval architect firm of Gibbs and Cox and the US Maritime Commission drew the detailed plans for liberty ships. While reviewing blueprints of the Liberty ships at the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who loved naval vessels and had an eye for design, mused aloud to Maritime Commission administrator Admiral Emory S. Land, "I think this ship will do us very well. She'll carry a good load. She isn't much to look at, though, is she? A real ugly duckling." Thus, the Liberty ships received their second nickname, "the ugly ducklings." President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the ships as "dreadful-looking objects" and the press was soon calling them "ugly ducklings" and "sea scows".
In an attempt to counteract the unfortunate impression created by these images, Admiral Emory Scott Land, Chairman of the Maritime Commission, referred to the vessels as a "Liberty Fleet" and designated 27 September 1941 - the day the first was launched, along with 13 other vessels - "Liberty Fleet Day". The first EC2-S-C1 was the SS Patrick Henry, named after the Revolutionary War patriot who declared, "Give me liberty or give me death." That association certainly served to support Admiral Land's terminology and the vessels became known as Liberty Ships. The first 200 ships ordered were referred to as the "Liberty Fleet." September 27, 1941, the day of the first launchings, was declared "Liberty Day."
Programs to popularize the emergency shipbuilding programs championed "Ships for Victory." The "dreadful looking object" to be built captured the public's interest when dubbed the "Liberty Ship." This emergency-type ship soon became a kind of national symbol, a status never achieved by the standard C-type vessels. The popularization of Liberty ships brought the Maritime Commission's emergency program into public consciousness and made it public business. In asking the Maritime Commission to reimburse costs of the launching celebration for the first Liberty ship to be built in Portland, Oregon, Henry Kaiser said "This is a goodwill program and will stimulate labor-employer relations and is not a private party for a few select friends of the builders." Launching ceremonies, including celebrity christeners, remained of personal interest to the public throughout the war.
Naming nearly 3,000 ships turned out to be harder than people thought. Unlike the later Victory ships, there was no plan for how the Liberty ships would be named. In the end, the Liberties were named for people from all walks of life. Ships were named after patriots and heroes of the Revolutionary War. They were named after famous politicians (Abraham Lincoln to Simon Bolivar), scientists (George Washington Carver to Alexander Graham Bell), artists (Gilbert Stuart to Gutzon Borglum who sculpted Mt. Rushmore) and explorers (Daniel Boone to Robert E. Peary). One ship was named the SS Stage Door Canteen after the famous U.S.O. club for military service members while another was named the SS U.S.O. in honor of the United Service Organization itself.
One hundred and fourteen Liberty ships carried the names of women, eighteen Liberty ships were named for African Americans. The Liberty ship BOOKER T. WASHINGTON was the first major U.S. oceangoing vessel to be named after an African American. (A later Liberty would bear the name FREDERICK DOUGLASS.) The BOOKER T. WASHINGTON was built by the California Shipbuilding Corp. at Terminal Island, Los Angeles. Launched in 1942, the Liberty ship was christened by Black opera star Marian Anderson. The 10,500-ton vessel made its first trans-Atlantic crossing in early 1943 from New York City to Great Britain, under the command of Captain Hugh Mulzac. He remained at the ship's helm for the next four years and 22 successful voyages. During this time, he expressed pride for his integrated crew, which represented 17 nationalities. After World War II, the BOOKER T. WASHINGTON hauled coal for the Luckenbach Steamship Company, under the command of another Black shipmaster, Captain James H. Brown, Jr. In 1947, the vessel was laid-up in the defense reserve fleet, where it remained for the next 22 years. The BOOKER T. WASHINGTON was scrapped in July 1969 in Portland, OR, but remains an interesting and significant footnote in the chronicle of African American seafaring.
Liberty ships were usually manned by quickly-trained merchant seamen. Some liberty ships were operated by the U.S. Navy and used to supply landings such as the Invasion of Normandy where some of these ships were deliberately scuttled to form breakwaters called "gooseberries," while others supplied the troops on the beaches. Others were used by the Army Transport Service. A few were converted to serve as hospital ships. During the war they typically were armed for defense and many participated in combat involving attacks by enemy submarines and aircraft. More than 200 were sunk by enemy torpedoes or bombs or in storms at sea, while others survived attacks with varying amounts of damage.
Service on a Liberty Ship was considered a dangerous task to say the least. While the assembly process was speedy, Liberty Ships, especially when fully laden with cargo, were slow in the water, making them easy prey for German U-boats. Although intended to traverse the seas in convoy and with a naval escort, this was not always possible, particularly as the war progressed and naval resources were spread thin. The combined lack of speed and escorts, in addition to some early structural problems, earned these vessels the dubious nickname of "Kaiser's Coffins" as many merchant mariners were lost at sea. The threat of enemy attack was somewhat alleviated, when in 1942, the Navy began outfitting merchant vessels with weapons and armed guards.
The Merchant Marine served in World War II as a Military Auxiliary. Of the nearly quarter million volunteer merchant mariners who served during World War II, over 9,000 died. Merchant sailors suffered a greater percentage of fatalities (3.9%) than any branch of the armed forces.
Despite reaping the praise of both President Eisenhower and General Douglas McArthur following the war, many consider the men that served aboard these important vessels the forgotten sailors of WWII, as those who returned home were denied benefits for injuries and often over-looked in victory celebrations. In recent years, maritime and naval historians have begun to shed light on thesignificantt contribution of the Liberty Ships and their builders and sailors. Their contribution to the war effort was tremendous--they were responsible for carrying 2/3 of all cargo leaving US ports in support of the Allies over-seas. This achievement is matched by their contribution to the advancement of shipbuilding technology.
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