As war raged in Europe, the United States faced the need to supply its allies by sea and the possibility of America's entry into the conflict, while also confronting a critical shortage of cargo ships. The result was the emergency fleet program, which introduced the assembly-line production of standardized ships, the so-called "Liberty Ships," in 1941. In all, 2,571 Liberty Ships were constructed between 1941 and 1945, making them the largest class of ships built worldwide. The two unaltered survivors of the class, SS Jeremiah O'Brien and SS John Brown have been designated National Historic Landmarks.
By 1943, the design for a class of emergency vessels to replace the Liberty ships was on the drawing boards. It was to be faster, with more modern steam plants, better trim and stability, stronger hulls, and more efficient, electrically driven winches and windlasses. In April 1943, the type was introduced as the "Victory Ship," and production commenced.
The ship's World War II, US Maritime Commission designation of VC2-S-AP2 indicates she is a "V" for "Victory", "C2" for medium capacity cargo carrier, "S" for "steam", and "AP2" for the 6,000 shaft horsepower type of Victory. Most Victory ships served under the US Maritime Commission as merchant cargo ships. Ten "Boulder Class" Victory ships that were built specifically to serve as Navy ammunition carriers during the war.
The Liberty ship's maximum speed was 11 knots, making them easy prey for submarines. Early in 1942 the US War Shipping Administration began work on a design for a faster ship. Cross-compound steam turbine engines with double reduction gears were designed to deliver 6,000 or 8,500 horsepower, and could make up to 17 knots, significantly faster than a Liberty. Ships of this new class were to known as "Victory" ships (officially a VC-2). At 455 feet in length they were slightly longer than Liberty ships, and 62 feet wide. Victory ship profiles would feature a sleek, raked bow, and a "cruiser" stern, markedly different from a Liberty ship profile. The most readily evident difference was the raised forecastle, in contrast to the level profile of the Liberty ships.
Victory ships were strengthened to avoid fractures in hull plates and ship sides, a problem which often plagued Liberty ships. Armament for the new ship class was similar to that on Liberty ships, and included one 5-inch stern gun, one 3-inch bow antiaircraft gun and eight 20-mm machine guns at various locations on main, boat and bridge decks for protection from enemy attacks. Victory ships were designed specifically to allow for easy modification after World War II into other types of cargo carriers, special uses and even passenger ships.
The first vessel launched, S. S. United Victory, was built by Kaiser's Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, near Portland, and delivered on February 28, 1944. From then until the end of the war, the United States Maritime Commission constructed 414 Victory ships, and 117 Victory ship attack transports, a total of 531 ships. One hundred and sixty-three names of towns and cities of the United States were assigned to Victory-ships being built by the Maritime Commission. Some of the Victory Ships being built by the Maritime Commission were named for colleges and universities of the United States.
The Victory ships entered the war at an important juncture, ferrying supplies and troops to the European and Pacific theaters, including the climactic actions in the Pacific at Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Three Victory ships were lost to kamikaze attack during the Okinawa campaign, the only ships of the type lost to direct enemy action. Vital partners of the Liberty ships, the Victory ships were indispensable participants in the war effort.
The Victory ships formed a needed maritime link to the theaters of war. These fast, large capacity carriers crossed the Atlantic and served well in the Pacific. Ninety-seven of the Victories were converted to troop carriers; the others, like the Liberties, carried food, fuel, ammunitions, material, and supplies. Three of the ships, Logan Victory, Hobbs Victory, and Canada Victory were lost to kamikaze attack at Keram Retto and Okinawa in April 1945. The loss of these three ships, with their cargoes of 24,000 tons of munitions, including nearly all of the United States' supply of 81mm mortar ammunition, was a serious blow to the Okinawa invasions, demonstrating the importance of the ships and their cargoes.
Victory ships formed a critical maritime link to the theaters of war. These fast, large capacity carriers served honorably in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. Ninety-seven of the Victories were fitted out as troop carriers; the others carried food, fuel, ammunition, material and supplies.
After the war, many of the ships remained in service, ferrying troops home and helping rebuild ravaged Europe, the South Pacific, and Asia. Victory ships were recalled to war service during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and some were modified as support ships for the burgeoning American space program in the 1960s.
At the war's end, the Victory ships were offered for sale by the Maritime Commission by authority of the Merchant Ship Sales Act of 1946. Thirty-one AP2 ships and 41 AP3 ships were sold to US firms, while 65 AP2s and 33 AP3s were sold abroad, most to Netherlands, Argentina, and Great Britain. Twenty ships were loaned to the Army, while the remainder were placed in mothballs as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, laid up at eight different sites on the East, West and Gulf coasts. Some vessels were reactivated to serve during times of national crisis.
When the Navy no longer needs to use a ship but wishes to reserve it for a future emergency, it tows the ship to storage harbors, empties it of all fuel and cargo, and seals its windows and doors. The ship is protected from salt-water corrosion by a cathodic protection system and the interior spaces are dehumidified. This technique is called "mothballing," because it echoes how people preserve a wool sweater that is put away for the summer. Some vessels were reactivated to serve during times of national crisis, including the Korean War, the Suez Canal closure of 1956 and the Vietnam War.
Other vessels were retained as logistic support ships as part of the Military Sealift Command, which in 1970 became the single managing agency for the Department of Defense's ocean transportation needs. The command assumed responsibility for providing sealift and ocean transportation for all military services as well as for other government agencies. In 1959, eight Victory ships were reclassified and refitted as instrumentation, telemetry, and recovery ships for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in support of America's space program. On August 11, 1960, the former SS Haiti Victory (renamed the USNS Haiti Victory (T-AK-238)) recovered the nose cone of the satellite Discoverer XIII, the first man-made object recovered from space.
In early 1976, the break-bulk capability of National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) consisted of 130 Victory ships of World War II vintage. The average time to break out one of these ships and have it ready for loading was about 22 days. Recognizing that such activation time would not be responsive to military needs, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) and DOD initiated a joint program to upgrade the responsiveness of a portion of the fleet. The program originally contemplated a force of 30 Victory ships capable of being activated within 10 days. The upgraded ships would be designated the Ready Reserve Fleet of NDRF. By 1979 the program was changed because MARAD was obtaining larger and newer ships from U.S. shipping companies. These ships were upgraded and brought into the Ready Reserve Fleet.
By 1991 the fleet had 116 ships: 71 Victory-class ships built during World War II and 45 others of varying ages. These ships were mostly anchored at three fleet sites located in James River, Virginia; Beaumont, Texas; and Suisun Bay, California. These non-RRF ships received far less maintenance than RRF ships and would require much longer activation times -- between 30 and 120 days. Because of their physical appearance, the non-RRF ships are often referred to as "rust buckets." While these ships' exteriors were sometimes quite rusty, but their appearance may be deceiving. THe 1985 test activation of two Victory ships demonstrated that, despite their poor physical appearance, the non-RRF ships could be activated if necessary.
Over the years, many ships in the reserve fleet have been sold for scrap, their metal to be recycled. The Liberty and Victory ships fulfilled President Roosevelt's prophetic words, serving the nation well in war and peace. Today, of the thousands of Liberty ships and Victory ships built during World War II, only a handful remains.
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