Maritime Commission

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At the conclusion of the First World War, the United States was left with a surplus of merchant ships no longer needed to support the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. This surplus led to a severe slump in the U.S. shipbuilding industry that was further exacerbated by the Great Depression. As a consequence, it was projected that, by 1942, 91.8% of the 1422 oceangoing U.S. merchant ships would be at least 20 years old. The vast majority of these ships were not capable of cruising at more than 11 knots. The U.S. passenger liner fleet was almost nonexistent. The only sector of the civilian fleet that was in good shape was the  tanker fleet, which had been kept up-to-date by the U.S. oil companies.

In response to growing fears of another war in Europe, and as a stimulatory measure to create jobs as part of the New Deal, the Maritime Commission was created by the Roosevelt administration under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. This act created a five-member commission whose charter was to encourage the modernization of the U.S. merchant fleet through appropriate subsidies. Ships operating on routes in direct competition with foreign shipping could apply for a subsidy to make up the differences in operating costs, provided the route was of strategic value and the owners had credible plans for replacing older ships with new construction. Ships constructed in American yards were subsidized to the difference in construction costs with foreign yards, assuming the ship plans were approved by the Maritime Commission. Construction remained slow, however, with just 29 merchant ships constructed in U.S. yards in 1939 and 53 in 1940, at a time when imports of strategic materials were already ramping up.

One of the first initiatives of the Maritime Commission was the fast tanker building program. This was intended to provide subsidies for the construction of  ten (later twelve) fast oilers for Standard Oil of New Jersey suitable for use by the Navy in the event of war. As it turned out, the program was not actually put in place until 1938, and the ships were taken over by the Navy as the Cimarron class even before they were completed.

The first chair of the Maritime Commission was Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the future President, who was thought to have the political savvy to set up the new organization, and who accepted the appointment with the understanding that he would move on once things were rolling. He was replaced by retired Admiral Emory Scott Land in February 1938 when Kennedy was named as ambassador to England. Land proved an aggressive and inspiring leader. Land was also an old friend of President Roosevelt and an experienced and capable Navy construction officer. Land's most capable assistant was Admiral Howard L. Vickery, and the two were sometimes described as "Siamese twins" (quoted by Lane 1952).

Title VII of the the Merchant Marine Act allowed the Maritime Commission to place its own contracts for ship construction "as a last resort" and with the approval of the President. This provided the authority necessary for the Commission to order ships as fast as shipyards could construct them following the emergency of 1940, and to expansion construction yet again after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even before the country was formally at war, the "Big Five" shipbuilders (Newport News, Federal, New York, Sun, and Bethlehem) were working to full capacity on Navy construction, and almost all the remaining capacity in the country was taken up by Maritime Commission orders, there being practically no private construction on the ways by that time. Construction of new merchant ships in 1941 reached about 100, of which 53 were standard freighters and just 7 were Liberty Ships.

By early 1941 the Maritime Commission had been transformed from a New Deal agency to modernize the merchant fleet to a wartime agency whose goal was to build merchant ships faster than the U-boats could sink them. This goal was met mainly because effective countermeasures greatly reduced the effectiveness of the U-boats. Nonetheless, the accomplishments of the U.S. shipbuilding industry under the Maritime Commission were considerable. About 50 million deadweight tons of dry cargo and tanker shipping were constructed between 1939 and 1945, compared with a total deadweight capacity of 12 million tons in the U.S. merchant fleet and 81 million tons in the world merchant fleet in 1939. In addition, about 23% of Maritime Commission expenditures went to military type ships.  About 25 million tons of steel were consumed by Maritime Commission shipyards, and a point was reached at which shipyard capacity outstripped steel production and some of the shipyards had to be shut down.

Few would have thought this possible in 1939, least of all the Axis. Roosevelt set increasingly ambitious goals that the Maritime Commission and shipbuilding industry strained to achieve. For example, in response to a letter Marshall wrote to the President in 18 February 1942, declaring that 3.5 million troops would be ready for overseas deployment in 1943 but shipping was available to support less than half that number, Roosevelt asked for 9 million tons of new shipping in 1942 and 15 million in 1943. Nine million was considered impossible, and lags in production nearly resulted in the Maritime Commission being replaced by a shipbuilding czar (likely Joseph P. Kennedy), but by the utmost exertions the actual production figures were about 8 million tons in 1942 and over 12 million in 1943.

Maritime Commission Ship Types

Maritime Commission ship types were broken down into standard types, emergency types, military types, and minor types.

Standard Types. There were numerous Maritime Commission standard ship types, each with a letter prefix for function class (e.g., C for dry cargo, P for passenger, and T for tanker) and a number for size class (e.g., C1, C2, and C3 for increasing size of dry cargo ships.) These designs were standardized when the Maritime Commission was still focused on modernizing the merchant fleet, and they were constructed for a long lifetime of economical operation. Between 1939 and 1945, the Maritime Commission oversaw the construction of 541 standard cargo ships and 705 tankers.

The standard types differed from older merchant ships in their use of high-speed turbine engines with double reduction gear, which allowed the ships to cruise at 15 knots no less efficiently than the existing 11 knot merchant ships, which mostly used reciprocating engines. The standard ships also had improved fireproofing, based on the experience of the Morro Castle disaster in September 1934, and they had improved crew accommodations meant to attract men into the Merchant Marine. Crew quarters were moved from the forecastle to the amidships deck house and were supplied with hot and cold running water, mess rooms, improved ventilation, refrigerated food and improved rodent control.

The standard cargo ships were usually equipped with 14 or 15 five-ton booms and one thirty-ton boom worked by electrical winches. These were rigged to a set of 10 king posts, which gave the standard cargo ships a distinctive profile.

Most were built with at least some welding in place of riveting. The Maritime Commission continued to encourage increased use of welding on all ship types through the remainder of the war.

Emergency Types. The standard types were excellent ships, but their quality worked against rapid construction. There were also not enough suitable machine tools in the country to produce geared turbine machinery for all the ships ordered by the Navy and the Maritime Commission. By 12 November 1940, when the Maritime Commission agreed to build 60 new ships for the British, it was clear that these would have to be 11-knot 10,000-ton freighters using obsolescent reciprocating engines and built in new shipyards opened for emergency wartime construction. The emergency type ships, prefixed with an E (e.g. EC2 for Liberty dry cargo ships), were just "good enough" for the duration of the war.

The most famous emergency type was the Liberty Ship, designed for mass production and a lifetime of just five years. A total of 2708 Liberty Ships were constructed between 1939 and 1945, or about 47% of all hulls constructed under the Maritime Commission program. As shipbuilding caught up with needs and the war began to wind down, Liberty Ships were replaced with Victory Ships, which were much faster, much better built, and were expected to remain a major component of the merchant fleet long after the war was over. Some 414 Victory Ships were completed.

Military Types. These were mostly auxiliaries, though a large number of escort carriers were built under Maritime Commission contract.

Minor Types. These included specialized types such as tank carriers or ore carriers.

In addition, the Maritime Commission briefly considered building P4-P passenger liners that could be rapidly converted to light carriers. These would have closely resembled the Japanese Junyo class, but none were laid down before war broke out and rendered the project moot. The Maritime Commission also considered the "Sea Otter" concept, "a tin can with an outboard motor on it" (quoted by Lane 1952) that would be small with so shallow a draft that torpedoes would pass under it, powered by gasoline engines to avoid ship machinery bottlenecks, and so simple in construction that it could be scrapped once it arrived at Britain. A single prototype was constructed, but it proved inferior to the Liberty Ship in every respect, including economy.

The large number of designs produced under the Maritime Commission was criticized for working against mass production, and the Victory Ship in particular was strongly opposed (especially by the Controller of Shipbuilding on the War Production Board, William F. Gibbs. Gibbs preferred to see construction of a single fast cargo ship, preferably the C2. By the time the matter was resolved in favor of beginning construction of Victory Ships, the program was much delayed.

Maritime Commission Shipyards

By 3 January 1941, when President Roosevelt declared that the Maritime Commission would construct 200 new emergency type ships for Britain, the nation's shipyards were already working at full capacity on Navy warships and Maritime Commission standard type ships. A compromise was worked out early in 1942, assigning Sun to work exclusively on Maritime Commission contracts while Newport News, New York, and Bethlehem would work exclusively on Navy contracts. The Navy constructed twelve government-owned ways to be managed by Sun in addition to its own eight ways.

It became clear that new shipyards would have to be opened to meet the demand. A few of these were managed by the Big Five, but most were run by relative newcomers to the shipbuilding business. Of these, the most important was Todd Shipyard Corporation, whose corporate leaders included industrialist Henry Kaiser. Kaiser's firms had built the Grand Coulee, Bonneville, and Boulder Dams and it was expected that Kaiser would supply the drive and expertise necessary to construct new shipyards as quickly as possible. What was not anticipated was that Kaiser, who had no experience of shipbuilding, would bring new methods of mass production to the field that would reduce ship construction times to previously unimagined values.

The British had supplied plans for 28-way shipyards capable of building 100 ships a year. This was though too large, and the first nine Maritime Commission shipyards had between four and thirteen ways. These yards were scattered around the nation's coastline, except the Northeast where the existing shipyards were concentrated, in order to take advantage of regional labor pools. Thus, while warship construction remained highly concentrated in the Northeast, Maritime Commission construction was greatest on the West Coast. However, the shipyards built on the West Coast concentrated on military auxiliaries, such as transports, attack cargo ships, and oilers.

Land for shipyards was acquired by lease, direct purchase, or outright condemnation, though only about 5072 acres (2053 hectares) of land actually came under Maritime Commission title. The threat of condemnation was sometimes used to extract better lease terms from landowners. Ultimately the Maritime Commission opened some 39 shipyards around the country, with a peak employment of about 640,300 workers in mid-1943, and had spent about $600 million on new yard facilities by 1945.

Liberty Ships originally cost about $1,750,000 apiece and were expected to take about five months to complete. The cost varied from yard to yard due to the use of different kinds of contracts, including "price-minus" contracts (a more politically acceptable variation of "cost-plus" contracts). Incentives were built in to the construction fees to encourage efficiency. The fees themselves were initially as much as 10% of the costs of the ships, but were steadily negotiated down during the course of the war, to as little as 1% in some cases.

It was expected that the yard would initially produce about two ships per way per year, increasing to four ships per way per year as the yards gained experience. In fact, completion time averaged about 250 days in 1940, but by September 1942 the construction time had already dropped to about 65 days (50 on the ways) and averaged about 45 days by 1944, of which just 30 was spent on the ways. A construction time of about 250 days for the first ships from a yard, dropping to around 50 days within six months, was a remarkably consistent feature across yards no matter where or when they began operations. Construction times dropped below the established goals in late 1941 and remained there for the rest of the war.

A large number of standard cargo ships were converted to auxiliaries of various types. Because of the mass production methods used in the yards, and sometimes because of changes in plans, it was sometimes more economical to construct the ships as the standard type until late in the construction process, then rip out much of the construction work during conversion. This proved hard on shipworker morale, and rumors circulated that the conversions were done this way to pad the pockets of the shipyards.

The Merchant Marine

The rapid expansion of the merchant fleet also meant rapid expansion of the merchant sailor corps. Most performed their duties well, but there were exceptions. One destroyer flotilla commander bitterly complained about the poor service received from an auxiliary munitions ship at Leyte Gulf, whose master berated the Navy officers while his merchant crew taunted the bluejackets with "Suckers! Suckers! I get twenty bucks a day, whadda youse guys get?" (Morison 1958). On the other hand, merchant sailors in the Atlantic faced considerable danger from the German U-boats with remarkable courage: In February 1943, Land reported that 3200 merchant marine sailors had already been killed, amounting to 3.8% of the force, versus 0.75% of the armed forces.

Merchant sailors were trained at the rate of 10,000 every three months from a new training school on Long Island, against the opposition of the National Maritime Union, which claimed that no such numbers were needed. However, the rapid construction of Liberty Ships seemed to require such numbers.

Japanese Civilian Shipbuilding Subsidies

Beginning in  the early 1930s, the Japanese Navy began subsidizing civilian shipbuilding. Although this program remained decentralized, it had much the same goals as the American Maritime Commission. The Japanese Navy wished to ensure that there would be an adequate fleet train in time of war and that civilian shipyards would be experienced in construction ships to Navy standards. Under a "scrap and build" program, subsidies were offered to shipbuilding firms that scrapped two tons of obsolete shipping (over 25 years old) for every ton of new construction of selected ship types. The new ships were required to be over 4000 tons and to be able to sustain 13.5 knots. By 1936 the scrapping requirement was dropped and the program was extended to a broader range of ship types, but the tonnage and speed requirements were raised to 6000 tons and 19 knots.

Under this stimulus, the Japanese Merchant Marine expanded from 4 million tons to over 6 million tons by late 1941. It became the third largest merchant fleet in the world; and, with its many modern ships, it was "perhaps second to none in efficiency" (Parillo1993). As with the Americans, the Japanese Navy concluded that it would be less expensive to subsidize fast civilian tankers than to continue construction of its own tankers. By 1940, 33 of Japan's 49 oceangoing tankers could make 16 knots or better.

The new construction included a "shadow fleet" of ships specifically designed for rapid conversion to warships in time of war. These included a number of fast passenger liners designed for rapid conversion to aircraft carriers, which became the Taiyo and Junyo classes.


American Merchant Marine at War (accessed 2009-6-22)

Evans and Peattie (1997)

Klein (2013)
Lane (1951)
Leighton and Coakley (1955)
Morison (1958)

Parillo (1993)
Wildenberg (1996)

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