September 27, 1941: The SS Patrick Henry is launched. This was the first of 2,751 Liberty ships launched during World War II. In 1936 the American Merchant Marine Act was passed in order to subsidize the building of 50 commercial merchant ships to be used by the US Navy. The number of ships to be built doubled in 1939 and again in 1940. There were to be different types of ships: tankers and three types of merchant ships. All were to be powered by steam turbines. The ship designs were based on British vessels of the same type and used for the same purpose. The plan was modified by the US Maritime Commission to conform to American standards and practices.
The ships were to be designated by EC for Emergency Cargo and construction was given out to Henry J Kaiser’s Six Companies. The ships were built in sections and then welded together. In Britain, ships were built in this fashion but riveted together. This took far longer to accomplish. The ships initially had a poor public reception. They were, in a word, ugly. This day was dubbed Liberty Fleet Day in the hopes of improving the image of these Ugly Ducking vessels.
The Patrick Henry took 244 days to build. The first ships took, on average, 230 days to build. Eventually, the average for building a Liberty Ship dropped to 42 days. The record for quick construction went to building the Robert E. Peary which was ready to launch in 4 days and 15.5 hours from the time the keel was laid. In 1943, there were three Liberty Ships completed each day. Anyone raising $2 million in war bonds could propose a name for one of these ships. Most were named for deceased people, but one was named for Francis J. O’Gara who was thought to have been killed but survived the war in a Japanese POW camp.
The ships were supposed to last for five years. The quick building process led to some problems. Some early ships were known to have hull or deck cracks and a few ships were lost to these defects. During the war, there were 1,500 instances of brittle fractures and twelve ships actually broke in half. However, over 2,400 ships survived the war and of these 835 made up the postwar cargo fleet. Today, only two Liberty Ships, the SS Brown W. Brown and the Jeremiah O’Brien remain. Both are museum ships. In 1994, the O’Brien steamed from San Francisco to England and France to celebrate the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
“A ship is referred to as she because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder.” – Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz
“Investigate and shoot down all snoopers – not vindictively, but in a friendly sort of way.” – Fleet Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Jr.
“The Navy has both a tradition and a future–and we look with pride and confidence in both directions.” – Admiral George Anderson
“The difference between a good and great officer is about ten seconds.” – Admiral Arleigh Burke