This Week in History
May 9-15, 1942
Henry J. Kaiser Organizes an Incredible Leap in American Ship-Building
In the late winter and spring of 1942, Hitler had ordered his U-boats to attack American shipping, from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean. Because of the lack of U.S. Navy ships to act as armed escorts for America's merchant ships, the U-boat captains found easy pickings. Due to the fact that the large East Coast cities did not go to wartime blackout rules until mid-April, the German submarines could just wait offshore and fire at American ships as they were silhouetted by the lights of the cities.
Sometimes the survivors would be rescued, at other times they were machine-gunned. By March 1942, 788,000 tons of dry cargo shipping and 375,000 tons in tankers had been sunk. The loss in tankers was so great that they had to be withdrawn from the Atlantic coastal routes. President Franklin Roosevelt was frustrated by the Navy's slow mobilization against these attacks, and began to rely on planes from the Army Air Force. But this was only a stopgap measure, and meanwhile, embattled Britain desperately needed ships as well. Roosevelt decided that the only way to overcome the shipping losses was to outbuild them. He set a goal of 8 million tons of new shipping by the end of 1942, which most people thought was absolutely impossible.
One man who did not, was Henry J. Kaiser. Kaiser was born on May 9, 1882, the same year as Franklin Roosevelt, and shared with him the belief that great problems could be overcome with creativity, careful planning, and, often, bold actions. Kaiser had originally made his career as a construction contractor, and even in the early 1900s, had become known for his unusual methods of enhancing labor power, which enabled him to finish his construction jobs in record time. In an era when much road-building was done with picks, shovels, and mules, Kaiser put rubber tires on wheelbarrows and had them pulled by tractors. Later, he replaced gasoline engines with more efficient diesel engines.
During the 1930s, Kaiser not only built the piers for the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, but he also headed the companies which built the Parker, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams. In 1931, he put together the combine of companies which would build the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, a project so large and complicated that it took seven different firms to bring it to completion. Kaiser's firm also built levees on the Mississippi River, pipelines in the American West and in Mexico, naval defense installations on Wake, Guam, and Hawaii, and a 30-mile aqueduct to bring water to New York City.
But Kaiser had never built ships. As the Nazis took over more and more of Europe, the danger to the Americas became critical. If the Fascists were to conquer Britain and acquire her fleet, North and South America would be facing the fleets and air forces of the rest of the industrialized world. Therefore, Roosevelt ordered the construction of a fleet of Liberty Ships, which would carry supplies to Britain to aid her in her battle against the Nazis. Although the ships were slow, "ugly ducklings," they could carry 2,840 jeeps, 440 light tanks and 3 million C-rations. Henry Kaiser was convinced by Adm. Emory Land, Chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission, to enter the shipbuilding business, but he initially knew so little about it that he had to go to the public library to look up shipbuilding terms.
Kaiser went into partnership with an experienced shipbuilder from the East Coast, and chose the site for his enterprise on the mud flats of Richmond, Calif., bordering San Francisco Bay. He had contracted to build 30 cargo ships for the British, and when a British delegation came to inspect the site in 1940, they asked where the shipyards were. Kaiser pointed to the mudflats and answered that within months there would be a shipyard with thousands of men and women building ships for Britain. The delegation was dubious, but in their desperate straits they had to count on a miracle, and they got one.
Kaiser put Clay Bedford, a young engineer, in charge of the project and gave him an outline of what should be done. This included a generous use of space so that the production would never be crowded, a program of prefabricating huge sections of the ships using the kind of massive cranes that had been used in building dams, and using welding instead of the old technique of riveting the ship together.
According to Bedford, "We designed the yard. Actually, there was a race between the Kaiser draftsmen and the field people as to whether we could build it first or the engineers and architects could draw it first. We finished the office in thirty-four days, during which it rained heavily every day. Actually, it rained steadily for fifty-three days. We had water six inches deep along Cutting Boulevard resulting from a high tide and a hard southwest wind, yet we kept twenty trucks busy night and day for three months bring in fill, and dredging the area. It was a miserable time, but we took it in stride because I had a lot of fellows from Bonneville Dam where it rained eighty-four inches a year."
Shortly thereafter, Kaiser selected another site for a shipyard at Portland, Ore., and the two yards engaged in a healthy competition to see which one could build a seaworthy ship the fastest. Although the average time needed to deliver a ship in 1940 was 355 days, Kaiser and his engineers cut the time to 194 days in 1941, and to 60 days in early 1942. After only one year in shipbuilding, Kaiser had six new shipyards in operation and was dubbed "Sir Launchalot" by the press. The Maritime Commission took each new record he set and used it as the pacesetter for the entire shipbuilding industry.
In September of 1942, the Portland facility launched the Liberty Ship "Joseph N. Teal" in 10 days, and invited President Roosevelt to attend, and his daughter Anna to christen the ship. The Richmond yard, not to be outdone, proposed to build a Liberty Ship in half that time. Henry Kaiser decided to ask the President whether this breakneck speed would be acceptable, and Roosevelt answered, "Build it, and if it can be done in one day, so much the better." So, on Nov. 12, 1942, the "Robert E. Peary" was launched in four days, 15 hours, and 26 minutes after the keel was laid.
But production speed was only one aspect of Kaiser's accomplishments; how he managed to train a workforce of 197,000 men and women was another. It was Kaiser's conviction that if people were treated with respect and given a fair chance, they would do a good job. In his initial hiring to produce the Liberty Ships, there were not many problems, because there were skilled shipbuilders on the West Coast and they were used to train the less skilled workers. But after Pearl Harbor, and the large number of people entering the military, there was a desperate shortage of workers. Those who were available generally needed a lot of training to enable them to work in a shipyard. In addition, the workers who had been judged unfit for military service needed extra attention in order to compensate for their disabilities.
Kaiser hired many women, and also encouraged the hiring of Negroes. Some unions had a ban on allowing membership to Negroes, but because of the war emergency and Kaiser's hiring policy, this ban was soon lifted. In order to provide health care for his workers, Kaiser originated a health plan which provided clinics and preventive medicine. In coordination with Eleanor Roosevelt, he gave his son Edgar the task of building a comprehensive day-care system for the children of his employees. The program even included hot meals provided at cost, which the workers could take home when they picked up their children.
In 1942, Kaiser sent two trains to New York City to hire workers and bring them directly to the West Coast. His reasoning was that the absence of war plants in the New York area would mean that many people there would be looking for jobs. His recruiters filled both trains. A newspaper article quoted the recruiters as saying, "If they know one end of a monkey wrench from another, we'll take them as helpers. If they don't, we'll label each end." With these workers, Kaiser began producing oil tankers and small aircraft carriers, called "baby flat-tops."
The shipyard at Richmond became a leading example of Kaiser's production techniques. The huge facility was laid out on a grid pattern, with numbered and lettered streets. Behind the ship ways on the water's edge, roads and rail lines led to assembly sheds as far as a mile away. In these sheds, the superstructures of ships moved along assembly lines, with parts and components being fed into the sheds by overhead conveyors. These parts came from sub-assembly plants even further beyond the sheds. Once a superstructure section or bulkhead was completed, it was lifted by a giant crane onto the ship's hull and welded. These methods made the shipyards so efficient that Kaiser's yards built one-third of all the Liberty Ships produced during the war.
The engineers and managers that Kaiser hired were paid only moderate salaries and were driven hard, but they were given bonuses for good performance and were offered the opportunity to work on some of the most challenging projects in the world. Kaiser stated that, "We learned you can't get fine talent into your organization by simply offering high salaries. You and the men who work with you have to build yourselves up to the capacity to tackle bigger and bigger jobs." By the end of the war, Kaiser's group had built seven new shipyards with a total of 58 building ways, which had produced 1,490 ocean-going ships. This was one-fourth of the total shipbuilding program of the United States.