05 Nov 21

Many people interested in Second World War history will have heard of the ‘Liberty Ships’, described in this book as a simple freighter that could be built rapidly in vast numbers, using the USA’s untapped industrial potential. However, whilst we might be familiar with the name, which symbolises the energy and enterprise of America’s war effort, the story behind the ships is less well-known. Thanks to Peter Marsh’s new book, the remarkable contribution of these vessels, and the people who designed and built them, has now been told. It is an extraordinary tale, as well as a reminder of the importance of industrial capacity in total war.

The man at the heart of this story is Henry Kaiser. He was a successful American businessman, who had made his name in the construction of the hydro-electronic dams which were an important part of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme to revive the US economy during the Depression. Kaiser is mentioned in many histories, but it is interesting to see him receive more coverage here. Many books understandably focus on those doing the fighting, or the political leaders directing them, so it is refreshing to hear more about one of the key figures in the effort to supply the forces. The author tells us that Kaiser has been called the father of modern shipbuilding, and he is surely right to describe him as the most influential businessman in the West during the war.

To someone with less determination and ingenuity, the challenge of creating entirely new shipyards in an area of the north-western United States without existing facilities would have seemed difficult to meet. However, Kaiser made Portland, Oregon, “the liberty ship capital of the world”.

A readable text, complemented by excellent photographs, makes clear the scale of the enterprise. In addition to shipbuilding skills, the infrastructure requirements were significant. Yards had to be built and facilities, including accommodation, constructed for a huge new workforce. There are chapters on the role of women working in the yards, as well as on innovations on the home front such as the provision of childcare for workers’ families. The author acknowledges his debt to the marine editor of a local newspaper during the war, whose files are the main source for the book.

As might be expected from a successful entrepreneur, Kaiser was a master of publicity, another important weapon in the war. Concerns were raised about staff absenteeism, but his managers encouraged a more positive outlook, focusing on the high rates of what they called ‘presenteeism’. Another example was the ‘ten-day ship’, in which Kaiser clearly recognized the propaganda value in completing a ship in a symbolically short time. The result would cheer workers on the home front, give heart to allies and lower the morale of an enemy who could not compete with such productive capacity.

The ships themselves are at the centre of the story. Prefabricated design allowed for rapid construction of the cargo vessels known as Liberty and later Victory ships. There are chapters on the design, the engines and the mass production techniques which enabled such a fast rate of building. The author includes timelines, with key dates, which illustrate how quickly facilities were set up and ships built. In addition to cargo ships, the Oregon yards built amphibious vessels, escort aircraft carriers and tankers. The total was almost 1,500 vessels.

This is an important book, readable and well-illustrated, which highlights a crucial part of the industrial battle during the war. It is a fitting tribute to the energy and skill of the men and women who built many of the ships on which the Allies depended.