On the Water

Building Ships for Victory

The shipbuilding industry turned out thousands of cargo ships for wartime service.

The United States learned how to mass-produce merchant ships during World War I. Three decades later, convoys of American Liberty and Victory ships delivered tons of fuel, ammunition, and other supplies to fight World War II. At least 1,500 merchant ships were sunk during the war. On the home front, the vast enterprise needed to construct these vessels changed the lives of tens of thousands of American workers and their families.

Online Resources

To learn more about the world wars of the 20th century, visit the online exhibition, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War

Reproduced from a painting by Burnett Poole, 1919

Courtesy of the National Museums Liverpool, Merseyside Maritime Museum

Mauretania in dazzle paint

Ocean liners were pressed into service to carry troops and supplies, especially during the first world war. Even the luxurious British liner Mauretania carried more than 53,000 American troops to Europe in 1918 and 1919. For protection at sea, ocean liners during wartime were painted in “dazzle” patterns to confuse submarines at a distance.

A Merchant Fleet for the Great War

The United States entered World War I in April 1917. Within days, the federal government created the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) to construct a fleet of merchant ships. The EFC hired the American International Shipbuilding Corporation to build and operate the largest shipyard in the world, Hog Island, near Philadelphia.

At its peak, Hog Island employed some 30,000 workers and launched a vessel every 5.5 days. Its workers built 122 ships in four years, and although none saw service before the end of the war, many carried supplies during World War II. At Hog Island, the United States learned how to build large ships quickly on a grand scale from prefabricated parts.

Ships, ships, and more ships is the call of the hour... We must have more ships to win the war.
—Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, February 16, 1918

The Shipbuilder’s Bridge for Pershing

New York Tribune drawing reprinted in Emergency Fleet News, Feb. 28, 1918

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Hog Island

Hog Island’s 50 shipways stretched a mile and a quarter along the Delaware River near Philadelphia, abutting 846 acres with 250 buildings and 28 outfitting docks.

Photograph of Hog Island [1919]
Photograph of Hog Island

Aerial view of the Hog Island shipyard, Philadelphia, 1919

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Hog Islanders

Many of Hog Island’s tens of thousands of workers had no factory experience—they were trained on the spot. Most were men, but some 650 women worked in the yard. By the end of World War I, thousands of women worked in war industries, as everything from welders to clerks.

Riveter at Hog Island, 1919

Workers lift a bilge plate into position, 1918.

From a scrapbook donated by James D. Andrew Jr.

Electric welders at Hog Island, about 1918

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

We do things in a big way

The huge cost of creating Hog Island generated controversy and congressional investigations. Newspapers charged American International Shipbuilding Corp. with graft and corruption.

W. A. Rogers, artist; published in the New York Herald, February 10, 1918

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

A wild saturnalia of extravagance, a brilliant phantasmagoria of patriotic pretense, and the pity and the shame of it are that those who...are wasting the money of the taxpayers are some of the great captains of industry of the nation.
—California Sen. Hiram Johnson, on Hog Island

Workers at lunchtime walk past dozens of ships under construction, Hog Island, January 1919.

From a scrapbook donated by James D. Andrew Jr.

Work and Patriotism

Posters like these linked shipyard productivity and patriotism. Produced by the Emergency Fleet Corporation, they reminded shipyard workers of the importance of their efforts and to do a good job.

Poster, "Teamwork Wins" [1918]
Poster, "Teamwork Wins"

Teamwork Wins, about 1918

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Hibberd V. B. Kline, artist

United States Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation

Poster, Your Work Means Victory [1917]
Poster, Your Work Means Victory

Your Work Means Victory, 1917

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Fred J. Hoertz, artist

United States Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation; Gift of Frank O. Braynard

On the Job for Victory, about 1918

Jonas Lie, artist

United States Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation

Shipyard Plate Puller [1918]
Shipyard Plate Puller

Plate puller, about 1918

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Workers used this tool to align pre-punched holes in standardized hull plates before riveting them.

Gift of Walter Davis

Presentation Model, Typical Wartime Freighter [1919]
Presentation Model, Typical Wartime Freighter

Gift of Capt. Raymond A. and Catherine M. Kotrla

Typical Wartime Freighter, 1919

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The federal government’s massive investment in shipbuilding was a boon to American industry. In gratitude, the Association of Northwestern Shipbuilders presented this silver model to outgoing Emergency Fleet Corporation Director-General Charles Piez in April 1919.

Shipyard Volunteers

A push to recruit 250,000 additional shipyard workers in early 1918 led the Emergency Fleet Corporation to create the “U.S. Shipyard Volunteers.” Men who signed up to work in the yards were exempted from the military draft.

Shop-front sign advertising immediate wartime work, New York City, 1918

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Shipyard Volunteers Button [ca 1919]
Shipyard Volunteers Button

Shipyard volunteer’s button, 1918–19

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Transfer from the U.S. Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation

Badge: Shipbuilding War Service [1918-19]
Badge: Shipbuilding War Service
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Shipbuilding War Service Badge [ca 1919]
Shipbuilding War Service Badge
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Emergency Fleet Corporation badge and button

Transfer from the U.S. Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation

Gift of James D. Andrew Jr.

A Launching

To mark Memorial Day in 1919, the Hog Island shipyard launched five freighters in 48 minutes. Laura Andrew, wife of the yard’s ship-construction manager, christened the last of these, the Luxpalile, by breaking this bottle over its the bow. She received the broken glass in this box as a memento.

Five ships were launched in 48 minutes, Memorial Day, 1919.

From a scrapbook donated by James D. Andrew Jr.

Rigged Model, Transport American Merchant [1920]
Rigged Model, Transport American Merchant

Freighter American Merchant

Built at Philadelphia, 1920

A Standardized Ship

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Hog Island produced 110 identical cargo ships and 12 identical troop transports. This model represents one of the transports. All of Hog Island’s ships arrived too late to play a role in the war. But the Liberty ships of World War II and the modular construction of ships today owe their success to the mass-production techniques tried and tested at Hog Island.

World War II

Shipyards and the U.S. government learned invaluable lessons about shipbuilding during World War I. The United States began increasing the size of its merchant fleet in 1936, well before it entered the Second World War. The goal quickly became building sturdy, reliable ships in a hurry—faster than German submarines could sink them. By 1943, American shipyards turned out three a day—nearly 3,300 over the course of the war.

To build the merchant fleet, the U.S. Maritime Commission expanded existing shipyards and built new ones along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. To simplify and speed construction, the ships they produced would be virtually identical. The types of ships designed for emergency construction were called “Liberty” and “Victory” ships.

They built 18 brand new shipyards just for Libertys. And put 650,000 Americans—women, men, young people, old people—building these ships. They became the largest fleet of ships ever built in the history of the world in such a short period of time.
—Rear Adm. Thomas Patterson, United States Merchant Service, Ret.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

“Wendy the Welder” and “Rosie the Riveter”

Women entered the work force in history-making numbers during World War II. At the peak of wartime production in 1943, women made up more than 10 percent of the work force in most of the shipyards. Although “Rosie the Riveter” was their symbol, there actually were few women riveters. “Wendy the Welder” is closer to the truth, since women helped assemble the first generation of welded ships. These women are chipping excess metal from a welded joint at Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards.

Shipyard Sisters

Maria Isabel Solis Thomas worked as a welder at the Richmond, Calif., shipyard during the war. Small and trim, she and her sister Elvia could work even in the most cramped areas of the ship. She recalled, I was so proud because, man, I did it just exactly the way they wanted (me) to. And here I come out, and they said, ‘Hi Shorty. You did pretty good.’

  • Maria Solis Thomas (right) and sister Elvia with friends in San Francisco, 1944

    Courtesy of the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin

Absentees Sabotage Ships

Work incentive posters were used to pressure shipyards and their workers to keep up production. Posters stressed the importance of shipbuilding to the nation. Missing a day of work was unpatriotic.

Courtesy of the U.S. Maritime Commission

Temporary Housing

The rush of workers into shipyards strained housing and school systems in coastal communities around the country. Many shipyards built whole neighborhoods of prefabricated homes for their employees, or brought in trailers like these at the North Carolina Shipbuilding Co. in Wilmington, 1942.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Traveling Schoolchildren

World War II scrambled American society. Jobs in shipyards brought men, women, and families to parts of the country they had never visited before. In their new homes, they often lived and worked among people of many different backgrounds. In 1942, Photographer Dorothea Lange took this photograph in Richmond, California, noting, “Every hand up signifies a child not born in California.”

Courtesy of The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland

Are you missing from this picture?

The U.S. Maritime Commission recruited shipyard workers with posters like this, about 1944.

Norman Kenyon, artist

Courtesy of the U.S. Maritime Commission

Full-Time Work

In wartime shipyards, like this one in Baltimore, workers labored around the clock. Two months before Pearl Harbor, the first Liberty ship, named for the Revolutionary War patriot Patrick Henry, was launched in Chesapeake Bay.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the U.S. Maritime Commission

Launching Day

Launching ceremonies were public events, meant to lift morale among workers as well as other citizens. Most of the launching sponsors were women, chosen because of some connection to the ship or the community.

The Liberty ship Peter Donahue, named for the founder of Union Iron Works in San Francisco, was launched on February 12, 1943, in Sausalito, California, with many Boy Scouts present. The sponsor, Mrs. Thomas C. Nelson, was the mother of two Eagle Scouts, one of whom was missing in action with the U.S. Navy at the time.

Silver Dollar Launching Coin [1923]
Silver Dollar Launching Coin

Gift of Archie Green

Silver dollar launching, 1942

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Launching gangs were responsible for ensuring a smooth transition as the ship slid from land to water. Shipwright Archie Green received this coin from his crew leader to commemorate the successful launching of a C3 cargo ship in San Francisco.

Building Victories

Victory ships are under construction at California Shipbuilding Corp., Los Angeles, 1944.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Pre-Fabricated and Pre-Assembled

To build ships as quickly as possible, workers pieced them together assembly-line fashion from pre-made sections built at the shipyard. About 120 large units, made up of some 250,000 items, went into building each ship.

Ship Model, Tanker Type T2-SE-A1 [early 1940s]
Ship Model, Tanker Type T2-SE-A1

Oil tanker (type T2-SE-A1)

Transfer from the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Maritime Commission (through J.M. Winston)

Oil Tanker

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American shipyards mass-produced tankers as well as cargo ships. Some 533 oil tankers like this were built during the war.

Lunch Break

Workers take their lunch break at Permanente Metals Yard No. 1, Richmond, California, 1944.

The Shipyards

The shipyards that built the Liberty ships were located along the East, West, and Gulf coasts. At the peak of Liberty ship production in 1943, there were 18 yards specializing in Liberty ship assembly. Naval vessels were also under construction at different locations.

Liberty Ship T. J. Jackson was launched in New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 23, 1942.