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How Portland and Henry Kaiser helped save England and Canada

Arguably, the outcome of World War II became inevitable on the day the S.S. Star of Oregon slid into the Columbia River. It was followed by a torrent of new ships — far more than the Nazis could ever hope to sink.

A massive crowd of onlookers gathers on Sept. 27, 1941, to watch as the Star of Oregon, the first Liberty ship, is launched into the Columbia at Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Company. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in May 2009, which you’ll find here.

At the beginning of 1941, the United Kingdom was standing alone against the Nazi empire in Europe, and not much of the smart money was on it holding out for more than another six or eight months.

But it wasn’t the threat of invasion or Blitzkrieg that posed such an existential threat to the island kingdom. It was starvation. The battle for the survival of England was being fought on, and under, the waters of the Atlantic, where a Nazi blockade enforced with submarines threatened to cut off supplies of food.

The U-boats were also doing a yeoman’s job of reducing overall merchant-shipping tonnage to dangerous levels. And shipbuilding wasn’t exactly an industry in fine fettle at the time. The First World War had left the world with a glut of ships, many of them hastily built hulks of obsolete and inefficient design. These were still floating around in the late 1930s, keeping the market for new hulls depressed, and the Great Depression hadn’t exactly been good for demand either. The American and British merchant fleet was old, slow and small — on the eve of what was obviously about to be the greatest demand for its services in history.

Something had to be done, and fast, or the United Kingdom would eventually fall to the Nazis — which would, of course, dramatically change the nature of the U.S.-Canada border.

Luckily, the United Kingdom had Portland, Oregon, on its side.

More specifically, it had a trio of brand-new shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, built just a year or two earlier by one of the most remarkable industrialists in the history of the world: Henry J. Kaiser of Richmond, Calif.

The museum ship S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two remaining Liberty Ships, docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco in 2011. (Image: F.J.D. John)

Kaiser had dabbled in shipbuilding during the 1930s. But unlike some other industrial magnates with whom Adolf Hitler’s authoritarian-progressive message resonated at first (Henry Ford, for instance), Kaiser had no illusions about the nature of the Nazi beast. He’d been actively pumping resources into helping the refugees of Hitler’s conquests for some years, and on the home front, he’d been making plans to be there when his country finally shook off its isolationism and realized it needed him.

A visit to one of Henry Ford’s factories had convinced Kaiser that he could pump out capital ships the same way Ford made cars. Instead of having a keel laid and swarms of workers tripping over each other attaching stuff to it, subassemblies could be built in parallel operations. And with his engineer’s eye, he noticed that shipbuilding used a lot more riveting than it needed to. Riveting was a time-intensive process that demanded a great deal of arm strength.

With an eye on Europe and a confidence that if he built it, they would come, Kaiser set about building, from a clean-sheet design, a suite of seven shipbuilding facilities laid out to take advantage of mass-production techniques. Four of these shipyards were in Richmond; three of them were in Portland and Vancouver.

It wasn’t entirely a leap of faith on Kaiser’s part. A delegation of British officials had approached him and other West Coast businessmen in 1940 about doing some contract work for them. They had settled on a design based on a large tramp steamer originally built by British shipbuilders Thompson and Sons — a design specifically engineered to operate very efficiently at low speeds using a minimum of horsepower to haul a maximum of cargo, which was what was needed to make a profit in the shipping business during the Great Depression.

The British design was really ugly. But then, so was a Jeep. It wasn’t designed to wow onlookers with sweeping, elegant lines; it was designed to do a job — and do it cheap.

Kaiser, and the other American shipbuilders who soon got involved in the project to build out America’s fleet, thought it could be done even cheaper yet. So Kaiser put his money where his mouth was — lots of it.

It would turn out to be a good investment.

 

A placard on a bulkhead in the galley of the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien shows a cutaway schematic of a Liberty Ship. (Image: F.J.D. John)

You could make a pretty solid case that the final outcome of the Second World War first became inevitable on Sept. 27, 1941, when the S.S. Star of Oregon — tied with two other Liberty Ships launched the same day for the distinction of being the first — slid down the ways and into the waters of the Columbia River for the first time.

The Star of Oregon had taken 131 days to build at Kaiser’s new Oregon Shipbuilding Company yard in Portland. This was an impressive number at the time, but it would pale to insignificance later. By the following year, with America fully involved in the Second World War, new hulls would be sliding into the river at a pace of one every three days — and that was just in the three Portland-Vancouver shipyards; down south, the four Richmond yards were cranking them out too. The Joseph P. Neal, launched from Oregon Shipbuilding on Sept. 23, 1942, took just 10 days to build. One of the Richmond yards took this as a challenge and responded with a 24-hour-a-day frenzy that resulted in the launch of the S.S. Robert E. Peary in just four and a half days — a record that still stands.

And these weren’t small ships. Each one was 441 feet long and 56 feet wide, and could lug 18 million pounds of Jeeps, airplanes, soldiers or anything else without being overloaded — which they frequently were. Their engines were 2,500-horsepower steam plants of the old-fashioned reciprocating-piston type, already obsolete at the outset of the war but fuel-efficient and easy to manufacture; these engines pushed the ships to a pathetic, but adequate, 11 knots. (You can see one of these engines in action in the 1997 movie Titanic. The engine-room scenes were shot, with five-foot-tall actors to make things look bigger, in the engine room of the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two remaining operational Liberty Ships, homeported at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.)

Hitler’s submarine fleet, of course, could not even make a modest dent in this kind of production. The dream of bringing England to its knees with a submarine blockade was, almost immediately, gone for good. The best the Nazis could aspire to now was to inflict some temporary scarcity; the British and Americans could, if necessary, overrun the U-boats with sheer numbers.

As it turned out, though, they didn’t have to. Rapid advances in anti-submarine technology, together with the systematic destruction of the Luftwaffe, made life for the average German submariner a very chancy thing indeed. Three-quarters of German submariners didn’t survive the war. And almost none of the submariners who were scourging the seas in 1942 were alive just three years later.

By the war’s end, about 2,750 bottles of champagne had been smashed over the hulking gray bows of brand-new Liberty Ships. Of those, just 200 or so fell prey to the torpedoes of the minions of Hitler and Tojo.

After the war, the stolid efficiency of the Liberty Ship design made them very useful for shipping companies. Designed with a five-year lifespan in mind, they soldiered on for much longer than that. Today, though, only two remain in serviceable condition, both museum ships: The John W. Brown in Baltimore, and the Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco.

 

This cell-phone video shows the engine room of the Jeremiah O'Brien during one of the days when its boilers are fired up and its 2,500-horsepower triple-expansion engine is run. This particular engine was used in the James Cameron movie Titanic, by the way. (Video: F.J.D. John)

Kaiser’s Liberty Ship program changed Oregon, and especially Portland, in many ways. The shipyards’ massive demand for workers brought tens of thousands of newcomers to the Portland area, many of them members of ethnic minorities; Portland’s current reputation as a fairly cosmopolitan city probably springs directly from this sudden influx of fresh cultural energy. The burst of shipbuilding activity had a halo effect, too, with other smaller shipyards getting in on the action; one of them built the 173-foot submarine chaser on which pulp-novelist-turned-religious-leader L. Ron Hubbard’s short and colorful career as a Navy ship commander played out.

You can still find Liberty Ships in Portland if you know where to look — or, rather, scavenged parts of them. At the Port of Portland, there are two floating docks that are pretty obviously ship hulls that have been flattened and paved over. These are all that remains of the S.S. Jane Adams and the S.S. Richard Henry Dana, two members of the fleet of Liberty ships that saved the United Kingdom — the fleet that Portland and Vancouver did so much to help build.

(Sources: Bourneuf, Gus Jr. Workhorse of the Fleet. Houston: American Bureau of Shipping, 1990; Hillegas-Elting, James V. “Star of Oregon,” Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; Redden, Jim. “The Forgotten Ships,” Portland Tribune, 6-03-2009)