Where did the idea of Liberty Ships come from? Well, basically, the idea came from English ships that were created to be lighter (less tonnage of actual ship), with simple hulls and engines that were simple to operate. In the early 1930's England was also looking for ways to get work for shipyards and those men that needed work. English Naval architects from Joseph L. Thompson & Sons LTD in North East England designed a ship with a more streamlined cruiser stern and with coal-fired Scotch boilers and a triple expansion steam engine which could reduce the use of fuel (wow has technology changed hasn't it?!?). The first British vessel with this full forward and a 'V' shaped stern was the Embassage (1935).
In the late 1930's and early 1940, the 'writing on the wall' in Europe had the British Ministry of War approach Canada and the US to help them build a fast, emergency fleet of ships to carry cargo. They gave the design plans of their second generation Dorington Court, which had some modifications to the Embassage, like the extended bilge radius. The ships that the US built for England were called Ocean class ships and the contract went to Todd Shipyards Corporation. Todd Shipyards reported the contract to be $100,000,000 for 60 cargo ships with half being built at their Richmond, California shipyard and the other half at their South Portland, Maine location. The names of British vessels built by the US had the prefix of "Ocean" and the 26 Canadian built ships were had the prefix of "Fort". A quick note here...the Ocean class ships were welded hulls and the Fort class ships were riveted. The Ocean class cargo ships were 416 ft long and 57 ft wide, and the first one launched was the Ocean Vanguard on August 16, 1941.
Pretty quickly, though we wanted no part in the war, America realized we had a need for many more shipping vessels. Shipyards were built in rapid succession with cutting edge technology. For instance the sunken basins in the Portland, Maine yard were the first in the world to be used to mass-produce ships in this way. The US Maritime Commission looked at the ships we were building for England and modified the plans for our needs, though there was some debate about the simple British designed ships (which only traveled about 11 knots) or perhaps something quicker like our American C-1 or C-2 vessels. The things that were considered in the planning was the simplicity of the design so that they could be mass produced, standardization of machinery for user ease, what could be prefabricated, and if new shipyards being built could do those pre-fabs. As time was of the essence, Admiral Vickery (Vice Chairman of the US Maritime Commission) went with the British design because the frame bending on these vessels could be easily handled at our shipyards and that the US Naval architects Gibbs & Cox could easily modify the plans to American needs.
What were the modifications needed? First we needed to switch from coal as the fuel to oil, and instead of the Scotch boilers (heavier and bulky) we would use water tube boilers. Also the #3 hatch could be lengthened due to the lack of a coal bunker, and the use of one mast house instead of two. The designed Liberty class vessels though having riveting, would be a more welded design, and bulwarks replaced the British design of chain rails. There were other design changes made to crew quarters and ladders.
Actually, while our shipyards were finishing up building the Ocean ships for England, we were also building our Liberty ships, so that in August of 1942 within 15 minutes, in Portland, Maine, 5 Ocean ships were launched on the same day as the SS ETHAN ALLEN and 2 destroyers, the USS CONWAY and the USS CONY. That's what we call a busy day!
History is amazing and there is so much information that is readily available to us these days. There are lots of great websites out there, like Museumships Facebook site and the America in WWII Magazine or the American Merchant Marine at War website. Check them out while you have time off over Christmas.
Information for this article came from 'Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death' produced by the American Bureau of Shipping for the American Merchant Marine Museum, and some facts from American Merchant Marine at War website (check out the info they have!!)
Project Liberty Ship, Inc is a 501(c)3 non-profit, all volunteer organization engaged in the preservation and operation of the historic ship JOHN W. BROWN as a living memorial museum. Gifts to Project Liberty Ship are tax deductible.