Shipyard workers played crucial role in World War II
Wednesday, 25 May 2011 12:26

Locals made vessels that helped win war

by Elmer Hall

    Early in 1941, Hitler’s army controlled most of Europe. German U-boats patrolled the Atlantic, sinking merchant ships at will, and England was being bombarded daily by the Luftwaffe.
    With war looming on the horizon, rebuilding the American merchant fleet became a priority. If England and democracy were to prevail, this rebuilding process would have to occur quickly and without hesitation.

With the defense of both the U.S. and a strong national interest in assisting Great Britain at stake, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the formation of the Emergency Shipbuilding Program on January 3, 1941. This would be a coordinated effort between the U.S. government and local industries to rapidly build simple cargo ships to carry troops and material to allies during World War II.             Before construction of these emergency cargo ships could be started, however, new shipyards had to be built. Ultimately, 18 new shipyards were constructed for the Emergency Shipbuilding Program.
    The first of these new shipyards was the Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore Harbor. Bethlehem Steel built 13 ways near its fabricating plant at Key Highway.
    The purpose of the Fairfield yard was to build a basic, no-frills cargo ship designed for capacity and rapid construction as opposed to speed and grace.             Upon seeing the design, President Roosevelt declared them to be “dreadful looking objects,” and the term “Ugly Duckling” became the unofficial name for these emergency vessels.
    In April 1941, these vessels were officially referred to as the “Liberty Fleet” and subsequently “Liberty Ship” became the standard name applied to all vessels of this class.
    The Bethlehem Fairfield yard would have the distinction of producing the first Liberty Ship. The SS Patrick Henry was launched in September 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor and 244 days after production was started. The yard would go on to build 384 Liberty Ships – one of the finest construction records of the war. By 1945, the yard would produce one ship in 40 days from laying the keel to completion. Between August and December 1942, the yard also produced 45 LST landing vessels.
     A Liberty Ship could carry 2,840 Jeeps, 440 tanks, or 230 million rounds of ammunition. The ships formed the backbone of the supply line that enabled the Allies to wage war against the Axis Powers. Without the skill and devotion of the men and women who labored day and night to build these ships, our troops and supplies could not have been delivered.
    The Liberty Ship program came to a close in 1945 with the end of World War II. In all, they had produced 2,500 ships. Of the 18 yards producing Liberty Ships, the Bethlehem Fairfield yard was the largest and most proficient. Today, only two of the 2,500 Liberty Ships produced between 1941 and 1945 survive. They are the SS John W. Brown, located in Baltimore, and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, located in San Francisco.
    Across the harbor, and to the south several miles, lay the massive Bethlehem Steel Corporation of Sparrows Point, built in 1887 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company. In 1899, the company began construction of a shipyard and by 1891, had delivered its first ship.    
    In 1916, the Bethlehem Steel Company purchased the mill from the Maryland Steel Company and began an expansion program that would make it the largest tidewater steel mill in the world. This expansion would also include its shipbuilding program at the Sparrows Point yard.
    By the time the Emergency Shipbuilding Program went into effect, the Sparrows Point Shipyard had produced 327 vessels. As the threat of war drew near, production increased. Between 1939 and 1946, it built 116 ships – 68 tankers, 26 cargo, 10 refrigerated cargo, 6 ore carriers, and 6 passenger/cargo vessels.
    While other Bethlehem yards produced glamorous aircraft carriers and destroyers, the Sparrows Point yard was relegated to the production of tankers and cargo vessels. Their contributions to the war effort, however, were critical.
    Many of the ships built at Sparrows Point came into harm’s way. Thirty-four were sunk by torpedoes or mines, and 50 others received Battle Stars for heroism in places like Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, the Marshall Islands, and the invasion of Normandy.     To receive a Battle Star, a vessel had to participate and/or engage in a naval battle or other combat. A vessel supporting an engagement or operation, but subject only to the hazards of war did not merit an award. Though only tankers, these ships provided an invaluable supply of fuel oil, gasoline, aviation fuel, troops, and much-needed equipment to areas where battles raged.
    Several of the tankers built at the Sparrows Point Shipyard were highly decorated. The USS Caliente was awarded 14 Battle Stars. The USS Platte received 17 Battle Stars. One ship built at the Sparrows Point yard had a short but memorable existence. The USS Mississinewa was laid down October 5, 1943 at the Sparrows Point yard. She was launched on May 28, 1944 and began her brief wartime service on June 18.
    After her shakedown cruise in the Chesapeake, she sailed for Aruba. There she filled her cargo tanks with fuel and continued on to Pearl Harbor, arriving on July 10. The Mississinewa then steamed for Eniwetok and fueled ships for the Third Fleet. She continued in this manner during raids on Japanese bases, and the campaigns to capture Palau and Leyte. On Oct. 19, she sailed after emptying her tanks into ships scheduled to take part in the landings at Leyte. The next day, she replenished her  tanks, filling them almost to capacity with 404,000 gallons of aviation fuel, 9,000 barrels of diesel and 90,000 barrels of fuel oil.
    Four days later, on the morning of Nov. 20, the Mississinewa lay at anchor at Ulithi in the Caroline Islands. At 5:45 a.m., shortly after reveille, a heavy explosion rocked the tanker. Seconds later, fumes in an aviation gas cargo tank ignited, causing a second explosion. The tanker had been rammed by a Kaiten manned suicide torpedo. At 6:05 a.m., her 5-inch ammunition magazine exploded. By 8:30 a.m., the Mississinewa’s bow dipped below the surface and she slowly rolled to port. With her twin four-bladed screws displayed, she continued to roll and then disappeared. Sixty-three men died in the attack. The Mississinewa was the only U.S. Navy ship sunk by a manned suicide torpedo during World War II.
    In 2001, the wreck of the Mississinewa was discovered in 130 feet of water, 57 years after she sank. Salvage crews were able to pump 1.8 million gallons of oil out of her tanks; it was then sent to Singapore, where it was refined and sold.
    The fact that this ship was rocked by several massive explosions, sunk, and survived for 57 years in salt water is a testament to her solid construction by the shipyard workers at Sparrows Point. The Mississinewa received four Battle Stars during her brief period of service.
    In addition to Battle Stars, six ships built at the Sparrows Point yard received the Navy Unit Commendation Award. This award was bestowed by the Secretary of the Navy to any Navy, Marine Corps, or merchant vessel that was distinguished by heroism in action against the enemy. To receive this award, the recipient must have performed service of the character comparable to that which would merit the award of a Silver Star.
    In all, Bethlehem’s 15 yards produced 1,121 ships – more than any other ship builder. Its shipyards supplied country with one-fifth of the ships in its two-ocean fleet. For its efforts, the Sparrows Point plant was presented with the prestigious Army-Navy “E” Award for production excellence. The shipyards at Sparrows Point and Fairfield received the Maritime Commission’s “M” for  production achievement in shipbuilding during wartime.
    As one admiral stated, “I know it’s not very exciting beveling plates all day or turning out castings, or bending pipe. However, that’s the way ships are built. Without you, we would be lost.”
    It is only fitting on this Memorial Day that we recognize the blue-collar men and women of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s shipbuilding facilities at Sparrows Point and Fairfield for their patriotism and dedication to help preserve the freedom that we so cherish today. Although they remained at home, beveling plates and bending pipe, their spirits were on the beaches of Normandy and at the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi. Their contributions  were crucial and we should be proud of their achievements.
    Elmer Hall is a native of Sparrows Point. His father was a chipper in the Sparrows Point Shipyard during World War II.