The ship that won the war. During the first half of World War II
, the Germans
were waging a war on shipping
attacks were sinking ships faster than they could be produced. The British
approached Henry Kaiser
with an order for 60 tramp steamers.
Kaiser's response was to develop the liberty ship. Steam powered, 440 feet long and carrying 10,800 tons of cargo, the liberty ships were slow, ugly and cheap, but were soon being produced faster than the U-boats could sink them. Kaiser successfully applied assembly line technology to the manufacturing of the ships, and reduced the amount of time it took to build these freighters from nearly months to days. The first liberty ship, the Patrick Henry was launched on September 7, 1941. It was this association that gave the ships their name.
The first ships took about 230 days to build, but as the process was developed, that number dropped rapidly. The average liberty ship was produced in roughly a month and a half. On November 12, 1942, the Robert G. Peary was launched, just 4 days, 15 hours and 30 minutes after the keel was laid.
Most liberty ships saw use long after the war. So many were produced that as late as 1960, liberty ships accounted for roughly 40% of the world's tramping fleet. The phrase "Liberty-size cargo" came to mean a standard bulk shipment of 10,000 tons.
Over 2,700 would be constructed during the war. Today, only two survive, and both are still capable of moving under their own power. The S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien is berthed at Pier 45 at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. The S.S. John W. Brown can be found at Pier 1 in Baltimore.