Those Ugly Ducklings

Conflict: World War II

A Liberty ship comes into port in Italy

A Liberty ship coming into port in Italy

On 27 September 1941, the first of 2,710 Liberty ships was launched: the SS Patrick Henry. The United States produced this massive number of ships during WWII in just five years, each one costing about $2,000,000 (in 1945 currency).

Although not yet officially involved in the war, in 1939, the US was carefully keeping watch of the Allied countries, namely Great Britain. At the time, Great Britain was struggling against the Axis and was in need of supplies. “The United States realized that if Great Britain fell, our country would have no allies left in Western Europe.” After working with Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a Lend-Lease program to build simple, coal-burning ships. Oil was more modern, but Britain had more access to coal.

Liberty ship stocked with supplies is safe in port

Liberty ship stocked with supplies is safe in port

Because of their very plain and practical look, the Liberty ships were quickly nicknamed “ugly ducklings,” but they served their purpose of transporting ammunition very well. Patrick Henry took about 244 days to build, but at the peak of construction, ports were pushing out ships in 42 days. Once, during a war bond fundraiser, construction was complete in just under five days. Obviously, this kind of progress didn’t come without a massive amount of man hours, and by the end of the war over 1.5 million Americans had been involved in the production of Liberty ships.

Liberty ships were only named after dead American patriots (any group of citizens who raised $2 million could name a ship), except for one: Francis J. O’Gara. O’Gara was presumed dead but was actually a prisoner of war and was released on 28 October 1945. He is the only person to have seen his own Liberty ship.

The construction of the ships was impressive, but so were the men who sailed them. “In the first six months of the war, their casualty rates were three times greater than any branch of the armed forces.” These men were volunteers and were subject to all sorts of danger. Besides being attacked by U-boats, the sailors faced deadly weather and were prone to explosive accidents. A tragic example is the disaster of the J. Pinkney Henderson and J.H. Senior. “In August 1943, the Liberty J. Pinkney Henderson, on its maiden voyage and loaded with magnesium, glycerin, resin and oil, collided with the tanker J.H. Senior carrying aviation fuel. Both vessels immediately became raging infernos and only nine people survived.”

"Bos'n W.B. Shepard coils a hawser on deck of new Liberty Ship after it completed maiden voyage from United States to Great Britain."

“Bos’n W.B. Shepard coils a hawser on deck of new Liberty Ship after it completed maiden voyage from United States to Great Britain.”

Despite all the horrible outcomes ships could have met, most were successful, with less than 10% of the ships not seeing the end of the war. When the war came to a close, a quarter of the surviving Liberty ships were purchased for business purposes. Many others were kept to continue transporting cargo for the United States. Only a handful survived completely unaltered for museum purposes.

Find more information on Liberty ships here, here, here, and here, and find lots of pictures here and in Fold3′s WWII US Air Force Photos.