Liberty Factory – the untold story of Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipyards, Peter J Marsh

Liberty Factory – the untold story of Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipyards, Peter J Marsh

One of the most significant American contributions to the Allied victory in the Second World War was the massive increase in industrial output, which produced many of the weapons used by all of the Allied nations. A key part of that industrial effort was the construction of the Liberty and Victory ships, fairly simple, mass produced cargo ships that were produced in vast numbers – between them the combined production of the two types almost equalled the number of merchant ships lost in the entire battle of the Atlantic, and provided almost three times as much tonnage. Henry J. Kaiser’s seven shipyards on the west coast were the most efficient of the major yards involved in this effort, but his four California yards are more famous than the three ‘Oregon’ yards. 

The main focus is on the three Kaiser Ship Yards on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, two in Oregon and despite the title one in Washington State. Of these three yards the Portland yard focused on the Liberty and Victory ships, the Swan Island yard on tankers, and the Vancouver yard on more military ships, producing the essential Landing Ships Tank and the Cassablanca class escort carriers. All three yards produced huge numbers of ships at ever increasing speed, and between them helped turn Portland into a major industrial city (at least for the duration of the war).

The book is split into three sections. Part I is a general history, looking at Kaiser’s career, the development of the Liberty Ship and Victory Ship and the three main yards. Part II looks at life in the Kaiser yards in more detail, picking out areas such as their old fashioned but simple to maintain steam engines or the effort to built a ship in ten days. Part III looks at the other war industries in the area, which included yet more ship builders!

Perhaps the most significant leason to emerge from this book is that the Kaiser yards didn’t achieve their impressive production rates simply by throwing money at the task, but also by putting a vast amount of effort into improving the efficiency of their work. Everyone was encouraged to submit ideas on how to make things more efficient, save materials or speed things up, and many of them were implemented. The Kaisers were also socially progressive, employing women and African Americans, often having to overcome opposition from the trade unions to do so. Even their decision to built a large childcare facility ran into opposition!

The book benefits from the attention these shipyards received at the time from the local press, and in particular from Larry Barber of the Oregonian, who reported on just about every launch of a Liberty and Victory Ship. There is also excellent material from the in-house newspaper of the yards, which provides us with a real feel for the atmosphere inside the organisation.

This is an excellent study of these long disappeared shipyards and the world that they briefly created, and a reminder of how much hard work went into the American industrial ‘miracles’ of the Second World War.

Part 1: The Emergency Shipyards
1 – Henry Kaiser and the Liberty Ship
2 – Portland becomes ‘The Liberty Ship Capital of the World’
3 – Building a Bridge of Ships
4 – The Liberty Gives Way to the Victory Ship, 1943-1945
5 – Kaiser Vancouver: ‘The Short Order Yard’
6 – Kaiser Swan Island: ‘Tanker Champions of the World’

Part 2: The Kaiser Yards in Close-Up
7 – Henry J Kaiser – the Father of Modern Shipbuilding
8 – The ‘Obsolete’ Steam Engine that Powered the Liberty Fleet
9 – Pre-fabrication and Mass Production in the Kaiser Shipyards
10 – The Ten-Day Ship
11 – Inside the Kaiser Yards
12 – Women doing Men’s Work
13 – Daily Life on the Home Front

Part 3: Other Portland Area War Industries
14 – Commerical Iron Works
15 – Albina Engine & Machine Works
16 – Willamette Iron & Steel Corporation (WISCO)
17 – The Oregon War Industries Collective
18 – Portland Shipbuilding Company
19 – Gunderson Brothers
20 – Astoria Marine Construction Company (AMCCO)

Author: Peter J Marsh
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2021

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