TwHP Lessons

Liberty Ships and Victory Ships, America's Lifeline in War

[Photo] Liberty Ship at sea.
(Courtesy U.S. Maritime Administration)

[Photo] U.S. Merchant Marine Commemorative Stamp.
(Stamp courtesy Iowa Stamps and Coins)


he officers and men of the Merchant Marine, by their devotion to duty in the face of enemy action, as well as natural dangers of the sea, have brought us the tools to finish the job. Their contribution to final victory will be long remembered.

--General Dwight D. Eisenhower on National Maritime Day, 1945¹

In the nearly 20 years following the end of the World War I, America's merchant fleet, including its cargo and passenger ships, was becoming obsolete and declining in numbers. A shipbuilding program began with the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. However, World War II provided the impetus to intensify those efforts eventually leading to a ship-building program that produced 5,500 vessels. Among them were 2,710 mass-produced ships known as Liberty ships. While reviewing blueprints of the Liberty ships at the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who loved naval vessels and had an eye for design, mused aloud to Maritime Commission administrator Admiral Emory S. Land, "I think this ship will do us very well. She'll carry a good load. She isn't much to look at, though, is she? A real ugly duckling."² Thus, the Liberty ships received their second nickname, "the ugly ducklings."

When the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, it had the beginnings of a great merchant fleet. But the lethal U-Boats, submarines of the German Navy, prowled the shipping lanes hunting American merchant ships. The Liberty ships proved to be too slow and too small to carry the tons of supplies the United States and her Allies would need to win the war. In 1943, the United States began a new ship-building program. These new ships would be faster, larger, and able to carry cargo long after the war was finished. These were the Victory ships.

The Liberty and Victory ships fulfilled President Roosevelt's prophetic words, serving the nation well in war and peace. Today, of the thousands of Liberty ships and Victory ships built during World War II, only a handful remain.

¹ War Shipping Administration, Press Release 2277(W), Maritime Day 1945--Military Leaders Praise Merchant Marine (18 May 1945).
² John G. Bunker,
Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of World War II (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1972) p. 6.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. Selected Shipyards in the United States
 2. North Atlantic Ocean

Determining the Facts: Readings
 1. Liberty Ships
 2. Victory Ships
 3. Selected Ships' Histories

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. "Your Merchant Marine Has Grown"
 2. "Salute Your Merchant Marine on
 Maritime Day--May 22"

 3. North Atlantic Convoy
 4. U.S. Merchant Marine Commemorative Stamp
 5. Liberty Ship

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. Pay Tribute to Local History
 2. Serving the War Effort
 3. Carrying the Supplies

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Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park

The lesson is based on the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, the SS John W. Brown, the SS American Victory, the SS Lane Victory and the SS Red Oak Victory, five of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The SS Jeremiah O'Brien and the SS Lane Victory have been designated National Historic Landmarks.



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