World War II Shipbuilding in the San Francisco Bay Area

Boats docked in harbor.
Historic ships at Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, San Francisco, California.

Photo by Sanfranman59, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This essay is excerpted from Build Ships! San Francisco Bay Wartime Shipbuilding Photographs, by Wayne Bonnett, published by and available through Windgate Press, Sausalito, California.

The San Francisco Bay Area's major contribution to victory during World War II was shipbuilding. Over 30 shipyards, large and small, and scores of machine shops, and metal and wood fabricators joined together to create the world's largest combined shipbuilding complex. Unlike major shipyards on the east coast that were concentrated in compact urban areas, Bay Area shipbuilding consisted of components sprawled across hundreds of square miles, from Napa in the north, Sacramento and Stockton in the east, to San Jose in the south.

In the decade prior to 1940, America's shipyards launched only 23 ships. In the five years after 1940, American shipyards launched 4,600 ships. San Francisco Bay Area shipbuilders produced almost 45 percent of all the cargo shipping tonnage and 20 percent of warship tonnage built in the entire country during World War II. The war lasted 1,365 days. In that span of time Bay Area shipyards built 1,400 vessels--a ship a day, on average.

One pioneer Bay Area shipyard was Mare Island Naval Shipyard. It began with a single floating dry dock in 1854 and progressed rapidly as the only Navy yard for the Pacific Squadron and, in fact, the only repair facility on the entire Pacific Coast. In 1859, Mare Island launched its first ship, the paddlewheel wooden steamer USS Saginaw. In the years following, Mare Island Naval Yard built a score of vessels including tugs, colliers, barges, gunboats and, in 1883, the cruiser USS Mohican.

Compared to the big shipyards on the East Coast at Philadelphia and New York, San Francisco Bay's shipbuilding industry was minuscule in the early years of the 20th century. How was it possible that from this modest beginning, San Francisco Bay would emerge in World War II as an industrial giant? How was it possible to build so many ships in so little time? First and most vital was a nationwide commitment to win the war. All available resources were dedicated to that end. Industrial leaders and politicians had the good sense to recognize that only through cooperation could total victory be achieved. As a result, World War II shipbuilding was perhaps the greatest combined effort of government and private industry in the Nation's history.

The Bay Area was fortunate in one respect; two major local shipyards, Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation and Moore Dry Dock Company, had gained valuable experience in large-scale rapid production during World War I, and had on hand core management and labor groups when needed for World War II. Lessons learned during the first wartime shipbuilding program (1917-1922) had demonstrated to management what to do and what not to do. These two yards had long histories in steel shipbuilding and had managed to survive the depression years of the 1930s, a period when American shipbuilding all but ceased. In addition to these yards, Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Hunters Point Dry Docks provided well-established repair and shipbuilding facilities when the need arose. Navy contracts in the 1930s kept Mare Island capable of producing modern warships.

Industrial expansion and population growth after 1900 had given the Bay Area untapped resources at the outset of World War II. One reason the Bay Area was selected as the site of the Kaiser yards and Marinship was availability of workers. Big shipyards along the northeast seaboard of the United States drew on the dense population of that region for workers. By the time America entered the war, those yards were operating at capacity and local skilled labor was fully employed. The Bay Area also had many miles of relatively undeveloped shoreline that contained several excellent shipyard sites. Smaller existing yards and potential sites existed along the deep-water channel in Stockton, accessible to the worker population of the interior region.

Proximity to the Pacific war made the Bay Area a logical ship production site. Victory in the Pacific depended on ships; all men and material had to reach the war zone by ship. Aircraft at the time had insufficient range to operate from mainland bases and the only way to get air bases nearer to Japan was to take them by force through amphibious landings. San Francisco's Fort Mason was a well-established port of embarkation and Oakland had large (and expandable) army and navy shipping facilities. Fortunately America's rail network in 1941 was intact. Thanks to direct rail links between the Bay Area and industrial centers in the Midwest and East, a steady flow of steel and other material could sustain massive shipbuilding.These four components--local experienced yards, ready labor supply and building sites, proximity to the Pacific war and established railroads--set the stage for what would become the largest concentrated outpouring of ships in the history of the world. But getting the job done required more than the proper setting. Organization, management and innovation were skills essential to success. In 1940 America had a number of men who epitomized the "can do" spirit prevalent in the early 1900s. In Bay Area shipbuilding, men such as Joseph Moore, Warren Bechtel and Henry Kaiser had that attitude in common, as well as the shared experience of holding things together in the 1930s, during the deepest depression in American history. While Joe Moore was a shipbuilder of long standing, Kaiser and Bechtel were new to maritime construction. But they were builders of big things, up to the task confronting them. Each had a team of experienced and reliable engineers and foremen. Each had the ability to organize and follow through.

At the top of the shipbuilding ladder was the U.S. Maritime Commission, five men appointed by President Roosevelt in 1936 and confirmed by the Senate the following year to direct America's shipbuilding program. The Commission's mandate was clear: "Develop and maintain a merchant marine sufficient to carry a substantial portion of the waterborne export and import foreign commerce of the United States on the best equipped, safest and most suitable type of vessels owned, operated and constructed by citizens of the United States, manned with a trained personnel and capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency."

While the threat of war existed in 1936, no one could have foreseen the magnitude of the Commission's responsibility over the next decade. Yet many shipbuilders and many members of Congress who passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 could vividly recall the previous wartime emergency just 15 years earlier. America had started too late. Over 80 percent of the tonnage authorized in the shipbuilding program was launched after World War I had ended and, thus, had no impact on the conduct or outcome of the war.

America would not make the same mistake again. The Commission adopted a long-range building program of 50 new ships a year for the next 10 years. America's moribund shipyards, including those in the Bay Area, came to life. Rehabilitation and expansion began immediately. In preparing for global war, the need for naval vessels was parallel to the need for merchant ships. Contracts for both types of vessels were awarded to Bay Area shipyards.

After December 7, 1941, the shipbuilding program responded to the shifting strategies and progress of the war. New types of vessels were needed, in particular, convoy escort warships in the early stages of the conflict when allied shipping was most vulnerable to German submarines. As the Allies gained the initiative, landing craft and other assault types became top priority. Managing the shipyards became highly complex. Juggling steel and manpower shortages, procuring needed parts and machinery, and balancing the needs of the Maritime Commission and the Navy provided ample challenge to administrators and planners alike.

Bay Area shipbuilders, from the giant Kaiser yards to the small boatyards around the Bay, found innovative ways to cut costs and save time, improve the product and work in cooperation with myriad Federal agencies. Obstacles to production, such as training inexperienced workers and housing and feeding emigrant workers and families, had to be met and overcome. In addition to delivering ships on schedule, shipyard management had to participate in dealing with labor unions and subcontractors, crime in shipyard boomtowns and racial and gender conflicts. Problems naturally arose, breakdowns and accidents occurred, mistakes were made. When negatives are weighed against positives, however, the result is remarkable. The ultimate measure of success is, of course, that decisive victory was achieved. By war's end, the many thousands of men and women who took part in building ships could feel justifiable pride in their accomplishment.

A map of San Francisco Bay and the rivers and estuaries surrounding it shows the nexus of land and waterways where shipbuilding took place. The varied shoreline of the Bay, one of the finest natural harbors in the world, provided equally varied shipyard sites. The narrow entrance of the Golden Gate not only protected the shipyards from storms and tidal surges, but from unseen enemies whose only course of attack by sea was through the narrow channel. The major wartime shipyards consisted of three types; established yards such as Mare Island and Bethlehem Steel, smaller specialized yards such as those at Stockton, and emergency yards, such as Marinship and Kaiser, built for specific jobs.

The major yards received raw materials by rail and pre-assembled components from Bay Area shops. Small parts, nut and bolts, and a thousand other pieces were supplied by large and small manufacturing facilities all across America. The big yards became assembly points where completed vessels were launched into the Bay. The entire network, with railway arteries and workers as lifeblood, became one giant single-purpose organism, highly adaptable and highly successful.

Any industrial organism so large can not be laid across the landscape without consequential environmental and sociological impacts. At the time, unavoidable physical degradation of the land and shoreline was an acceptable cost. To accommodate new shipyards, hills and rocks were dynamited, channels dredged, wetlands diked and filled. Ironically, it is some of these hastily-formed features that today are the most recognizable physical remnants of the wartime shipbuilding industry. The myriad buildings, warehouses and shops left derelict by the closing of wartime shipyards were dismantled or put to other uses. Today, the few surviving buildings (and a few of the businesses) are part of San Francisco Bay's historic places, such as Kaiser’s Richmond Shipyard No. 3 and Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

While all wartime shipyards fell under the control of either the Maritime Commission or the U.S. Navy, they drew their resources and materials from the same pool. Constantly changing situations and needs created an enormously complex distribution system of parts and labor. The various yards competed with one another, but all worked toward a common goal. Keeping priorities for materials straight and avoiding production bottlenecks was largely, due to wartime secrecy, an unsung tale of heroic proportions. Imagine, for example, the challenge presented by hundreds of freight cars daily rolling into the Bay Area from around the Nation loaded with vital parts and material for the around-the-clock shipbuilding program. Railway cars that left Detroit on Monday with parts destined for Kaiser, might have to be diverted on Tuesday to Moore Dry Dock to complete a Naval contract on time. Kaiser, meanwhile, would need to have parts diverted to the Richmond plant from another source so that Kaiser could complete its contracts on time. By the time the railway cars arrived on Wednesday from Detroit, they might have been diverted again to Bethlehem's San Francisco yard. It was a monumental game of musical chairs.

As the war progressed, some Bay Area shipyards evolved into repair and conversion facilities, where existing vessels returning from the Pacific underwent battle-damage repairs, received updated radar or weapons, or were converted from one specialized type of vessel to another. Yards that had begun as clear-cut navy yards or Maritime Commission yards (that is, building exclusively warships or cargo ships) found their assignments more diverse as time passed. Marinship in Sausalito, for example, was built specifically to supply fuel-oil tankers for the Merchant Marine. Because the tankers were still being designed when the yard was ready to begin production, a dozen Liberty ships became the first products of the new yard. When the yard shifted to tanker production, some of the tankers, with modified specifications, were built for the navy. Near the end of the war, Marinship built invasion barges for the army.

Innovation was fundamental to the success of Bay Area shipbuilding during World War II. Shipbuilding prior to the war tended to be bound by long-standing traditions and methods. The transition from wooden ships to iron and then steel was slow. During World War I, steel shipbuilding followed tradition, calling for riveted hulls with each vessel custom built on site, a labor intensive, relatively slow process. In 1917, for example, a typical steel vessel took 12 to 14 months from keel-laying to delivery. At the peak of production in World War II, the work could be accomplished in four to six days.

Much credit for the prodigious output of American shipyards during World War II has been given to the assembly line, the notion that ships were built like automobiles. But the analogy is not accurate. Most large-scale shipbuilding did not employ the assembly line as it relates to automobile manufacture. With cars, the chassis was pulled slowly along the line as parts were attached to the chassis until the finished product rolled off the end of the line. Ship hulls, however, were too big and heavy to drag along an assembly line. Instead a steady stream of component parts--pre-assemblies--were brought to the hull and lifted by large shipyard cranes onto the hull. In some cases small vessels, such as landing craft, were assembled much like automobiles. Each yard employed a variety of time and labor-saving methods, whatever it took to speed up the process without jeopardizing the end product.

Greatly speeding the shipbuilding process was the widespread use of pre-assemblies, such as deck houses and engines. The technique had been used in World War I, but not nearly as extensively. As the war progressed, the pre-assemblies grew larger and more complete, right down to the doorknobs on cabin doors and cooking utensils in the galleys. Installation of the miles of piping and wiring that go into a large vessel was made far easier by the pre-assembly process. While most parts were pre-assembled in the shipyards, some complex assemblies were made miles from the yard and shipped by rail. Anchor-winch assemblies, for example, might come from as far away as New York.

As useful as pre-assembly was in cutting production time, the real key to accelerated shipbuilding, however, was welding. Ships in World War I took longer to build than in World War II primarily because their hulls were riveted rather than welded. Welding had been introduced in American ships prior to 1918, although none had an entirely welded hull. Riveted ships were strong and durable. But riveted hulls had drawbacks. Chief among these was the time needed to align steel plates and drill holes for rivets, and to set and drive home the rivets. To place each rivet (150,000 for a typical hull) took two workers, one on either side of the plates being fastened. But to reach that point required the efforts of at least two other workers. A "driller" had to position each hole in the proper place and drill through the one-inch-thick hull plate. After the plates were aligned on the frames they seldom matched the pre-drilled holes precisely, so a "reamer" had to enlarge the holes to eliminate overlap and allow the rivet to fit. The combined weight of rivets needed to fasten hull and deck plates could add more than 300 tons to a ship's hull and subtract that weight from the vessel's payload. Strong as they were, rivets could pop loose under stress or when hull plates were damaged. Unless the exterior heads of the rivets were flush with the hull, they added drag that could slow the ship at sea.

The advantages of arc welding--low cost compared to riveting, speed of application and strength-- were apparent. One worker could do the work of two. Properly welded joints and seams were as strong or stronger than the surrounding steel. In spite of these advantages, however, welding was slow to supplant riveting. Not until World War II created demand for rapid ship construction did welding replace riveting as the principal means of joining steel. Automatic seam-welding machines and new alloys and welding methods added even greater speed to the process but also revealed some disadvantages. Welded steel plates tended to buckle and warp more than riveted ones. Uneven heating could result in stress fractures. Use of improperly sized electrodes could produce weak joints. Stories of welded ships breaking apart in heavy seas, or of welded joints failing under even mild stress, were partly justified.

A skilled welder can make a good solid seam almost anywhere, horizontal, vertical, overhead, angled. A novice welder, as many of the new shipyard workers were, had neither the skill or experience to match an old hand. Welding seams on flat deck plates with gravity helping the flow was simple enough but overhead welding was much more difficult. One solution was to position seams so that the welder could work in a "down-hand" position, that is, with the electrodes held at waist level or below to avoid fatigue. That often meant bringing the work piece to the worker. Large vertical parts to be welded were turned horizontal. Ceilings and overhead structures were welded inverted then reversed when completed. Scaffolding was built to place the welders in optimum position. Welding became the basic glue of steel shipbuilding, allowing for fabrication of almost any shape in any size. Without high-speed welding, much of the innovative methods applied to World War II shipbuilding would not have been possible.

The shortage of trained workers in the shipyards translated into an even more critical problem; rapid training of new workers. All experienced workers in the Bay Area already were fully employed when America entered the war. Tens of thousands of unskilled men and women were recruited to meet demands of new emergency shipyards. Years of training and experience necessary to make a journeyman shipyard worker could not be condensed into a matter of days or weeks, yet the war would wait for no one. The solution was to break the complex job of building a ship into the smallest possible components, train workers to do that specific task and let them gain experience through repetition. Trade unions objected strenuously to this practice, giving rise to deep conflicts between unions and shipyard management that remained unresolved throughout the war. Large and small classrooms sprang up in Bay Area shipyards where welding and other crafts were taught. Galling as this situation was to professional shipbuilders, there was no suitable alternative.

A sidelight to the transition from rivets to welds in shipbuilding was "Rosie the Riveter," a public relations creation that has, over the years, become synonymous with the home front effort during World War II. Rosie illustrated how women pitched in willingly to the war effort, and proved their competency at doing a "man's" job. Rosie, however, as illustrated by Norman Rockwell and others, was an aircraft riveter, not a ship riveter. Women workers in aircraft production plants handled all phases of fabrication and assembly, but it was the image of a woman punching small alloy rivets into aluminum aircraft skin that caught the public fancy. In addition to the thousands of women welders in the shipbuilding program, thousands of other women workers participated in almost every facet of shipbuilding. Shipyards invented a parallel to Rosie the Riveter called Wendy the Welder, but she never received the icon status of Rosie. Nonetheless, the essential contribution by women welders during World War II has been recognized.

The name Henry J. Kaiser more than any other stands out in Bay Area shipbuilding. Indeed, Kaiser gained national and worldwide recognition during World War II for his contribution to Allied victory. His maritime achievements are the more remarkable considering that before 1940 he had never built a ship or a shipyard. By 1945 he and his associates had built seven shipyards and delivered 1,490 ships, 747 at the Richmond yards alone. The four Kaiser yards in Richmond comprised the largest shipbuilding operation on the Pacific Coast.

Prior to the war, Henry J. Kaiser was known in construction circles as a tough, competitive highway contractor and builder of massive dams. Most notably, Kaiser was a prime force in the Grand Coulee, Bonneville and Hoover Dams. He sensed opportunity when, in 1936, the Maritime Commission was formed. With existing shipyards fully occupied with the revitalized merchant marine, new yards were needed. Kaiser, inexperienced in shipbuilding, knew how to build industrial plants. He teamed with Todd Shipyards, one of the Nation's largest, to secure a contract for five C1 freighters. In 1940, the new company received a contract from the British for 60 emergency cargo vessels, forerunners of the Liberty ships. Thirty were to be built on the east coast by Kaiser in partnership with Bath Iron Works in Maine. The other 30 would be built in a new yard in Richmond, already scouted by Kaiser himself.

The City of Richmond before World War II was a small industrial center built around a Ford Motor Company , a Standard Oil refinery, a Pullman railway car shop and a number of other smaller manufacturers. Richmond was selected as the site of a new shipyard by Henry Kaiser and the Maritime Commission because of its available waterfront, nearby industrial capacity and sufficient nearby population from which to draw a work force. As a consequence, Richmond suffered in a microcosm all the trials and tribulations of wartime America and was transformed forever by the experience.

As the Kaiser construction crews began cutting and filling for the marine launching ways in Richmond, the rapidly changing war in Europe triggered rapidly shifting national defense priorities. Just two days after the first keel was laid in April 1941, the Maritime Commission directed Kaiser to build a second shipyard in Richmond for Liberty ships for America, and have it operational by September. Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, changed priorities again; on January 9, 1942, the Maritime Commission and Kaiser began a third shipyard at Richmond to build big troop transports. By this time yards one and two were building the British freighters and Liberty ships, although none had yet been launched. By May 14, 1942, the first keel was laid at yard three. In June 1942, Kaiser got a call to build yet another shipyard, this one for invasion ships, called yard 3-A (later yard 4). This yard was unique among Bay Area shipyards in that it came closest to an auto-type assembly line for big ships. The type of ships to be built there, initially cloaked in secrecy, were LST's. Hundreds of these "Landing Ship Tank" vessels were needed as the mainstay of invasion fleets. Several eastern yards besides Kaiser in Richmond and the Kaiser yard in Vancouver, Washington, were contracted for their construction. In all, 982 were completed including 15 by Kaiser-Richmond, and 30 by Kaiser-Vancouver. More than 100 were completed as or converted to repair ships, casualty evacuation ships, boat tenders and service craft. When the LST contract was completed, Kaiser #4 switched to frigate escort vessels based on the Canadian Corvette. After building 12 of these, the yard turned to another type of coastal supply cargo ship. By war's end, Kaiser #4 had launched 51 ships including 24 coastal cargo carriers.

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Last updated: September 16, 2020