The Boston Navy Yard during World War II

Part I: Short of War

In 1932, the Department of the Navy designated the Boston (Charlestown) Navy Yard to be the building site for destroyers. Two years later, the USS McDonough (DD-351) slid down the ways, marking the first major ship launching at the yard in over a decade. The launch of McDonough ushered in the most productive period of ship construction in the history of the Navy Yard. By September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Boston Navy Yard had completed and commissioned six new destroyers. Furthermore, several other destroyers and auxiliary vessels were in various stages of construction across the facility. Though Germany's invasion of Poland sparked war in Europe, the United States remained neutral.

Photograph with hulls and scaffolding in a dry dock. Crane and industrial equipment in background.
USS O'Brien DD-415 (foreground) and USS Walke DD-416 under construction in Dry Dock 2, Charlestown Navy Yard, October 3, 1938.

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Shortly after the beginning of hostilities in Europe, the U.S. Navy organized a neutrality patrol utilizing several of the new vessels built in Boston. This patrol monitored the activities of warships of belligerent nations within 300 miles of the coasts of North and South America as well as in the Caribbean Sea. Beginning in 1940, the Navy and Coast Guard began providing escorts for merchant convoys bringing provisions, fuel, and military supplies to Great Britain in this neutral zone. The work of these escorts in the oftentimes rough waters of the North Atlantic was punishing, and the Boston Navy Yard had to focus on the constant maintenance and repair of these ships.

Photograph of workers and cranes on a pier in the midst of construction extending into Boston Harbor. Pile driving equipment is on a floating lighter at the edge of the pier.
Pier 5, Charlestown Navy Yard, under construction in the Summer of 1941.

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After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, attacks on convoys bound for Great Britain increased dramatically. With the establishment of bases for the German Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Luftwaffe (Air Force) in France, losses in merchant shipping and British escorts nearly surpassed the production capacity of North American and British shipyards. To keep the British in the fight, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged that America would provide all assistance “short of war.”

Photograph of two ships exiting dry dock. Scaffolding still surrounds the superstructures of each ship. A tugboat is just off to the right pulling the ships out.
USS O'Brien DD-415 and USS Walke DD-416 undocking from Dry Dock 2 after completion of their hulls. October 20, 1939.

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Under the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement,” arranged between the governments of the United States and Great Britain in 1940, fifty WWI era destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy for desperately needed escorts in return for 99-year leases that allowed for the establishment of American military bases in British Territories from Canada to the Caribbean. In September 1940 the Boston Navy Yard was tasked with overhauling and outfitting the first eighteen destroyers that the US Navy was transferring to the Royal Navy. Working as quickly as possible, the shipyard’s labor force had these ships ready for transfer within a matter of days.

Map oriented north. Map depicts Navy Yard to the northwest. Chelsea Naval Hostpital and Annex to north. Fuel Depot Annex northeast with a pipeline extending southwest. East Boston Annex center and South Boston Annex to the south.
During World War II the Boston Naval Shipyard complex encompassed nearly every corner of Boston's Inner Harbor. Due south of this map were even more private shipyard facilities constructing new warships, such as Bethlehem Steel in Hingham and Fore River in Quincy and Braintree.

NPS Map

By the summer of 1941, the Boston Navy Yard was a hive of activity; the yard’s labor force had increased from 3,875 in January 1939 to 18,272 in order to meet the increased demand for new ship construction. By then, it had become standard practice to lay the keels of two to four vessels and proceed with their construction at an even pace, with launchings occurring as soon as the hulls were completed. In September, the keels of the first Fletcher Class destroyers to be built at Boston Navy Yard were laid down. The Fletcher Class was considerably larger and more complex in construction than the destroyers previously built at the yard.

In regards to the physical plant of 1941, storage facilities and several new administrative and shop buildings, including a five-story electrical shop, were under construction in Charlestown while ship repair and conversion facilities were expanded at the South Boston Naval Annex (acquired shortly after World War I). Along the waterfront, piers were added, rebuilt, or extended, and the capacity for shipbuilding was dramatically increased with the construction of Shipways 2 and 3 (the latter now referred to as Dry Dock 5). Additional ship repair facilities were acquired by the Navy in Chelsea and East Boston. A Fuel Depot Annex was constructed alongside Chelsea Creek in East Boston and connected by pipeline to a fuel pier extending out into Boston Harbor.

In August 1941, escort duty was extended to Iceland where the likelihood that American warships would be involved in combat had dramatically increased. On September 4, 1941, the USS Greer became the first American vessel to use its weapons, dropping a pattern of depth charges after a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the destroyer. A little more than a month later, on October 17, the destroyer USS Kearny was badly damaged by a torpedo that killed eleven of her crew. Damage control parties saved the vessel and she was subsequently brought into Boston Navy Yard for extensive repairs. The USS Reuben James was not so fortunate, torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life on October 31, 1941. At that point, it was clear to the American public that the nation’s entrance into the war was imminent.

Photograph of a steel destroyer hull decorated in signal flags sliding into a harbor. Crowds on the shore and piers watch. City in the background.
USS Earle DD-635 launched at Charlestown three days after Pearl Harbor on December 10, 1941.

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Most American’s expected a war with Germany and her Allies, so it came as a shock when, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Fleet and nearby military facilities at Pearl Harbor. On December 10, three days after the United States was thrust into war, the Boston Navy Yard launched the destroyers USS Doran (DD-634) and USS Earle (DD-635). That same day, it began construction of two destroyers while work continued on another six that were nearing completion. A day later, December 11, Germany declared war on the United States. The United States Navy would now be fighting a two ocean war.


Part II: The Two Ocean War

In the opening months of 1942, the situation looked very grim for the United States and her allies as the German and Japanese military claimed vast territories throughout Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Simultaneously, sea lanes of communication in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific, were in danger of being cut off by the Axis powers. The United States Navy was fighting a two ocean war and needed more ships, including new types of vessels specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare and troop landings on distant beaches.

In January 1942, the Boston Navy Yard was selected as the building site for a new class of warship, the Destroyer Escort (DE). Boston was a logical choice, since the yard had specialized in building destroyers (DD) for a decade. Slightly smaller than the Fletcher-Class Destroyers then under construction in Charlestown, these escorts required far less time to construct at roughly half the cost. They were designed to protect merchant ship convoys and to destroy enemy submarines with an array of armaments. Some were built to serve in the Royal Navy as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement, but many would be retained by the United States Navy and see service in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theatres.

Charlestown Navy Yard: Before and after World War II
Photograph of roadways, piers, buildings, dry docks, and ships at a naval shipyard. Photograph of roadways, piers, buildings, dry docks, and ships at a naval shipyard.
Aerial photograph of the Charlestown Navy Yard in 1925 BOSTS 8613-2865
Aerial photograph of the Charlestown Navy Yard 20 years later in 1945 (slightly warped to better fit with 1925 angle) BOSTS 8615-1073



Photograph from balcony of large manufacturing structure. Workers assemble a tank landing craft in foreground. In background is a long line of assembled landing craft.
LCMs - "Landing Craft - Mechanized" -  were designed to land tanks on enemy beaches. The massive Building 197 depicted here housed the construction of 150 of these LCMs in a single summer at Charlestown during 1942.

National Archives at Boston  - Photographs from the <em>Administrative History of the First Naval District in World War II, 1946</em>

As the destroyer escort building program commenced in April, the Navy also selected Boston as the construction site for two types of landing craft for planned invasions on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, and at various locations in the Mediterranean and Pacific: Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) and Landing Ship, Tank (LST). LCM’s were shallow drafted boats, fifty feet in length that carried troops from transport vessels and land them directly on shore. LST’s were 328 feet long and could discharge water ballast, allowing them to enter shallow waters and beach. Tanks, vehicles loaded with ordnance and supplies, and the personnel to man them, could then be offloaded by means of bow doors and ramp. By the end of the summer, the Navy Yard had completed 150 LCMs. It completed the first LST in November and finished five more before the year’s end.

While the construction of new ships was extremely important, the overhaul and repair of vessels remained the top priority of Boston Navy Yard. The massive Dry Dock 3 at the South Boston Annex was capable of accommodating the largest ships that the US Navy and its Allies possessed. The adjacent Dry Dock 4 and a floating dry dock handled other large combatants, auxiliaries, and transports. The main yard in Charlestown and the Chelsea and East Boston Naval Annexes overhauled and repaired smaller vessels. Overhauls involved all manner of maintenance and upgrade, required an average of eleven days at the shipyard. By the end of 1942, 804 vessels had been overhauled or repaired.

Photograph looking at piers dry docks and industrial buildings on the edge of a harbor. Warships are docked alongside the piers.
The South Boston Annex of the Boston Naval Shipyard Complex in August 1943. Dry Dock 3 and the piers of the Annex accommodated the largest of the Navy's warships. Left is the battleship USS Iowa BB 61 in Dry Dock 3. In upper center is the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill CV 17 and the heavy cruiser USS Baltimore CA 68.

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Women in dungarees and welding masks sitting and laying across a steel hull plate. Each woman has a welding torch welding supports to the plate.
Shipbuilding Women of the Navy - "SWONs" - welding a hull plate for the future DE 279 in 1943. DE 279 was an Evarts-class destroyer escort that went to the Royal Navy through the Lend-Lease program. She was commissioned as HMS Kempthorne K.483 and returned to the U.S. Navy at the end of the War.

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Ship construction and repair at Boston Navy Yard peaked in 1943, with the workforce reaching an all-time high of 50,128 employees, including a large number of women and minorities. Throughout the year, the Yard led the nation in construction of destroyer escorts, breaking numerous launching records in the process. By end of 1943, more destroyer escorts had been launched from the shipways in Charlestown than any other shipyard, federal or private, in America. In total, forty-six destroyer escorts, eleven destroyers, and three LST’s were launched and nearly 900 vessels were repaired.

By 1944 the United States and its Allies had reclaimed many of the conquests of the Axis powers. The invasion of France and the steady advance across the Central and Southwest Pacific would liberate millions. The Boston Navy Yard began setting fast construction records for destroyers, destroyer escorts, and LST’s. Construction time for destroyers dropped from two years to as little as seven months, while destroyer escort construction dropped to slightly more than three months. LST construction time dropped from twelve to seven weeks, with one constructed in only fifty days.

Photograph of of several landing ships on a beach in a tight row. Doors are open as men and vehicles exit on to beach. Small blimps float above the ships. A rocky coastline is in background.
LST 995 and 1020 in foreground were Charlestown-built landing ships. Here they are shown as part of the invasion of Southern France, August, 1944.

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The Navy Yard’s destroyer building program reached completion by the summer of 1944 and building programs for destroyer escorts and LST’s were approaching completion. Therefore, for the remainder of the war, production largely shifted to auxiliary vessels, including several Landing Ship, Dock (LSD) which were the largest vessels ever constructed in Charlestown. American warships and those of its Allies continued to be sent to Boston for repair after they were damaged in operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean or Caribbean. Meanwhile, the Navy Yard overhauled and upgraded others for deployment to the Pacific.

For every year of the war the United States Navy awarded the Yard an “E” for excellence for the precision and quality of the work completed. Between September 8, 1939 when a limited national emergency was declared and the wars end in 1945, the Boston Navy Yard launched 303 vessels and commissioned another 120 ships that were constructed at private yards. In addition, it overhauled 1108 vessels; another seventy-four underwent extensive conversion, and 3260 were repaired. In the postwar, the shipyard largely reverted back to a ship repair and modernization facility, a role it fulfilled until its closure in 1974.

Contributed by: David Hannigan, Park Guide


Sources
  • Charlestown Navy Yard 1800-1842, Vols. 1 & 2: Ed Bearss, Boston National Historical Park, 1984.
  • Charlestown Navy Yard, NPS Handbook 152, US National Park Service, 1995.
  • Charlestown Navy Yard Historic Resource Study Vols. 1-3: Stephen P. Carlson, Boston National Historical Park, 2010.
  • Administrative History of the First Naval District in WWII: Department of the Navy. First Naval District. Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Administration. Office of the Historical Officer. 1946