Wartime shipbuilding was always a work in process, with lessons and new advances occurring on very short timetables.
In the book The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue (now a motion picture), authors Tougias and Sherman set the stage for the sinking of the SS Pendleton, which was launched from a Kaiser shipyard. They make the case that this T-2 tanker, which broke in half on February 18, 1952, was a disaster waiting to happen.
“…These ships had gained a more dubious nickname, and some critics referred to them as “serial sinkers” [referring to the conventional non-military ship designation SS, for “steam ship”] and “Kaiser coffins.” The trouble with T2 tankers dated back nearly a decade, beginning on January 17, 1943, when the Schenectady split in half while still at the dock! The ship had just completed its sea trials and had returned to port at Swan Island, Oregon, when suddenly she cracked just aft of the bridge superstructure. The center portion of the ship buckled and lifted right out of the water, leaving its bow and stern to settle on the river bottom. Like the Schenectady, the Pendleton had been built hastily for the war effort.”
“But the ship's strong outward appearance concealed the subpar welding methods used in its construction. As in many T2 tankers built during that era, the hull of the Pendleton was most likely put together with 'dirty steel' or 'tired iron,' in other words, steel weakened by excess sulfur content.”
“The ship had suffered a three-way fracture in the bulkhead between number 4 starboard and center tanks just one year before in January 1951. The three-way fracture had never been repaired. Amazingly, the Pendleton passed its last Coast Guard inspection on January 9, 1952, in Jacksonville, Florida, with flying colors.”
Alarming though these statements may be, some of these criticisms are erroneous or exaggerated. In the interests of a balanced historical record, here are some counterpoints:
Their review of the 4,694 merchant vessels built during the war concludes that only 25 sustained a complete fracture of the “strength deck” or bottom. Of those, 8 were lost at sea and 2 — including the above mentioned Schenectady — broke in 2 but were not lost. And the human cost? A total of 26 lives were lost as a result of structural failures.
The Board’s conclusions were laid out on the Final Report's page 10:
The official government conclusion supports the position that, dramatic and tragic though the SS Pendleton's sinking may have been, it was not representative of the quality of the vast majority of merchant ships built during World War II.
An excellent source on this subject is Ships for victory; a history of shipbuilding under the United States Maritime Commission in World War II, by Frederic Chapin Lane, 1951. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.