“The first Liberty ship was named after Patrick Henry. The last 100 have been named for merchant seamen who died in wartime service.” — Fore ‘n’ Aft, Kaiser Richmond shipyard newsletter, May 18, 1945.
Almost 1,500 World War II Liberty and Victory ships were built in the Kaiser shipyards. What most people do not realize is that they were not produced for the U.S. Navy — they were made for the United States Maritime Commission, an independent federal agency created by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. [ii]
These ships were vital to winning the war. General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a message congratulating those who built the ships:
“This headquarters has just heard the glorious news that American shipyards have produced more than 2,100 merchant vessels in the past two years.
“This remarkable record, unequaled in history, will bring confidence and encouragement to every soldier, sailor and airman in the Allied Forces, for they are most keenly aware that their ability to carry on the fight, indeed, their ability to survive, is completely dependent on ships . . . Ships, still more ships, and ever more ships will help smash the enemy.” [iii]
But ships don’t run by themselves. Merchant seamen staffed those vessels and thus served a vital — and dangerous — function during World War II. Although usually thought of as civilians, these seamen were “military” according to International Law because their ships were armed — albeit lightly. The merchant mariners were trained to shoot and could fire on the enemy if threatened.
President Roosevelt declared in 1944: “It seems to me particularly appropriate that Victory Fleet Day this year should honor the men and management of the American Merchant Marine.
“The operators in this war have written one of its most brilliant chapters. They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken.
“As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant fleet's record during this war,” Roosevelt said. [iv]
Legislation to equalize benefits for merchant seamen with those afforded members of the armed services under the GI Bill languished in Congress, despite the president’s endorsement and support from Admiral Emory S. Land, chairman of the Maritime Commission.
On the advice of his labor relations lawyer, Harry F. Morton, Henry Kaiser pushed for the legislation. Morton wrote to Kaiser: [v]
“I cannot see how this endorsement could possibly affect our dealings with the various unions since the purpose of the bill is to compensate the seamen for the personal risks these men take daily while in the service.
“As Admiral Land points out . . . more than 5,700 merchant seamen have lost their lives or have been reported missing in action, and over 500 of them are prisoners of war.
“True enough, merchant seamen receive considerably more pay than do the men in the Armed Services, but that alone does not warrant the conclusion that they are not entitled to the added protection recommended by Admiral Land.
“ . . . [it is] my conclusion that you should join with the President and Admiral Land in recommending this legislation (because) any other course would be inconsistent with your advocacy of merchant seamen's needs in the past. I recommend this even though it is a departure from your standard position regarding endorsements of proposed legislation.”
Yet with Roosevelt’s untimely death on April 12, 1945, political support for extending basic benefits to merchant seamen for their wartime service vanished until Congress awarded them veterans' status 40-plus years later in 1988 – too late for half of those who served.
Special thanks to Toni Horodysky, historian behind the American Merchant Marine at War website, for help with this article.
[i] Not only were 100 ships thusly named, an additional 20 were named for merchant mariners who received the Distinguished Service Medal. Only one of these — the SS Samuel L. Cobb, launched May 27, 1944, named for a seaman lost April 17, 1942, aboard the SS Alcoa Guide — was built in a Kaiser shipyard.
[ii] Although building merchant ships was its top priority, until the Maritime Commission became the Federal Maritime Commission in 1950 it was also responsible for training ship’s officers under the U.S. Maritime Service.
[iii] General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean area, message to home front workers, Fore ‘n’ Aft, 10/22/1943
[iv] Franklin D. Roosevelt, public address 9/19/1944.
[v] Inter-Office memo from Harry F. Morton to Henry J. Kaiser, 12/23/1944; Henry J. Kaiser papers, UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, BANC 26:25-4