This Week’s Book Review: Liberty Factory

 

Before Portland, OR, became the upscale city mocked in Portlandia, it was a down-at-the-heels lumber town and port hard hit by the Great Depression. Its transformation began in World War II, when Portland and its cross-river companion, Vancouver, became major shipbuilding centers. Henry Kaiser established shipyards in the two cities.  These produced ships by the score: Liberty ships, Victory ships, escort carriers, troop transports, and tankers. The wartime shipyards turned Portland into an industrial powerhouse, financing its future prosperity.

“Liberty Factory: The Untold Story of Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipyards,” by Peter J. Marsh, tells the story of that transformation. Marsh reveals how Portland acquired the shipyards and chronicles their activities during World War II. Along the way, these shipyards produced over 700 ships. Big ships – all displaced over 10,000 tons.

Marsh shows why Henry Kaiser chose Portland for the location of two major shipyards and Vancouver for a third.  Marsh shows how the shipyards were built – all within months. As Marsh shows, this included more than building the manufacturing centers. Kaiser also built the offices these shipyards needed and housing, child care centers, and hospitals for its workers.

Marsh also looks at Henry Kaiser and the industrial empire he built during the 1930s. Marsh shows how Kaiser brought the innovations pioneered building the Hoover Dam and Kaiser’s other large-scale construction projects to shipbuilding. While Kaiser constructed major shipyards in California and Washington as well as in Oregon.

The book focuses on the three Oregon yards. Marsh provides a history of shipbuilding in these yards. The ships built get thorough coverage. He looks at the building process, including the methods used to crank out ships at an ever-increasing rate. (One Liberty ship was built in ten days.) Yet he also spends time looking at the people who worked at these yards, who they were, what they did, and how they lived. He also examines the subcontractors in and around Portland who supplied the engines and fittings going into Kaiser’s ships.

“Liberty Factory” is lavishly illustrated. Many photos come from the collection of Larry Barber, who was the maritime editor of Portland newspaper, The Oregonian, for much of the mid-twentieth century. Marsh used Barber’s archives to research this book.

“Liberty Factory” is a fascinating industrial history, one as much about people as ships. It offers an absorbing look at Home Front America during World War II, and perfectly captures mid-20th  century America.

“Liberty Factory: The untold story of Henry Kaiser’s Oregon shipyards,” by Peter J. Marsh, Naval Institute Press, 2021, 192 pages $59.95 (Hardcover)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    There were 17 Liberty shipyards in total, and by 1943 they were turning out three ships per day. We built them faster than the Axis could sink them.

    • #1
  2. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Percival (View Comment):

    There were 17 Liberty shipyards in total, and by 1943 they were turning out three ships per day. We built them faster than the Axis could sink them.

    That had to be hard on sailors.  

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Fake John/Jane Galt (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    There were 17 Liberty shipyards in total, and by 1943 they were turning out three ships per day. We built them faster than the Axis could sink them.

    That had to be hard on sailors.

    It was harder on the Axis, especially once we started sinking them faster than they could sink Liberty ships.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Fake John/Jane Galt (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    There were 17 Liberty shipyards in total, and by 1943 they were turning out three ships per day. We built them faster than the Axis could sink them.

    That had to be hard on sailors.

    It was harder on the Axis, especially once we started sinking them faster than they could sink Liberty ships.

    We were also sinking U-boats faster than the Germans could build them. That turned out to be unsustainable. For the Germans, that is.

    • #4
  5. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    My grandparents lived in Portland, and Grandpa drove a 1948 Kaiser for years.

    • #5
  6. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    Fake John/Jane Galt (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    There were 17 Liberty shipyards in total, and by 1943 they were turning out three ships per day. We built them faster than the Axis could sink them.

    That had to be hard on sailors.

    To get a good perspective on that, read The Good Shepard by C S Forester. 

    • #6
  7. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    In 1971, when I transitioned from active duty to the Naval Reserve, the Portland facility had been built as a childcare facility for the Kaiser shipyard on Swan Island. (A 30 year old temporary building.)

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Captain French (View Comment):

    In 1971, when I transitioned from active duty to the Naval Reserve, the Portland facility had been built as a childcare facility for the Kaiser shipyard on Swan Island. (A 30 year old temporary building.)

    So that is what happened to it. 

    • #8
  9. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Did the book talk about all the ships and steel Kaiser sent to Japan before and during the war, sustaining their war effort?

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    iWe (View Comment):

    Did the book talk about all the ships and steel Kaiser sent to Japan before and during the war, sustaining their war effort?

    No. It did not. Kaiser started his first shipyard in December 1940 to build ships for Britain.  The keel of the first ship Kaiser  built was laid in April 1941. Kaiser Steel did not come into existence until 1942. He was building dams and roads prior to 1940.

     

    • #10
  11. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Did the book talk about all the ships and steel Kaiser sent to Japan before and during the war, sustaining their war effort?

    No. It did not. Kaiser started his first shipyard in December 1940 to build ships for Britain. The keel of the first ship Kaiser built was laid in April 1941. Kaiser Steel did not come into existence until 1942. He was building dams and roads prior to 1940.

    I was raised in Oregon, and it was told as a matter of local history that Kaiser did business with Japan during the war.  I have now looked, and can find no substantiation for this claim.  But, as my source put it, “once a ship was out at sea, it could go wherever it wanted.” It may have happened, and there may be no available proof that it did.

    Nevertheless, it IS a matter of historical record that the US supplied Japan with 2 million tons of steel in 1939 alone.

    • #11
  12. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    iWe (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Did the book talk about all the ships and steel Kaiser sent to Japan before and during the war, sustaining their war effort?

    No. It did not. Kaiser started his first shipyard in December 1940 to build ships for Britain. The keel of the first ship Kaiser built was laid in April 1941. Kaiser Steel did not come into existence until 1942. He was building dams and roads prior to 1940.

    I was raised in Oregon, and it was told as a matter of local history that Kaiser did business with Japan during the war. I have now looked, and can find no substantiation for this claim. But, as my source put it, “once a ship was out at sea, it could go wherever it wanted.” It may have happened, and there may be no available proof that it did.

    Nevertheless, it IS a matter of historical record that the US supplied Japan with 2 million tons of steel in 1939 alone.

    Absolutely correct. It wasn’t Kaiser supplying it, though. He wasn’t in the steel business then. He wasn’t in the shipbuilding business until 1941, and all the ships he built that year were built for Britain. A ship could indeed go anywhere after it was built, but the few ships Britain owned that came from Kaiser shipyards got there because they were tied up in Far East ports (such as Hong Kong or possibly Japan itself)  when the Japanese started the Pacific phase of WWII. Kaiser lacked the opportunity to sell them to Japan, even had he wanted to. (Which I doubt. He disliked Imperial Japan as much as he disliked Nazi Germany.)

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Did the book talk about all the ships and steel Kaiser sent to Japan before and during the war, sustaining their war effort?

    No. It did not. Kaiser started his first shipyard in December 1940 to build ships for Britain. The keel of the first ship Kaiser built was laid in April 1941. Kaiser Steel did not come into existence until 1942. He was building dams and roads prior to 1940.

    I was raised in Oregon, and it was told as a matter of local history that Kaiser did business with Japan during the war. I have now looked, and can find no substantiation for this claim. But, as my source put it, “once a ship was out at sea, it could go wherever it wanted.” It may have happened, and there may be no available proof that it did.

    Nevertheless, it IS a matter of historical record that the US supplied Japan with 2 million tons of steel in 1939 alone.

    Absolutely correct. It wasn’t Kaiser supplying it, though. He wasn’t in the steel business then. He wasn’t in the shipbuilding business until 1941, and all the ships he built that year were built for Britain. A ship could indeed go anywhere after it was built, but the few ships Britain owned that came from Kaiser shipyards got there because they were tied up in Far East ports (such as Hong Kong or possibly Japan itself) when the Japanese started the Pacific phase of WWII. Kaiser lacked the opportunity to sell them to Japan, even had he wanted to. (Which I doubt. He disliked Imperial Japan as much as he disliked Nazi Germany.)

    Before the war, Japan bought scrap steel wherever they could find it. The US sold scrap steel all over the place too. No doubt some of it was returned to us the hard way. FDR’s economic strictures on Imperial Japan due to the war in China probably eliminated a lot of the direct trade, but once you’ve sold a commodity, you have no say on what the buyer might do with it.

    After the war started, the number of truly neutral ports still open for business would have fallen to approximately none. In any case, there wouldn’t have been much in the way of steel or oil to be had. In addition, our submarine force did to Japan what the Nazis tried and failed to do to Great Britain.

    • #13
  14. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Percival (View Comment):
    In addition, our submarine force did to Japan what the Nazis tried and failed to do to Great Britain.

    Only because Japan never took ASW seriously – especially ASW aircraft. That was a good thing, but our submarines’ success was largely due to unforced Japanese errors.

    • #14