Category Archives: Ships

Building Ships on an Assembly Line

A no-narration documentary showing the construction of a Liberty ship in just 4 days, 15 hours, and 29 minutes. In part, this was an effort to set a record, but in reality, it was a demonstration of a feat that America’s hidebound shipbuilding industry – and the Maritime Administration – doubted was possible. Shipbuilding was, after all, the ultimate bespoke industry.

The film shows the Permanente Metals No. 2 Shipyard in Richmond, California (just north of Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay) assembling the ship from sections as heavy as 80 tons.

It is hard to appreciate today, in an era where industries are disrupted on an almost daily basis – what this represents. But it is part of a story about World War II that was almost forgotten – that  it was less a matter of tactics, or strategy, or logistics that won the war. What won the war at almost every turn was improvisation, adaptability, and chutzpah.

Weekend Watching: The Little Ships of England

This fun contemporary documentary details the effort put into the construction of a fleet of wooden vessels – from small civilian boats to minesweepers – for the defense of Britain in World War II.

Among other things, it’s a fascinating look at the total war in which Britain was engaged that was unknown in the US. All of the nations resources were put into the effort, from forests to high schoolers. The young teenager showing up to serve as a learner (he couldn’t have been more than 15) was sobering, as was a look at how the ships were built of timber, oakum, and tar. That the Royal Navy was sending men to sea in wooden ships in an age of steel is a tribute both to the skill of her shipwrights and the courage of her men.

The film is also an oblique reminder that we have, for whatever reason, given up on wood for fiberglass in our small ships, and that it may be time for a reconsideration of the value of wooden vessels in modern war.

Finally, it is a reminder that great is ever the enemy of good enough. Britain needed hulls, and it understood that getting ships to sea trumped any compunctions about looking like a second-rate force.

The film is about 15 minutes long. Enjoy.

Free Book of the Week: Troopships of WWII

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Long overlooked despite a vast library of works on warships from PT boats to aircraft carriers has been the humble but essential transport vessel. We are still waiting for a definitive and engaging popular history of the type, and may yet wait a while, but a superb resource for anyone interested in the topic is Troopships of WWIIby naval architect Roland Charles.

Published in 1947 by the Army Transportation Association, the book also serves as a reminder that for the duration of the war, the Army had its own navy. One cannot help but wonder if a few of the Navy’s admirals, particularly of the pre-war vintage, were a little uncomfortable about the army having more ships in 1944 than the Navy had a decade earlier. But Charles is clearly agnostic in this regard, and apart from the subtle reminder that the war at sea was not an exclusively naval affair, does not pursue it.

There is, however, more to be written. It takes nothing away from the USN and its core role in the eventual victory in WWII to delve into the history of the Army at sea, any more than a study of the Coast Guard or Merchant Marine would. But ignoring or underplaying the role of these fleets prohibits us from understanding the kind of fleet we will need in a future conflict.

No doubt the Navy is not proud of the fact that it entered the Second World War materially unprepared for that conflict, and woefully so. Understanding the full width and breadth of that gap is essential for understanding both the drivers of victory and the essence of maritime power.

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Micro-Review: Neptune’s Inferno

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Neptune’s Inferno was superior. Fair warning: Hornfischer’s superb style makes you feel like you were fighting each of those battles. I could damn near smell the cordite and feel the concussion of every hit on the Atlanta.

I was exhausted when I finished, but nobody brings a naval engagement to life like Hornfischer. If you have any interest in understanding World War II combat from the deckplates to the cockpit, put this book at the top of your list.

The Forgotten Cruisers

USS Nashville (CL-43)

USS Nashville (CL-43) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humble Heroes: How the USS Nashville CL-43 Fought World War II
Steven George Bustin
BookSurge Publishing
2007

Of all of the capital ships that fought World War II, the cruisers have been all but forgotten. We remember the roles of the aircraft carriers, the battleships, the destroyers and the frigates that escorted convoys, and the Liberty ships that got the supplies through. But what about the cruisers?

Novato businessman and scholar Steven George Bustin takes an important step toward filling in this blank spot in popular history with his “Humble Heroes.” An entertaining and informative if sometimes trying read (his inconsistent handling of names and ranks will grate on specialists and confuse the layman), in focusing on his father’s ship, the USS Nashville (CL-43), the author demonstrates how these multi-mission workhorses actually did some of the most interesting and essential work of the war.

Nashville did a little of everything: convoy escort in the North Atlantic; transporting a secret load of British gold from London to New York; escorting the carriers that launched the Doolittle raid; serving as a flagship for Douglas MacArthur; taking the Japanese surrender in Shanghai; and finally bringing thousands of troops home from the war. If there was a naval mission to be assigned in World War II, Nashville probably accomplished it.

Built on a mix of oral history and naval documents for the core of his account, Bustin stretches his material as far as possible, and perhaps a bit further. What comes out of this account for the serious historian is that there is a larger story to be told here about the role cruisers played in World War II.  Nashville was useful because she combined powerful, multi-purpose armament with endurance and survivability. Expensive to build (she cost as much as a much larger heavy cruiser when built), in the end, she and her fellow Brooklyn-class light cruisers wound up being a great bargain for the country.

Today the U.S. Navy and other maritime forces around the world grapple with tradeoffs as they design and build ships. Do we make this ship great at one thing (anti-submarine, anti-air, anti-surface, amphibious, etc), the admirals ask themselves, or try to make it adequate at a lot of things? While Nashville makes an argument for the latter, it is also a reminder that such capabilities do not come cheaply.

In all, the book is a fun read, and appealing especially to those of us for whom World War II is – or is becoming – relevant.

(This article is an update of a post originally published in The Golden West Review.)