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What Were the Liberty Ships?

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  • Written By: Jacob Queen
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2014
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The liberty ships were mass-produced sea vessels created for the purposes of World War II (WWII). These were designed to carry cargo across the sea from the United States to Britain. The British came up with the idea for the liberty ships, and they were manufactured in the US. Certain design features allowed liberty ships to be built very rapidly, which made them an important strategic asset during WWII.

A common tactic in war is to disrupt the enemy’s ability to resupply, and this strategy has been used effectively since before the time of the Roman Empire. If soldiers run out of weaponry or food, they are generally unable to fight effectively. During WWII, the Germans were using their navy to carry out this strategy. They were sinking merchant ships constantly, and this was making life difficult for the Allies. The liberty ships were made with this problem in mind.

The key to the liberty ships was that they were very easy to make quickly. Engineers decided to try welding the parts together instead of using rivets, which was the accepted practice at the time. At first, there were a lot of failures, causing many of the ships to sink. Eventually, the ship makers found ways to deal with the aspects that weren’t working, and the ships became very practical. Many of the ship design methods used on the liberty ships became common in all naval building practices after the war.

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The ability to pump out so many ships so quickly was generally considered a significant advantage to the Allies during the war. No matter how many ships the German Navy managed to sink, they were never able to make a substantial dent in the Allied resupply effort. This meant that much of the German effort and resources spent trying to sink ships was essentially wasted since it failed to accomplish the task at hand.

Even though the British were primarily behind the concept for the ships, the US also built many for its own use. The ships were made so that they could carry tons or tonnes of supplies being brought over from the US, and this was beneficial to all countries involved. Liberty ships were operated by soldiers, and the ships had actual naval guns, which they used to defend themselves if attacked. There was even a case where liberty ship was able to sink a German ship during a sea battle.

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MaPa
Post 12

@Misscoco - I agree that the welding was a stroke of genius, but it must have been horrible in the beginning when they were still trying to get it right and the ships were breaking up at sea.

Can you imagine being assigned to go out on one of these things? Not only do you stand a decent chance of being sunk by a submarine or battleship, but then there's also a chance the ship will just break in half and sink to the bottom of the ocean.

I think I would have rather joined the Army and taken my chances on the battlefield.

Viktor13
Post 11

The Liberty Ships and those who sailed on them are really among the unsung heroes of World War II. Anyone who has studied military history or been an officer in the military can tell you, it's logistics and supplies that win wars. That's largely why the Nazis got stopped in Russia. The combination of the horrible winter plus being at the end of an incredibly long, difficult supply line.

The Allies could easily have ended up in the same position if they had not been able to keep the supplies coming across the ocean. These ships were a constant lifeline to the troops overseas. The number of men lost on them has to be astronomical, but they just kept building more and sending them across because they had no other choice. It was stop Hitler or forget about life as we know it.

This story, which a lot of people don't know and most schools don't teach, is one of the great historical tales of all time, and it is a big part of the reason that you are reading this site in English, not German.

BigManCar
Post 10

@allenJo - The Allies definitely went after the German navy, and even their famous U-boats were largely neutralized later in the war. It was a huge task, though.

I think that serving in the Navy has a reputation now as an "easy" branch of the military, because we haven't fought a major industrial nation since WWII. But tens of thousands of sailors died in WWII, a lot of them on merchant ships bringing supplies to Europe and the Pacific Islands. Some of the world's great naval battles were fought during that war. Don't forget, when a ship goes down it takes hundreds, or even thousands with it.

JaneAir
Post 9

@ceilingcat - Good point.

Anyone who is interested in the Liberty ships might be interested to hear where the name came from. Originally, a lot of people in the general public weren't wild about the Liberty ships. Apparently they weren't very "nice" looking compared to some other ships of the time period.

So, in an attempt to save the public image of the new ships, the government called the launch day "Liberty Fleet Day." President Roosevelt also talked about liberty in his speech that day. He discussed Patrick Henry's famous quote, "Give me liberty or give me death!" and said that we were going to help Europe gain liberty. Hence, the name Liberty ships!

ceilingcat
Post 8

I think one thing we're forgetting in discussing the Liberty ships are the people who manned them. The article mentions that the United States was able to make Liberty ships as fast as the German's could sink them, pretty much.

What about all the people that were on the ships that sank? I assume many of them died-permanently. You can't just "make" more people like you can ships.

So while it is great we were able to mass-produce ships like this in World War II, let's not forget the human cost here.

sweetPeas
Post 7

I presume when someone attends a military institute, among other things they learn about the strategies of war from ancient times to the present.

I think different versions of the same strategies have been used throughout history. The idea of stopping or slowing down the supply lines, including weapons, food and many other things, in order to defeat the enemy is crucial.

I think that the British knew what the Germans were trying to do, but just couldn't figure out a way to slow the destruction of their supply lines, until the idea of making the special Liberty Ships.

Misscoco
Post 6

Credit for the Liberty ships has to go to both the British and the Americans. Britain had a lot of experience in war throughout their history, so it's not surprising that they came up with the idea of the Liberty Ships.

But the Americans took the ball and ran. The ship- making engineers put their heads together and quickly came up with a plan.

It worked well and kept the Germans from interfering with the movement of supplies. It was amazing that the US took a chance on trying the faster technique of welding parts of the boat together instead of riveting. Since time was so important, it was a good thing that welding did work in the end. It helped to "save the day" for the allieds.

candyquilt
Post 5

@burcinc-- You're right, most of the liberty ships were in such good condition after the war, that a lot were made into cargo ships and continued to be used.

I think it was a couple of years ago that I heard one of the ex-liberty cargo ships finally gave up and sank.

I think the US role in WWII with the liberty ships is a huge one. Not only did we make them fast, too fast for the Germans to handle, but we also made them strong and durable enough to keep using for many years. Who else could have pulled this off?

Granted, the idea came from the Brits; but most of the Allies' liberty ships were made by the US like the article mentioned. So I think we deserve a lot of the due credit.

burcinc
Post 4

I've seen two liberty ships, one was the S.S. John W. Brown liberty ship which is in Baltimore, Maryland and the other S.S. Lane Victory in Los Angeles, California.

The amazing part about these liberty ships is how long they've been standing! I was surprised to read that when liberty ships started being produced, the goal was to have them standing through the war. So it was thought that they wouldn't last much more than seven or eight years at most.

John W. Brown was made in 1942 and Lane Victory in 1945! Of course, both have been through some restoration, but it still quite amazing to see how long they've been standing. And both are still open to the public, you can go and check them out! It's a really cool experience.

hamje32
Post 3

@Charred - I can’t imagine how many ships we must have lost in the war against the Germans, just figuring out how to build liberty ships that would withstand attacks and yet be made of strong enough material to be seaworthy vessels.

I mean in any new building endeavor, you have to build a lot of prototypes that don’t quite work the way you want them to, until you get to your final product.

I think we must have paid a high price in lives lost just learning to build those liberty ships in a way that they proved to be effective.

allenJo
Post 2

@Charred - If the war had been fought in more modern times, they would have used drone missiles to bomb the Germans.

At any rate, I believe the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. I think the Allies should have aggressively gone after the German ships in the same way, decimating their merchant marine ships.

Perhaps they did, I don’t know; I don’t gather that they did from the article, apart from the brief skirmish where the Allies downed a German ship.

Charred
Post 1

I’ve studied a little bit about the ancient art of war, and one of the most important tactical maneuvers is the ability to choke up the enemy’s supplies, just as the article says.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about ancient warfare where they were attacking food supplies or trying to stop up fresh water river streams, or modern warfare where they are going after merchant ships as in this example.

The principle is still the same, and it doesn’t surprise me that the Germans were smart enough to seize upon this tactic to their advantage in World War II. I’m glad that the Allies caught on, though.

I think if the war had been fought in even more modern times, they would have been able to create those new liberty ships a lot more quickly.

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