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Remember When: Stepped-Up Shipbuilding Effort During World War II Played Role in Victory


Throughout American history, private ships have been used in times of conflict.

This first use occurred on June 12, 1775, at Machias, Maine, when a group of American colonists captured the British ship HMS Margaretta after hearing of the uprisings at Lexington and Concord. When informed of this event, the Continental Congress and a number of colonies issued letters of marque to privateers to disrupt British supply lines and aid the colonists fighting for freedom from British rule.

This was the beginning of the United States Merchant Marine. The event occurred prior to the founding of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1790 and the U.S. Navy in 1797.

During the Civil War, one of the first measures taken by the North was the blockade of the Southern ports. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Navy had only a few dozen ships. This was not enough for the blockade,so they commandeered 600 vessels and their crews from the Merchant Marine. During the war, these ships were used not only for the blockade but to carry supplies for the North.

In World War I, merchant ships were used for the transport of men and goods to Europe. Initially, they sustained heavy losses from submarine attacks. This resulted in the development of the convoy system in which groups of ships traveled together under the protection of armed Navy destroyers.

Following World War I, many of the owners of America’s Merchant Marine fleet did not keep up with the latest technology. This was true for both cargo and passenger vessels. By the 1930s, the size of the fleet had decreased, and many of the remaining vessels were slow and in need of repair.

The government, aware of this and its dependence on ships both for commerce and during times of conflict, passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. The stated purpose of the act was “to further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well-balanced American Merchant Marine, to promote the commerce of the United States, to aid in the national defense.”

The measure also stipulated that the Merchant Marine should consist of the “best-equipped, safest and most suitable types of vessels.”

The act served as an impetus for the shipbuilding industry. However, it was the approach of World War II that provided the incentive for ship construction on a large scale. Among the first ships constructed were types known as Liberty ships. This design lent itself to mass production techniques. In a few short years, 2,710 Liberty ships were produced. These ships performed their task well but did not have a very attractive appearance and often were referred to as “the ugly ducklings.”

In 1943, the U.S. began a new shipbuilding program with a design that was larger, faster and capable of carrying more cargo. These ships were known as Victory ships. They also could be readily adapted for commercial use after cessation of hostilities. The first Victory ship, the SS United Victory, was launched on Feb. 28, 1944, in Portland, Ore.

A total of 534 Victory ships were produced between 1944 and the end of the war. The first 34 vessels were named after Allied countries, the next 218 ships were named after American cities, and the next 150 ships were named after educational institutions.

A book written by Mark S. Gleeson of Oakmont, “The Life and Times of the SS Westminster Victory,” tells the story of the American Merchant Marine during World War II.

Gleeson joined the Maritime Service in June 1945 and served until April 1946. He later graduated from Westminster College in 1949 with a degree in biology. Gleeson chose the SS Westminster Victory as the focus of his story because it was named for his alma mater.

In February 1945, Westminster College was notified by the United States Maritime Commission that one of the Victory ships currently under construction was to be named the Westminster Victory. The college was being honored because it was one of the 40 oldest educational institutions in the United States. The SS Westminster Victory was launched on March 13, 1943, at the Oregon Shipbuilding Corp. in Portland.

In addition to a crew of 49 men, the Navy placed 12 Naval Armed Guard personnel on board to man the guns. The ship was equipped with a 3-inch cannon forward and a 5-inch cannon aft, as well as four 20 mm cannons.

The Westminster Victory made 13 trips during the war. On its first voyage, it carried a cargo of lumber from Portland to Honolulu and then returned to Norfolk, Va. The remaining 12 voyages were devoted to troop transport.

The ship was converted from a cargo ship to a troop transport ship in the summer of 1945. The second voyage of the SS Westminster Victory occurred on Oct. 16, 1945. It carried 800 troops from Norfolk to the Port of Marseille, France.

The afternoon of its arrival, 800 troops boarded for the return trip home. The following morning before setting sail, an additional 1,133 troops came aboard. The ship was overloaded, but this was overlooked because the troops were anxious to return home. The ship arrived in Boston on Nov. 7, 1943. The next eight voyages involved troop movements between Europe and the United States.

With the war winding down in Europe, the Westminster Victory was assigned to the Pacific theater. Its remaining three voyages went to Hawaii, the Philippines, Korea and Japan, taking new troops for the war effort and returning troops home to San Francisco.

During the four-year period of World War II, more than 5,773 ships were constructed in the U.S. The American shipyards were capable of producing a Liberty ship in as few as four and a half days.

After the war, the United States Maritime Commission decided to sell many of its ships. The price was based on condition. In 1947, the Westminster Victory was sold to the Compagnie Maritime Belge Lloyd Royal in Antwerp, Belgium, for just over $1 million. The ship was renamed Steenstraete after a small town in Southwest Belgium.

The Westminster Victory later was sold to a Chinese shipping company and was renamed the Hongkong Amber. It eventually was sold to another Chinese shipping company that pioneered the use of 20-foot containers for the shipping of cargo. In 1973, the Westminster Victory was sold for scrap in Taiwan.

“The Life and Times of the SS Westminster Victory” contains many stories about the ship, its crew and its many voyages. Proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Westminster College. Copies are available at the Westminster College Campus Store at McKelvey Campus Center, New Wilmington, PA 16172 or by calling 724-946-7216.

On Nov. 9, 2015, Gleeson was the guest speaker for Westminster College’s Veterans Day Program. At that time, he presented a large-scale model of the SS Westminster Victory to the college, where it currently is displayed in the foyer of the Orr Auditorium.

Gleeson is a regular contributor to the Merchant Marine Veterans Magazine.

“Never again will the world see such a fleet of ships,” Gleeson said. “Never again will the world see the likes of the men who sailed them.”

Source : Trib Life

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