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Pride Of The Seas
Nineteenth-century American courage and resourcefulness carried our merchant flag to the world's harbors and our nation to world prominence. The proud affection of a sea-conscious nation is reflected in our portfolio of ships by artists of three continents. Our essay, by C. Bradford Mitchell, former editor of Steamboat Bill and information director of the Merchant Marine Institute, charts the curious historic twists of public attitude and official policy that have alternately fostered and stunted our merchant navy.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
Also on hand when we entered the war were thirty seized German vessels, one of which was the mighty Leviathan. Originally built as the Vaterland, she became one of the best-loved ships (and still the largest) ever to fly the stars and stripes during two decades as troop transport and United States Lines flagship.
The Shipping Board’s immediate postwar mission was to get all these ships into private hands or to operate them itself, as the nation’s commercial interest might dictate. In doing this, it took a century-old leaf from the book of the Black Ball Line. By 1914, the cargo liner—a freighter operating “full or not full” on a fixed schedule over a fixed route—dominated world shipping. Now the board and Congress evolved the concept of “essential trade routes” and the principle that government tonnage be disposed of to private operators who would maintain liner service on specified essential routes for five years. By 1933, twenty-seven passenger ships and 218 freighters had been thus sold to twenty-one companies.
During this period—in 1916, 1920, and 1928—Congress enacted a series of comprehensive laws to stimulate, aid, and regulate the merchant marine. Despite past experience, it retained mail subsidies as the chief form of assistance offered, even adding a mileage formula that proved intricate, probably unreliable, and certainly unworkable. Senate realization of this led to the celebrated hearings held by future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in 1933 and 1934. While these disclosed few irregularities so serious as to warrant contract termination, they did bring the mail subsidies into disrepute, and Black’s committee recommended scrapping the entire system.
The 1920 and 1928 acts also sought to avert the worst consequence of any crash shipbuilding program, “block obsolescence,” by setting up construction loan funds to encourage replacement of ships before the entire war-built fleet wore out at once. While this fell far short of its objective, it did bring into being a series of two-stacked passenger liners, notably the Manhattan and the Washington, the first crack U.S.-built Atlantic liners since 1895; the President Hoover and the President Coolidge, America’s largest Pacific liners; and the Panama Pacific triplets, the California, the Pennsylvania, and the Virginia.
The 1930s brought depression and, for the merchant marine, ominous signs of its customary slide toward public oblivion. But for once an alert administration and Congress countered the trend with what is still the century’s landmark shipping law, the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. Dropping the euphemisms of mail pay and construction loans, they faced up to the fact that the chief burden for American shipowners and shipbuilders was the cost differential (chiefly wages) between operation and construction here and abroad. The act frankly provided for direct subsidy payments in the amount of this differential to owners and builders. Operating subsidy was also tied to the essential-trade-route concept, creating primarily another liner-assistance act. A Maritime Commission was created to administer the new arrangements.
The commission promptly entered into operating-subsidy contracts with a number of lines serving essential trade routes. Its architects developed a series of standard designs, notably the C1, C2, and C3 types, dry-cargo ships graduated in size up to 10,000 deadweight tons. Operators were urged to begin renewing their fleets with these types. But before this program could get well under way, Europe was at war, and despite our neutrality acts, the United States was clearly headed for a shipping and shipbuilding crisis that would dwarf anything that had gone before.
Under its chairman, Emory S. Land, the Maritime Commission began expanding the nation’s shipyard capacity, and had production well under way several months before Pearl Harbor. It was none too soon. The art of ship-slaughter by submarine reached its peak in 1942, and there were times that year when the collapse of the Allied supply system was avoided only by the infinitesimally widening margin between German sinkings and American launchings.
At first the emphasis was on the Liberty ship, a standardized 10,000-ton vessel propelled by already old-fashioned triple-expansion steam engines at ten knots, barely fast enough for convoy operation. More than 2,700 of these were built. Later came about 400 Victory ships, also an emergency type, but with turbines and speeds of sixteen knots. Some 700 fast 16,000-ton T2 tankers were of vital strategic value. Through it all, with a foresight unknown in earlier regimes, the Maritime Commission continued its “long-range” program and completed 540 C-type ships, the only ones that would be modern and sophisticated enough to meet postwar liner requirements. In all, just under 5,800 merchant ships were delivered, at a cost upwards of fifteen billion dollars.