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Liberty Ships: the Toyotas of WWII American Production
During the Second World War, it wasn't just manpower, overwhelming firepower, and cutting-edge tactics that saw the Allies to victory. More than anything else, the nail in the coffin for the Axis forces was raw, relentless production.

Liberty Ships: the Toyotas of WWII American Production

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We see this at work all over a WWII battlefield. Be it in with airplanes, tanks, and trucks, with soldier's rifles, war rations, or medical supplies. All these things and more, the United States provided in droves behind a total-war mass production campaign that dwarfs every other war effort in history.

But perhaps nowhere else was this emphasis on feverish production more prominent than on the water. This is the story of the Liberty Ships, the WWII cargo vessels the U.S. cranked out like Toyotas. Like a fully-loaded Tundra, these American ships were pretty amazing at hauling heavy loads.

The story of the American Liberty Ship is one of worldwide desperation and the awakening of a world superpower. One whose emergence from a national depression ensured the United States was ready to rain a torrent of punishment upon Germany, Japan, and their allies.

At least, that was the case after Pearl Harbor. In the early days of the war, particularly from the fall of France until late 1941, it was the United Kingdom alone fending a German blitz that was threatening to reduce major cities like London, Manchester, Glasgow, and so many others to rubble.

Though not yet involved directly in the combat in Europe or in Asia, the United States played a vital role in the war from afar. Under the Lend-Lease Act signed by President Franklin D Roosevelt, the United States used its far proximity from the bulk of the fighting and great swaths of land packed with factories from sea to shining sea to contribute to the Allied war effort. Saving Britain and Russia as well from the clutches of the German Wehrmacht in the process with the influx of fresh supplies.

In the docks and shipyards along America's coastal cities at this time, like Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, San Diego, and Los Angeles, a new class of cargo ship was being forged. In truth, the genesis of these ships had little to do with the war overseas. Rather, they were a result of the American Merchant Marine act of 1936, and meant to supplement an order of 60 Ocean-class cargo vessels already placed the United Kingdom regardless of what the Germans were up to. It was to derive much of its design cues from a ship devised by J.L. Thompson & Sons of Sunderland, England and modified to fit American standards. 

Under this act, purpose-built ocean cargo vessels operated by the newly founded U.S. Merchant Marines could be commandeered by the Navy or Marine Corps in times of war. The ships under construction were indeed based upon technology from the previous World War but would have a tremendous impact on the Second.

No fancy diesel engines to be found here, just old-fashioned steam power and a hearty crew. These large, powerful, and capable ships could haul hundreds of soldiers or civilians, dozens of Jeeps and trucks, tanks, airplanes, or nearly any military payload the Allied forces required.

As far as transcontinental ocean vessels were concerned, Liberty Ships couldn't have been simpler. With dimensions of 441 ft 6 in (134.57 m) in length with a 56 ft 10.75 in (17.3 m) beam, the ships were constructed with high-grade domestically produced riveted steel. Sourced from metal foundries in the American heartland like Bethlehem Steel near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Though choosing rivets instead of welds became a liability later in their service, the simplistic nature of their construction meant Liberty Ships could be mass-produced in numbers some modern boutique luxury car makers struggle to meet in the same time frame, and doing so cheaply as well. If it were possible to adjust Liberty Ship production to the scale of an economy car, we'd bet even Honda and Toyota would be impressed in hindsight.

Powering these beefy cargo ships was an engine with technology seemingly derived from an old steam trolley and then scaled up. Indeed, the triple-expansion steam piston engine with three separate chambers allowing for three stages of varying pressure was the ultimate form of steam-driven marine drivetrains.

From the perspective of the average gearhead, the inner workings of a Liberty Ship engine almost appear to use a similar formula as variable geometry turbochargers on modern sports cars. Like twin turbos, three chambers with variable water vapor pressures maximized power while, unlike a triple rotor Mazda engine, proving fairly reliable and efficient.

Though if we're going to reach for the comparison, it's worth noting the 140-ton engine alone on a Liberty Ship weighed as much as around 100 FD RX-7s. The more you know. With a range touching 20,000 nautical miles (37,000 km; 23,000 mi), there weren't too many places Liberty Ships couldn't reach.

The SS Patrick Henry, the first of the Liberty Ships, launched from Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland, in September 1941. Just in time to begin wartime service in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base attacks just three months later.

The Patrick Henry was the first of a flood of hundreds of ships leaving American ports each month in a clockwork-like manner from just before the American entry into the war until shortly after its conclusion. Though Liberty Ships and their Merchant Marine crews were never intended to be combat operatives, they found themselves perpetually in the crossfire of the aggressive German Navy and their fearsome U-boats.

Only once did a Liberty Ship, with its meager and often inconsistent defensive armament, emerge victorious over an Axis vessel on September 27th, 1942. On that day, the SS Stephen Hopkins engaged a single German auxiliary cruiser named the Stier off the coast of Suriname in the Caribbean Sea. Stephen Hopkin's single four-inch cannon started a fire aboard, killing soldiers and causing it to take on water.

The two vessels ultimately took each other to the bottom of the sea, taking 42 souls aboard the Stephen Hopkins. After the war, Liberty Ships were sold off to a slew of domestic and international business associates for a plethora of cargo hauling duties. But ultimately, the plucky ships that formed the backbone of American transcontinental logistics began to pile up in shipyards across America waiting to be scrapped.

Today, only four Liberty Ships remain. Two of which, the SS John W. Brown and the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, are fully mobile living museum ships. For how important they were to the Allied war effort, they serve as fitting tributes for a ship that was cheap like a Corolla but built tough as Ford trucks market themselves to be.

Check back soon for more from Sea Month here on autoevolution.


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