By Ginny McPartland
Before daybreak on June 6, 1944, 70 years ago this month, the biggest amphibious invasion force in history converged in the English Channel a few miles off the coast of France.
The news that the Allied Forces had finally marshaled a massive conglomeration of men, equipment and warships was thrilling for everyone in Hitler-occupied Europe and for every American.
All eyes, ears and hearts were focused on those five beaches of Normandy – codenamed Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword – where the Allies would land and ultimately take back Europe from Hitler’s four-year Nazi stranglehold.
The long-awaited report of the Allied attack was especially thrilling for shipyard workers who had been turning out thousands of ships deemed necessary to defeat the Axis powers in Europe and Asia.
Kaiser shipyards play role in massive D-Day thrust
Since 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, Henry J. Kaiser’s West Coast shipyards had been producing ships in record numbers (through the U.S. Maritime Commission) for the Merchant Marine, whose sailors manned most of the Liberty supply ships, and for the U.S. Navy and British Navy.
The D-Day landings in Normandy were in large part the culmination of the Herculean effort of the United States to “out-produce” the Germans and Japanese and thus outlast them and win the already long and exceedingly bloody world war.
“Overwhelming Allied might was slowly reducing the Germans ability to strike,” wrote a U.S. Navy historian in the history of the Naval Armed Guard, whose members rode aboard to protect civilian merchant ships.
Penny Price, an electrician at the World War II Kaiser Richmond shipyards, says Americans understood the urgency of the Home Front war production:
“The government said they wanted foil to break communications; they wanted rubber, so the women donated their girdles . . . I don’t care what they wanted, they got it in cards and spades.
“The Germans were not fools (but). . . We had the most ships. We had the most planes. We had the most weapons because we out-produced them at home. They (the government) said ‘we need ships’ and we’re turning them out one a day.”
Home Front workers crave news of ships
On D-Day in Europe, Kaiser shipyard workers – like everyone else – were glued to the radio to hear the latest progress reports. The ships the men and women built didn’t just drop out of mind after they slid down the way and sailed into the fray to points around the world.
The shipyard population was hungry for any bit of news of the fate of the ships they launched. The Richmond shipyards weekly newsletter, Fore ‘N ‘Aft, carried a series of articles about where the ships were engaged.
“What Happens to Our Ships” was published April 14, 1944, just two months before D-Day. An anonymous writer/cook on the Liberty ship SS Robert E. Peary’s maiden voyage in 1942 wrote:
“On all of the seven seas, in all of the great offensives we have opened, Liberty ships have written indelible chapters into the saga of the present global conflict. Many of those Liberty ships were constructed in (Richmond Kaiser) Yards One and Two.”
Fastest-built Liberty sails the world
The SS Robert E. Peary was celebrated at its launch in November 1942 because workers had built it in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes – setting a record as the fastest ship ever built.
Henry Kaiser took on a reporter’s challenge for the Richmond yards to beat the record Oregon shipyards workers had set in the 10-day construction of the Liberty ship SS Joseph N. Teal in September.
The SS Peary had participated in many battles in all theaters of the war by the time it got to France in June 1944. The Peary crew rescued American soldiers trapped near the beach of a Pacific island held by the Japanese in 1943, and in 1944 the ship headed to England where it carried men and equipment from Cardiff (Wales) to Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944.
Other Kaiser-built Liberty ships that took part in the massive D-Day invasion and subsequent missions in the English Channel included these four Richmond-built Liberty ships:
- The SS Joaquin Miller, the first Liberty ship to arrive in London in preparation for the Normandy attack;
- The SS J.D. Ross, recipient of a battle star for its part in the Normandy operation;
- The SS William Burnham, which was torpedoed by a German submarine in the English Channel losing 10 crew members and 8 Armed Guards; and
- The SS H.D. Blasdel, which was torpedoed by a German submarine in the English Channel. Seventy-six U.S. Army personnel died in the attack and the ship had to be scrapped. The Blasdel was carrying troops, tanks, trucks, jeeps and other mechanized equipment and was on its way to Utah Beach.
Three Liberties built in Kaiser’s Oregon shipyards were also there:
- The SS Cyrus McCormick, which was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of North Wales and lost 17 crew members and 12 members of the Armed Guard;
- The SS David Starr Jordan, which was bombed and strafed by German aircraft; and
- The SS Sambut, which was shelled and sunk in the Straits of Dover on June 6, 1944.
Keep building more ships
Many more bloody battles were yet to be fought before the Russians reached Berlin in May 1945 and Germany subsequently surrendered. In the Pacific Theater, Allied Forces would plot more D-Days to invade Pacific islands fiercely defended by the Japanese – Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa – before the war could finally end in August 1945.
Days in the shipyards were charged with excitement in June 1944 as workers realized their sustained hard and speedy work was turning the tide of the war. But their work had to continue to supply ships for the brutal battle for the Pacific.
A “Fore ‘N ‘Aft” writer put it this way: “It’s this: the faster and better we build our ships, the quicker these sons of guns will get back to their girlfriends or their wives and kids. That’s the truth.”