By late 1940, even before the United States entered World War II, the U.S was engaging in “defense preparations” with an eye toward the war raging in Europe. The Neutrality Act of 1939 forbade U.S.-flag ships from entering the war zone, which included British waters; however, with Britain the last major Western European power standing against Germany, the Roosevelt administration began looking for ways to help support Britain without formally entering the war.
During the winter of 1940-1941, German U-boats and commerce raiders were exacting heavy tolls on British merchant shipping with vessels being lost faster than British shipyards could launch replacements. To alleviate some of this pressure and to secure replacement vessels quickly, a British trade mission traveled to the United States to establish a construction program in American shipyards; however, established U.S. yards were already at full capacity producing vessels for the Maritime Commission’s long-range shipbuilding program and for the U.S. Navy. This shortfall in capacity drove American shipbuilders and the British merchant marine to establish new emergency yards and slipways, a precursor to the much larger expansion of shipbuilding capacity by U.S. authorities early in 1941.
The British trade mission initially secured an agreement with private shipbuilders to build 60 vessels in concert with the Maritime Commission’s efforts. Because the finely-made gears that the Maritime Commission required to power the new high-powered and fast steam turbines of its “C”-type ships were in short supply, and because speed-of-construction was paramount, it based the design of these new ships on an existing, slower, coal-fired triple-expansion steam engine. These vessels were christened the Ocean class.
Before construction of the British ships could even begin, on January 3, 1941, President Roosevelt announced that the United States, in addition to its existing shipbuilding commitments, would produce an additional 200 vessels. In order to act as quickly as possible, and because rough plans were already available, the Maritime Commission decided to base the design of these “emergency” vessels on the Ocean class ships. The American version of the ship, initially referred to by President Roosevelt himself as “ugly ducklings,” were oil-fired, and crew accommodations were moved to a single house amidships, as had been the case for other Commission-designed ships. Later called “EC2s” (“emergency” ships that were approximately the same size as a standard C2 cargo ship), and then “Liberty Ships,” these ugly ducklings became a rapidly increasing part of the Commission’s construction program, especially after the United States formally entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
This 200-ship expansion was the first of five over the next several years; as the nation officially entered the war, the U.S. Maritime Commission’s Long Range Shipbuilding Program was eclipsed by the much larger Emergency Shipbuilding Program. By 1945, the commission had built over 6,000 vessels, including over 2,600 Liberty Ships.