The World's Busiest Shipyard

By Yellis, Ken | America in WWII, February 2014 | Go to article overview

The World's Busiest Shipyard


Yellis, Ken, America in WWII


America needed a lot of big ships fast to battle powerful enemy navies. The Brooklyn Navy Yard hummed day and night to build them.

IT WAS A TOUGH JOB, working at the New York Navy Yard--better known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard--during World War II. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Workers hardly got a break. Solomon Brodsky, a packer in the yard's vast supply depot, remembered those years. "There were days I felt like a zombie," he recalled. "You work; there was a war. I had my kid brother in the war. So you feel like you're working for him."

It was much easier to see what the yard did than to see what was done to the yard to make it all happen. But a tremendous effort had been required to transform the aging facility into the nation's greatest warship manufacturer.

Its dramatic facelift symbolized the stunning prewar expansion of American shipbuilding facilities, the necessary first step in the creation of the nation's mighty two-ocean navy.

The United States Navy had entered World War II unprepared for a global fight and then was severely weakened by Japan's December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. But it did have a system of shipyards scattered from the Central Pacific to the East Coast. Led by the Brooklyn yard, these facilities raced to produce massive battleships and aircraft carriers capable of ruling a new age of naval warfare.

The story of the Brooklyn Navy Yard begins in 1801, when President John Adams established five naval shipyards on the young nation's East Coast. The Brooklyn yard was one of them. Six decades later, early in the Civil War, it made its name when it turned out the Union ironclad Monitor in time to halt a rampage by the Confederacy's Virginia through the otherwise wooden Union navy.

But the yard's location on Wallabout Bay, on Brooklyn's side of the East River, became a problem. Building bigger, more modern ships meant expanding facilities into the quicksand-bottomed bay. Every effort to enlarge the yard and increase its production capacity proved nearly impossible. The completion of the first dry dock (DD1) in 1851 was a triumph of engineering and architectural insight. The same cannot be said of DD2 (1890) and DD3 (1897), which were rebuilt, relined, and renovated several times over subsequent decades. The most troublesome of all was DD4, whose agonizing construction on unstable soil cost 20 lives.

By the mid-1930s, the looming prospect of war in Europe and the Far East had sparked an American shipbuilding boom. Recognizing that post-World War I neglect had left the US Navy ill-equipped for what might lie ahead, President Franklin Roosevelt set out to supply it with the brawnier battleships and state-of-the-art aircraft carriers required by modern sea powers. As a former assistant secretary of the navy, Roosevelt realized that the effort required modernization, expansion, and upgrading of the naval infrastructure.

To oversee the project, Roosevelt chose Ben Moreell, now best remembered as the Father of the Seabees (the navy's construction battalions--CBs). The two men had met during World War I when Moreell was a young lieutenant in the navy's Civil Engineer Corps stationed in the Azores. In the 1920s, the navy sent Moreell to the world's oldest engineering school, Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees in Paris, to study European military engineering design and construction practices. On his return to the states, he was put in charge of planning for the David Taylor Model Basin, a new ship-design testing facility to be built outside Bethesda, Maryland. Roosevelt promoted Moreell to rear admiral in 1937 and chose him over more senior officers to serve as chief of the navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks and of the Civil Engineer Corps.

Under Moreell's watch, navy yards in the Hawaiian Islands were upgraded and two giant dry docks were constructed at Pearl Harbor. Similar work was done at Midway Atoll and Wake Island. …

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