Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 25: What Shall We Do with Our Merchant Fleet? (1946)

The first step is to have a look at this merchant marine of ours, this merchant fleet that seems loaded with so much economic—and political—dynamite.

The magnificence of our present fleet will shine a lot brighter if we show it against a backdrop of our prewar shipping situation.

This wasn’t a bad prewar fleet, but it was nothing for the greatest industrial country in the world to write home about. Only 16 percent of this fleet had been built in the fifteen years before the European e war broke out in September 1939. Ships amounting to 1,361,000 gross tons of it were still laid up by the end of 1939. (Gross tonnage is based on measurement of a ship’s cargo space and has, therefore, only an indirect relation to actual weight.) Obviously, the construction and operation of this fleet hardly opened up many jobs to American workers. Actually, there were in 1935 no more than 45,000 workers engaged in building all types of American ships. Manning those ships even at the peak of prewar operations were less than 75,000 men.

All told, this prewar American merchant fleet, owned and operated by American companies and manned by American seamen, carried but 25 to 30 percent of our foreign trade. The American ships in the coastal and intercoastal trades carried a scant fraction of the tonnage of competing coastal and transcontinental railroads.

The rest of the American foreign trade was carried by foreign shipowners, operating foreign ships. In 1939 as the following table makes clear, these foreigners had plenty of ships in which to haul the products we exported and imported.


Ranking Maritime Nations, 1939*

Self-Propelled Vessels over 1000 Gross Tons
*Estimated Size
CountryNo. of VesselsGross Tons
Great Britain3,04916,643,904
United States1,5898,572,090

What is our merchant marine today?

That was the relative position of the American merchant fleet before the war and before the colossal wartime building of new vessels.

Then we weren’t much. Now look at us. The war has greatly reduced the merchant marines of all the foreign nations engaged in it, while we have come to have almost 40 million gross tons—perhaps two-thirds of the world’s total tonnage. Naturally we have far outstripped everyone else.

The war wrought such destruction among the ships of foreign nations that even if we had built very few ships in the past four years we would probably have risen to the top-ranking position. But we did build, and build and build. So today the United States merchant fleet casts a colossal shadow over the whole maritime world. How far our new fleet outdistances our own prewar fleet will be made abundantly clear by comparing the table below with the one on page 5.

The U.S. Merchant Fleet, Dec. 1945*

Self-Propelled Vessels over 2,000 Gross Tons
*Estimated Size
Type of VesselNo. of VesselsGross Tons
Combined Freight and Passenger1501,563,000


As against 45,000 men working in our shipyards in 1935, there were 520,000 early in 1945. As against about 50,000 men working on our prewar ocean-going fleet in 1939, there were 210,000 sailors manning our wartime merchant fleet, early in 1945. These men and these ships were not only carrying practically all the United States commerce, but the bulk of the world’s commerce as well.

Where do we stand now?

This is the general over-all picture of the American merchant marine and the problem it presents to the United States and the world. Three things are clear:

  1. The United States was a poor second to Great Britain in maritime power before World War II.
  2. The United States, mostly through its own shipbuilding program, and partly because of the destruction, without adequate replacement, of other nations’ ships, has now become not only the foremost maritime power, but the overwhelming giant among shipping pygmies.
  3. This shift in position has created many touchy problems with international complications.

Naturally, the first question is: What are we going to do with our ships? We can’t answer that one, however, without looking somewhat more closely at the ships themselves.

What about the tankers?

In modern times, in peace as well as in war, tankers are probably our most valuable ships. They carry the gasoline and oil for our peacetime automobiles, buses, trucks, diesel-engined locomotives, farm tractors, and all other devices which use petroleum products for fuel. In wartime, tankers carry precious supplies for airplanes, tanks, trucks, field guns, and other ships as well. Tankers were the first ships to be attacked by German submarines, for the Germans as well as ourselves knew their value.

There was a time when our tankers were being sunk in Atlantic waters like sitting ducks. But, fast as they went down, we built new ones faster. So today, we have a far bigger fleet of tankers than ever. The question of their disposal, however, is not so complicated as for dry-cargo freighters.

There is only one practical way to dispose of the tankers—that is to sell them to the oil companies. These companies owned more than 90 percent of all American tankers before the war. They considered them just as much parts of their plants as their refineries and oil wells. Therefore, space on tankers was not available to all shippers, the way it was on dry-cargo ships or on the railroads. There were very few shipping companies that operated tankers; there may be even fewer in the postwar era if pipe lines gain in favor as carriers of petroleum and its products. Chiefly the oil companies are likely to be interested in the tankers; already they have bought some of the new ones which the government built during the war. Surplus tankers may be sold to foreign oil companies that suffered heavy losses during the war.

Thus while the tankers were an extremely important part of the United States merchant marine, they do not raise many questions about peacetime competition among nations for shipping business.

What about the Liberties?

The Liberty ships present an altogether different problem from that of the tankers. The new tankers are among the best ships money can buy. They are bigger, faster, and cheaper to operate than most prewar tankers. Since most of the oil companies lost practically all their tanker fleets in the early years of the war, they are eager to get and proud to own the new ones. But who wants the Liberties?

The Liberties have little to recommend them to peacetime liner companies. They are large, slow, powered with old-fashioned engines that use too much fuel. They were produced for the war, because they could be produced fist. When we started building the Liberties we needed ships as quickly as we could get them; it wasn’t a matter of up-to-date design, of speed or size or possible postwar uses. Construction of the Liberties was essentially a war measure, like construction of big guns, bombers, shells, machine guns, blockbusters, and all the rest of the equipment needed for modern war and useful almost exclusively for war. The Liberties cost a lot of money; they will be worth only a fraction of their cost to any competitive ship operator now that the war is over and the reconstruction period is getting under way. Because there are so many more of them than our operators can use, it is conceivable that, a few years after the war, we will actually have trouble giving them away! In that case, one of two things is likely to happen to the Liberties:

  1. The Liberties might be tied up in rivets and lakes and maintained in reasonably good condition as protection against any immediate shipping stringency if we get into another war. That is, they might be put aside and maintained in good shape for national security.
  2. They might be dismantled and sold for scrap.

Since the Liberties will return negligible sums as scrap, it is likely that most Liberties that can’t be disposed of to ship operators will be tied up for security purposes.

Victories and C-Types are the big problem

It has probably been a little easier to eliminate the tankers and Liberties from our discussion than to eliminate some of the difficult problems that will continue to be raised about them. Those problems will become increasingly acute, the more we try to get back on our investment, particularly in the Liberties. If we are content to write them off largely as a war expenditure, however, the problem will be less difficult.

The Victories and C-Types are a different matter altogether. The C-Type ships, designed in the late 1930’s as the vessels for a new American merchant marine, were already being sold to the subsidized operators when the outbreak of war produced an increased demand for them. These ships were built with care. Later, after the need for extreme speed in construction was met by the mass production of Liberties, we were able to reconsider the whole wartime and postwar shipping problem. We could then try to build with more of the future needs in mind. Thus, given war conditions and the difficulties they impose, we were trying to build as good ships as we could. The results are the Victories and still more the C-Types, nearly 8 million gross tons of them, capable of 14 to 18 knots an hour—really fine sea speed for freighters.

Where the Liberties were powered with reciprocating steam engines, old-fashioned, space-consuming, and expensive to fuel, the Victories were powered with efficient steam turbines. Moreover, the internal design of the Victories and C-Types was adapted to practical postwar uses. Their cargo arrangements are of the best type, their living quarters for the crew, their galleys, and all the rest of their equipment are up to the high American standard and above European standards in prewar ships.

There will be a big demand for the Victories and C-Types, both from American and foreign ship operators. How to meet the demand fairly is the problem.

Next section: What Could We Do with Our Present Fleet?