2016-12-23 / Community

A Window on the Past

Launching day in South Portland, August 1942
By Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society

The Ocean Gallant being towed to the outfitting pier at Todd-Bath Iron shipyard on August 16, 1942. (Courtesy photo) The Ocean Gallant being towed to the outfitting pier at Todd-Bath Iron shipyard on August 16, 1942. (Courtesy photo) This week’s Window on the Past looks at an amazing day in South Portland in 1942, captured in a photo housed at the Library of Congress. This photograph was taken by Albert Freeman on Aug. 16, 1942. That was an incredible day in our community. To put it in perspective, remember that the United States had formally entered World War II on the side of the Allies in December 1941, after having been attacked at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Now on this 16th day of August, just eight months later, our shipyards in South Portland took part in a massive one-day launch of cargo ships to supply the troops. From the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding yard (also known as the East Yard), shown here, we launched five of these large ocean ships for Great Britain. Over at the South Portland Shipbuilding yard (known as the West Yard), we launched a Liberty ship for the U.S. that day, as well – the S.S. Ethan Allen. Most of us can only imagine the thrill and pride of the workers at the shipyards, and the residents of South Portland, on this monumental day.

Many people ask how long it took to build an ocean or Liberty ship. There is no one answer to that, for it depended on how experienced the workers were (the average time decreased as the war progressed) and it also depended on how many workers they had working on one. Shipyards would sometimes have contests to see how fast they could build a Liberty ship and, if they were attempting to set a record time, they could allocate most of their workers toward the one ship. Under normal working conditions, though, and once we had been building these ships for a few years, the national average time to build one of these ships got down to about 40 days. Our average here in South Portland was a little longer, around 50 days, due in part to logistics problems with storage of steel plates, beams and other materials and the timing of the transportation to get the materials down to the yard when they were needed.

The ocean ship that is shown prominently in the photo here is the Ocean Gallant, being towed out of its basin. Behind it to the right is the Ocean Seaman. Also launched on this day from this yard were the Ocean Stranger, Ocean Traveler and Ocean Wayfarer. Two additional ships were also already under construction in another basin. The ships that were built at the East Yard were built in dry basins and, when ready for launch, the gates at the front of the basins were removed, water flooded in, and the ships could be christened and then towed out to the outfitting pier where the rest of their engines and machinery could be installed. Once the ships were out of the basins, workers would immediately put the gates back in, pump the water out of the basin, and start laying a keel for another ship.

Today, the former East Yard is now home to the Spring Point and Breakwater Marinas at the end of Broadway. The West Yard consisted of shipways built on filled land; the site of the West Yard was taken over and built upon after the war. It is now the site of the Gulf Oil Terminal on Front Street.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society.

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