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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Victory Ships

In 1943, the U.S. Maritime Commission embarked on a program to design new types of emergency fleet ships, most importantly fast cargo vessels, to replace the slower Liberty ships. The standardized design adopted by the Commission called for a ship 445 feet long by 63 feet wide and made of steel. On April 28, 1943, the new ships were given the name "Victory" and designated the VC2 type (V for Victory type, C for cargo, and 2 for a medium sized ship between 400 and 450 feet long at the waterline).

The Victory ships ultimately were slightly over 455 feet long and 62 feet wide. Like the Liberty ships, each had five cargo holds, three forward and two aft. The Victories could carry 10,850 deadweight tons (the weight of cargo a ship can carry) or 4,555 net tons (the amount of space available for cargo and passengers), a larger load than the Liberties could manage. Victory ships typically carried a crew of 62 civilian merchant sailors and 28 naval personnel to operate defensive guns and communications equipment. The crew quarters were located amidships. The Victory ships were different from the Liberty ships primarily in propulsion, the steam engine of the Liberty giving way to the more modern, faster steam turbine. The Victory ships had engines producing between 5,500 to 8,500 horsepower. Their cruising speed was 15-17 knots (approximately 18.5 miles per hour).

The ship profile and the construction techniques of the Victories were also different from the Liberties. One important feature of the Victory ship was in the internal design of the hull, the ship's framework. The Liberty ships had the frames inside the hull set 30 inches apart. This made the hull very rigid. This rigidity caused the hull to fracture in some of the ships. The Victory ships had their hull frames set 36 inches apart. Because the hull could flex, there was less danger of fracture.

The first Victory ship completed was the SS United Victory (built at Oregon Shipbuilding, Portland, OR), launched on January 12, 1944 and delivered February 28. The next 33 ships were named after member countries of the United Nations (e.g., SS Brazil Victory and SS U.S.S.R. Victory [both built by California Shipbuilding Corporation, Los Angeles, CA], and SS Haiti Victory [built by Permanente Metals Corporation, yard 1, Richmond, CA]). The ships that followed were named for cities and towns in the United States (e.g., SS Ames Victory [built by Oregon Shipbuilding], SS Las Vegas Victory [built by Permanente Metals Corporation, yard 1] and SS Zanesville Victory [built by Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards, Inc., Baltimore, MD]) and for American colleges and universities (e.g., SS Adelphi Victory and SS Yale Victory [both built by Permanente Metals Corporation, yard 2]). All of the ships' names ended with the suffix "Victory" with the exception of the 117 Victory Attack Transports that were named after state counties. The Maritime Commission built 414 Victory cargo ships and 117 Victory attack transports for a total of 531 vessels during the course of the war.

Victory ships formed a critical maritime link to the theaters of war. These fast, large capacity carriers served honorably in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. Ninety-seven of the Victories were fitted out as troop carriers; the others carried food, fuel, ammunition, material and supplies.

At the war's end a number of Victory ships were offered for sale by the Maritime Commission. One hundred and seventy were sold, 20 were loaned to the U.S. Army and the rest were stored as part of the reserve fleet. When the Navy no longer needs to use a ship but wishes to reserve it for a future emergency, it tows the ship to storage harbors, empties it of all fuel and cargo, and seals its windows and doors. The ship is protected from salt-water corrosion by a cathodic protection system and the interior spaces are dehumidified. This technique is called "mothballing," because it echoes how people preserve a wool sweater that is put away for the summer.

Some vessels were reactivated to serve during times of national crisis, including the Korean War, the Suez Canal closure of 1956 and the Vietnam War. Other vessels were retained as logistic support ships as part of the Military Sealift Command, which in 1970 became the single managing agency for the Department of Defense's ocean transportation needs. The command assumed responsibility for providing sealift and ocean transportation for all military services as well as for other government agencies. In 1959, eight Victory ships were reclassified and refitted as instrumentation, telemetry, and recovery ships for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in support of America's space program. On August 11, 1960, the former SS Haiti Victory (renamed the USNS Haiti Victory (T-AK-238)) recovered the nose cone of the satellite Discoverer XIII, the first man-made object recovered from space.

Over the years, many ships in the reserve fleet have been sold for scrap, their metal to be recycled. Of the thousands of Liberty ships and Victory ships produced only a small number remain.

Questions for Reading 2

1. When and why did the Maritime Commission start a new program to replace the Liberty ships?

2. How were the Victory ships different from Liberty ships?

3. How were the Victory ships named?

4. What is "mothballing"?

5. Describe the ways the Victory ships were used after World War II.

6. Why are there so few Liberty and Victory ships today?

Reading 2 was compiled from James P. Delgado, "Lane Victory" (Los Angeles County, California) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990); Shelby Sampson, "SS Red Oak Victory" (Contra Costa County, California) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000); L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell, Victory Ships and Tankers (Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles Publishers, 1974); and Timothy J. Teahan and Barbara E. Mattick, "SS American Victory" (Hillsborough County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001).

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