Portland Harbor has a deep channel and is naturally sheltered by the myriad islands reaching to the sea. In the early 1600s, Portland originally was part of the town of Falmouth, along with present day Falmouth, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, and Westbrook. In 1786, this neck of land separated from Falmouth to form the new town of Portland. Overlooking what has been called one of the best and most beautiful harbors on the eastern seaboard, Portland, nee Falmouth, prospered as a maritime center, supplying timber, fish, and ice to world ports, and importing household necessities from England, agricultural goods from the colonies, and rum from the West Indies. In the years before the Revolution, she supplied masts to the British Royal Navy, shipping out 1,046 masts to England, averaging over three tons a piece, between 1768 and 1772. By the mid-1700s Falmouth was also building ships, sometimes loading them up with lumber or fish, and upon their arrival, selling both ships and cargo. Lumber was a most plentiful resource, and lumber mills were set up near the port so as to facilitate the loading of timber, barrel staves, and masts.
In view of this history, it is hardly surprising that Portland Harbor became a prominent shipbuilding port during World War II. Many who did not serve in the military, or who were too young to do so, chose to serve the country by working in these shipyards, located across the bay in South Portland. It is a very short distance as the crow flies from the Portland waterfront where we lived to the South Portland shipyards. I still remember the shipyard whistle and men and women walking to bus stops, dressed in work clothes and carrying black dinner pails. For a time, my grandfather Young was one of them.
Prior to the United States’ entry into the war, Maine had a contract with the British government for 60 cargo ships. Thirty of these British ships were built between December 1941 and October 1942 in South Portland’s East Yard. After that time,
production switched to American ships only. In addition, while British ships were being launched from the East Yard, the U.S. Merchant Marines were overseeing the building of the West Yard that faced Portland. Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation owned the East Yard from December 1940 until April 1,1943; South Portland Shipbuilding Corporation owned the West Yard from the spring of 1941 until April 1,1943. On April 1,1943, the two yards were combined to form the New England Shipbuilding Corporation, which continued operation until the end of the war.
The East Yard built its ships in seven basins near the harbor. The basin ends were sealed, and when a ship was completed, the seal was opened up, seawater came in, and the ship floated out. When a ship built in the West Yard was ready to go, it was slipped directly into the deep harbor. Over the course of the construction of the West Yard, all the land between the two yards was filled in. The Cushings Point neighborhood of historic homes was nearly obliterated. Most of these homes were either torn down or relocated, with only a few selected for use by the shipyard. This landfill operated on a continual basis day and night for many months. People were given very short notice that their homes were being taken by eminent domain, and were paid perhaps $1,000. Most bought other homes on adjacent streets and neighborhoods, choosing to remain in their beloved community of South Portland.
From November 1942 to June 1945, 235 cargo ships were built in these yards in South Portland. These ships, called Liberty ships, were EC2-type ships, designed for emergency construction by the U.S. government. They carried crews of 44 with 12 to 25 Naval Armed Guards. There were a total of 2,751 Liberty ships, mass produced from 250,000 parts,
prefabricated in 250-ton sections and welded together in about 70 days. The ships were built in 18 ports around the country by the U.S. Maritime Commission, and South Portland was one of those ports. The cargo from South Portland included boxed tanks, other military supplies, and troops. Two hundred of the Liberty ships ultimately were lost to torpedoes, explosions, Kamakazes, and other disasters.
At their peak, the yards employed 30,000, including 3,047 women, three shifts, 24 hours a day. Many enlisted or were drafted and left the yards, and their places were filled with new workers, so that many more than 30,000 actually were employed there over the duration of the war. Recently during an oral history project at the South Portland Historical Museum, some shipyard employees of the time reported that there were workers as young as 16, working during their summer or spring vacations. The pay was good, and even a week’s work provided for their needs for many months. Most workers were from the Portland and South Portland area, but it is reported that many were from further away in towns all over the state and region. They might drive 30 or 40 miles each day to work, riding together or paying someone to transport them.
Some boarded in nearby rooming houses. Women operated these rooming houses, providing clean beds and three meals a day, including filling the dinner pails that workers carried to the yards. One woman reported that as a small child she carried out chores that helped keep their rooming house clean and functional, taking care of details that made a pleasant experience for their guests and at the same time eased her mother’s workload. This activity gave children the knowledge that they were part of something very big, and they were doing their part. It was here, she said, that patriotism began in her heart, and it was the time that made America great. Other government housing was built in South Portland for shipyard workers and their families. Most of that housing has long since been torn down, but one, Redbank Village, was somewhat set apart from the rest of wartime housing and remains a vibrant community today. My Uncle Larry and his family lived there for a time after the war.
These workers were very proud of their skills and the contributions they made to the war effort, as well as the sense of community they experienced. They had pride in knowing that a specific ship had their own mark, so to speak. They were fully trained and after the war were able to use these skills in peacetime employment or for the military. Hourly wages ran from 35 cents to as much as $1.20 cents an hour, considered very good at that time. A not so incidental fact was that shipyard employment enabled families to have money in their pockets and in bank accounts, providing a higher standard of living in an otherwise depressed economy. The irony was that there were few products to buy with that money. One worker commented, “We had money but no place to spend it.” The building of automobiles, furniture, and appliances would have to wait ‘til the war was over. Food was rationed. The upside was that bond rallies were held at the shipyards; when the whistle blew, all stopped work and were given the pitch to buy War Bonds, often by celebrities. These bonds increased in value to the extent that those who put their money into War Bonds were able to buy homes and cars after the war.
The skills and work ethic that built the Liberty ships were quite remarkable. To think that more than 30,000 men and women built 265 ocean ships over a four-year period is astonishing.
The reason these shipyards were so vital to Allied success was that a battle was being waged in the North Atlantic during the years between 1939 and 1945; it was the Battle of the Atlantic. Germany had developed a strategy to bring down Britain by cutting off communication and supplies. The enemy operated from every Atlantic port in Europe and in 1942 moved the battle westward toward North America. The following passages are excerpted from the Veterans Affairs Canada Website:
“By the spring of 1941, they (German U-boats) were sinking merchant ships faster than they could be replaced.” And, “Early in 1942 the battle of the Atlantic shifted to the North American seaboard. The enemy destroyed coastal shipping from the Caribbean to Halifax, and even penetrated the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The German attacks were devastatingly successful and more than 200 ships, mostly tankers, were sunk within ten miles of the Canadian or American coastlines.”
“Bridging the Atlantic was the key to strategic supply. To transport as much as possible – goods and men – it was necessary to organize and control ship movements and protect ships from enemy attack. Therefore, convoys were formed to regulate ship movements and more effectively provide escorts both by sea and air.”
Canadian navy and airmen worked tirelessly in and over the dangerous and frigid waters of the north Atlantic to protect convoys from attack by German submarines, and many ships and men perished in these cold and dangerous conditions. From 1941 onward, cargo to Britain had to pass through the waters north of Ireland and through the Irish sea.
“Rear Admiral Murray was given direct command of that sector of the Atlantic bounded by a line running eastward from New York and southward from Greenland along the meridian of 47 degrees west.”
“The Atlantic battle continued until the end of the war. At times, notably in the fall of 1943 and of 1944, it turned dangerous again. U-boats with new equipment such as the acoustic torpedo and the schnorkel, which allowed air to be drawn into a submarine under the water and exhaust fumes to be expelled, swung the balance back to the submarines for a time. By March 1945, the German navy had 463 U-boats on patrol, compared to 27 in 1939.”
These facts put the Battle of the Atlantic dangerously close to New England, and it most assuredly included Portland Harbor, given the fact of its shipbuilding activity. It also lends an entirely different light on my grandfather’s merchant marine service, and indeed on the vital shipbuilding industry in the northeast. The role the Liberty ships played, in convoys from Oregon and California, and from Texas, Florida, Georgia and New England, leaves one ever grateful to the bravery and persistence of the Royal Canadian Navy and Air Force, as well as to our own Merchant Marines and civilian shipbuilders.
Although I was too young to know, people in the area were aware that German U-boats were lying off the coast. It was an extremely uneasy time, and I am grateful to my mother for taking good care of us and from shielding us from the war as much as possible. It could not have been easy for her with such scarce resources and no husband. My grandparents and other relatives played their part in the war effort and in taking care of us children. I think of the contrast between the Battle of the Atlantic only a few short miles away and my sweet life in Portland, and there is no way I can adequately express my gratitude. We are alive now and have children and grandchildren because of their patriotism and protection.
Liberty Ship Sculptural Replica (Photo credit: J.D.Adrian)
“Build me straight, O worthy Master!
Stanch and strong, a goodly vessel,
That shall laugh at all disaster,
And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow