A Liberty ship exhibit in Bug Light park in South Portland, Maine, tells the story of two shipyards that were on this site during World War II.
At the time I didn’t know the Albert M. Boe and I came from the same place. It was the last ship built in my home of South Portland, Maine, launched on Oct. 30, 1945, according to Peter Elphick, author of “Liberty: The Ships that Won the War.”
During World War II, an estimated 30,000 workers mass-produced 236 of these cargo ships in South Portland’s two shipyards. The first ship completed was the John Davenport, which slid down the ways of the New England Shipbuilding Corp.’s West Yard on May 15, 1942.
It seems hard to imagine a bustling shipbuilding operation on the peaceful waterfront park the site has become. But some remember it still. In an oral history project, some of South Portland’s former shipyard workers recall working at the yards as shipfitters, welders and riveters. My back hurt just listening to several workers describing climbing with heavy loads of welding cable or riveting from inside the ship on hot summer days with little air circulation.
The production of Liberty ships was shipbuilding in the extreme. They were built quickly, and no one was faster than West Coast operator Henry Kaiser. According to historian Kennedy Hickman, Kaiser’s new techniques for mass production could produce a new ship in two weeks. In a publicity stunt, Kaiser’s yard in Richmond, Calif., built the Robert E. Peary in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes.
The speediness wasn’t just for show. Hickman says Liberty ships were designed to be built fast enough to replace the ones sunk by German submarines. This maintained the United States’ supply connection to Europe, which was one of the keys to winning the war, he writes.
Tomorrow, many people in my neighborhood will walk to the site of the former shipyards to watch fireworks from across the water in Portland. It seems like a fitting place to celebrate our nation’s liberty.
Happy Independence Day!