USS Laffey’s Pacific Ordeal – Sidebar: March ’98 World War II Feature

8/19/1998 • World War II

Birth of a Destroyer: Bath Iron Works

On the banks of the Kennebec River in Bath, Maine, 12 miles from the sea, is the shipyard known as the Bath Iron Works, where USS Laffey (DD 724) was built. In more than 100 years of business, the yard has built many different types of vessels, but it has gained and maintained its reputation as a builder of destroyers for the United States Navy. During World War II, the Bath Iron Works achieved production miracles unmatched by any other shipyard in the country.

Soon after France fell to the German onslaught in June 1940, Navy Secretary Frank Knox sent telegrams to the heads of many American shipyards, directing them to take immediate steps to expand their facilities in preparation for a forthcoming enlarged shipbuilding program. “Speed is of essence,” the telegrams stated.

Bath Iron Works President William S. “Pete” Newell began his expansion plans immediately. Land adjacent to the north end of the shipyard was purchased from the Maine Central Railroad to accommodate the addition of two more building ways, enabling the yard to have eight ships under construction at one time. Since no more space was available in Bath, land was purchased in East Brunswick, 3 1/2 miles away, and a prefabrication plant was built there. Whole sections of ships were assembled in East Brunswick and hauled to the Bath yard.

Seventy percent of the planned expansion had been completed and paid for by the company before a contract came through that authorized payment and reimbursement by the U.S. Navy. By December 1940, the Maine shipyard was prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Most other shipyards had waited for Navy contracts and funds before beginning expansion, so they lagged far behind.

When the United States entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bath Iron Works began to build destroyers. Various problems arose as the shipbuilding process was accelerated. By 1943, 12,000 employees, including 1,600 women, were working in three shifts around the clock. The city of Bath could not supply all the workers needed, and they could not be brought in from out of state because of a severe housing shortage. Therefore, workers were recruited from 94 Maine communities within a 60-mile radius of the shipyard. Because gasoline was rationed, the personnel department organized a ride-sharing program that resulted in 9,500 workers being transported in 2,200 cars, averaging more than four persons per car. Other workers were brought in on buses that had been leased from the Navy under a plan authorized by an act of Congress.

Since many shipbuilders were being drafted or volunteering for military service, the personnel department recruited women and provided a nursery to care for their children. Every problem the company encountered was solved or overcome, and the resulting production efforts sometimes bordered on the fantastic. In peacetime, it took 700 days for the Bath Iron Works to build a destroyer, but during the war that time was cut to 210 days. A ship was launched every 17 days and was then moved to the outfitting dock for completion.

In December 1942, temperatures dropped as low as 30 degrees below zero and averaged 10 below zero for a week. The Bath Iron Works’ absentee rate was a mere 3 percent, however, and the safety record was the best of any shipyard in the country. Management rewarded good attendance records by allowing employees to ride on a destroyer when it was delivered to the Boston Naval Shipyard, where it officially accepted by the Navy and commissioned.

Every employee could be proud of the Maine shipyard’s record during the war years. From Pearl Harbor to the war’s end, 82 destroyers were built and delivered–about 25 percent of all destroyers built for the Navy during the war. During the same period, Japanese shipyards built only 63 destroyers. The Bath Iron Works alone outproduced the Japanese empire.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]