Between the two world wars, Henry J. Kaiser and his construction company helped build highways and massive dams, including the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams. But they had never built ships, and in 1940, more than anything else, the United States and Great Britain needed ships. England was already at war with Nazi Germany, and the U-boat “wolf packs” were sinking cargo ships at an alarming rate.
On 20 December 1940, despite his inexperience, Kaiser signed a contract with Great Britain to build cargo ships. Workers and management wasted no time. Within hours of the signing, planning for the first yard began. Ground was broken within a month. Union workers voluntarily worked through heavy rain that would normally have shut construction down, and the first keel was laid 78 days after shipyard construction began, on 14 April 1941.
The first ship, the Ocean Vanguard, was launched August 16, 1941. Despite the shipyard’s inexperience, she was so well built she survived a collision on her maiden voyage across the North Atlantic.
Within two years, Henry Kaiser had built seven shipyards on the west coast, four in Richmond, California, and the others on both banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. These seven shipyards built 1,552 ships between 1941-45-almost a ship per day. These ships included tramp steamers for England, Liberty and Victory ships, troop transports, frigates, “pocket” aircraft carriers, and the all-important LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks, or Long Slow Targets), which made the D-Day invasion of Europe possible.
During World War I, it took ten to twelve months to build a standard cargo ship. But in World War II, many ships were built in less than one month. Across the country, American shipyards in 1942 built three cargo ships per day.
On one famous occasion, an entire cargo ship, the Robert E. Peary, was built in Kaiser’s Richmond shipyards in less than eight days. Six minutes after the Peary was launched, the keel for the next ship was laid.
During the war years, Henry Kaiser’s Pacific coast shipyards built more merchant ships at less cost than any other shipyard in the nation. His workers made it possible. Thousands of workers from 16 different craft unions contributed to this production miracle. They came from all over the country: men who were veterans of the shipbuilding industry, teenagers working summers to pay for college, housewives who had never held a job. People from all walks of life and all races contributed to the war effort.
The Kaiser Company, Inc., established a health-care plan for its workers. But it didn’t warn them about the dangers of asbestos. Subcontractors who installed asbestos insulation were called “snowbirds” because of the dust that covered them. Johns-Manville pre-formed pipe insulation was cut to fit with power saws in a ventilated area, but no protection was given to the workers who actually installed the insulation aboard the ships.
The U.S. Navy established standards for shipyard workers in 1943. But the standards were not enforced for many years after. Thousands of people who worked in the Kaiser Shipyards are now being diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis or pleural plaques, or even the more deadly forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma.