BOOK REVIEW – Warship Builders: An Industrial History of U.S. Naval Shipbuilding, 1922-1945

Thomas Heinrich, Warship Builders: An Industrial History of U.S. Naval Shipbuilding, 1922-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020. 340 pp.

Review by Sean Getway
Independent Scholar

Naval construction requires diligent effort to both research and amalgamate to convey the complexities and costs of building naval warships. Thomas Heinrich explores the dynamics of both the Interwar Period and World War Two regarding the planning and construction of warships. The traditional narrative of the United States production during World War Two is of the overwhelming manufacture by production lines of small arms, vehicles, and aircraft. However, the work argues warship construction during the war had more variety in production models, including small batch production and yard specialization, than has been included in previous works. Finally, the work covers the manpower and training of workers, the management changes, the public navy yards, and private contractor yards during the conflict.

Warship Builders breaks away from traditional arguments of how the US enabled victory in World War Two with private industry tooling up for war. From the very beginning, Heinrich argues warships required greater specialization, and the mass-production methods developed by Henry Ford and others during the interwar period never matched the commitments of warship construction. He lays out the existing conditions during the Great Depression and argues granting naval work to the largest private yards aiding in keeping them going during the economic downturn. In this discussion was the coverage of the Big Three private yards, Bethlehem Steel, New York Ship, and Newport News, and their cartel efforts to ensure their existence throughout the interwar years. From there, the work shifts to both the construction techniques, manpower training, and working conditions during the interwar period. With an examination of the recovery efforts of the Great Depression and the existing manpower layout, Heinrich lays out the details of naval construction before the start of World War Two. The growing orders of 1939 and 1940 started to strain the existing infrastructure and cause the US Navy to directly fund private yard improvements as interwar efforts by the private yards proved too little for the growing Fleet demand.

The core of the work is the analysis of the yards and their warship construction during the war.  Heinrich argues the complexity, and the smaller number of warships in various ship classes required multiple techniques. First, the Navy Yards are examined to demonstrate the government not only provided funding, oversight, and resource management, they directly contributed to war material production. Several of the Navy Yards were generalist yards that accomplished repair and construction of various classes and types of ships. Others, primarily on the West Coast, specialized in ship repair and modernization due to the Pacific Theater demands. The private yards were more specialized overall, yet they were still reliant on government funding for yard improvement. The specialization, as encouraged via government policies, enabled yards to focus on only one type, if not one class, of warships at a time. Several yards built greenfield sites (new yards) that directly relied on government funding for the construction of the facilities in addition to the actual ships. Highlighted at the end is the commonality between the majority of aircraft manufacturers with shipbuilding yards during World War Two, utilization of small patch production, temporary design halts only, and subcontracting out specialized items vice the Ford style of vertical integration.

Warship Builders is a highly organized and well-argued work. The details of private-public yard interactions along with government actions to manage material flow to all production facilities gives readers a fresh view and more nuanced interpretation of US wartime production. Further, the book lays out the most holistic approach to naval warship procurement in the United States during World War Two. It addresses all aspects of construction, from facilities and labor to government management and funding. Throughout the work, Heinrich consistently compares the US efforts with those of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. These highlight how the other major naval powers adapted to wartime conditions in their naval procurement as well as the relative scope of success in meeting the demand vice the realities of construction capabilities. For the general reader, this is an excellent look at the details of building naval warships with several case studies of warship classes surveyed. For the historian, this work excellently ties in new scholarship that has come out in recent years addressing US wartime production and adding greater detail and breaking the traditional narratives of vertically integrated factories being the main driver in World War Two production. This work is an essential work to understand both new research on World War Two production as well as the dynamics of the growth of the US Navy leading up to and during World War Two.

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 

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