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The Bethlehem Shipyard - the Product


View from Dry Dock No. 1 control building
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After the war, the U.S. shipbuilding industry suffered from excess capacity and was mired in a worldwide shipping depression. In addition, in order to limit budget expenditures and believing that the naval arms race helped lead to World War I, major naval powers signed the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922, and the London Naval Treaty of 1930, limiting the construction of naval vessels. The industry survived by concentrating on ship repair and maintaining an active peacetime merchant marine.

Dry Dock No. 1
Dry Dock No. 1

By the mid-1930s, the U.S. was faced with a fleet of aging ships, with nearly 92% of U.S. merchant ships at least 20 years old. In 1936, Congress created the U.S. Maritime Commission (presently known as the Maritime Administration) through the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. The Maritime Commission embarked on an expanded ship construction program in the late 1930s and accelerated its efforts when U.S. involvement in the war appeared likely. In 1940, Congress enacted the Naval Expansion Act, which established a "Two-Ocean Navy". One year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the construction of 200 ships in what was the start of the Emergency Program.

To meet the tremendous demand for merchant and fighting vessels, shipyards nationwide became involved in the ship construction effort. Established yards were awarded initial contracts, including the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company (Newport News, Virginia); Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company (Kearney, New York); New York Shipbuilding Corporation (Camden, New Jersey); Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company (Chester, Pennsylvania); and Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation (locations in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and California). As work orders continued to flow in, additional shipyards were constructed or expanded.

Detail of machine shop activities
Detail of machine shop activities

During World War II, the U.S. faced the unprecedented situation of simultaneously fighting enemies on two fronts. To effectively meet this challenge, troops needed to be transported overseas to enemy shores, which required the U.S. to construct enough ships for both fronts.

To accelerate construction, the U.S. diverted large supplies of labor, steel, and other materials to produce ships and implemented a "no frills" ship design for series production. As a result, vessels were assembled at a rapid pace with relatively low costs. Before World War II, all ships were custom-built; steel plates and other materials were fabricated in small units and tasks such as riveting, wiring, and plumbing had to be done sequentially, which prolonged construction time. The newer ships required large construction areas as smaller pieces were welded together to create large sections. Shipyards devoted to the construction of new ships needed large fabrication areas and assembly shops, which resulted in the reconfiguration of many facilities. In addition, the shipyards required cranes and railroad transportation to move large pieces from the assembly area to the shipways. As more ships were built, performance continued to improve, which reduced overall production time.

Plate shop
Plate shop

Although the U.S. emerged from World War II as a military and economic power, it struggled in the shipping industry for years because of the over-capacity in shipping as cargo vessels were transferred from military to civilian use. When these ships were replaced over time, cheaper labor and materials were available abroad, and the vast majority of U. S. merchant ships constructed after World War II were assembled in foreign yards. Between 1952 and 1977, U.S. companies contracted to have nearly 2,000 ships built overseas and only 600 were built domestically. Despite some government assistance from the Merchant Marine Act of 1970, which helped revive repair work and some shipbuilding, the industry continued to struggle. In addition, the shipping industry faced added competition from railroads, trucks, and commercial airlines. The shipyards remained busy by concentrating on repairing naval vessels, offshore drilling rigs, and other vessels. (Modern photos of Berth 240).

As more nations penetrated the world shipbuilding market, the United States and Europe gradually lost their market share. By 1998, the United States was ranked as the 14th largest shipbuilding nation in the world. Japan and South Korea represented the primary shipbuilding countries worldwide.