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100 Years Ago: September 1918

This is the forty-fourth installment in my series of brief reviews for one-hundred-year-old National Geographic Magazines.

This issue could well be referred to as the “Merchant Marine Number”. As you can see from the cover, the first article in this issue is entitled “Ships for the Seven Seas” and was written by Ralph A. Graves. Mr. Graves is the author of “Fearful Famines of the Past”. The cover also lists “23 Illustrations”. They are all black-and-white photographs. Of those twenty-three photos, ten are full-page in size.

The article deals with the Herculean task of building a world-class merchant marine virtually from scratch. To support the war effort, every American soldier “over there” requires three tons of shipping. Not three tons of supplies, but three tons worth of ships constantly plying the waves or loading and unloading cargo in ports. This tonnage would double to six if we decide to send any number of troops to Siberia via the Pacific.

These numbers are in addition to the shipping required to support our civilian population. To accomplish this mission, the United States Shipping Board, along with its auxiliary agencies, the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the Merchant Marine Recruitment Service, and the Harbor Facilities Commission were created.

The article then delves into the intricacies of shipbuilding focusing on the different jobs involved. Starting with coppersmiths, the author lists every occupation and their contribution to the creation of our merchant fleet. The coppersmith not only makes kettles for the galley, but also piping and all parts of the engine that come into contact with salt water.

The whole process begins with the loftsmen, whose job it is to translate the plans for the ship from small-scale to full-size using light wooden or paper templates that show every curve and every rivet hole. Taking the templates and marking off onto steel plates the different parts of the hull, the shipfitter performs the next task. About 60% of construction labor is dedicated to the hull, while the other 40% is dedicated to the mechanical parts and engines.

Once the ship is built, the camoufleur is tasked with painting it in a way that it blends in with the horizon and seascape. But it’s during construction that the popular hero has arisen. He is the riveter. Contests have arisen to see which shipyard could perform the most rivets in a day. With the need so great for riveters, schools have sprung up to teach the trade, paying the student while he learns.

The women of the shipyard are not just limited to clerical work and nursing, but also manual labor. Primarily they work spinning oakum, preparing material used by the calkers in sealing the ship’s seams to prevent leaks.

The article shifts again and discusses America’s shipping needs. Before the war there were 30,500 ships and more than 70 million tons afloat from all countries. So far Germany’s U-boats have sunk 21.5 million tons of allied and neutral shipping. These countries have built 14 million tons of merchant ships, recouping a full two thirds of their losses. Before entering the war, the United States produced, on average, 285,000 tons of shipping per year. Now the country produces 313,380 tons a month. Once all the new shipways are in operation, we will produce 13.5 million tons of merchant ships a year. We are currently out producing the United Kingdom, hitherto the world’s premier shipbuilding nation.

To augment this building effort, the Shipping Board has also chartered 878 ships from foreign governments and commissioned Japan to build 45 more. Also 100 captured enemy vessels and 81 commandeered Dutch ships have been added to the fleet. This fleet now stands at 9.5 million tons.

With standardized designs and building methods, ships are produced in phenomenal times. The Tuckahoe, a 5,500-ton freighter, was launched in 27 days and commissioned 10 days after that. The Crawl Keys, at 3,500 tons, was launched in 16 days and commissioned 18 days later. The most impressive feat, though, the 12,000-ton Invincible was launched after 23 days and 23 hours of construction.

Building the labor force for the industries of war is a task of the United States Employment Bureau, a recently formed adjunct of the Department of Labor. Through publicity in the lay press and labor journals, by means of striking posters, and by employing labor scouts, the Bureau recruited a host of skilled works for the over 200 shipyards.

To maintain morale the shipyard director employs many devices to add to the comfort and insure contentment of his men. The four-minute patriotic speakers, the concerts by a band composed of shipyard workers, the weekly newspaper, a well-managed cafeteria, a completely equipped grocery store, a full hospital, the military police protection, and a vigilant detective force are all employed to assure a high state of morale among the workers.

To address the problem of turnover a Labor Control Office was established at all shipyards. By addressing grievances and by using an exit interview, these Offices have reduced turnover greatly. By employing safety-first education, the number of casualties has been lowered significantly.

Housing of the workers has also been addressed. In some cases, like the new shipyard at Hog Island, outside of Philadelphia, an entire city has been built on the model of our Army Cantonments. With reasonable rent, and access to various types of recreation, the workers have never had it so good.

Building a world-class merchant marine fleet is one thing, manning it is another. This is where the Merchant Marine Recruiting Office comes in. So far, 11,000 experienced men have attended schools for officers, while 28,000 inexperienced youths have enrolled in training to be merchant mariners. After six weeks of instruction, the officer candidates go through a six-week apprentice course for which they are paid as they learn by doing.

With the ships built and their crews trained, there is still one major task remaining, the expansion of our ports and harbors in order to eliminate congestion and handle the increase in cargo volume. This is the task assigned to the United States Shipping Board’s Port and Harbor Facilities Commission. With New York woefully congested, the Commission has begun surveys of ports all along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. The results of these surveys will help identify the best locations to divert much of New York’s traffic.

After the war, the United States has the opportunity to continue to use this great merchant marine fleet as an engine for our peacetime prosperity. Civilizations of the past have built their economies on trade. The Phoenicians, Genoa, Venice, Spain, the Dutch Republic, and most importantly England have all profited from their seafaring commerce. As America’s commerce has grown, the percentage of imports and exports sailing under the U. S. flag has decreased. From 1793 to 1842 more than four-fifths of our commerce was carried by American ships; from 1843 to 1862 that percentage had dropped to three-fourths. Over the next quarter century, the numbers had diminished to one-fourth, and finally to only a little more than one-tenth, from 1887 to 1913. Now, with this massive new fleet, America can one day rival the British fleet. A friendly rivalry.

The second article is entitled “The American People Must Become Ship-Minded”. It was written by Edward N. Hurley, the Chairman of the United States Shipping Board. It contains eight black-and-white photographs of which seven are full-page. It continues the merchant marine theme of this issue.

Mr. Hurley starts by discussing the volume of American tourism in Europe before the war (718,373 in 1913) to the larger number of “tourists” America has sent in the last three months (300,000 in one month). Britain, France, and Italy have aided in the transport of troops. Last summer, Britain was transporting up to 80% of our soldiers. With the progress made by the United States Shipping Board, that number is down to 50%.

The army supply train is a great Armada, almost double the size of the German merchant marine before the war. It is however a motley collection of ships; old and new, large and small, steel and wooden, liners and tramps.

The author then switches the topic to the value of a merchant marine for America after the war. With the infrastructure for shipbuilding being created during the war, the cost of shipbuilding after the war will compare favorably to the costs in other countries. With the industry on a sound footing, we shall do on the oceans what we already have done on the Great Lakes – build and operate ships more economically than any other nation in the world.

Touting the 16-million tons of shipping being built, he points out the ease of converting this war engine into civilian uses. The transports will become passenger-and-cargo liners. Fast cargo ships, refrigerated ships, and tankers will be assigned regular routes. Tramp cargo-carriers will take their place in the charter ocean traffic.

With all these resources at our disposal, America must become ship-minded to become a maritime power. Our people still think of ships and foreign trade with fear and doubt, unlike the English and other maritime nations. This perception must change.

Comparisons are being made between our new shipbuilding, with its fabricated ships and standardized plans, to the automobile industry. Skills and training are essential in our merchant marine service. There are three classes of seamen, deck department, engine-room, and steward service. Deck duties include command and navigation. The engine-room offers the possibility of learning a half-dozen trades; boilers, engines, dynamos, motors, lighting, refrigeration, machine shop, and so forth. Even stewards on a passenger liner require the knowledge and skills needed to run a modern hotel.

Trained men are also required on land as well. Ships need to be loaded and unloaded. This calls for dock management – warehousing, conveying machinery, stevedoring – all technical in their nature. Steps are being taken to establish vocational and college courses throughout the nation to address all of these needs.

Much has been accomplished in the last fifteen months in the face of great difficulty. There is still much to do, but America is waking up to the fact that the merchant marine is vital to our nation’s welfare.

The third article is entitled “Our Industrial Victory” and was written by Charles M. Schwab, Director General, United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation. It contains seventeen black-and-white photographs. Thirteen of those photos are full-page in size. This short article continues the maritime theme because the victorious industry Mr. Schwab discusses is our newly-created shipbuilding industry.

America is building ships faster and better than anywhere else in the world. Our speed-up performances have revolutionized the industry. In building a huge merchant fleet in two years, we are doing the impossible. We were not a shipbuilding nation when we entered the war. Today we are the greatest shipbuilding nation the world has ever seen.

Before the war, it took nine months to two years to build a ship. We are now building them in a month. Mr. Schwab again uses the examples of the Tuckahoe, the Invincible, and the Crawl Keys to drive home his point. The main reason for this vast improvement has been the standardization of ship construction. Hopefully soon, each shipyard will build a single type of ship. The economical advantage of this is two-fold. It lowers the cost of manufacturing, this in turn passes these savings on to the ship-owner and the ship-buyer. A certain type of ship can be ordered in quantity lots.

The comparison between automobile factories and “ship factories” is more real than mere theory. Standardization has lead to mass production of the parts needed for construction of the fleet. And by next year we will be running the shipyards at higher speed and greater efficiency.

The fourth article is entitled “The War and Ocean Geography”. There is no author listed on the cover and, at the top of the article, the byline reads simple “By the Editor”. It has six black-and-white photographs of which three are full-page. It also has a sketch map of ocean currents on page 234.

Map courtesy of Philip Riviere.

While this editorial’s title references the war, other than mentioning the twenty-odd million tons of shipping sunk by the Germans, it is mainly focused on our (lack of) knowledge about the oceans.

If world peace engenders international trade and international trade demands expanded shipping, then expanded trade will require a closer knowledge of the sea. Our sources of information are fragmentary at best. An occasional sounding line here, a dredge or a trawl there, gives an incomplete picture of the ocean’s depth. After the war, submarines may be pressed into service as exploratory vessels.

The oceans cover three-quarters of the globe. The ocean depth, on average is more than two miles, while the average height of the land is less than half a mile. The oceans are larger than the true ocean basins. As a monument is always planted on a base, so the continents have a broad under-sea base upon which they rest. This area of shallow water extends ten million square miles. These shelfs are part of the continents’ alluvial plains. Thanks to this fact all of the harbors, bays, and inlets exist. The boundary between the shelf and the abyss is next to featureless. All the seaports in the world exist because of this fact.

Besides the shipping hazards in shallower waters, including sunken vessels, being charted, derelicts must also be tracked. The Hydrographic Office of the Navy Department keeps tabs on these derelicts by logging every sighting of these menaces to navigation. This information allows the Coast Guard cutters to run them down and sink them. In peacetime there is no other thing more dangerous to navigation as the derelict, unless it be the submerged iceberg, such as sank the Titanic. The records show that in six years 25 derelicts were reported to have drifted at least a thousand miles each; 11 of those have 2,000 miles to their credit; while three drifted over 5,000 rudderless miles. On two occasions, ships have been found adrift in perfect condition but without a soul on board.

The oceans are literally teeming with food, seemingly inexhaustible food reservoirs. To measure catch rates, trailing bottles were set adrift. It was found that more than half were recaptured. In certain localities they were captured at a 90% retake each season. Marked fish yielded similar results, and the conclusion adult food fish have three to one odds against getting through the year uncaught. This intensive fishing has little effect upon supply. A female turbot lays 8,500,000 eggs a year, a cod lays 4,500,000, a flounder has 1,400,000, the sole 570,000, the haddock 450,000, and the plaice 300,000. The poor herring must be content with a meager 31,000 eggs per year. These prolific numbers assure a virtually perpetual food source.

In the deeper oceans “queer creatures of the sea” exist. Fish with light-giving organs, fish with searchlights, creatures with eyes on stalks, and a caricature of a mermaid all can be found in these sunless depths. These strange creatures range in size from the microscopic to those found on land.

The study of ocean currents is of great importance. The effects of these great rivers of the sea upon the welfare of the human race is beyond imagination. It is said that the Gulf Stream carries enough heat toward Europe every 24 hours to melt a mass of iron as large as Mt. Washington. Rear Admiral Pillsbury, in his remarkable article in the Geographic Magazine describing this remarkable river of the sea, says that every hour there passes through the straits of Florida ninety billion tons of water. Through this strait the stream is 40-miles wide and carries more water than all the rivers and streams bring down from land. This is just one of many currents, some cold, some warm, that circulate through oceans between the poles and the equator. Debris caught in these currents play uncanny tricks. In 1905 the Stanley Dollar was beached near Yokohama Bay. Some of her life-preservers were washed out to sea. In 1911 two of those life-preservers washed ashore on the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland.

The editorial concludes discussing sinking ships. It first answers the question, whether a ship sinks to the bottom, or if she finds her level in some vertical depth and drifts forever. This question sprang to great prominence after the Titanic went down. The answer is that ships sink to the bottom or how could a dredge or a trawl be sent down five miles. The other thing learned is how a ship implodes as it sinks. At these crushing depths, these implosions are as powerful as explosions caused by gunpowder.

At the end of the article attention is called to two past articles; “The Gem of the Oceans: Our American Navy” by Joseph Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, in the April 1918 issue, and “The Gulf Stream” by Rear Admiral Pillsbury in the August 1912 number.

The fifth, and last, article in this issue is entitled “Food for Our Allies in 1919” and was written by Herbert Hoover, United States Food Administrator. It is not documented on the cover even though there is plenty of room for it. This is possible due to the fact that it is not related to the maritime theme of the number.

Future President Hoover examines the prospect of the war continuing for one or two more years, and the necessity of keeping the food shipments flowing to Europe, both for our troops and our allies. Those allies have denied themselves even more in order to provide transportation for our troops.

It is our job to make due with less to ensure there is enough food shipped “over there” to meet the growing need. This will be accomplished by “patriotic cooperation” and not by rationing. Mr. Hoover lists in his chart the food we ship (meats and fats, breadstuffs, sugar, and feed grains) in columns showing a pre-war three-year average, the amount shipped for the year ending July 1, 1918, and the projected need for the coming year. The bottom line of this chart reads (in tons) 5,533,000, 11,820,000, and 17,550,000 respectively.

At the bottom of the last page there is a notice with the heading “Our Geographic Military Hospital Wards”. The text states that we need to increase the number of wards and directs the members to an ad for it in the following pages to make donations. The ad has a photo of a wounded soldier sleeping on a bed in one of the wards.

Besides the advertisement for the hospital wards, the Society also placed three more ads in the back section. One is for the book “Wild Animals of North America”, another is for the book “Flags of the World”, and the third is for the “Map of the Western Theater of War”.

This ad is for the map and its 70-page index. Interestingly, the ad shows the map cut and pasted into a continuous map, unlike the rectangular multi-sectioned way it came as a supplement. By mounting this map on a door, wall, or board the owner can use multi-colored pins to show the location of each nations forces as events happen.

Tom Wilson

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