Impact of the War on New Jersey’s Shipbuilding Industry

Naval shipbuilding was among the largest industrial undertakings of World War II. To strengthen the armed and naval forces of the Allies against those of the Axis Powers, the United States Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act in July 1940. The Act authorized funds to expand naval shipbuilding efforts at existing government-owned navy yards and private shipyards. The shipbuilding industry grew significantly over the course of the war, from a marginal business employing twelve shipyards in 1939 to a massive network of shipyards and steel mills that employed over a million shipyard workers and more in related industries in 1944. It was also one of the largest consumers of steel, taking up one-fifth of the nation’s steel output in order to produce aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and smaller combatants.

Changes in construction trends: From wood to steel

The tree maps below show the frequency of different types of construction material used in shipbuilding before, during, and after WWII. Wood was by far the most frequently used type of construction material for ships built between 1753 and 1933. This changed during World War II and in the five years leading up to and following it, as the ships built in this period used primarily steel.

The war accelerated the transition

The transition from the use of wood to steel may have been accelerated by the war, as steel is a more favorable material for naval shipbuilding. Steel has many benefits over other shipbuilding materials such as wood and aluminum. It is not only strong, heavy, and cost-effective but also offers superior abrasion resistance. These are important qualities because Navy ships must operate in a variety of environments, withstand shock from hostile weapon effects such as projectiles and explosive devices, and are susceptible to collision with fixed objects such as other vessels.
Moreover, unlike civilian ships, Navy ships must be able to maintain a high level of performance even when damaged and be easily repairable. As a material, steel was better suited to the needs of naval ships than wood. Because the construction of naval ships dominated the shipbuilding industry at the time, it makes sense that the war accelerated the transition from the use of wood to steel as primary construction material.

New Jersey’s role in the expansion

Naval shipbuilding for WWII required sophisticated workmanship and facilities that few private American shipyards could provide. New Jersey was home to the New York Shipbuilding Corporation (New York Ship) of Camden, one of the three largest private shipbuilding firms in the country. Some smaller federal navy yards were also located in New Jersey. Together, these shipyards helped New Jersey secure 9% of all contracts related to the Allied War and led to the creation of more jobs in the state. New York Ship alone employed twelve thousand workers in 1941 and recruited eight thousand more workers by 1944.
World War I had expanded the facilities of New York Ship by three times. Its well-balanced facilities and experience in construction of naval vessels, passenger and cargo liners, and even specialized ships such as oil tankers and colliers, placed it as one of the nation’s leading shipyards and the Navy’s premier cruiser builder during WWII.
Meanwhile, federal navy yards in Kearny and Newark were major builders of destroyers. Numerically, destroyers were the most important of the major warships built during WWII. They were highly prioritized because of the German submarine threat.