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The world's busiest shipyard.

America needed a lot of big ships fast to battle powerful enemy navies. The Brooklyn Navy Yard hummed day and night to build them.

IT WAS A TOUGH JOB, working at the New York Navy Yard--better known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard--during World War II. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Workers hardly got a break. Solomon Brodsky, a packer in the yard's vast supply depot, remembered those years. "There were days I felt like a zombie," he recalled. "You work; there was a war. I had my kid brother in the war. So you feel like you're working for him."

It was much easier to see what the yard did than to see what was done to the yard to make it all happen. But a tremendous effort had been required to transform the aging facility into the nation's greatest warship manufacturer.

Its dramatic facelift symbolized the stunning prewar expansion of American shipbuilding facilities, the necessary first step in the creation of the nation's mighty two-ocean navy.

The United States Navy had entered World War II unprepared for a global fight and then was severely weakened by Japan's December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. But it did have a system of shipyards scattered from the Central Pacific to the East Coast. Led by the Brooklyn yard, these facilities raced to produce massive battleships and aircraft carriers capable of ruling a new age of naval warfare.

The story of the Brooklyn Navy Yard begins in 1801, when President John Adams established five naval shipyards on the young nation's East Coast. The Brooklyn yard was one of them. Six decades later, early in the Civil War, it made its name when it turned out the Union ironclad Monitor in time to halt a rampage by the Confederacy's Virginia through the otherwise wooden Union navy.

But the yard's location on Wallabout Bay, on Brooklyn's side of the East River, became a problem. Building bigger, more modern ships meant expanding facilities into the quicksand-bottomed bay. Every effort to enlarge the yard and increase its production capacity proved nearly impossible. The completion of the first dry dock (DD1) in 1851 was a triumph of engineering and architectural insight. The same cannot be said of DD2 (1890) and DD3 (1897), which were rebuilt, relined, and renovated several times over subsequent decades. The most troublesome of all was DD4, whose agonizing construction on unstable soil cost 20 lives.

By the mid-1930s, the looming prospect of war in Europe and the Far East had sparked an American shipbuilding boom. Recognizing that post-World War I neglect had left the US Navy ill-equipped for what might lie ahead, President Franklin Roosevelt set out to supply it with the brawnier battleships and state-of-the-art aircraft carriers required by modern sea powers. As a former assistant secretary of the navy, Roosevelt realized that the effort required modernization, expansion, and upgrading of the naval infrastructure.

To oversee the project, Roosevelt chose Ben Moreell, now best remembered as the Father of the Seabees (the navy's construction battalions--CBs). The two men had met during World War I when Moreell was a young lieutenant in the navy's Civil Engineer Corps stationed in the Azores. In the 1920s, the navy sent Moreell to the world's oldest engineering school, Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees in Paris, to study European military engineering design and construction practices. On his return to the states, he was put in charge of planning for the David Taylor Model Basin, a new ship-design testing facility to be built outside Bethesda, Maryland. Roosevelt promoted Moreell to rear admiral in 1937 and chose him over more senior officers to serve as chief of the navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks and of the Civil Engineer Corps.

Under Moreell's watch, navy yards in the Hawaiian Islands were upgraded and two giant dry docks were constructed at Pearl Harbor. Similar work was done at Midway Atoll and Wake Island. These enhancements proved fortunate after the Japanese navy devastated the US Pacific Fleet in December 1941 at Pearl Harbor. Pearl's new docks had an important role in the war-changing June 4-7 Battle of Midway, too. On May 28,1942, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) had limped into the harbor needing three months of repairs after nearly being sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. As confrontation with the Japanese loomed at Midway, laborers managed to patch up Yorktown in one of Pearl's new dry docks in just 48 hours. She was then lost at Midway, but not before her planes sank the carrier Soryu and damaged two other carriers, helping seal the US Navy's first great victory over its Japanese counterpart.

US Navy facilities along the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast and in long-established yards in the East also received significant attention. But none expanded quite like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, whose renovations had begun even before Moreell's appointment. Two high-placed natives of New York State had been behind its makeover: President Roosevelt, the state's former governor; and his friend Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City's energetic mayor. After taking office in 1933, Roosevelt backed a number of New York-based projects sponsored by the New Deal job-generation agency, the Works Progress Administration, and between 1935 and 1943, the navy increased both the capacity and the capability of the Brooklyn yard on a colossal scale. It overhauled its physical plant and updated factories, some of which dated back to the Civil War. Workers lengthened each of the yard's building ways by 100 yards and built a huge hammerhead crane capable of lifting 350 tons (and later strengthened it to handle 425 tons). They added a foundry, submarine-assembly shops, additional docks and berths, and miles of new roads. They also lengthened troublesome DD4 to accommodate the building of the battleship North Carolina (BB-S5). Finally, and most importantly, they built two unique, 1,100-foot-long dry docks dubbed "the Twins."

IN THE AFTERMATH OF PEARL HARBOR, the Brooklyn yard earned the nickname Can-Do Yard as the world's busiest ship-repair facility. Its workforce exploded from 14,000 to more than 70,000 and worked virtually nonstop. "For quite a while we worked at seven days [a week], there was no such thing as time off ...," Solomon Brodsky recalled. "I'm Jewish, and we had the Jewish holidays coming up ... and the rabbis ... told us we should work, we were at war. It was the only time in my life I worked on a Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah...."

The stepped-up pace was unavoidable as orders for super-size warships poured in. Some of them, including the 45,000-ton battleships Iowa (BB-61) and Missouri (BB63) and Essex-class carriers such as the new Yorktown, were simply too large to be built as most other vessels were built--on nest-like building ways. For the navy's latest behemoths, a new system was required.

Enter the Twins, Brooklyn's fantastic new dry docks. Of the 26 dry docks added to navy shipyards in 1942 and 1943, none were quite like Brooklyn's DD5 and DD6. Pushed along by what naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison called "the desperate urgency" of World War II, their creation had begun in the summer of 1941. Making room for DD5 and DD6 had required expanding the yard almost seven-fold and adding 50 miles of railroad track to the yard's own network. It also meant using eminent domain to condemn, acquire, and clear the adjacent Wallabout Market, one of the world's largest produce marketplaces. This controversial move allowed builders to align the new docks to provide a straight approach to the river and position them so they did not interfere with the yard's other docks, all of which were busy throughout the war. As chief planning officer of the Bureau of Yards and Docks Rear Admiral W.H. Smith recalled, the navy had to "generally reshuffle the entire geography of the area."

Time and construction materials were at a premium. Fortunately, the yard had been procuring huge caches of concrete and gravel for months. Further speeding up the docks' construction was the development of an advanced concrete that would set in wet conditions. There also was what Popular Science described as a "startlingly new type of naval building [that] is known to engineers as the 'tremie' method--or pouring large quantities of high grade concrete under water through pipes called 'tremies'." Using this method, it was no longer necessary to erect the big temporary dams known as cofferdams "to keep water out of the excavations.... A site is simply dredged to the desired depth, then leveled by barge-controlled drags, and construction begins."

Conditions were generally rough. There was the sandy bottom of Wallabout Bay, upon which the dry docks would be built. Then there was the East River, which connected New York Bay and Long Island Sound. The river was treacherous, with a constantly shifting current and assorted underwater rocks, reefs, and islands. Engineer Richard Johnson later recalled, "There [was] a problem in launching ships ... and that is that the current is quite severe.... One of the ships being launched just got picked away and beached itself over in Manhattan."

Northeast of the yard stretched the aptly named Hell Gate, a narrow, mile-long channel between Ward's Island and Astoria, where three conflicting tides met to produce swirling currents, giant whirlpools, standing waterfalls, and even a tidal fall. There, in 1904, the passenger ferry General Slocum had caught fire and sunk, taking a thousand lives.

If new technology made construction of the Twins quicker, the process was hardly easy. Sand had to be dredged from the waterways and beds of gravel and crushed rock laid. Thousands of piles were driven down. Once they were in position, giant prefabricated steel forms were lowered into place. Sidewall forms were affixed and filled with concrete. When all this was done, workers placed a cofferdam across the new dock's entrance and pumped the water out of it. They then finished the floor and sidewalls and any other work required to make the dock operational.

All this was done in stages, which made a dock accessible to ships even before it was fully finished. "Work was carried on day and night, seven days a week, regardless of weather," Rear Admiral Smith later wrote. "At times we fought the ice that piles up in the East River under certain combinations of wind and tide. We had many difficult problems to solve.... But the number of carriers built in these docks, and their contribution to the war effort more than justified this project and repaid its cost."

Somehow, by the end of 1942, DD5 had been completed. Its twin, DD6, was finished a few months later. (The yard had also added a less miraculous dry dock at its new Bayonne, New Jersey, annex.) In May 1943, Moreell dropped by to award the coveted Army-Navy E award for manufacturing excellence to the docks' builder, Contractors for Drydocks.

By war's end, the yard's production numbers spoke for themselves. "Since Pearl Harbor," the Brooklyn Eagle boasted in December 1945, "the Brooklyn Navy Yard has built 17 ships, including two huge battleships, five aircraft carriers, eight LSTs [landing ships, tank] and two floating workshops. When submarine attacks on Allied ships were at their peak, the yard was repairing as many as 67 ships at a time. During 1944 alone the yard made repairs and alterations on 1,539 ships." On April 29, 1945, the yard launched the 45,000-ton aircraft carrier Coral Sea (CV-43), which was subsequently renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) in honor of the president, who died on April 12.

WITHOUT THE shipbuilding CAPABILITIES created under the Moreell plan, the United States would have been hard-pressed to maintain the offensive in 1942--or maybe even to take it in the first place. And beyond that, only relentless and generally anonymous effort had kept America's navy yards buzzing at top capacity for nearly four years. "The lights have never been turned off and the telephones have never stopped ringing a minute since the war started," Rear Admiral Sherman S. Kennedy, the yard's general manager, said at war's end. "Nor has the fighting spirit of our huge army of workers flagged in their battle to get ships in shipshape condition to the fighting fronts."

What is a Dry Dock?

Shipbuilding suffers from an age-old problem: how to work on large vessels without lifting them out of the water. The dry dock is the solution. Built at water level at the edge of bodies of water--Brooklyn's Wallabout Bay, for instance--the end of a dock, at the water's edge, is closed with a watertight gate or wall, called a caisson, and the water is pumped out. Inside, a keel can be laid and a new ship built around it.

The dry docks at Brooklyn Navy Yard were not used to build a ship until World War II. Before that, they were more valuable for converting civilian vessels to wartime use, for the speedy and ingenious repair and updating of naval vessels, and for routine maintenance, supply, and servicing. For these functions, the caisson is closed and the water pumped out of the dock, allowing keel-supporting blocks to be laid down based on the ship's exact measurements. The blocks are secured, the dock flooded, and the ship brought in and positioned over the blocks. The caisson is then closed and the water pumped out again, allowing work to be done on the entire hull. Once work is done, the dock is reflooded, and the ship returns to duty.

Ken Yellis is principal of Project Development Services, a museum consulting company in Newport, Rhode Island. He helped develop the exhibit Brooklyn Navy Yard: Past, Present, and Future at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92.
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Author:Yellis, Ken
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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