Emergency Fleet Corporation
EMERGENCY FLEET CORPORATION
EMERGENCY FLEET CORPORATION. Because of the need during World War I to build ships rapidly, on 16 April 1917 the U.S. Shipping Board incorporated the Emergency Fleet Corporation to build, own, and operate a merchant fleet for the U.S. government. It performed these functions until 11 February 1927, when Congress changed its name to the Merchant Fleet Corporation. In 1916 the shipbuilding industry completed only 300,000 deadweight tons of ships, whereas the United States during war needed an annual output of 6 million to 10 million deadweight tonnage. To meet this emergency the Fleet Corporation first requisitioned the 431 steel ships being built in American yards for foreign operators. Second, the corporation built three great steel shipyards and invested in many other yards. To speed up construction, yards assembled "fabricated" ships of standard design out of plates and parts made in factories as far west as Kansas.
In October 1918 the peak construction program consisted of 3,116 ships, but, by 31 October 1918, only 378 steel ships had entered service. After July 1918 the shortage of cargo tonnage was acute. World War I ended as the army general staff faced the necessity of maintaining eighty divisions in France without the prospect of adequate supply ships before July 1919.
After the armistice the 218 yards building under contract for the Fleet Corporation were almost as hard to stop as they had been to start. On 30 June 1919, only 44 percent of the ships were completed. Despite protests by shipbuilders and workers, the government canceled contracts totaling 25 percent of the original program. By 30 June 1920, 90 percent of the ships were finished, but not until 1922 did the Fleet Corporation receive the last vessel.
Shipping Board policy after World War I required the Fleet Corporation to sell its fleet to private operators but to operate it until that was possible. With a drastic postwar slump in the shipping industry, buyers were hard to find. The corporation organized its ships into a large number of cargo and passenger services and entered into contracts for their operation under trade names by private companies at government expense. Fleet operating losses, though declining, were still $13 million in 1926–1927. By 1927 the Fleet Corporation had sold 1,507 ships to private operators; many of the cargo ships went to scrappers. Nevertheless, as the Merchant Fleet Corporation, it still owned 833 steel ships. What to do with this fleet, which only another war could make profitable to the government, was the major problem of the U.S. Shipping Board. The worst effect of the stockpile was the inhibition of new construction, which allowed foreign builders to surpass the U.S. Merchant Marine in quality. In 1928, in response to this situation, Congress passed the Jones-White Act to subsidize new ships, but only thirty-one were afloat in 1936, when the Maritime Commission came into existence to rejuvenate the merchant marine. The commission started with a modest goal of fifty new ships per year, a target that was vastly expanded for World War II. With title to the aging ships, the commission began selling them to scrappers, which reduced the number to 113 within a year. Since the remaining ships had an estimated useful life of five more years, many again wore wartime gray in World War II.
Cooling, B. Franklin. Gray Steeland Blue Water Navy: The Formative Years of America's Military-Industrial Complex, 1881–1917. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979.
Kilmarx, Robert A., ed. America's Maritime Legacy: A History of the U.S. Merchant Marine and Shipbuilding Industry Since Colonial Times. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979.
Morris, James Matthew. Our Maritime Heritage: Maritime Developments and Their Impact on American Life. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979.
Frank A.SouthardJr./a. e.