The United States Maritime Commission (MARCOM) was an independent executive agency of the U.S. federal government that was created by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, passed by Congress on June 29, 1936, and replaced the United States Shipping Board which had existed since World War I. It was intended to formulate a merchant shipbuilding program to design and build five hundred modern merchant cargo ships to replace the World War I vintage vessels that comprised the bulk of the United States Merchant Marine, and to administer a subsidy system authorized by the Act to offset the cost differential between building in the U.S. and operating ships under the American flag. It also formed the United States Maritime Service for the training of seagoing ship's officers to man the new fleet.
As a symbol of the rebirth of the U.S. Merchant Marine and Merchant Shipbuilding under the Merchant Marine Act, the first vessel contracted for was SS America. Owned by the United States Lines, she briefly operated in the passenger liner and cruise service before being converted into a high-speed transport, per her design.
From 1939 through the end of World War II, the Maritime Commission funded and administered the largest and most successful merchant shipbuilding effort in world history, producing thousands of ships, including Liberty ships, Victory ships, and others, notably Type C1, Type C2, Type C3, Type C4 freighters and T2 tankers. By the end of the war, U.S. shipyards working under Maritime Commission contracts had built a total of 5,777 oceangoing merchant and naval ships.
A huge postwar contraction followed, with massive sell-offs to foreign militaries and commercial fleets. The last major shipbuilding project undertaken by the Commission was to oversee the design and construction of the super passenger liner SS United States which was intended to be both a symbol of American technological might and maritime predominance but also could be quickly converted into the world's fastest naval troop transport.
The Maritime Commission was abolished on 24 May 1950, and its functions were divided between the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission which was responsible for regulating shipping trades and trade routes and the United States Maritime Administration, which was responsible for administering the construction and operating subsidy programs, maintaining NDRF, and operating the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy which had been built and opened during World War II and which continues to be funded as the nation's federally operated maritime academy under 46 USC 310.
The purpose of the Maritime Commission was multifold as described in the Merchant Marine Act's Declaration of Policy. The first role was to formulate a merchant shipbuilding program to design and then have built over a ten-year period 900 modern fast merchant cargo ships which would replace the World War I-vintage vessels which made up the bulk of the U.S. Merchant Marine prior to the Act. Those ships were intended to be chartered (leased) to U.S. shipping companies for their use in the foreign seagoing trades for whom they would be able to offer better and more economical freight services to their clients. The ships were also intended to serve as a reserve naval auxiliary force in the event of armed conflict which was a duty the U.S. merchant fleet had often filled throughout the years since the Revolutionary War. The second role given to the Maritime Commission was to administer a subsidy system authorized by the Act which would offset the differential cost between both building in the U.S. and operating ships under the American flag. Another function given to the Commission involved the formation of the U.S. Maritime Service for the training of seagoing ship's officers to man the new fleet. The actual licensing of officers and seamen still resided with the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation.
President Roosevelt nominated Joseph P. Kennedy first head of the Commission. Kennedy held that position until February 1938 when he left to become US Ambassador to Great Britain. After Kennedy's departure, the chairmanship was assumed by Rear Admiral Emory S. Land, USN (ret.), who had been the head of U.S. Navy's Bureau of Construction and Repair prior to his appointment to the Commission on the behest of the President and where he had been a deputy commissioner since the founding of the body. The other four members of the Commission in the years before the beginning of World War II were a mix of retired naval officers and men from disciplines of law and business. The man most notable in the group Land brought to the Commission was Commander Howard L. Vickery, USN, who, like Land, was a naval officer closely involved in the construction of new Navy vessels. Vickery became responsible for overseeing the Commission's shipbuilding functions including the design and construction of the ships, developing shipyards to build them and companies to manufacture the complicated and highly specialized ship's machinery. As World War II drew closer, Vickery was very much at the forefront of putting into place the Emergency Shipbuilding Program which man like Henry J. Kaiser were so instrumental in developing into an industry which would perform some of the greatest feats of wartime industrial production ever previously witnessed and never since matched.
As a symbol of the rebirth of the U.S. Merchant Marine and Merchant Shipbuilding under the Merchant Marine Act, the first vessel contracted for was SS America, which was owned by the United States Line and operated in the passenger liner and cruise service during 1940-1. Upon the U.S. entry into World War II, America was requisitioned by the U.S. Navy and became USS West Point. In the prewar years, several dozen other merchant ships were built for the Commission under its original 500 ship Long Range Shipbuilding Program but it wasn't until the late fall of 1940 the critical importance of the Commission to the defense of the lifeline to Great Britain and to the national mobilization for war became apparent when the beginnings of the Emergency Shipbuilding program were laid. Together, all the Maritime Commission's shipbuilding program became known as Ships for Victory and great pride was taken in it by the many thousands of ordinary citizens went to work in the shipyards and joined the ranks of the shipbuilding workforce.
From 1939 through the end of World War II, the Maritime Commission funded and administered the largest and most successful merchant shipbuilding effort in world history, producing thousands of ships, including Liberty ships, Victory ships, and others, notably Type C1, Type C2, Type C3, Type C4 freighters and T2 tankers. Most of the C2s and C3s were converted to Navy auxiliaries, notably attack cargo ships, attack transports, and escort aircraft carriers and many of the tankers became fleet replenishment oilers. The Commission also was tasked with the construction of many hundred "military type" vessels such as Landing Ship, Tank (LST)s and Tacoma-class frigates and large troop transports. By the end of the war, U.S. shipyards working under Maritime Commission contracts had built a total of 5,777 oceangoing merchant and naval ships.
In early 1942 both the training and licensing was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard for administration, but then late in the fall of 1942, the Maritime Service was transferred to the newly created War Shipping Administration which itself was created for the purpose of overseeing the operation of the fleet of merchant ships being built by the Emergency Program for the needs of the U.S. Armed Services. The WSA was added to the list of wartime agencies created within the Roosevelt Administration and was intended to relieve the already full plate of responsibilities of the Commission, yet they shared the same Chairman in Admiral Land and so worked very closely together.
With the end of World War II, both the Emergency and Long Range shipbuilding programs were terminated as there were far too many merchant vessels now for the Nation's peacetime needs. In 1946, the Commission was chaired by Vice admiral William W. Smith and the Merchant Ship Sales Act was passed to sell off a large portion of the ships previously built during the war to commercial buyers, both domestic and foreign. This facilitated the rebuilding of the fleets of both allied nations such as Great Britain, Norway and Greece which had lost a majority of their prewar vessels to the Battles of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. Although not sold outright to nations that were enemies during the war, U.S. merchant ships helped nations such as Japan, which had lost many hundreds of its merchant vessels to the Allies' submarine offensive in the western Pacific, recover their merchant shipping capacity via the loan of vessels and the carrying of relief cargoes to war ravaged Europe. Ships were also used in both the rebuilding programs under the Marshall Plan and the transport of food aid sent during the desperate winter of 1945-46 when famine loomed large over much of the European continent. For the next 25 years, in ports all around the world one could find dozens of ships which had been built during the war but which now were used in peace. Many of those same ships continued to sail until the early 1980s but most had been sold for scrap in the 1960s and 1970s as more modern designs were developed and more efficient slow speed diesel engines introduced to replace the steamships which predominated those built by the Commission during the war years.
Ships not disposed of through the Ship Sales Act were placed into one of eight National Defense Reserve Fleet(NDRF) sites maintained on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. On several occasions in the postwar years ships in the reserve fleets were activated for both military and humanitarian aid missions. The last major mobilization of the NDRF came during the Vietnam War. Since then, a smaller fleet of ships called the Ready Reserve Force has been mobilized to support both humanitarian and military missions.
The last major shipbuilding project undertaken by the Commission was to oversee the design and construction of the super passenger liner SS United States, which was intended to be both a symbol of American technological might and maritime predominance but also could be quickly converted into the world's fastest naval troop transport.
The Maritime Commission was abolished on 24 May 1950, and its functions were divided between the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission which was responsible for regulating shipping trades and trade routes and the United States Maritime Administration, which was responsible for administering the construction and operating subsidy programs, maintaining NDRF, and operating the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy which had been built and opened during World War II and which continues to be funded and operated today as one of the five Federal Service Academies.
Responsibility for U.S. merchant shipping has been held by many agencies since 1917. For a history, see:
Liberty ships were a class of cargo ship built in the United States during World War II. Though British in concept, the design was adopted by the United States for its simple, low-cost construction. Mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, the Liberty ship came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output.
The United States Merchant Marine refers to either United States civilian mariners, or to U.S. civilian and federally owned merchant vessels. Both the civilian mariners and the merchant vessels are managed by a combination of the government and private sectors, and engage in commerce or transportation of goods and services in and out of the navigable waters of the United States. The Merchant Marine primarily transports cargo and passengers during peacetime; in times of war, the Merchant Marine can be an auxiliary to the United States Navy, and can be called upon to deliver military personnel and materiel for the military. Merchant Marine officers may also be commissioned as military officers by the Department of Defense. This is commonly achieved by commissioning unlimited tonnage Merchant Marine officers as Strategic Sealift Officers in the United States Navy Reserve.
The United States Shipping Board (USSB) was established as an emergency agency by the 1916 Shipping Act, on September 7, 1916. The United States Shipping Board’s task was to increase the number of US ships supporting the World War I efforts. United States Shipping Board program ended on March 2, 1934.
The National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) consists of "mothballed" ships, mostly merchant vessels, that can be activated within 20 to 120 days to provide shipping for the United States of America during national emergencies, either military or non-military, such as commercial shipping crises.
The United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) is an agency of the United States Department of Transportation.
Its programs promote the use of waterborne transportation and its seamless integration with other segments of the transportation system, and the viability of the U.S. merchant marine. The Maritime Administration works in many areas involving ships and shipping, shipbuilding, port operations, vessel operations, national security, environment, and safety. The Maritime Administration is also charged with maintaining the health of the merchant marine, since commercial mariners, vessels, and intermodal facilities are vital for supporting national security, and so the agency provides support and information for current mariners, extensive support for educating future mariners, and programs to educate America's young people about the vital role the maritime industry plays in the lives of all Americans.
The War Shipping Administration (WSA) was a World War II emergency war agency of the US government, tasked to purchase and operate the civilian shipping tonnage the US needed for fighting the war. Both shipbuilding under the Maritime Commission and ship allocation under the WSA to Army, Navy or civilian needs were closely coordinated though Vice Admiral Emory S. Land who continued as head of the Maritime Commission while also heading the WSA.
The Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) was established by the United States Shipping Board, sometimes referred to as the War Shipping Board, on 16 April 1917 pursuant to the Shipping Act to acquire, maintain, and operate merchant ships to meet national defense, foreign and domestic commerce during World War I.
The United States Maritime Service (USMS) was established in 1938 under the provisions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 as voluntary organization to train individuals to become officers and crewmembers on merchant ships that form the United States Merchant Marine per 46 U.S.C. § 51701. Heavily utilized during World War II, the USMS has since been largely dissolved and/or absorbed into other federal departments, but its commissioned officers continue to function as administrators and instructors at the United States Merchant Marine Academy and the several maritime academies.
USNS Bowditch (T-AGS-21) was the lead ship of her class of oceanographic survey ships for the United States Navy. Launched as the SS South Bend Victory in 1945, Maritime Commission hull number MCV 694, a type VC2-S-AP3 Victory ship, she was named for Nathaniel Bowditch, the second U.S. Navy vessel named in his honor. The ship was acquired by the Navy in August 1957 and converted to an AGS at Charleston Naval Shipyard. Named Bowditch on 8 August 1957 and placed in service 8 October 1958 for operation by the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS).
The maritime history of the United States is a broad theme within the history of the United States. As an academic subject, it crosses the boundaries of standard disciplines, focusing on understanding the United States' relationship with the oceans, seas, and major waterways of the globe. The focus is on merchant shipping, and the financing and manning of the ships. A merchant marine owned at home is not essential to an extensive foreign commerce. In fact, it may be cheaper to hire other nations to handle the carrying trade than to participate in it directly. On the other hand, there are certain advantages, particularly during time of war, which may warrant an aggressive government encouragement to the maintenance of a merchant marine.
The United States merchant marine forces matured during the maritime history of the United States (1900–1999).
The Long Range Shipbuilding program was implemented by the U.S. Maritime Commission shortly after its establishment in 1937 as part of the mandate of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 which stated that:
United States shall have a merchant marine
(a) sufficient to carry its domestic water-borne commerce and a substantial portion of the water-borne export and import foreign commerce of the United States and to provide shipping service on all routes essential for maintaining the flow of such domestic and foreign water-borne commerce at all times
(b) capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency,
(c) owned and operated under the United States flag by citizens of the United States insofar as may be practicable, and
(d) composed of the best-equipped, safest, and most suitable types of vessels, constructed in the United States and manned with a trained and efficient citizen personnel. It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to foster the development and encourage the maintenance of such a merchant marine.
USS Denebola (AF-56) was a Denebola-class stores ship acquired by the U.S. Navy. She was built as SS Hibbing Victory as a type VC2-S-AP2 Victory ship built by Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation of Portland, Oregon, under a Maritime Commission. The Maritime Administration cargo ship was the 113th ship built. Its keel was laid on 2 May 1944. The ship was christened on 30 June 1944. She was built at the Oregon Shipbuilding yards in just 59 days, under the Emergency Shipbuilding program for World War II. The 10,600-ton ship was constructed for the Maritime Commission. She was operated by the (Pacific-Atlantic SS Company under the United States Merchant Marine act for the War Shipping Administration. The other two ships in her class were USS Regulus and USNS Perseus. USS Denebola's task was to carry stores, refrigerated items, and equipment to ships in the fleet, and to remote stations and staging areas.
USNS Rollins (T-AG-189) was one of 12 ships scheduled to be acquired by the United States Navy in February 1966 and converted into forward depot ships and placed into service with the Military Sea Transport Service. SS High Point Victory (MCV-851) was chosen for this conversion and assigned the name Rollins but the program was canceled and the ships were not acquired by the Navy.
The SS Lindenwood Victory was a Victory-class cargo ship built during World War II. The Lindenwood Victory was a type VC2-S-AP2 victory ship built by Permanente Metals Corporation, Yard 2, of Richmond, California. The Maritime Administration cargo ship was the 766th ship built. Her keel was laid on May 12, 1945. SS Lindenwood Victory was an armed cargo ship She was built in just 70 days, under the Emergency Shipbuilding program for World War II. SS Lindenwood Victory was an armed cargo ship, named for Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, one of 150 educational institutions that had Victory ships named after them. The 10,600-ton ship was constructed for the Maritime Commission.
USNS Private Leonard C. Brostrom (T-AK–255) was a cargo ship for the United States Navy that was converted into a heavy lift cargo ship in the early 1950s. She was built in 1943 for the United States Maritime Commission as SS Marine Eagle, a Type C4-S-B1 tank carrier, by Sun Shipbuilding during World War II. In 1948, she was transferred to the United States Army as USAT Private Leonard C. Brostrom after Leonard C. Brostrom, a recipient of the Medal of Honor. In 1950, the ship was transferred to the Military Sea Transport Service of the U.S. Navy as a United States Naval Ship staffed by a civilian crew. After ending her naval service, she entered the National Defense Reserve Fleet in October 1980 and was sold for scrapping in June 1982.
SS Mormachawk was a United States cargo vessel and troop ship during the Second World War operated by Moore-McCormack Lines as agents of the War Shipping Administration (WSA) from completion 14 December 1942 until placed in reserve after the war September 1946. The ship remained in the Columbia River reserve fleet at Astoria, Oregon until sold for scrapping in 1964.
MS Sea Witch was a United States Maritime Commission type C2 cargo ship, the first of four pre-war hulls, built by Tampa Shipbuilding & Engineering Company, Tampa, Florida and delivered in July 1940. The ship was of the basic C2 design, rather than the more numerous C2-S, C2-S-A1, C2-S-B1 types and four C2-T hulls delivered December 1941 through March 1942. Sea Witch was one of the relatively few C2 types built with diesel engines.
The SS Bucknell Victory was a Victory-class cargo ship built during World War II. The Bucknell Victory was a type VC2-S-AP2 victory ship built by Permanente Metals Corporation, Yard 2, of Richmond, California. The Maritime Administration cargo ship was the 728th ship built. Her keel was laid on December 27, 1944. SS Bucknell Victory was an armed cargo ship, named for Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, one of 150 educational institutions that had Victory ships named after them. She was built in just 70 days, under the Emergency Shipbuilding program for World War II. The 10,600-ton ship was constructed for the Maritime Commission.
The SS Baylor Victory was a cargo Victory ship built during World War II under the Emergency Shipbuilding program. The Baylor Victory (MCV-772) was a type VC2-S-AP2 Victory ship built by California Shipbuilding Corporation in Los Angeles, California. The Maritime Administration cargo ship was the 772rd ship built. Her keel was laid on Jan. 13, 1945. She was launched on March 6, 1945 and completed on March 30, 1945. The 10,600-ton ship was constructed for the Maritime Commission. She operated her under the United States Merchant Marine act for the War Shipping Administration. She was named for Baylor University a private Christian university in Waco, Texas. At her launching Baylor University was represented by 18 graduates and friends. University President Pat M. Neff gave a short speech at the launching and christening ceremony. Los Angeles District Judge Minor L. Moore, a Baylor graduate of 1900 also spoke. Baylor Victory was launched at 1:20am and was lite up by large floodlights.