How wars are won

Jack L. Levin

August 26, 1992|By Jack L. Levin

ON Baltimore's waterfront, the Fairfield section is very quiet now. You can almost hear the summer breezes blowing in from the Patapsco.

Fifty years ago, it was a round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week bedlam of riveting hammers pounding red-hot rivets into steel plates, a cacophony of mechanical hubbub, whistles, fog horns and the yelling and cursing of sweaty workers struggling with unaccustomed tasks -- business and professional people developing blisters and callouses on soft, unskilled hands.

One distinctive sound in the din was the wailing ambulance siren as yet another hapless victim was rushed to the infirmary or hospital. Strange, heavy tools became deadly weapons in the clumsy clutches of eager amateurs. In the early days of the war, shipyard casualties rivaled those on the battlefields.

Out of this chaos, in the late fall of 1941, was born at last the first Liberty Ship, the Patrick Henry. It was Fairfield's first response to the arrogance and belligerence of the Axis powers. We who had slogged through a gray, grinding Depression felt our hearts pounding. Until then, our only patriotic excitement had been on the Fourth of July, celebrating the victories of earlier achievers. This was our victory!

This first launching of the ships that would carry the war to America's enemies, and help to finish what they had started, lighted our sky as no fireworks had ever done.

For many of us, the launching was the most memorable event of our routine lives. We wildly cheered the speeches of shipyard officials. We had goose bumps as the skids were knocked out, the first champagne bottle smashed against its bow and the Patrick Henry slid majestically down the greased ways. We forgot the gripes and the pain: the rising at 4 a.m., the --ing half asleep to meet our rides, the lunching in the company of rats scurrying under the hulls, the aching joints and muscles, the interminable monotony of seven-day weeks of mind-numbing labor.

But the mounting frequency of exhilarating launchings made it all worthwhile.

Production revved up to overdrive after Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had called the slow-moving vessels "ugly ducklings," renamed them "Liberty Ships" because he pledged that they would "liberate the world." Our fighters did that job, of course, but our workers surely helped.

Great flocks of the ugly ducklings were born into the waters of the Patapsco. On Sept. 7, 1942, nine months to the day after Pearl Harbor, came the John Brown, which is now on display as a museum ship at a pier on Clinton Street. It was one of 384 Liberty Ships launched at Fairfield -- more than any produced at any shipyard in the nation. Altogether, the yards turned out 2,710 ships. Built and crewed by civilians, they carried two-thirds of all essential cargo to Allied forces. Nearly 200 were torpedoed by U-boats, but the Nazis could not sink them as fast as we could build them.

It took 42 days to build the John Brown, but by the end of the war Fairfield was mass-producing a ship a week. It was not only Fairfield workers and management who achieved this miracle of productivity; it was also the workers and management at all the industries which supplied the thousands of tons of materials used -- from rivets, nuts, bolts and welding rods to heavy steel plates and huge ships' engines.

The only thing we nearly ran out of was names for the ships. John W. Brown was a little-known labor union leader; other uncelebrated civilians had to be dug out of obscurity for moments of glory. But nothing slowed the pace in the 18 yards producing Liberty Ships.

At shipyards like Bethlehem's, at airplane plants like Glenn Martin and in bustling factories from coast to coast, America praised the Lord and passed the ammunition to those fighting in the armies on two sides of the world.

Wages were adequate, not lavish. With shortages and rationing of many commodities, the standard of living was no consumer's paradise. But morale was high; no burnout, no malaise. We were confident of eventual victory. We gave it the highest priority and threw ourselves entirely into the task of waging the war as well on the home front as on the battlefront.

Today, too, as headlines and newscasts keep reminding us, we are at war -- against drugs, poverty, hunger, crime, disease and pollution. These enemies lack the personified evil of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini, but their threats to our survival are as real. We are good at declaring these wars, but not very good at fighting them. Where are the emergency measures? The War Bonds? The planning of production? The rationing of resources? The setting of priorities in finance, labor and education to assure concentration on winning?

Counting all those, especially children, who are dying of malnutrition, drug overdoses, street violence, AIDS and gun slaughter, American losses in these wars must exceed those in the most destructive war in history.

We won that war by will, determination, steadfast commitment and readiness to pay the price of victory. Only by such unconditional, uncompromising effort can we triumph over present enemies.

In 1992 as in 1942, we can again dream of victory over formidable enemies which threaten not just "them" but also "us."

As Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, said, "If you will it, it is no dream."

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman and certified welder.

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