Historical Markers
Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. Historical Marker
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Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company.

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Rt. 291 and Harrah's Blvd., Chester, Pa.

Behind the Marker

Image of the Dry Dock, four ships, and lumber.
Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company's Wet Basin, Chester, PA, 1919.
To conduct a war across two great oceans, the United States during World War II undertook the most ambitious shipbuilding program in American history. To carry cargo and personnel, sixteen American shipyards built 2,751 Liberty ships, the largest number of ships ever produced on a single design. To replace the Pacific fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor and build a "two-ocean navy," the federal government also funded construction of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, landing craft, and other vessels. To transport oil and gasoline, it commissioned the fabrication of 490 T-2 tankers, 281 of which were built by the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Image of the first T-2 tanker.
The SS Gettysburg, the first T-2 tanker, was launched by the Sun Shipbuilding...
A subsidiary of the Sun Oil Company owned by the Pew family from Pittsburgh, Sun Shipbuilding had launched its first ship in 1917, just as the United States was entering the First World War. In the decades that followed, Sun built oil tankers, primarily for the Standard Oil Company. On the eve of World War II, Sun had eight ship ways, each large enough to build a single ship, and two large dry docks for repairing damaged ships. In May 1941, the United States Maritime Commission asked Sun to expand its facilities in order to construct the vital oil tankers necessary for a two-ocean navy. Sun quickly received a contract for ninety-two tankers. Powered by 7,240-horsepower turbo electric engines, the 523-foot T-2 tanker had a cruising range of more than 12,000 miles.

Fighting ships of the U. S. Navy moored alongside its famous hammer-head crane, Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
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Fighting ships of the U. S. Navy moored alongside its famous hammer-head crane,...
Sun launched its first T-2, the Esso Gettysburg in February 1942. To fulfill its government orders, Sun quickly expanded and streamlined production until it could complete a ship, from the laying of the keel to launch, in just seventy days. By late 1943 it was operating four major shipyards, which contained twenty-eight ways, together with associated shops, cranes, railroad facilities, and dry docks. At its peak, Sun employed between 35,000 and 40,000 workers. By war's end, Sun had launched 318 vessels, including thirty-five cargo ships, thirty-five barges, and eight military vessels.

The lower Delaware River had been a center of American shipbuilding since the 1700s. During World War II, three other large shipyards operated on the river, two in Philadelphia and one in Camden. Founded in 1801, the Philadelphia Navy Yard was the nation's oldest and one of its largest Navy yards and storage facilities. Here, more than 100 aging ships were mothballed in fresh water, which slowed corrosion. During the war the Yard underwent explosive growth. Between 1941 and 1943 its workforce soared from under 6,000 to close to 60,000 workers, about 29 percent of whom were African American. To meet its labor needs, the Navy Yard also employed thousands of women, who represented sixteen percent of the workforce by 1944. Before the end of the war in May 1945, the Navy Yard had built forty-eight warships and three aircraft carriers, converted forty-one warships, repaired and overhauled -some of those for the British and other Allies-and outfitted more than 600. A city unto itself, the Navy Yard also included a Propeller Shop, which fashioned more than 5,500 ship propellers, the Naval Aircraft Factory, which fabricated 5,000 aircraft, and a naval Receiving Station, which processed more than 70,000 Navy recruits.

Image of a submarine at the shipyard.
USS Roncador on the Delaware River, with the Cramps Shipyard in the background,...
Farther up the river was the Cramp Shipbuilding Company, which, in the late 1800s, had built battleships for America's "Great White Fleet." Closed since 1927, Cramps reopened in 1941 with Navy contracts to build warships. During the war, Cramp launched thirty-four light cruisers, ocean-going tugs, floating workshops, and submarines. Across the river in Camden, the New York Shipbuilding Corporation built twenty-nine heavy warships of 12,000 to 38,000 tons, and 148 landing craft.

Even Pittsburgh got into the shipbuilding business. Both the markerDravo Corporation and American Bridge Company operated shipyards along the Ohio River that produced landing ship tanks (LSTs) for the Navy. Of the more than 1,000 LSTs used during the war, two-thirds were built by Dravo and five other yards, all using Dravo's original design.

Sliding down the ways at the Sun Shipping and Dry Dock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania, is the first ship conceived and constructed by all African-American  labor.
Launch of the SS Marine Eagle , the first ocean-going ship constructed entirely...
Merchant Marine and Navy demand forced Pennsylvania's shipyards to employ large numbers of African-American and women workers. In the Philadelphia Naval Yard, African-American men were most numerous marker among the riggers, while women were concentrated in the Aircraft Factory, where they represented almost 25 percent of the workforce. Plagued by racial tensions, the Sun Ship Company in 1943, on the suggestion of the publisher of the state's most influential African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, undertook a unique experiment. In Number 4 Yard, African Americans filled every position from janitors and welders up to supervisors. At peak production, Yard 4 employed about 6,200 blacks, with 2,800 more working in Sun Ship's integrated yards. In May 1943, Yard 4 launched the Marine Eagle, the first ship built entirely by black workers. By March 1945, Yard 4 had launched fifteen ships and thirty-five car floats.

After 1945, the federal government sold off most of the hundreds of vessels built by American shipyards during the war. The surplus devastated the American shipbuilding industry. When government money stopped flowing in, Cramp closed its doors for good in 1946. Having converted from civilian to military vessels, New York Ship remained in business until 1967, largely through its construction of nuclear submarines. After consolidating its operations, Sun continued as a merchant shipbuilder until its sale to Pennsylvania Shipbuilding in 1982 and final closure in 1989. The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard held on until 1995 when the federal government closed it during a wave of consolidation.

Today, two of the great battleships built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the New Jersey and Wisconsin, launched respectively on December 7, 1942, and 1943, are still afloat as memorials: New Jersey across the Delaware River from Philadelphia on the Camden waterfront, and the Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia.
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