Original Document
Original Document
History of the Dravo Shipyard During World War II, 1945.

‘‘I saw the Dravo shipyard which in March 1942 was a weed patch. The fifty-first LST (Landing Ship-Tank) was delivered the day I was there."" -Raymond Clapper in Scripps-Howard papers, November 23, l943.

RAYMOND CLAPPER was only one of thousands of visitors to the Pittsburgh area who have expressed astonishment at the size of the shipbuilding operations on Neville Island. From the trains and buses on the North side of the Ohio River the delivery ends of Dravo's two ship production lines are visible, and along the half-mile of outfitting dock is stretched a continuous stream of sleek, grey units for the Navy's combat force. There will be four or five LSTs, each about 325 ft. long and about as many DEs of almost the same length–an impressive array of fighting ships wherever seen, and particularly so when encountered 2,000 miles from salt water on the peaceful banks of the Ohio River.

The decision to locate such an impressive shipyard in the Pittsburgh area was arrived at only after it had been demonstrated that the Dravo organization was equipped by experience to maintain delivery schedules that would write off the handicap imposed by the distance to the sea. Behind the fact that the Navy saw fit to utilize shipbuilding facilities and ‘‘know how"" that were located so far away from its natural habitat is a story of American ingenuity, resourcefulness, and thoroughness of a type which has made itself manifest all over the country and sadly upset the calculations of the aggressor nations.

Raymond Clapper's surprise at the scope of shipbuilding activity on Neville Island is understandable, but his statement is not entirely accurate. The Dravo shipyard was not all weed patch in March of 1942, although the error was an easy one for a visitor to make since the yard in peacetime was only about one-tenth the size of the plant that stretches along the bank today. Another well informed newscaster, Lowell Thomas, voiced his enthusiasm over the Neville Island shipbuilding operations almost two years ahead of Clapper in a nationwide Sunoco- broadcast on March 5, 1942, when he was present at the launching of a submarine chaser that took place in the one-tenth of the present plant which at that time constituted the Dravo shipyard Mr. Thomas said, in part:

"I, along with some ten thousand other people, attended a ship launching today. And I don't think either the Japs or the Nazis would have enjoyed the ceremony. It was an ocean-going ship, built for Uncle Sam's Navy, built out here at Pittsburgh and launched here at Pittsburgh A ship of steel, more than a hundred and seventy-three feet long, to be manned by a Navy crew of sixty, and to do the job of a destroyer.

"The most interesting thing about it is that this sea-going vessel, launched out here in the Ohio River, came off an assembly line!"

Newspapers the country over carried the story of the launching, on October 18, 1941, of PC 490, the first ship on Dravo's succession of Navy contracts and the very first sea-going Navy combat vessel ever to be launched from an Assembly line!

Engineering Works Finds New Shipbuilding Methods

The shipbuilding technique of today resembles that of World War I as 1940s auto industry resembled the carriage business of the 90"s. Yesterday's shipyards are obsolete or obsolescent. The time required to build any given unit today is a fraction of what was needed during the last war, and the greatest single fundamental responsible for the change is the use of welded seams to join plates, instead of riveting.

Yesterday's ships started from keels, and grew, plate by plate, member by member, as riveting gangs stood by on the shipways to fasten each new part to the growing whole" with the staccato beat of the hammer on the glowing rivet. That was a cumbersome method, and, at the war's end, experiments with welding were considered. Then American shipbuilding went into doldrums and the experiments were left to the manufacturer of welding wire and machines.

By 1929 advanced welding engineers were sure that they had a machine and a wire that would join thick plates of carbon steel. The shipbuilding industry, locked in a period of idleness, neither refuted the claim nor acted upon it. But the Dravos decided to see. They were building several river barges for use by other divisions of the corporation, and it was decided to try one with welded seams. That was an experimental unit Barge No. 817–launched in August 1929–five years before any similar unit was built in any yard.

As Barge No. 817 proved itself in the river, the men who had built it prepared for a swing to welded barges, and laid their production plans accordingly. River barges of standard size were reduced to a given number of shop preassemblies-building time and production costs were cut. Finally in 1935–the Dravo production line for barges was developed-a huge shop, big enough to hold three standard hopper barges 175-feet long was put in operation. The prime purpose of the shop was to guarantee 24-hour-a-day assembly–rain or shine and with welding performed under controlled conditions with reference to heat and light. The standard sections were built in an adjacent fabricating shop, also under ideal conditions, and were transported to the barge shop for final assembly.

This plan imposed another problem, since a movement of each barge through successive building stages was necessary, and ultimately the completed barges had to be moved out of the barge shop to a launching berth by the river. To do this, there were provided transfer carriages equipped with hydraulic jacks capable of lifting the barge free of its building berth and rolling it to the desired destination.

These three innovations formed the backbone of Dravo's shipbuilding technique–electric arc welding–the use of large shop-built preassemblies, and the movement of hulls across land, from available yard space to launching berths.

The Navy is Alert!

During 1940, officials of the Bureau of Ships, U.S. Navy, examined the facilities by means of which barges and towboats were produced at Neville Island by this revolutionary technique. In consequence, a contract for a group of subchasers and mine sweepers of similar hull design and proportion was awarded. As the peace-time production of ships for river transportation service was still going on, it was necessary to superimpose this subchaser production line in a way that would not interfere with the delivery of badly needed petroleum products carriers. How this was done is shown in an accompanying illustration. The resulting production of subchaser hulls was so satisfactory that the Bureau of Ships equipped other contractors for similar hulls with facilities for this style production, modeled after the ones in use at Neville Island.

The Job Grows Bigger

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, came the LST (Landing Ship-Tank) program. The preassemblies were larger and more numerous and the length of time required for final assembly was so much greater that a longer production line was required, but the same basic and revolutionary method that had entered into the barge building of 1935 was retained as the basis for the LST program.

The original LST award was for 60 ships. Delivery requirements dictated a tremendous expansion of plant facilities to be accomplished in the tempo of that period. Peacetime Dravo plant became known as the ‘‘West Yard"" and was marked for modification. A new "East Yard" was laid out in available space a short distance up the river. Each yard was to have its own assembly line and launching ways.

Ground was broken for the East Yard and for the complete revision of the West Yard on the 4th of February 1942. The first LST was launched from the West Yard on September 7th of that year and from the East Yard on September 10th. Although existing yards were building these boats, it is significant to note that Dravo's first LST was the Navy's first. The ship that slid down the ways in the West Yard on Labor Day in 1942, LST No. 1, was the very first of the mighty amphibious fleet that since has carried the war to enemy shores in a most convincing manner.

While this was all going on at Neville Island, similar scenes of action were transpiring on the banks of the Christina River at Wilmington, Delaware. At this point, Dravo has long maintained an assembly yard for harbor craft; coal barges, car floats, and the like. In peacetime, these had been fabricated and made into subassemblies at Neville Island and then shipped by rail for final assembly at Wilmington. This assembly yard was now to take on a stature comparable with the yards on Neville Island; to do its own fabricating and machine work, as well as to assemble and launch the same type of ships as were being built in the Pittsburgh plants.

A great deal of space could be spent on a detailed description of the various facilities involved in this expansion. To by-pass this, let's consider just the most indicative figures; the increase in personnel. The Neville Island yard in peacetime employed between 1,000 and 1,500 workers. By early 1944 there were between 14,000 and 16,000 workers there. The Wilmington yard in peacetime employed from 350 to 500. In 1944 its force was between 8,000 and 10,000. In each case, the ratio of expansion is even more significant than the actual number of persons involved, and in neither case would such expansion have been possible had not the Dravos built a solid foundation of managerial ability with an ample reserve that could be and was called upon to handle this tremendous force. To handle the peak of Engineering Works shipbuilding production, many Dravo executives from the three other divisions of the corporation-were pressed into service.

The shipyards on the banks of the Ohio as well as the one on the bank of the Christina later went from LST to DE (Destroyer Escort) production and then back again to LSTs. After the initial contract for 60 LSTs was received in 1942, additional and larger contracts were awarded. The exact figures are not available, but it is believed that of these ships, which form the backbone of the amphibious fleet, Dravo will turn out to have been the largest single producer.

Personnel Problems

Every American industry producing for war has faced and solved staggering problems of personnel and production so quickly and so thoroughly as to create an emergency munitions plant the world will not quickly forget. Dravo's problems were not unlike those of other industries. Shipbuilders had to be made out of filling station attendants, musicians, lawyers, beauty operators (16% of the wartime working staff was female) and all the other civilian occupations that yielded up manpower to the struggle for survival on the industrial front.

This training problem called for a prodigious program in which not only workmen, but leaders and supervisors were schooled. Complete planning and building of three housing projects had to be undertaken. As the army of workers increased, transportation by public conveyance had to be stepped up, and the conservation of individual transportation by means of a Share-the-Ride Club had to be fostered and encouraged. The work of the Industrial Safety Department multiplied out of proportion to the number of employees, since comparatively green workers needed more supervision on this important point than did the more seasoned employees who formed the peacetime force. Protection against sabotage and illegal entry multiplied until the Neville Island Plant now has a police force that would be adequate for a normal city of 125,000 persons. Food preparation and distribution had to be kept in step with the ever-climbing payrolls, as did medical service and the important job of providing useful and healthy group activities and entertainment. Two newspapers, one for Neville Island, and one for Wilmington with the combined circulation of 27,500 copies every two weeks are published. One good-sized clerical department does nothing but record War Bond subscriptions, make the deductions, and deliver the bonds.

While the shipbuilding program is, by its nature the most spectacular Dravo war job, it has not been the only one. The Engineering Works Division, aside from building ships, has supplied whirlers to other shipyards in great quantities. It has built floating whirlers for the Navy and the Army with capacities up to 100 tons for loading and unloading bulky objects like heavy tanks and locomotives in shallow harbors. It might be noted here that the same Engineering Works Divisions supplied whirlers to America's shipyards during the last War, and also that the whirler itself was an adaptation made by F. R. Dravo in 1915. Mr. Dravo had seen locomotive cranes at work. He took that type of crane, gave it a solid foundation, increased its size and capacity and by so doing supplied America's shipyards with the tool that today is indispensable.

Submerged Shipways

A long and impressive list of jobs has been completed by The Contracting Division during the peace years-the Dam and Lock Chambers at Gallipolis, Ohio, the only roller gate dam in the Ohio River and with the largest roller gates installed anywhere in the world; the series of three roller gate dams in the Kanawha River, flood control dams at Mahoning, Pennsylvania, and Bluestone, West Virginia; countless bridges including one over the Ohio River at Owensburg and one over the Mississippi River at Natchez, a stretch of underground tunnel for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a 10-mile section of the Delaware Aqueduct tunnel driven through solid rock 800 feet beneath the earth's surface, as well as innumerable shafts and slopes throughout the coal regions.

The most outstanding war job performed by this division, and one that will have a far-reaching effect on tidewater shipbuilding, was the construction of two submerged shipways for a large East Coast Yard. Both of these shipways are large enough to take first-line airplane carriers. One has accommodated six LSTs at one time.

The advantage of building ships in submerged shipways has long been recognized. The launching is less spectacular, it is true, since it involves nothing more than opening a valve and admitting water to float the ship and finding the vessel afloat in due time thereafter. But there is a distinct saving in time and cost of shipbuilding. Furthermore the hazard of and probably 90% of the unproductive cost of launching is eliminated. The saving in time and cost of building will range between 10 and 25%. The principal objection has been the initial cost of the submerged shipways installation.

It was on this problem that The Contracting Division suggested making use of their experience in the building of locks, dams, and bridges in the various rivers of the country by simply using the cellular steel pile cofferdam as a semi-permanent structure. By this method, The Contracting Division made it possible for this project to be completed at about 40% of the normal cost. This ingenious method will undoubtedly influence the construction of similar installations in the future. Engineering Works Division collaborated on this project by supplying eight cranes with a total capacity of 336 tons to serve these shipways.

Other recent jobs cannot be identified at this writing because of their strategic importance but they include foundations for steel mills, power plants, synthetic rubber plants, coke ovens and the like, most of them at points adjacent to the rivers.

Credit: "The Dravo Corporation," Men and Women of Wartime Pittsburgh and Environs: A War Production Epic (Pittsburgh: Frank C. Harper, 1945), 103-113.
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