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By Rodney K. Watterson

How Portsmouth Got a Leg Up

Portsmouth’s unprecedented achievement was the direct result of the considerable expertise in submarine design and construction that existed at the yard at the start of the war. That expertise came from preferential treatment the Navy gave the yard in the 1920s and 1930s. Dissatisfied with the submarine acquisition process during World War I, the Navy thereafter sought to develop Portsmouth as an alternative to private shipyards.

In the early years of submarine development, private builders Electric Boat Company and Lake Torpedo Company controlled the design of subs with little or no input solicited—or accepted—from the Navy. According to naval historian Gary Weir, “The relationship between private shipbuilders and the navy before 1914 was essentially that of vendor and customer in the classic sense.” 6 That relationship continued during World War I, causing the Navy to look for alternatives. Many thought the motivations of private shipbuilders during the war had more to do with profiteering than providing the Fleet with the submarines it needed. 7 In addition, the Fleet wanted to define the operating capabilities and technologies that were to be designed into their submarines instead of buying what happened to be on the shelf. In short, the Navy thought it was paying too much for an inferior and ill-designed product.

Captain Andrew McKee, planning officer at Portsmouth during World War II, wrote an article in 1945 for the Society of Naval Engineers and Marine Architects in which he described the process the Navy used to wrest control of submarine design from the private yards. According to McKee, the Navy brought Portsmouth on board by assigning the yard the building of L-8 —the yard’s first sub—according to the design of the Lake Torpedo Company in 1914. That was followed with the construction of submarine O-1 , per the Electric Boat design, in 1916. With Portsmouth thus having experience with both types of boats, the Navy then set up a design competition among the three yards: Submarine S-1 was assigned to Electric Boat, S-2 to Lake Torpedo Company, and S-3 to the Portsmouth Navy Yard. 8 The Portsmouth design was judged superior, and as a consequence Electric Boat received no submarine orders during the 1920s and Lake Torpedo Company folded in 1925 for lack of work. 9 On the other hand, the Navy strengthened Portsmouth’s submarine design and new-construction capabilities in that same time frame. According to McKee, “For fourteen years, from 1919 until 1933, all the submarines ordered, and there were only nine . . . were built to plans prepared by Portsmouth.” 10 While Portsmouth’s design team had limited opportunities in the 1920s, Electric Boat and other yards had none at all.

Ready for Mobilization

According to the Bureau of Ships’ World War II self-history, “At one time or another during the period after World War I new construction disappeared from every Navy Yard except Portsmouth.” 11 Unlike the other yards, at Portsmouth the naval architects, marine engineers, and experienced managers were kept employed despite a budget that was severely constrained by economic depression, politics, and foreign policy. Portsmouth not only survived, but improved its design and production capabilities between the wars. As a result, the shipyard was more ready than most for the industrial mobilization that immediately preceded World War II.

Disarmament treaties, neutrality sentiments, and very limited naval appropriations during the Great Depression curtailed submarine construction between wars. New Deal programs, however, provided limited funds and workers to shipyards when both were in short supply. Most noteworthy of those programs was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which kick-started a renewed naval shipbuilding program in 1933. Two Portsmouth-built, NIRA-funded submarines, the Porpoise and Pike , provided valuable design and construction work for Portsmouth at a time when naval funding for new submarines was essentially nonexistent. The new sectional-construction process Portsmouth used to build the submarines was one of the keys to its record-setting production during World War II.

The war provided an overarching crisis-filled environment that rallied yard employees and management to the common objective of increased production to defeat the enemy. So what part of the shipyard’s success, then, was due purely to the stimulation of war, and what part was due to other factors? That question, of course, is impossible to answer. Undoubtedly the threat of war heightens an individual’s performance—and 20,000 heightened performances can produce extraordinary results. That said, those other, more definable, factors that contributed to the yard’s success can be examined.

External Factors that Fueled Success

Portsmouth Navy Yard had two distinct advantages over the other Navy yards (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Charleston, Bremerton, and Mare Island). First, it did not have to deal with multiple ship types and disruptive repair and overhaul work. According to a 1944 industrial survey of the shipyard, “Any present judgment of the organization, administration, and control procedures of the Navy Yard, Portsmouth, N.H., must give great weight to the development of the Yard, subordinating all other considerations to the demands of the war effort, into a specialized construction activity for submarines only. All operating units have been streamlined for this sole purpose.” 12 Portsmouth’s ability to focus its resources and energies into one line of work was the logical extension of Navy efforts to develop the yard’s submarine design and construction capabilities between wars.

Portsmouth’s second advantage was that it was a small East Coast yard. Despite expanding sixfold between 1940 and 1943, it was still the smallest of the Navy yards in March 1943. At the time, Portsmouth employed 20,465 workers; other yards averaged payrolls of 38,377. 13 A small shipyard with a singular mission and a well-defined, constantly increasing workload had a distinct advantage over larger shipyards with workloads consisting of multiple ship types and frequent emergent tasks. Portsmouth experienced little of the disruptive battle-damage repairs that consumed Pacific yards. In addition, it did not have to deal with the frequent shifting of priorities between types of ships as the Navy’s needs changed with the fortunes of war, and the resultant revised strategic planning. The yard’s one mission: Build as many submarines as possible, as fast as possible.

Portsmouth also benefited from a highly decentralized naval shipbuilding environment. It existed because the bureau responsible for the Navy yards was overwhelmed with other matters and unable to effectively oversee those operations. Newly created in June 1940—concurrent with the passing of legislation that massively increased funding for naval construction—the Bureau of Ships quickly was consumed with the administrative burden of organizing a rapidly expanding bureaucracy while mobilizing for an accelerated naval construction program. 14 Recognizing that the Bureau of Ships was overwhelmed, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox in January 1941 directed Navy-yard commandants to operate independently to the maximum extent possible: “During the present emergency, it is directed that Commandants of all Navy Yards act with the full authority of the Bureau of Ships taking final local action to the greatest extent possible.” 15 Local decision-making was encouraged, especially for yards that were performing well. In essence, the Navy yards became entrepreneurial operations. Portsmouth thrived.

The Leadership Component

One of the most respected leaders of the submarine community during the war was in charge at Portsmouth. Rear Admiral Thomas Withers assumed command on 10 June 1942 and remained until late 1945. Immediately before arriving at Portsmouth, he was commander Submarines Scouting Force, which became commander Submarine Force Pacific Fleet at the start of the war. Withers witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and directed the first deployment of U.S. submarines thereafter.

Prior to his assignment at Pearl Harbor, Withers had enjoyed a long and illustrious career in submarines. In 1928, as commander Submarine Division 4, he advanced the concept that U.S. submarines should be used as independent commerce raiders, much as the Germans had done in World War I, rather than as scouting units in conjunction with Fleet or coastal defense. As a consequence, he is credited with helping to change the direction of U.S. submarine policy. His concept of independent submarine operations required designs that gave submarines longer ranges, better sea-keeping ability, and improved habitability. 16 It was only logical that the Navy would assign one of its most innovative thinkers to head the expanding submarine design organization at Portsmouth.

The industrial manager, directly responsible for all aspects of production, was Captain H. F. D. Davis, an aggressive hands-on waterfront manager whose initials were thought to stand for Hell, Fire, and Damnation. Planning officer Captain Andrew McKee was an acknowledged expert in submarine design at the time. He subsequently enhanced that reputation and was promoted to rear admiral. In recognition of his contributions the submarine tender USS McKee (AS-41) was named for him, as is a prize for academic excellence at the Navy’s nuclear-power school. Those three officers combined with a highly qualified and experienced civilian management team to provide the yard excellent leadership.

A Quartet of Key Practices

Four key industrial practices contributed to the yard’s success: optimization of prelaunch construction on the building sites; the sectional construction that began with the NIRA submarines in 1933; empowered small teams with specialized training; and an assembly line, to the extent that it could be applied to submarine construction at the time.

Prior to and during the war, Portsmouth had too few of the most critically needed resources to accelerate production—building sites. Ramping up for the war, the yard added two traditional above-ground building ways, raising its total to five. During the first year of the war a building basin and drydock were constructed in which multiple submarines could be built and launched by floating them off their blocks. 17

The desired building rates could only be achieved if submarine hulls were forced off the building sites very early in the construction schedule to make room for the next keels. Using a “push ’em off the ways” production strategy, boats were launched as soon as they were watertight. Much of the work normally done on building sites was then completed pierside. At least one submarine was launched without a sail. Necessity was very much the mother of invention as the shipyard turned a shortage of building sites into an advantage by developing and optimizing pre-launch construction techniques, especially the building of submarines side-by-side in the newly constructed drydock and building basin.

Thus, the New Hampshire yard completed its boats many months sooner than competitors. With just nine building ways, Portsmouth was motivated to launch submarines four times faster than Electric Boat did with 21 building ways.

By the start of the war, Portsmouth had acquired considerable experience in sectional construction. This process involved the construction and outfitting of pressure-hull cylinders—weighing as much as 20 tons—at various sites in the yard and then transporting them to the building sites for assembly. Prior to the start of sectional construction on the NIRA submarines in 1934, each submarine was custom-built at the building site. A shipyard letter on 30 July 1934 explained, “A new method has been developed for the construction of submarines.” 18 It went on to describe the process:

The submarines Porpoise and Pike are being constructed in sections. A section of the boat weighing approximately twenty tons is constructed at Building 96 and after it has been riveted and welded the section is moved by crane and railroad cars and placed on the building ways in Building 115. This method of constructing a large section and moving it as one piece to the ways has proven economical and more rapid than the method which was formerly used. 19

The shipyard developed and refined sectional construction during the late 1930s by creating other independent erection sites in various buildings and adding content to the cylinders. 20 Portsmouth planned for facilities conducive to sectional construction, developed those facilities, and acquired experience in that production process in the years immediately preceding the war. 21 When orders skyrocketed and mass production became the order of the day, Portsmouth was poised to capitalize on the revitalized rebuilding program when other shipyards were thankful just to get back to work.

The postlaunch stepping of the submarines through various berths for the completion of berth-specific jobs was another key to Portsmouth’s success. Newly launched submarines first had their sail and topside superstructure finished at one berth, periscopes and masts installed at another berth, their bow torpedo tubes completed and tested at another berth, stern tubes completed and tested at still another berth, and the final outfitting and dock trials completed at yet another. Other work, of course, took place at each successive stage. The end result was an assembly line of sorts, where the submarine stepped from berth to berth while small, specialized teams reported to the same berth over and over again to accomplish repetitive tasks. 22

A well-trained and self-motivated workforce having a homogeneous and repetitious workload, when coupled with management concerns about the gradual loss of employees to the military services, provided the ideal environment for using small teams of empowered workers with specialized training. An empowered worker trained to accomplish the same job on submarine after submarine was highly productive, as well as expert, in that task. In addition, if he were drafted into the military, his replacement could be quickly trained with minimal disruption to the process.

William Tebo, a high-schooler employed at the Navy yard in 1944, recalled how he traveled from submarine to submarine on the building ways performing the few electrical jobs for which he was the “expert installer,” with minimal supervision. One of his jobs was to wire the electrical distribution panel for the newly installed, and highly secret, shipboard radar. With the radar consoles and equipment concealed under wrappings and coverings, Tebo dutifully wired the radar electrical panels on submarine after submarine. 23 Thus, with limited electrical training and supervision, he was able to provide a most useful and productive service to the yard during six months of employment before he left for military service. Tebo was one of hundreds of small-team specialists scattered among all the trades. Small teams of empowered workers—a radically new management concept advanced 40 years later by Tom Peters and others—existed in spades at Portsmouth during the war.

The Winning Combination

The Portsmouth Navy Yard’s record-setting wartime production was the direct result of preferential treatment from the Navy that allowed it to develop its submarine design and construction capabilities between wars. In addition, a highly qualified shipyard management team took advantage of a workload streamlined for submarine production and a decentralized wartime shipyard environment to employ aggressive, innovative management techniques. The most notable of these were worker empowerment and the “push ’em off the ways” production strategy. The result: unprecedented production that contributed significantly to winning the war.

1. “4 New Subs Launched for World’s Record,” Portsmouth Herald , 27 January 1944.

2. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox telegram of 27 January 1944 to Commandant Portsmouth Navy Yard, National Archives and Records Administration, Waltham, MA, RG 181, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard General Correspondence (Central Files), 1925–56, Box 18, Folder S-6, “Launching General, Jan 1944–47.” Hereafter NARA Waltham.

3. “Yard is Tops in Sub Production,” Portsmouth Herald , 19 July 1945.

4. Ibid.

5. The figure is constructed from Cradle of American Shipbuilding (Portsmouth Naval Shipyard: Government Printing Office, 1979), 76–83.

6. Gary Weir, Building American Submarines 1914–1940 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1991), 5.

7. Robert Connery, The Navy and Industrial Mobilization in World War II (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 266.

8. A. I. McKee, “Development of Submarines in the United States,” Historical Transactions 1893–1943 (New York: Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1945), 347.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. United States Naval Administration in World War II, Bureau of Ships , 1946, unpublished history at the Navy Department Library, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC, 7.

12. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ralph A. Bard letter of 6 November 1944, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, RG 19, Bureau of Ships General Correspondence, 1940–1945, Box 785, Folder NY1/A3, 3. Hereafter NARA College Park.

13. Navy Department, SOSED (Industrial Manpower Section) letter of 1 May 1943, NARA College Park, RG 38, Naval Operations General Correspondence, Box 151, Folder NY1, 1 July 1942 to 30 June 1943.

14. Naval History and Heritage Command, (Naval Expansion Act, 19 July 1940) and (Naval Expansion Act, 14 June 1940).

15. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox letter of 15 January 1941 to Chief Bureau of Ships and Commandants All Navy Yards, NARA College Park, RG 24, Bureau of Naval Personnel General Correspondence, 1941–45, NY1 (66-176) to NY2 (551–661), Box 1601, Folder NY 166–176.

16. .

17. The triple launching that introduced this article was not repeated, being deemed excessively risky. Oral interview with Fred White, 3 April 2006, New Castle, N.H. He was master rigger and laborer at the shipyard.

18. Local Shore Station Development Board letter to Senior Member of the Departmental Shore Station Development Board of 30 July 1934. NARA Waltham, RG 181, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard General Correspondence (Central Files), Box 1, Folder A1/Y1, “Local Development Boards Package 1.”

19. Ibid.

20. Commandant First Naval District letter of 10 December 1936 to Commandant Portsmouth Navy Yard, NARA Waltham, RG 181, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard General Correspondence (Central Files), Box 1, Folder A1/Y1, “Local Development Boards.”

21. It is not to be implied that Portsmouth was the only submarine yard that employed the sectional construction of submarines. Other yards used some form of the process, but Portsmouth, first to use it in 1934, had more experience in perfecting it.

22. Oral interview with Fred White, 3 April 2006.

23. Oral interview with William Tebo, 3 November 2006.



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