John C. Niedermair grew up on Staten Island, New York, in the 1890s, explored the big port’s maritime fringes, and received a scholarship to the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture. He started as a draftsman at the New York Navy Yard before moving to Washington as a naval architect in the preliminary design group of the Bureau of Ships in 1928. Over the next 30 years, he would direct the design of more than 8,000 ships, from 1930s cruisers, to Essex (CV-9)-class carriers, to the revolutionary new nuclear submarines.
The American Society of Naval Engineers named him the father of the modern U.S. Navy. He would receive decorations and awards from the government, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, and the National Academy of Sciences, but he was modest about his achievements. In his oral history, published by the U.S. Naval Institute in 1978, he said he kept digging at the things he didn’t know. “I’ll search a thing out . . . to the limit, and I always had more time than anybody else because I only use four or five hours of sleep a day.”
On 4 November 1941, a naval officer colleague gave Niedermair a British dispatch. They had an urgent need but were unable to come up with a design for a large, seagoing landing craft able to carry at least 500 tons of the newest tanks.
I got busy and made a few passing sketches on an envelope. Then I went home that night and worked on it in my study. . . . I drew the original sketch in the office that afternoon in a matter of a couple of hours, on a scale of 50 feet to the inch. The scheme that you see there was never changed except that the ship was lengthened [20 feet] to somewhere around 300 feet, and the beam was increased a little also. They made copies of that and flew it over to England.
The British reaction was positive. Work was under way on the revolutionary landing ship tank (LST). Niedermair’s team completed the detailed design in February and immediately turned it over to Gibbs and Cox to be developed into contract plans, telescoping all that would be needed for the selected shipyard. “As a result of that,” he recalled, “by October of 1942, that is a little less than a year, an LST was finished.” Niedermair taxied back and forth from Washington to Norfolk to Boston, pushing ahead at flank speed to make the emerging new hulls operational. Bows were nosed in and ramps tested at beachlines. “They came to me and wanted to know how fast they should hit the beach, and I said full speed. About 10 knots. Well, we hit the beach, and it was just a gradual stop.”
Floating roadways were designed and built to be carried by the LSTs and used as ship-to-shore bridges if necessary. Niedermair was in the thick of it:
To do this I had to modify the ramp, to put a fair lead in there so I could get a line from the winch down through the fair lead that would go to the roadway that we were towing alongside. When we hit the beach, the LST would stop, and the roadway would, of course, keep on going.
A demonstration in early 1943—a landing with tank to be offloaded—was set for the Combined Chiefs of Staff. We hit the beach, pulled the roadway over, and dropped the ramp on it. The LST skipper passed word that they’d lost the stern anchor; the ship was about to be blown sideways. . . . I told them just to push full speed ahead. Then I let the tank come down, so I got the tank ashore in seven minutes with all this happening.
Ernie King was there and all the Combined Chiefs were tickled to death. . . .The LSTs were very successful in the Pacific, in the Atlantic, the Normandy landings.
Mr. Clift is the U.S. Naval Institute’s vice president for planning and operations and president emeritus of the National Intelligence University.