When World War II erupted, German U-boats were sinking American supply ships in the Atlantic faster than they could be built. Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazis torpedoed a total of 2, 603 merchant vessels.
In 1941, mass production began on a new class of ship with a standardized design and 250, 000 prefabricated parts. Each took 70 days to construct. All were 441 feet long and capable of carrying 9, 000 tons of cargo in five holds plus an assortment of vehicles and airplanes lashed to the deck. Traveling along with that cargo was a crew of 44 as well as 12 to 25 naval guards.
Dubbed “Liberty” or “Victory” ships, the first were named for signers of the Declaration of Independence but any private group raising a vessel’s $2 million cost could select their own name. By war’s end, 2, 711 had been launched, with many having been constructed at two local shipyards: Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Co. and Gulf Shipbuilding Corp.
Post War Port
When the war ended, it was decided that the majority of these ships would be stored in preparation for future conflicts. Congressman Frank Boykin convinced the powers in Washington to designate Mobile as one of two Gulf ports for the National Defense Reserve Fleet. A ship channel was dredged between the Mobile and Tensaw rivers where the freshwater was found far less corrosive on ship hulls than that of saltwater locations.
The original 325 ships brought to the site were anchored side by side. Had they been placed in a single line, it would have stretched 27 miles. As many as 800 of these ships came in and out of Mobile, with many called for service in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as humanitarian efforts such as the Berlin Crisis of 1961.
In the 1950s, the Tensaw Shipyard, with its welding and machine shops, employed as many as 347 men. They were charged with “mothballing” the ships and keeping machinery in working order. Each vessel was to be ready for service should a need arise.
From Ghost Fleet to Reefs
The U.S. Maritime Administration ordered the phasing out of Mobile’s Reserve Fleet in 1970 when the ships in the Tensaw numbered 101, with 42 caretakers on the payroll. The majority of the ships were then moved to Beaumont, Texas, where those deemed capable of being modernized were renovated. The remainder were cleaned and sold for scrap.
In April of 1973, the last 15 ships in the Tensaw were dismantled and towed out into the Gulf where they were sunk to create artificial reefs off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
Fishermen in the Tensaw once flocked around the hulls of the “Ghost Fleet.” Today a new generation is enjoying the fishing around many of those hulls out in the Gulf.
Text by Tom McGehee