The Victory Ships: From A (Aberdeen Victory) to Z (Zanesville Victory)

By Capt. Walter W. Jaffee
The Glencannon Press, 2006
424 pages

The Victory Ships is a complete one-volume reference on a remarkable class of cargo/troop ships, which demonstrated the American genius for productivity in World War II. The 531 Victory ships built in 1944 and 1945 supplied the armadas and invasion forces, which crushed the Axis powers. These ships then found their way into the booming post-war commercial world. They would also be recalled from reserve to play an important part in the supply efforts of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Though this is indeed a reference book, it is also clearly a labor of love for author Capt. Walter W. Jaffee, an accomplished maritime writer who sailed in Victory ships earlier in his career.

In The Victory Ships, Jaffee tells why, how and where the ships were built. He then provides an overview of their wartime contributions. The bulk of the book is then a short biography of the life of each ship, as well as particular construction details.

Though there were modifications and sub-classes, all cogently explained by the author, a Victory ship had a 455-foot LOA and a beam of 62 feet. Speed was 15 to 17 knots, faster than the some 2,700 Liberty ships built starting in 1941. In fact, Victory ships were built to replace Liberty losses with a faster and more efficient ship.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was most certainly not America’s worst defeat at sea, though that is the conventional wisdom. Much worse and even less excusable was the immediately following wholesale destruction off America’s Atlantic shores by a handful of U-boats. During the first six months of 1942, Allied losses in the Atlantic totaled 1,200 ships and 6 million tons.

Replacements would be needed. The newer Victory’s speed would make her less vulnerable to attack, and her greater cargo-handling efficiency would allow for less time in loading and offloading. Of the 531 Victory ships launched, 414 would be cargo carriers and 117 would be troop transports. The crew would number 51 souls, accompanied by members of the Naval Armed Guard. Armament would vary, including 3-inch, 5-inch, and 20-mm guns.

There were some design and production delays — circumstances not so smooth and agreeable as modern memory holds the World War II home front to have been. The first Victory, United Victory, was launched in January 1944. By this time the Battle of the Atlantic had been transformed so that U-boats were more the hunted than the hunters. No Victory ship was ever lost to submarine attack.

Yet for the allied march across Europe and the amphibious invasions of the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, this remarkable class of ships would play an important role.

Four Victory ships were lost to combat action in World War II, three to kamikaze attacks and one in the devastating stateside explosion at Port Chicago, Calif. These stories are told, as is the story of each individual ship, whether a commercial or U.S. government Victory ship. Similarly, the careers of those ships which would be reflagged in foreign countries — sometimes several times over their seagoing lives — are recounted.

Some Victory ships yet remain in the National Defense Reserve Fleet. And three have become floating museums: American Victory in Tampa, Fla.; Lane Victory in San Pedro, Calif.; and, Red Oak Victory in Richmond, Calif.

For those who love the Victory ships, for maritime students and historians, and for reference libraries, Jaffee has produced a one-volume encyclopedia that relates an important and often neglected aspect of wartime history. He also, perhaps unintentionally, provides a telling chronicle of the post-war maritime world.

By Professional Mariner Staff