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1940 - 1945: Bechtel Goes to War

In the decade leading to World War II, Bechtel had weathered the Depression and in the process was able to increase its expertise in engineering, design, and construction. When war came, the company not only would make a massive contribution to the production effort but would also devise many manufacturing innovations.

Calship and Marinship

War engulfed Europe in September 1939. An American industrial machine would ultimately bury the Axis powers beneath a mountain of matériel: airplanes, jeeps, artillery, tanks, ordnance, and, of course, ships—ships that Steve Bechtel wanted very much to build.

Unknown to him, in the summer of 1940, the United States was anxiously seeking ways to expand its shipbuilding capacity. Bechtel-McCone-Parsons, through a joint venture with Todd Shipyards, had already won an order from the U.S. Maritime Commission for five C-1 cargo ships. But not long afterward, the British placed an urgent order for 60 more C-1s, to replace the tonnage that German submarines had sunk. Through a chance meeting with a friend, John McCone learned of the Maritime Com-mission’s needs and arranged a meeting with Admiral Howard L. Vickery, the U.S. Navy officer responsible for naval ship design, construction, and purchasing.

Vickery offered Bechtel interests the opportunity to build 30 ships, but Steve insisted on bidding for all 60, despite never having built so much as a dinghy. It would be an enormous challenge, particularly since the shipyards would have to go into production instantly and would have to mass-produce ships from a single design, something no one had ever done before.

Hoover Dam had given Bechtel an appreciation for economies of scale, and Steve was certain that volume would work in his favor. “If we had all 60,” he said, “we could control the market for the materials and equipment necessary to do them rather than have three or four different yards competing for the steel and the engines and the gear. Size can work to your advantage if you think big. You just recognize it and move the decimal point over. Instead of taking 2,000 people, it would take 20,000, or 50,000.”

Bechtel won the contract, from which would come two of the most productive shipyards of the war. First came Calship in 1941 at Terminal Island in Los Angeles harbor. By war’s end, Calship had produced 467 vessels, among them the cargo vessels called Liberty ships, the speedier Victory ships, and tankers. In the fall of 1944, Calship was turning out 20 ships a month, operating three shifts a day, seven days a week, making it perhaps the most productive shipyard in history. The last ship would slip into the water on October 27, 1945.

Barely three months after Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war in December 1941, Bechtel received an urgent telegram from Maritime Commission Chairman Admiral Emory S. Land, requesting a new yard—one that could start producing ships before the end of the year. Within days, Marinship, managed by Steve’s 38-year-old brother, Ken, was taking shape across the San Francisco Bay in Sausalito. It, too, would become a wartime production marvel, cranking out 62 T-2 tankers, 15 Liberty ships, and 16 oilers by war’s end, a production level considered outstanding given the difficult task of building tankers.

Marinship launched its first vessel in 126 days—51 days ahead of schedule, and twice as fast as other new yards. Workers had barely celebrated their impressive start in building Liberty ships when they were ordered in 1943 to shift to production of T-2 tankers. Instead of mass-produced cargo ships, Marinship would build the larger, more powerful, more technically exacting tankers. These vessels would be fast enough to run with the fleet, allowing large roving U.S. Navy task forces to leave base for months at a time and carry the fight to the enemy’s home waters.

Necessity produced other firsts. For the first time, large numbers of women joined the workforce, filling jobs traditionally held by men. Marinship had the highest percentage of female workers of any yard in the nation. Women at Marinship were joined by minorities who were also getting their first chance at skilled jobs historically closed to them. Employees of all colors worked side by side, earning equal pay and equal benefits. “There was no such thing as segregation,” recalled Thelma McKinney, an African-American worker. “People were so busy they didn’t have time for racism.”

Then, in October 1945, after nearly five grueling years of round-the-clock production, Marinship’s and Calship’s work was done. The Maritime Commission asked Bechtel to stay on and operate the yard as a government-owned plant, but Ken turned them down. At midnight on May 16, 1946, he turned Marinship over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an operations center for its Pacific Islands Reconstruction Program. “Nothing had outwardly changed,” Ken later wrote, “but I realized that Marinship as we knew it had become history.” And quite a history, at that. 

Military Bases and Other War Production

Bechtel’s war duty was not limited to ships. A Bechtel concern built and operated  a sprawling plant, the Aircraft Modification Center, in Birmingham, Alabama, where Perry Yates oversaw 14,000 workers who modified B-24 and B-29 bombers for specific duties. The center also hired a group of 600 men with only moderate levels of skill to restore battle-fatigued jeeps. With the knowledge gained from shipbuilding and airplane modification, managers oversaw the restoration and modernization of thousands of vehicles. With Standard Oil, the company operated Pacific Tankers for the U.S. Navy, a fleet of 90 ships that was one of the largest oil movers in the world. Bechtel also built military bases, from the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi, Texas, to Fort Ord near Monterey, California, to Elmendorf Air Base in Alaska. It built explosives plants in Missouri and New Jersey, copper mines in Arizona and Mexico, and the Oakland Army Depot, through which munitions were shipped to forces fighting in the Pacific. 

The Tragedy of Cavite and Sangley Point

Since May of 1939, Bechtel had been one of eight contractors working on the Pacific Naval Air Bases program to link a chain of bases stretching over more than 10,000 miles, from Alameda, California, to Pearl Harbor, Midway, Wake, Guam, and the Philippines. The goal was to strengthen American air power in the Pacific.
But with the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in the early part of 1941, time was running short to get American protection in place when Bechtel signed on for the dangerous job of expanding facilities in the Philippines. Steve put his trusted lieutenant, Vice President George S. Colley Jr. (the son of one of W. A.’s first employees), in charge. “He can get people to do what they don’t know they are capable of,” Steve said.

Colley arrived in Manila on April 20, 1941, to learn that there were no blueprints, no site plans—just a list of jobs the U.S. Navy had to get done if it was going to build up a defense at Cavite on Manila Bay, and at nearby Sangley Point. The list included dredging and building seaplane hangars and building fuel and ammunition storage facilities, a powerhouse, and living quarters. There was plenty of labor, but they’d have to scrounge for materials and equipment. Turned down by Philippine officials, they went to President Manuel Luis Quezón himself for permission to use the only dredge in the islands. Getting steel was the next problem. Somehow, they managed to slip a load of steel out of Hong Kong under the noses of the Japanese. All this work didn’t go unnoticed. Bechtel received some kind words from General Douglas MacArthur, who was charged with defending the Philippines. “It does my heart good to hear about the plans you and Colley are carrying out,” he told the Bechtel team. “I pray to God you will finish in time—but I do not think you will.”

Sadly, MacArthur was right. While the American fleet was being decimated at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Japanese dive-bombers were also striking Clark Field and Manila, destroying American air power in the Philippines on the ground. In the days that followed, bombers returned at will to complete the destruction of Cavite and Sangley. It was a devastating personal loss for Steve Bechtel. Thirty-five Bechtel men were among those who died or were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

After the fall of Cavite, Bechtel crews sought refuge in Manila. Steve called George Colley every night—to offer moral support as much as anything else. But on December 28, knowing the Japanese had tapped the line, Colley signed off by saying, “You won’t hear from me again for about a month.” A week later a cable arrived with the news: Colley and a small party had escaped by sea. Guiding a commandeered pleasure launch through minefields and enemy waters, Colley, his wife, Marjorie, and his crew traveled by night and hid by day, making their way across the Mindoro Strait to Balabac, where they switched to a small native sailboat called a kumpit. They reached Borneo in their storm-battered craft and hid out in a swamp hoping to find a more seaworthy vessel for the daunting 1,000-mile journey to Australia. George was swimming to a native village in search of a boat when he encountered a crocodile and had to scramble up a tree to safety.

A Japanese patrol boat plucked him from his perch, and he and his companions spent the next three years in prison camps. Colley recorded his experiences in Manila, Kuching and Return. On September 12, 1945, Colley was reunited with his wife, who had been held captive in another camp. Steve Bechtel would join them in Manila for a moving reunion. “We sat up most of the night,” recalled Colley, “trying to piece together some of the happenings of the last four years.” Among the stories Steve told was the epic of the Canol pipeline. 


Canol was a top-secret project, the details of which were known only to a small circle of senior corporate officers and key defense officials. Japanese troops had already invaded the Aleutian Islands, just 1,200 miles west of mainland Alaska, and the United States feared that they would establish submarine and air bases that would cripple shipping in the north Pacific. A secure oil supply would be essential to Alaska’s defense, but before the war there wasn’t so much as a road connecting the area with neighboring Canada.

In the spring of 1942, the joint venture Bechtel-Price-Callahan, by direct command of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, was ordered to build a 1,430-mile pipeline spanning portions of Alaska, the Yukon, and unmapped portions of the Northwest Territories, described by one writer as a place where “the mountains are nameless and the rivers all run God knows where.”

The pipeline began 75 miles below the Arctic Circle, at Norman Wells, Northwest Territories. From there, it went 580 miles southwest to a refinery at Whitehorse in the Yukon, which would supply fuel to 10 airfields in the area as well as for other military needs. Bechtel would also have to make the region habitable by building roads, airstrips, housing, and communications centers, starting from a base camp north of Edmonton, Alberta.

It was an awesome task and a logistical nightmare. Not only did the pipeline have to be built, but branch lines, pumping stations, a refinery, a tank farm, and storage facilities were needed, not to mention a way to get all the equipment and personnel in place. Until the 1920s, the only means of transportation in the region were dog teams in winter and boats in summer. Bechtel used a system of inland waterways to move food and equipment north; a chain of airfields was built so that the engineers could hop quickly up and down the line.

The working conditions were miserable to start with and then got worse. In winter, there was snow and ice and subfreezing temperatures; in summer, there was three months of continuous daylight, accompanied by mud, dust, and clouds of flies and mosquitoes. It’s no wonder that 20,000 people had to be recruited to maintain the workforce of 4,000 that was needed to finish the job.

During nearly two years of construction, Steve became a subarctic commuter, staying in regular touch with field crews in the most remote outposts. Eventually, the heavy demands of travel to the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Middle East, the 18-hour days, the seven-day weeks, and the never-ending need to stay on top of dozens of complex projects took their toll. By the time peace came in the fall of 1945, Steve was physically exhausted, and Bechtel’s great burst of adrenaline-fueled wartime production came to an abrupt end.

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