Wartime Shipbuilding at Terminal Island

What is now known as the Southwest Marine complex at Terminal Island played a key role in both World Wars, setting world records for quick production of ships for the war effort. It helped establish Los Angeles as a world port and was the site of progressive labor policies for the burgeoning African American population of Southern California. The site is now the last vestige of San Pedro’s once-mighty maritime history.

“Showing the nation just what Los Angeles enthusiasm and enterprise can do”

When the United States entered World War I, it had an urgent need for a powerful merchant marine fleet. Under the purview of the federal government’s Emergency Fleet Corporation/Shipping Board, the Western Pipe and Steel Company broke ground on the Southwestern Shipbuilding yard on in March 1918. Only two months later, the company held government contracts for the delivery of 20 ships, with total expenditures of $30 million and a projected 5,000 employees.

The launch of the first ship, the West Carnifax, only six months later broke four world records for yard construction and delivery time. Representatives from the federal government visited the shipyard to personally laud the achievement.

In a speech at the occasion, the yard manager said, “We believe that we have done our share in showing the nation just what Los Angeles enthusiasm and enterprise can do, and we can get behind the nation, no matter what our talk. Shipbuilding came to Los Angeles as a war measure, but it has come to stay, for Los Angeles is a world port from now on…”

Southwestern employed 8,600 people by 1919. In the next three and a half years, the yard launched approximately 26 oil tankers and cargo ships, continuing to set records for production time. After the war ended, activity died down and the shipyard’s focus turned to repair work.

Bethlehem Delivers Destroyers for WWII

Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation acquired the shipyard from Southwestern in December 1921. An arm of the mighty East Coast titan of industry, Bethlehem Steel, the company already had shipyards all over the U.S. and sought to establish a presence in Southern California. The fact that Bethlehem chose San Pedro is a strong testament to the future envisioned for the Port of Los Angeles.

At a 1922 visit to the site, Bethlehem Steel president Charles M. Schwab remarked, “You could use any phrase on the possibilities of this port that you could coin, and you wouldn’t be doing it justice.”

Bethlehem operated the site as a repair facility until 1941, when the specter of another world war led the U.S. Maritime Administration to assist with a $4.5 million project to ready the facilities for shipbuilding once again. This time, instead of merchant marine vessels, the shipyard would produce Fletcher class destroyers, a new kind of naval defense ship. The first ship to launch from the yard was the USS Kendrick in April 1942; the last was the USS Hardwood, christened in 1945. According to the employee manual, "Never before in the history of the world have so many people taken part in a production battle of this kind, and never before has the fate of nations depended so much on the people on the production front." 

Progressive Labor Policies

While part of the mighty maritime defense industry in Los Angeles Harbor, Bethlehem was actually one of the smaller yards, with only 6,000 employees. Together, all the shipyards in the area employed about 90,000 men and women of all ethnicities, providing economic opportunities previously unavailable to many demographics.

African Americans particularly benefited from defense jobs created in the area during the war. Positions in the shipyards allowed many to become skilled laborers and improve their economic status, which in turn fueled the growth of many of the first African-American communities in the region. This mass migration to the West Coast from throughout the U.S., especially the South, is referred to as The Second Great Migration.

Yet with these opportunities came great struggle. African-American workers faced inequality at all turns, which led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to launch its “Double Victory” initiative, seeking victory both abroad and at home.

In Los Angeles, community leaders formed the Negro Victory Committee to protest racial discrimination in the local defense industry. At the shipyards, African Americans were initially denied entry into the dominant trade union, the Boilermakers (AFL), in an attempt to circumvent a federal order for equal hiring practices.

Bethlehem was one of only two yards in the area that was organized by the more progressive and racially integrated International Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. During World War II, the workforce at the yard was around ten percent African American and ten percent Latinx. After the war ended and most shipyards laid off their African-American workers immediately, Bethlehem instead transferred many to its steel plant in Vernon, California.

From Shipbuilding to Show Business

By the end of World War II, Bethlehem had built more than thirty destroyers. In peacetime, the yard converted back to a repair facility and continued to operate on Navy contracts.

From the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, the yard underwent a multimillion-dollar expansion program to become one of the most modern ship-repairing yards on the West Coast, boasting the largest privately owned dry dock in Southern California.

In the late 1970s, labor tensions flared up often as Navy contracts started to dwindle and money became tight. In 1980, a standstill in contract negotiations between the union and the yard led to its eventual shutdown, ending the days of Bethlehem Shipbuilding in Los Angeles.

Southwest Marine took over the site in 1981 and repaired ships there until 2005.

In addition to its significance to Los Angeles’ shipbuilding industry, Southwest Marine is a popular filming location and has served as the setting for television series including 24, True Blood, Dexter, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Entourage, and the films Spider-Man, Charlie's Angels, Live Free or Die Hard, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, among many others.

While appearing in these and other flights of fiction, the shipyard at Terminal Island is, in reality, the last vestige of San Pedro’s once-mighty maritime history.