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Port in a Storm: The Port of New York in World War II

USS Ranger at anchor off the Battery, New York City, 1940.

Principal investigator: Joseph F. Meany Jr., Ph.D.

Project years: 1992-ongoing.

Project products: Public Programs, Exhibit Development, Scholarly Publications.

Geographic extent: New York Harbor: As LIFE Magazine reminded its readers in November 1944:"With its seven bays, four river mouths [and] four estuaries, it is by far the world's best and biggest natural harbor and most of the world's major ports could easily be tucked into it."

Categories: Twentieth Century History, New York State History, New York City History, Urban History, Maritime History, Military History, History of the Second World War.


Totaling an area of more than 1,200 square miles, New York harbor comprises more than 430 square miles of water including the vast 122 square mile expanse of the Lower Bay as well as, above the Narrows, the deep and protected waters of the Upper Bay.

From the north, the Hudson River linked the harbor with the continental interior, channeling the produce and products of the upper mid-west to New York via the Great Lakes and the New York State Barge Canal while to the east, Long Island Sound provided an avenue from the harbor to coastal New England and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

During World War II, New York harbor was divided into six hundred individual ship archorages able to accommodate ocean-going vessels awaiting berthing or already loaded and awaiting convoy assignment and sortie. On the peak day in March 1943, there were a total of 543 merchant ships at anchor in New York harbor, a figure very close to maximum capacity.

The Port of New York was really eleven ports in one. It boasted a developed shoreline of over 650 miles comprising the waterfronts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island as well as the New Jersey shoreline from Perth Amboy to Elizabeth, Bayonne, Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken and Weehawken.

The Port of New York included some 1,800 docks, piers, and wharves of every conceivable size, condition, and state of repair. Some 750 were classified as "active" and 200 were able to berth 425 ocean-going vessels simultaneously in addition to the 600 able to anchor in the harbor. These docks and piers gave access to 1,100 warehouses containing some 41 million square feet of inclosed storage space.

In addition, the Port of New York had thirty-nine active shipyards, not including the huge New York Naval Shipyard on the Brooklyn side of the East River. These facilities included nine big ship repair yards, thirty-six large dry-docks, twenty-five small shipyards, thirty-three locomotive and gantry cranes of fifty ton lift capacity or greater, five floating derricks, and more than one hundred tractor cranes. Over 575 tugboats worked the Port of New York.

Between Pearl Harbor and VJ-Day, more than three million troops and their equipment and over 63 million tons of additional supplies and materials were shipped overseas through the Port of New York.

While the origins and growth of the maritime community of the Port of New York have been the subject of a number of studies (Robert G. Albion, The Rise of New York Port, Richard McKay, South Street: A Maritime History of New York, and the WPA Writers' Project, Maritime History of New York to name a few), the port in its period of wartime expansion (1941-1945) reaching apogee in 1945, fifty-five years ago, has yet to be examined. Based on research for a proposed exhibit at the New York State Museum, this project will explore New York's maritime community at its most intense level of activity and suggest a framework for understanding the role of the "great port" in the Second World War.

Based on federal (USA, USN, USCG, Maritime Commission, War Shipping Administration), state (NYS & NYC War Councils, Maritime College, Port Authority, Pilots Associations), and municipal sources, as well as private papers, newspapers, and personal interviews, the project will develop the hypothesis that three factors contributed to the importance of the port at its moment of apogee.

The first factor was the geography of the harbor; an expanse of over 400 square miles of water, eight bays, four river mouths, four estuaries, numerous islands, inlets, creeks, coves, and canals. Geography influenced such requirements as pilotage, public health, harbor entrance control, and the responsibilities of the Port Director and Port Captain; harbor movement and anchorage, convoy and routing, fuel allocation, communications, air defense, landing craft assembly, waterfront security, munitions handling, and more.

The second factor was the pre-existing industrial and commercial resources of the port; 600 individual ship anchorages, 650 miles of developed waterfront, 1,800 wharves, piers, and docks, 1,100 warehouses, a complex rail, road, and bridge network linking the five boroughs of New York City and the seven cities of the New Jersey side of the harbor.

The project will touch on the two military activities that dominated the port during the war years; the US Army's New York Port of Embarkation: ten port terminals specializing in everything from ammunition and POL (petroleum-oil-lubricants) to overseas mail, and three staging areas which funnelled over three million troops and their equipment to the New York docks for deployment overseas; and the Naval Shipyard-New York (Brooklyn Navy Yard), during World War II unquestionably the premier shipyard in the world and the largest industrial plant in New York State.

Maritime training and education was the third essential activity in the Port of New York. Four institutions produced licensed officers for the merchant service, another trained two out of three new volunteer merchant seamen, while yet another produced half of the recruits for the expanded, wartime Coast Guard. Finally, the project will touch on the relation of the wartime port to the City of New York, unquestionably the world's most popular liberty port. As Chief Boatswain's Mate Scarborough of the USS Washington observed: "Any place but New York is only camping out."

Related Information can be found at the following places:
The Naval Historical Center
South Street Seaport
New York Maritime College
Merchant Marine in World War II
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