1932 Boston Naval Shipyard Complex during World War II


Boston National Historical Park

Map: The Boston Naval Shipyard Complex during World War II


Part I: Short of War

In 1932, the Department of the Navy designated the Boston (Charlestown) Navy Yard to be the building site for destroyers. Two years later, the USS McDonough (DD-351) slid down the ways, marking the first major ship launching at the yard in over a decade. The launch of McDonough ushered in the most productive period of ship construction in the history of the Navy Yard. By September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Boston Navy Yard had completed and commissioned six new destroyers. Furthermore, several other destroyers and auxiliary vessels were in various stages of construction across the facility. Though Germany’s invasion of Poland sparked war in Europe, the United States remained neutral.

Photograph with hulls and scaffolding in a dry dock. Crane and industrial equipment in background.
USS O’Brien DD-415 (foreground) and USS Walke DD-416 under construction in Dry Dock 2, Charlestown Navy Yard, October 3, 1938.BOSTS-13817-785

Shortly after the beginning of hostilities in Europe, the U.S. Navy organized a neutrality patrol utilizing several of the new vessels built in Boston. This patrol monitored the activities of warships of belligerent nations within 300 miles of the coasts of North and South America as well as in the Caribbean Sea. Beginning in 1940, the Navy and Coast Guard began providing escorts for merchant convoys bringing provisions, fuel, and military supplies to Great Britain in this neutral zone. The work of these escorts in the oftentimes rough waters of the North Atlantic was punishing, and the Boston Navy Yard had to focus on the constant maintenance and repair of these ships.

Photograph of workers and cranes on a pier in the midst of construction extending into Boston Harbor. Pile driving equipment is on a floating lighter at the edge of the pier.
Pier 5, Charlestown Navy Yard, under construction in the Summer of 1941.BOSTS-8733-1121

After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, attacks on convoys bound for Great Britain increased dramatically. With the establishment of bases for the German Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Luftwaffe (Air Force) in France, losses in merchant shipping and British escorts nearly surpassed the production capacity of North American and British shipyards. To keep the British in the fight, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged that America would provide all assistance “short of war.”

Photograph of two ships exiting dry dock. Scaffolding still surrounds the superstructures of each ship. A tugboat is just off to the right pulling the ships out.
USS O’Brien DD-415 and USS Walke DD-416 undocking from Dry Dock 2 after completion of their hulls. October 20, 1939.BOSTS-13817-710

Under the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement,” arranged between the governments of the United States and Great Britain in 1940, fifty WWI era destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy for desperately needed escorts in return for 99-year leases that allowed for the establishment of American military bases in British Territories from Canada to the Caribbean. In September 1940 the Boston Navy Yard was tasked with overhauling and outfitting the first eighteen destroyers that the US Navy was transferring to the Royal Navy. Working as quickly as possible, the shipyard’s labor force had these ships ready for transfer within a matter of days.

Map oriented north. Map depicts Navy Yard to the northwest. Chelsea Naval Hostpital and Annex to north. Fuel Depot Annex northeast with a pipeline extending southwest. East Boston Annex center and South Boston Annex to the south.
During World War II the Boston Naval Shipyard complex encompassed nearly every corner of Boston’s Inner Harbor. Due south of this map were even more private shipyard facilities constructing new warships, such as Bethlehem Steel in Hingham and Fore River in Quincy and Braintree.NPS Map

By the summer of 1941, the Boston Navy Yard was a hive of activity; the yard’s labor force had increased from 3,875 in January 1939 to 18,272 in order to meet the increased demand for new ship construction. By then, it had become standard practice to lay the keels of two to four vessels and proceed with their construction at an even pace, with launchings occurring as soon as the hulls were completed. In September, the keels of the first Fletcher Class destroyers to be built at Boston Navy Yard were laid down. The Fletcher Class was considerably larger and more complex in construction than the destroyers previously built at the yard.

In regards to the physical plant of 1941, storage facilities and several new administrative and shop buildings, including a five-story electrical shop, were under construction in Charlestown while ship repair and conversion facilities were expanded at the South Boston Naval Annex (acquired shortly after World War I). Along the waterfront, piers were added, rebuilt, or extended, and the capacity for shipbuilding was dramatically increased with the construction of Shipways 2 and 3 (the latter now referred to as Dry Dock 5). Additional ship repair facilities were acquired by the Navy in Chelsea and East Boston. A Fuel Depot Annex was constructed alongside Chelsea Creek in East Boston and connected by pipeline to a fuel pier extending out into Boston Harbor.

Photograph of roadways, piers, buildings, dry docks, and ships at a naval shipyard.
Photograph of roadways, piers, buildings, dry docks, and ships at a naval shipyard.

 Aerial photograph of the Charlestown Navy Yard in 1925 BOSTS 8613-2865 Aerial photograph of the Charlestown Navy Yard 20 years later in 1945 (slightly warped to better fit with 1925 angle) BOSTS 8615-1073