Powering the War Effort: The US Maritime Commission
Needs Engines Fast—And They’re Not Going to Get Them
Any Time Soon
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The president of the Atlas Imperial Engine Company informs the Maritime Commission that earlier information regarding the availability of diesel engines was in error, and in fact, there was nothing available at the present time. FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT.
Typed Letter Signed as President, to Samuel Rayburn. 2 separate pp., White House stationery, 8 x 10 ½ in.; Washington, D.C., May 13, 1942.
“This will acknowledge your letter of April 30, 1942, to which you attached a copy of a telegram from Mr. E. B. Germany of Dallas, Texas, regarding the availability of Atlas Imperial Diesel Engines for a proposed construction program of wooden vessels.
This telegram was forwarded to the Maritime Commission requesting them to advise me as to whether or not the Atlas engines are in fact available. In this connection, the Maritime Commission has furnished me a copy of a telegram dated May 9, 1942, from Mr. F.H. Kilberry, President, Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Company, Chicago, Illinois. This telegram reads as follows: [FDR quotes the telegram in all caps, but for readability we use sentence case]
“...First of all we do not have any engines on hand for immediate delivery and our present production facilities are completely booked for Army and Navy through November for the size of engine contemplated for the project.... We did advise the individuals who made inquiry of us that we were increasing our capacity a small amount with our own finances and that a further increase in expansion was being given consideration by the Maritime Commission using any facilities which might be made available to us by the Commission[.] We believed we could arrange to build approximately one-half of the required number of engines by the end of this year the remaining one-half to be built in the first half of next year...”
In view of the above, it would appear that Mr. Germany has been misinformed.
I am further advised that the Maritime Commission is consummating an agreement with the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Company whereby government funds will be made available to the company for the expansion of its Diesel engine production capacity. These engines, however, will be utilized in a program the Commission has already developed and will consume this expanded capacity.
Franklin D. Roosevelt”
Between 1941 and 1945, the Maritime Commission supervised the building of over 5,000 cargo and other ships as part of the Emergency Shipbuilding Program. The most famous, Liberty and Victory ships, were steel hulled and powered by triple expansion steam engines. Diesel engines for use in wooden vessels meant that these engines were intended for tugboats built between April 1943 and July 1944.
While there were many types of wooden vessels constructed by the Navy during World War II, the Maritime Commission only built wooden ships and barges reluctantly, at a point in the war when the steel shipbuilders were all at full capacity. They primarily contracted for oceangoing dry bulk barges to carry coal, and wooden tugs to go with the barges. The commission supervised the construction of two sizes, a 157 feet long tug with a 1,000-hp steam reciprocating engine, and a second design, 66 feet long powered by a 240-hp diesel.
The Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Company was based in Chicago, but most production was undertaken, unsurprisingly, on the coast, in this case, Oakland, California, a center of World War II shipbuilding. In 1916, two gasoline engine manufacturers joined forces to produce diesel engines upon the expiration of Rudolph Diesel’s patents. Atlas-Imperial produced all sizes of engines that were considered among the most serviceable diesels ever built in the United States.
The factory closed in the 1950s but its engines continued to power vessels well into the era of high-speed, small-cylinder diesel technology. Today, a few hundred Atlas Imperial engines remain, with a few dozen still in operational condition.