DURING WORLD WAR II my father was one of more than 30,000 people employed by New York Ship Building Corporation located in Camden. It came by that name because in 1899, when the company was formed by industrialist Henry G. Morse, it was intended to be located on Staten Island. But a 160 acre farm on the Delaware just south of Camden had a much more attractive price tag. The name was already incorporated, so a state of the art ship yard was built with backing by financial biggies Andrew Mellon and Henry Frick. New York Ship initially landed lucrative government contracts to build warships and by 1917 was the largest shipyard in the world. So large was the operation that entire towns sprang up in Southern New Jersey just to house the workers, including ‘Yardship’, which is now known as Fairview. Over the course of its history, over 600 ships were constructed there. They built all nature of warships including aircraft carriers, battleships, submarines, landing craft, etc. The battleships Utah and Oklahoma were both sunk at Pearl Harbor on the fateful date of December 7, 1941. The Oklahoma was righted and sold for scrap, but the Utah still rests in the mud near Ford Island, a memorial to the unknown dead entombed there.
New York Ship also built luxury liners, barges, ferry boats and in 1959 the first nuclear-powered cargo ship, the NS Savannah was launched. The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, finished in 1961, was one of the last major shipbuilding projects at the yard. Too large to be constructed on the ways, a special drydock was built just for the Kitty Hawk. She turned out to be the first and last ship New York Ship ever constructed in a drydock. Orders from the Navy eventually began to dry up and New York Ship finally closed up shop in 1967 leaving many employees jobless. My father had been an electric draftsman at New York Ship and he was able to find work across the river with the Philadelphia Electric Company. I still have his case of mechanical drawing tools.
Odd twist of fate: New York Ship built the first Navy destroyer sunk in World War I: the Jacob Jones (DD-61). They also built the first U.S Navy ship sunk in World War II: the Reuben James. Both were torpedoed by German U-boats. Another Jacob Jones (DD-130), launched less than a year after the first one was lost, was also sunk—twenty five years later.
The Jacob Jones destroyers’ namesake was a Delaware Valley native born near Smyrna, Delaware in 1768. An officer in the U.S. Navy, he served under Commodore John Barry, for whom the Commodore Barry Bridge over the Delaware is named. Jones saw action in a number of conflicts including the War of 1812 for which he received a gold medal from the United States Congress.
Reuben James was also born in Delaware around 1776. A Boatswain’s Mate, he served aboard the first USS Constellation. He also served as a volunteer on the American frigate Philadelphia with Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and was involved in a battle with Barbary Pirates at Tripoli in 1804. He was highly acclaimed for saving Decatur’s life during hand-to-hand combat with the pirates. After the ship named for him was lost, it was memorialized in a highly patriotic song written by Woody Guthrie.