ORANGE — Orange had a long history of building ships prior to World War II. Levingston and Weaver shipyards had long been building wooden ships. Levingston was doing some steel shipbuilding. Weaver was still specializing in wooden construction. The newcomer on the river at Orange was the Consolidated Steel Corporation. Consolidated was formed when the Llewellyn Iron Works, Baker Iron Works, and Union Iron Works, all of Los Angeles, California, merged in 1929. War clouds were on the horizon and Consolidated was looking at other locations to spread out the corporation. Orange, Texas with river and rail service, coupled with a history of shipbuilding seemed to be a good choice.
Consolidated Western Steel Corporation bought 65 acres on a bend of the Sabine River at the foot of Front Street and established a fabrication plant. To become a ship building facility would be easy.
In 1940 Consolidated was awarded a Maritime Commission contract from the U. S. Navy. The Orange facility would build Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts. In 1941 the Wilmington, California shipyard operated by Consolidated was awarded a contract to build Liberty Ships. The Liberty Ships and the later Victory Ships would carry millions of tons of cargo during the war years.
The shipyards at Orange would expand to become the only shipyards in Texas to build warships and at its peak Consolidated alone would employ over 20,000 people. The first ship launched at Consolidated, the USS Aulick, (DD-569) ,would be launched on March 2,1942. The last wartime ship, the USS Carpenter, (DD-825), was launched on December 28, 1945.
The depression of the 1930s had been brutal to Orange. By 1940, businesses had closed, farms had been repossessed, and only about eight percent of the population had jobs. The future of Orange looked bleak until the efforts of U.S. Congressman Martin Dies and Vice President John Nance Garner used their political power to urge the Navy to award the contracts to Consolidated. Orange was to become prosperous almost overnight. The population would explode in a way no one would have imagined.
The contract called for the Consolidated to build 12 Fletcher-class destroyers, followed by a destroyer escort building program, then 27 Gearing-class destroyers. The total number of ships built were, 39 destroyers and 110 destroyer escorts.
There were nine other major shipbuilders that built for the U.S. fleet during World War II. Most were located near major cities such as, Pittsburg, Los Angeles, Houston, and Jacksonville, Florida. Per capita, the once small town of Orange, Texas outproduced them all.
There were nowhere enough trained shipbuilders in Orange to conduct such a massive building program. There were not even enough people in the available labor pool. People began to come into orange from the communities and farms of East and North Texas, the swamps of Louisiana, the hills of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Not only were these people untrained in working with steel ship construction, some could not read and write. Schools would be established for those who had little or no education. Training for specific jobs would be established and in short time the farmer would become a fitter, welder, riveter, or machinist. Weaver Shipyard had to train house carpenters to become ship carpenters.
A major part of the workforce would become the women. Some were single women from the farms, some would be women whose husbands had been killed in the war, some had children to support; some would be local women wanting to work. To the surprise of many, women proved to be great workers in the shipyards. Most of the women were eager to learn, they had advantages in some areas, such as having smaller hands and statures. They did not do only dainty work; they also shot rivets in the hulls of ships in 100-degree heat. Women were trained to do all the jobs the men were trained to do. They worked alongside the men in all phases of construction, and in all weather conditions.
There is a story that after World War II Consolidated tried to stay in the warship building business by selling to foreign countries. According to one source, a representative from Turkey came to Orange to negotiate a contract for the construction of a new ship. The representative insisted that the ship be built by a specific welding crew; all females that had built a certain ship during the war effort. The women had left the shipyard at the war’s end. They had to be rounded up and rehired to perform the job. The story says a lot about the reputation of the work performed by the female welders. The foreign representative had requested them by name.
The thousands of workers needed on each shift had to be transported to the shipyards. A train was contracted to run between Beaumont, where there was a large pool of available workers and some housing, to Orange at appropriate shift-changing times. The train would drive up Front Street to the front gates, unload to workers going to work, load those getting off of work and drive back to Beaumont to start the process again.
The first ships launched at Consolidated were launched stern-first into the river. That did not work due to the length of the hulls and the width of the river. After pulling a couple of stuck hulls out of the mud, it was decided to develop a side-way launching process.
The hulls were built on sloped ramps on top of wooden skids. The hulls were not more than bare hulls, very little was built topside. Prior to the launch a person with large buckets of pig fat would smear it on each of the skids to help the hull slide into the river. That process is where the term “greasing the skids” comes from.
The chocks would be driven out to allow the skids and hull to “splash” into the river.
During the building of the destroyer escorts, the goal was to “splash” a ship every Saturday. Most of the town would turn out for the event. As soon as the ship settled down after the launch, a small tug hooked up to it to tow it to the nearby piers for the final fitting out.
In addition to the 149 ships built at Consolidated, Levingston built 160 vessels: barges, troop carriers, and auxiliary ships. Weaver Shipyard built 135 wooden minesweepers designed to evade German magnetic mines.
One of the last destroyers built at Consolidated briefly returned to Orange. The USS Orleck (DD-886) was launched on September 15, 1945. She saw service in Korea and Vietnam before being transferred to the Turkish Navy. In August, 2000 the Turkish Navy donated the Orleck to the Southeast Texas War Memorial and Heritage Foundation. The ship was towed from Turkey to Orange for use as a memorial and museum. While undergoing restoration, the Orleck was moored at Ochiltree-Inman Park on Front Street, near the shipyard where she was built. Hurricane Rita damaged the ship in 2005 and after repairs were completed, it was not allowed to be returned to the city park. Unable to find a home for the Orleck in Orange, she was moved to Lake Charles when the city council there voted in favor of an ordinance authorizing the city to enter into a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement with the USS ORLECK. On May 20, 2010 she moved to Lake Charles, where she is now on display.
The USS ORLECK Naval Museum has become a popular tourist attraction. The old warship has hosted overnight camps for Boy Scouts, reunion activities of the “Tin Can” Sailors, veterans of destroyer service, and is the center of the reunion of the USS ORLECK Association’s annual reunion of her former crew members, in addition to other special events. Plans are under way to move the Orleck from the pier on the Calcasieu River to a dock on the edge of the lake near the I-10 bridge on the east side of the city.
The Naval Museum serves as a reminder of the service and sacrifice of the veterans of service to our nation. The Orleck is also an example of the shipbuilding effort that was a part of the war effort of the United States. The contributions of the shipyard workers of Orange helped win the war by building ships in a quantity and short period of time that is unmatched in history. Even though the Orleck did not see service in World War II, she served in two other American wars and gave a period of service to the Turkish Navy. She now rests in honor; her purpose is best stated by the Mission Statement of the USS ORLECK Naval Museum, Inc.
“To establish the destroyer known as USS Orleck DD886, docked on Lake Charles, Louisiana, as a lasting memorial to honor the men and women of our nation’s Armed Forces; to preserve the history created by the crews who served on the USS Orleck and other U.S. Navy ships; to educate younger generations on the sacrifices made by these individuals to ensure the freedoms we enjoy today through educational, historical, and interpretive programs and experiences for adults and children of all ages; and to establish a first class tourist attraction, and educational and recreational resource for visitors from throughout the United States and other countries.”