An Arsenal of Democracy

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Stockton, in addition to its unique history as the agricultural and logistics powerhouse of inland California, long distinguished itself among California cities for the magnitude and importance of its manufacturing. During WWII, the city was the largest industrial center in the Central Valley.

Stockton had it all. To “make manufacturing work” as a business, you need cheap transportation, cheap raw materials, and a skilled workforce. The inland California Delta, proximity to the Sierra Nevada, and Stockton Unified’s early twentieth century status as one of the top scool districts in the Country, ensured that manufacturing was a major industry here from the 1890s through the 1950s. Holt Brothers Manufacturing (developed the tractor), Hickinbotham Brothers (built construction equipment), Letourneau Industries (developed the bulldozer), and many other firms dominated Stockton’s economy.

The Port of Stockton in November 1941. The district would become a major industrial center during WWII. Photo from the April 7, 1945 edition of the Stockton Record.

With so much industrial know-how, it was little wonder that the city would become a major shipbuilding center during the second world war.

Just eight days after Pearl Harbor, on December 15, 1941, shipbuilders Stephens Brothers launched its first war vessel for the US Navy. Colberg Brothers completed an identical ship the next day. The first two boats were the YMS 94 and YMS 95, which were Minesweepers for the US Navy. You can see a similar vessel, the USS Lucid, by attending the Stockton Maritime Museum.

By 1943, Stockton’s wartime industries, centered on the waterfront across from the Port of Stockton, included Stephens Brothers, Colberg Boat Works, Pollock-Stockton Shipbuilding Company, Rheem Manufacturing, Harris Manufacturing, Hickinbotham Shipbuilders, Kyle & Company, Clyde W. Wood, Kyle & Company, Moore Equipment Company, and 195 smaller manufacturing firms, all maintaining robust contracts from the US military-industrial complex, for the construction of everything from Minesweepers and Floating Dry Docks, to the wire coat hangers and pencil sharpeners used at US Army bases.

The largest firms were Stockton’s major employers. As of January 1, 1943, 6,700 workers were employed by the city’s wartime manufacturing industries, with total wages exceeding $19,000,000 (well over $32,000,000 today). In the first two weeks of 1943 alone, local firms built 29 ships and barges.

Among the many ships built in Stockton were the aforementioned Minesweepers (Stephens Brothers & Colberg Boat Works), Large Auxiliary Floating Dry Docks (Pollock), Barracks, Repair, and Freight Barges (Pollock), Tank landing and Derrick Barges (Hickinbotham), Deck and Landing Barges (Kyle & Co.), Seaplane Derricks (Moore Equipment Company), Landing Craft (Moore Equipment Company, notably used in the Pacific Islands campaign), Air-Sea Rescue Boats (Stephens Brothers), and Rescue & Salvage Ships (Colberg Boat Works). A variety of these vessels can be viewed below:

USS Artisan (ABSD-1) with Antelope (IX-109) and LST-120 in the dock at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides Islands, 8 January 1945. A Large Auxiliary Floating Dry Dock. Built by Pollock in Stockton. US Navy – Official U.S. Navy Photograph 80-G-314233, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Landing craft, including ships built by Moore Equipment Company, at Okinawa. US Navy – Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
MSO-430 Engage, built by Colberg Boat Works. US Navy – Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

By August 1945, the war was over, and Stockton’s major manufacturing concerns were rapidly turning their efforts to postwar construction and conversion to serving civilian needs. Pollock- Stockton Shipbuilding had grown so large that they were able to maintain their Navy contractds. Other firms, such as Rheem Manufacturing, retooled and secured contracts manufacturing oil drums. Stephens-Colberg Yards (a merger) returned to commercial, government, and pleasure craft. The number of employees in the manufacturing field went from an approximate high of 12,000 in early 1945 to closer to 4,000 by 1946.

Interested in learning more about Stockton during WWII? Stay tuned for our next article on the patriotic efforts of Stockton High School.

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