Orange skyrockets with WWII shipbuilding
Dave Rogers – For The Record
More spectacular than any Fourth of July fireworks show, the explosion of growth in Orange, Texas in the World War II era proved the city has to take a backseat to none when it comes to strapping on its red, white and blue and doing its patriotic duty.
Seventy-five years ago, the awarding of $100 million in federal contracts to the Consolidated Steel, Levingston and Weaver shipyards at the Port of Orange brought the end of the Great Depression for thousands of families, who, in turn, spilled into the city.
Population in Orange, the only Texas city to build warships for the U.S. Navy, rocketed from about 7,500 to 60,000 from 1940 to 1945, the end of World War II.
During peak production, more than 22,000 worked in the shipyards.
The workers and machinery delivered 39 destroyers along with approximately 100 destroyer escorts and other smaller ships that played key roles in defeating Germany and Japan.
“The people of Orange stood strong and patriotic during those perilous times,” Beaumont historian Thomas L. Charlton wrote in the afterword of Louis Fairchild’s 1993 book “They Called It The War Effort.”
But Orange’s effort didn’t end with the close of World War II. Nor did it begin in 1940, as the U.S. readied for its entry into the conflict.
Records show that shipyards at Orange had supplied vessels used in the Civil War and it was World War I that caused the Port of Orange to be dredged in 1914 to accommodate large ships.
At the end of World War II, Orange was chosen as one of eight Reserve Fleet locations because of its shipyards and the Sabine River’s abundant supply of fresh water to prevent saltwater corrosion. The shipbuilding command there became a U.S. Naval Station charged with preserving the surplus ships.
As many as 850 Navy personnel were assigned there during the Korean War, when 30 ships were reactivated and sent abroad for combat.
By the late 1960s, there were as many as 250 ships berthed in Orange, but the government closed the ship maintenance operation in the mid-70s and by 1980, no ships remained.
Most were sold or scrapped. Some were transferred to the Beaumont Reserve Fleet on the Neches River.
The USS Aulick, launched on March 2, 1942, was the first combatant warship built for the U.S. Navy on the Gulf Coast. It was one of 12 destroyers launched at the Port in 1942, a group that fought in every major engagement in the Pacific Ocean and received a total of 100 battle stars.
The USS Charles Ausburn, USS Claxton and USS Dyson were members of the Little Beaver Squadron and received a Presidential Citation for action on Thanksgiving morning, 1943, when they sank five Japanese destroyers.
Two of the destroyers built in Orange were honored for capturing an enemy submarine intact.
Of course, the successes of the shipbuilding efforts did not come without plenty of sacrifice – for longtime residents and newcomers alike.
Most immediately, there was no place for workers to sleep when they weren’t working 10-hour shipyard shifts.
Eventually, more than 6,000 modest houses were built near the port in what came to be known as the Navy Park District. But it was also quite common for Orange residents to rent out cot space, sometimes in shifts that saw a night-shift worker crawl into a bed just vacated by a day-shift worker.
“It was like a gold rush,” said Jerry Pennington of the Orange County Historical Commission. “You have a city built for, at the most, 10,000 people and you pour 60,000 people in.”
The quiet timber town that Orange had been prior to World War II was no more and, according to Fairchild’s “They Called It The War Effort: Oral Histories from World War II,” some weren’t excited about that while others were happy that what they called the “influx” brought in people with a diverse range of interests and customs.
In addition to new homes, the growth brought new schools and new teachers who worked long hours to serve children with constantly working parents. New churches were created and existing ones expanded to minister to the new residents.
The universal war-time sacrifice of rationing of daily goods like gasoline and sugar was exacerbated by the suffocating demand.
But tough times require tough people and Orange has always had plenty of those. The roster of those who lived through the World War II shipbuilding boom is dwindling, though.
“An awful lot of other people would have no clue,” Pennington said.