By the fall of 1940, the British Merchant Navy (equivalent to the United States Merchant Marine) was being sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic by Germany's U-Boats faster than the United Kingdom could replace them. Led by Sir Arthur Salter, a group of men called the British Merchant Shipping Mission came to North America from the UK to enlist U.S. and Canadian shipbuilders to construct merchant ships. As all existing U.S. shipyards capable to constructing ocean-going merchant ships were already occupied by either work of building ships for the U.S. Navy or for the U.S. Maritime Commission's Long Range Shipbuilding Program which had begun three years previously to fulfill the goals set forth in the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, the Mission negotiated with a consortium of companies made up of the existing U.S. ship repairer Todd Shipyards which had its headquarters in New York City in league with the shipbuilder Bath Iron Works located in Bath, Maine.
The new yard, called the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation was to be an entirely new facility located on a piece of mostly vacant land located adjacent to Cummings Point in South Portland, Maine for the purpose of building thirty cargo ships. The Mission likewise, negotiating with a different consortium made up of Todd along with a group of heavy construction companies in the Western U.S. for the building of a new shipyard in the San Francisco Bay area for construction of thirty ships identical to those to be built in Maine.
That yard was to be called the Todd-California Shipbuilding Corp. It was slated to be built on the tide flats of Richmond on the east side of the Bay. The construction companies that made up the second half of that corporation had no experience building ships but did have an extensive resume with the construction of highways, bridges and major public works projects such as the Hoover Dam, the Bonneville Dam and the massive Grand Coulee Dam. Known as the Six Companies, the members included two companies which were to become driving powers in wartime merchant shipbuilding during the ensuing years, and the men behind those companies were Henry J. Kaiser, who headed the Kaiser Companies, and John A. McCone, who led the Bechtel/McCone Company.
Contracts for both yards and the ships was signed on December 20, 1940. All the ships to be built were collectively called the Ocean class and to be of an existing British design for 5-hatch cargo ships of about 10,000 tons' load displacement and 11 knots' service speed using obsolete, but readily available, triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine and coal-fired Scotch-type fire tube boilers. The first of these vessels, the SS Ocean Vanguard was launched at the Todd-California yard on October 15, 1941.
With the defense of both the U.S. and its overseas possessions along with a very strong national interest in assisting Britain in its struggle to keep its supply lines open to both North America and its overseas Colonies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced what was to become known as the Emergency Shipbuilding Program on January 3, 1941 for the construction of 200 ships very much similar to those being built for the British. He designated that the Program be implemented and administered by the Maritime Commission which since 1937 had been the Federal government department tasked with Merchant Marine development and which had worked very closely with the British Mission in placing its 60 ship order. Immediately the Commission authorized that the two yards building for the British build ships for the U.S. upon completion of their current contracts.