That's a tough challenge, but I'm as convinced as ever that some of those lessons have real value. Here's an example: Once people begin accepting the need to relocate cities and infrastructure away from rising seas, they might want to consider how in the heck the Soviets managed to pack up and move 1,532 factories out of the path of Nazi invasion in four months, via railroads that were already full of traffic.
Here's another reminder that WW2's lessons in excellence have staying power: a news item about SpaceX's work on the Starship rocket, intended to serve as a medium-sized rocket on its own, and also as a second stage atop the Super Heavy booster. While SpaceX was building the Mk1 and Mk2 Starship models simultaneously earlier this year, the company set up a competition between the two crews, one at Boca Chica in Texas and the other at Cocoa, Florida. Each team at what's been called a shipyard for spaceships was obligated to share insights with the other, but was also free to come up with its own techniques. Said Elon Musk, "This will be a super-fun race to orbit, Moon and Mars!"
The competition, perhaps coincidentally, echoes a motivational method called "athletic industrialism" used with great success at two Kaiser Shipyards in Oregon and California during the WW2 push for Liberty ships, the mass-produced 441-foot cargo carriers that did much to overwhelm the German Navy's attempt to starve Britain by cutting the Atlantic lifeline.
A photo of Liberty ship John W. Brown at sea, carrying cargo and troops to Europe:
Here's a short film about Henry Kaiser and his amazing yards -- all the more amazing since Kaiser had never built any ships before he took up Liberty ships.
I researched the subject for an article in Invention&Technology (linked below) and had the rare privilege of interviewing Kaiser's key man in the effort, Clay Bedford.
In 1939, when Congress first discussed a national goal of restarting American shipbuilding so it could hit a rate of launching one ship per week, that target looked impossible.
(Hardly: By 1944 we were launching 41 ships every week.)
Skeptics had good reasons to say the 1939 goal would be out of reach. One was America's failed attempt to mass produce ships during World War I. While American shipbuilders commissioned for the Great War did begin work on a thousand ships during the war, less than ten of them were ready by the war’s end in November 1918. Back then, if a shipyard could start and finish a ship in nine months, that was considered very fast.
During that war, workers had stitched ships together with thousands of rivets, each heated to red hot in a small portable furnace, flipped to a catcher, shoved into a hole, and hammered tight by two men with air hammers. Another limitation was the small size of the cranes available. It limited pre-assembled sections to a few tons each. It meant that nearly all the World War I labor had to happen at the shipway, inside the growing hull. Space was at a premium so this held up everything. World War I shipyards had had to cut and trim steel with huge steam-powered shears.
Kaiser’s methods broke through all these. Shipbuilders used oxyacetylene cutting torches, hydraulic presses, and arc welding machines that allowed them to shape and join plate steel as easily as a carpenter works with wood. Riveting was limited to joining the hull plates to the frame. While welding made a lighter ship, the weld had to be done right the first time, and this wasn’t easy. Arc welding was comparatively simple when done down hand: flat on a level surface, such as a deck. But it was difficult on a bulkhead and quite difficult for beads that had to be applied over one’s head.
The solution was to change the work. The Kaiser men packed up the huge cranes they had been using on Grand Coulee Dam to pour concrete, and shipped them to the yards. By late 1942 deckhouse - the three-story accommodation structures amidship - were being put together on a moving assembly line, supported on frameworks that doubled as jigs. Periodically cranes turned the pieces over to allow welders to continue their work downwind. The deckhouse was built in four pieces, hauled to within crane reach on huge trailers, and joined on the ship. The largest section, at seventy-two tons, still didn’t overburden the crane’s capacity because two cranes could share the load. The tangle of steam, water, and fuel piping in the engine room, previously a perennial chokepoint in the critical path, also surrendered to prefabrication. Workers erected the pipes in a mock engine room far from the shipyard, complete with a full-size wooden dummy of the engine. To make sure the engines would work before installation, they ran them with compressed air.
The Richmond complex hit an all-time peak with the Robert E. Peary, a ship it built and launched in just over four days, in November 1942. As with so many other achievements, the Peary had its roots in the brisk competition Kaiser fostered between worker groups. He knew that peer pressure between co-workers is more persuasive than “power pressure” from the front office. Back at Grand Coulee Dam his managers had divided the dam in half, entrusting each half to a different set of workers. A billboard, changed daily, reported on which half was winning. In September 1942 a similar competition started when the Kaiser shipyard in Portland, Oregon, set a record by launching a Liberty ship ten days after the keel had gone down. President Roosevelt came out to watch that one hit the water.
Many of the Oregon Shipbuilding employees were friends with Richmond shipworkers down south, and the chaffing started immediately through the mails: Why was Richmond being so slow? That fall Richmond shipyard boss Clay Bedford came across a prefabricated bulkhead in Richmond’s Yard No. 2 that didn’t belong there, and he hunted up the supervisor to ask about it. Bedford discovered that the workers had already started preparing to build a ship so fast that Oregon Shipbuilding would never beat that record. Bedford obtained the go-ahead to prepare for a record-breaking effort on Hull 440.
Workers contributed hundreds of suggestions to prepare for the job. More than half of the welding and riveting was finished before any pieces of the Peary started appearing on Shipway No. 1. The bow arrived on the shipway as two pieces; the stern, as three. Altogether the Peary arrived as 97 big chunks.
The clock started running just after midnight on a Sunday morning in November. Two hours later the ship’s bottom shell was done. By noon the engine was in place. After a day half the ship’s steel was attached. After two days the hull all the way up to the upper deck was done, and the engine was running. The superstructure went on during the third day, and the fourth day was spent on finishing up details like painting and wiring. To save time at the outfitting dock, the deckhouse went onto the ship complete with inkwells, coat hangers, electric clocks, mirrors, and life belts. At four days and fifteen hours, the ship slid down the launching ways.
The rush didn't stop once a tug moved the hull to the outfitting dock. The Peary raised steam and left for sea trials just three days later.
Though the “athletic industrialism” came out of schoolboy-like rivalry, there was nothing silly about the results. Even adding in extra time spent in making unusual preparations to break the record, building the Peary took thousands fewer man-hours than had previous Liberties.
Here's a link to my 1988 article on Liberty ships for Invention&Technology.