When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, following the Pearl Harbor attack, industrialist Henry Kaiser, who had been involved in constructing the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River, turned his attention to producing ships for the war. Kaiser operated seven shipyards on the West Coast. His son Edgar became general manager of the Vancouver yard and two across the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon, which all opened in early 1942.
The three shipyards rapidly boosted employment, and population, in the Vancouver-Portland area. In 1940, the largest payroll in Portland was 1,100 workers. By the end of 1942, when Edgar Kaiser was named Portland's first citizen of the year, employment at the three yards had reached 76,000. Employment peaked a year later, when 97,000 men and women worked at the three yards, 38,000 at the Vancouver facility. More than 10,000 workers in the Vancouver yard were women.
There were only around 18,000 people in Vancouver in 1941. In order to provide for the new shipyard workers recruited from across the country and their dependents, six housing projects, accommodating 45,000 people, were constructed in the area during the war.
The Kaiser shipyards, using prefabrication and special construction methods, were able to substantially reduce the time it took to produce ships. By the time the war ended, the Vancouver yard had constructed more than 140 ships for the United States Navy and Maritime Commission, including Liberty cargo ships, LSTs (tank landing crafts), AP-5 troop transports, C-4 transports, and C-4 cargo ships, along with 50 escort aircraft carriers.
One of the largest crowds in the history of Vancouver, estimated at 75,000, turned out on April 5, 1943, for the launch of the first escort carrier, which was christened by Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), as the Alazon Bay. It was later renamed the Casablanca. The Vancouver yard launched its last carrier, the Munda, on June 8, 1944. Of the 50 carriers produced at Vancouver, at least 15 were sunk or damaged in the Pacific during the war.
As employment in the shipyard tapered off with the war's end in 1945, many employees returned to their home states. Many others, however, remained to become permanent residents of Vancouver and Clark County.