Henry Kaiser file photo [31845]

Henry Kaiser

Given NameHenry
Born9 May 1882
Died24 Aug 1967
CountryUnited States


ww2dbaseHenry John Kaiser was born the son of German immigrants on 9 May 1882 in Sprout Brook, New York, United States. He worked as an apprentice photographer early in life, and by the age of 20 was running a photography studio in Lake Placid, New York. He met his future wife, Bess Fosburgh, when she came into his shop to buy film. In 1907, they moved to Spokane, Washington where he founded the Henry J. Kaiser Company, a paving company that relied on government construction contracts. His company got a big boost in 1927 when he was given a Cuban road building contract worth $18,000,000 (almost $300,000,000 in 2022). In 1931, Kaiser teamed with fellow construction mogul W. A. Bechtel and together formed one company of the Six Companies consortium that first built the Hoover Dam across the Colorado River and then the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River.

ww2dbaseAs the scale of his projects increased, Kaiser became more proficient in arranging the materials needed for large construction enterprises, to the point that all three dam projects were completed at least a year ahead of schedule. Along the way, Kaiser was also able to spin off a separate cement business that, naturally, profited from the dam projects and he also acquired a minor partnership interest in the Todd Shipyards in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

ww2dbaseAs war broke out in Europe, Kaiser was moved by the plight of the many displaced European refugees. In response, he lent his name and organizational skills to clothing drives to benefit the war refugees fleeing Hitler's armies. Kaiser was named National Chairman of United Clothing Collection for International War Relief.

ww2dbaseBritish merchant ships were being sunk faster than they could be replaced, which led to the United States Maritime Commission to authorize the building of nine emergency shipyards and issue contracts for 60 merchant ships according to a British design. Henry Kaiser and Joseph Todd joined up to build and manage the west coast emergency shipyard in Richmond, California. Kaiser soon bought out Todd's interest in the California shipyard and Todd bought out Kaiser in the Washington yards. Once the British ships were completed, the program continued to grow with larger numbers of ships being built, swelling the nationwide shipyard program to a total of 53 yards. The Richmond facility grew to four shipyards and, with Maritime Commission assistance, Kaiser built three more in Oregon and Washington. All of Kaiser's shipyards flourished with wartime activity, principally building Liberty-class and later Victory-class merchant ships. To further corner that market, Kaiser held an interest in an iron works company that built the triple-expansion steam engines used in all of the Liberty ships built on the west coast. This iron works was in the South Bay near Kaiser's cement plant along Permanente Creek near Sunnyvale, California. Kaiser also opened steel plants that provided steel to his own shipyards as well as others.

ww2dbaseBefore World War II, Henry Kaiser had begun to establish himself as a prominent American industrialist, especially in the western United States, but by war's end, he was among the wealthiest and most successful beneficiaries of government war production contracts and had been a regular visitor to Franklin Roosevelt's White House. His own work-ethic drove him to be a hard worker and he genuinely believed his workers also wanted to work hard. His wartime labor force was drawn from all across the United States, a population migration that brought thousands of African-American workers from the southern states to the west coast, due in large part to the 1941 Executive Order 8802. Women also populated the labor force in numbers they never had before, and not just in the offices; women took part in nearly every heavy-labor job at the shipyards.

ww2dbaseAs he had during the Grand Coulee Dam project, Kaiser brought in Dr. Sidney Garfield to administer a health care program for Richmond Shipyard workers. The Kaiser companies paid fifty-cents a week for each employee into Garfield's program and the workers could contribute another fifty-cents per week from their own wages to cover their families. When the Grand Coulee Dam project closed, so did Garfield's health care plan. Conversely, as World War II began winding down and the shipyards started downsizing and then closing, Kaiser's health care system was spun off as a private entity and survives today as Kaiser-Permanente, one of the largest health maintenance organizations in the nation.

ww2dbaseEven before the shipyards began shrinking, Kaiser was looking ahead into the postwar world and was attracted into the arena of automobile production. Like he had with Todd in shipbuilding, Kaiser partnered with someone who knew the business and then lent his capital and production expertise to the venture. For automobiles, Kaiser partnered with experienced automobile executive Joseph Frazer. As the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, they produced the Henry J. and the Kaiser line of automobiles but the models did not generate widespread interest. As a successful wartime contractor, Kaiser dealt almost exclusively with one customer, the United States government. The only marketing he needed for that was to promise Franklin Roosevelt he could deliver. As the producer of consumer goods, neither he nor Frazer were equipped with the marketing skills necessary for success in America's burgeoning consumerism of the 1950s. Kaiser acquired Willys-Overland and their rights to the Jeep in 1953 and moved all Kaiser-Frazer production to South America in 1955. The Kaiser family sold the Willys line to American Motors in 1970.

ww2dbaseBeginning in 1946, Kaiser's Permanente Metals Corporation, the company that administered the first two Richmond shipyards, operated an aluminum production plant near Tacoma, Washington. The company was renamed Kaiser Aluminum and expanded into all levels of aluminum production, from mining through to retail sales of aluminum products. Kaiser Aluminum is still a billion-dollar industry today.

ww2dbaseKaiser lost his wife, Bess, in 1951 after a long illness. About four weeks after her death, Kaiser married Bess' nurse, Alyce Chester, reportedly with Bess' prior blessing.

ww2dbaseKaiser began branching into real estate by financing the development of the planned community of Panorama City in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley and then developing the neighborhood of Hawai'i Kai in the Maunalua neighborhood on Oahu, Hawai'i. He moved to Hawai'i in 1955 and created the Hawaiian Village Resort on Waikiki Beach. This complex still operates as a successful resort property, now called the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

ww2dbaseKaiser partnered with Warner Brothers to create the 1957 Maverick television series that Kaiser sponsored to advertise his cars and aluminum products. He also convinced Warner Brothers to repackage their successful 77 Sunset Strip into the 1959 show called Hawaiian Eye, based in Kaiser's Hawaiian Village Hotel. Kaiser also acquired and operated a string of small television and radio stations.

ww2dbaseFor many years, Kaiser Steel had operated a fleet of corporate airplanes under a subsidiary company called KaiserAir. In 1980, KaiserAir was sold off to the chief pilot and it continues to operate successfully as a charter airline and ground services provider based at California's Oakland International Airport and Santa Rosa Regional Airport.

ww2dbaseHenry Kaiser died in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1967 at the age of 85 and he is interred in Oakland, California. He willed half of his estate to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which he founded in 1948. The Foundation is not associated with any of the Kaiser industries or the health plan but is an independent think tank focusing on health care issues. In 1985, the USNS Henry J. Kaiser was launched in Louisiana as lead ship of a class of eighteen replenishment oilers. In 1990, Henry Kaiser was inducted into the United States Department of Labor Hall of Fame. Those who knew him have said Henry Kaiser himself would have been more surprised than anyone that the Kaiser-Permanente Health Care system would emerge as the best-known of his many successful enterprises.

National Park Service - Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front Museum
Shipbuilding History
Steve Adams, Johns Hopkins University: "When Production Wasn't Enough; Kaiser-Frazer and the Culture of Consumption"
Franklin Roosevelt Library
Cuahutémoc Arroyo; Thesis, Ferris State University
University of California
Oregon Historical Society

Last Major Revision: Mar 2022

Henry Kaiser Interactive Map


American poster for emergency clothing relief for European war refugees published by the Office of Emergency Management. Henry Kaiser was National Chairman for the clothing relief drives.President Franklin Roosevelt touring the Kaiser Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, Portland, Oregon, United States, 23 Sep 1942. Photo 1 of 2.President Franklin Roosevelt touring the Kaiser Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, Portland, Oregon, United States, 23 Sep 1942. Photo 2 of 2.Henry J. Kaiser at his desk, 1943.
See all 6 photographs of Henry Kaiser

Henry Kaiser Timeline

9 May 1882 Henry Kaiser was born in Sprout Brook, New York, United States.
8 Apr 1907 Henry Kaiser married Bess Fosburgh.
20 Dec 1940 The Maritime Commission formally issued contracts to Henry Kaiser and Joseph Todd to build a new shipyard on the east shore of San Francisco Bay in the tidal flats of Richmond, California. The contract also called for Kaiser and Todd to build 30 merchant ships according to a British design.
22 Apr 1941 At the White House in Washington DC, United States, President Franklin met with Utah Senator Orrice “Abe” Murdock and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser.
19 May 1941 Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation shipyard laid down its first keel in Way #8. The ship would go on to become Liberty-ship Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame).
15 Apr 1942 Henry Kaiser’s Vancouver Shipyard laid down its first keel. The ship would go on to become the Liberty-ship George Vancouver.
1 Jul 1942 Henry Kaiser’s Swan Island Shipyard laid down its first keel. The ship would go on to become the Type T2 tanker Schenectady.
23 Sep 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt toured the Kaiser Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, Portland, Oregon, United States. He was accompanied by Henry Kaiser, Oregon governor Charles Sprague, and Kaiser’s son, Edgar F. Kaiser, who was Vice-President & General Manager of Oregon Shipbuilding.
18 Mar 1943 At the White House in Washington DC, United States, President Franklin met with Navy Rear Admiral Emory Land, Chairman of the United States Maritime Commission, Rear Admiral Howard Vickery, Vice-Chairman of the United States Maritime Commission, Artemis Gates, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser who presented the President with a model of the proposed Casablanca-class escort aircraft carrier, 50 of which Kaiser would build at his Vancouver, Washington shipyard.
19 Oct 1944 At the White House in Washington DC, United States, President Franklin had lunch with his daughter, Anna (Mrs. John Boettiger), and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser.
25 Oct 1944 At the White House in Washington DC, United States, President Franklin had lunch with his daughter, Anna (Mrs. John Boettiger), Navy Rear Admiral Emory Land, Chairman of the United States Maritime Commission, and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser.
15 Nov 1944 At the White House in Washington DC, United States, President Franklin met with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser.
24 Aug 1967 Henry Kaiser passed away in Honolulu, Hawaii, United States.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. paul b senstad says:
20 Mar 2022 07:57:28 AM

there's a huge old iron mine in the Mohave Desert,called the Vulcan Mine,its near the Devils Playground sand dunes.
2. Commenter identity confirmed David Stubblebine says:
20 Mar 2022 01:05:37 PM

Paul Senstad (above):
The Vulcan Mine was indeed part of the Kaiser Empire. It was the initial supplier of iron ore to Kaiser’s Fontana steel mill until a better source was found a few years later. Kaiser’s Fontana mill supplied steel plate to all of Kaiser’s shipyards on the west coast plus a few competing shipyards and also to other Kaiser enterprises. It was the foundation of the mighty corporate giant that was to become Kaiser Steel, second only in the business to U.S. Steel. The amazing story of Kaiser Steel would be a legitimate study in its own right.

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Henry Kaiser Photo Gallery
American poster for emergency clothing relief for European war refugees published by the Office of Emergency Management. Henry Kaiser was National Chairman for the clothing relief drives.
See all 6 photographs of Henry Kaiser

Famous WW2 Quote
"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win the war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country!"

George Patton, 31 May 1944

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