By William H. Geoghegan
Photographs by the author
In the early days of World War II, before the United States entered the conflict, the sea-going "tonnage war" with Germany was being won decisively by the Axis powers. In 1940, for example, about 9,000 tons of Allied and neutral shipping was being lost to enemy action for every 2,000 tons built; and by 1941 the ratio had improved to only 4,000 tons built for each 9,000 tons sunk.
British shipyards were filled to capacity with hulls ordered for the Royal Navy, severely limiting construction of the merchant vessels desperately needed to bring war materiel, foodstuffs and other domestic supplies from sources in North America and elsewhere. Britain began looking abroad for additional tonnage to bolster its merchant fleet and in late 1940 placed an order for 60 "Ocean Class" freighters with the U.S. At the same time, recognizing that United States entry into the growing global conflict was inevitable, and facing the increasingly serious Allied demand for shipping capacity and supplies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced on January 3, 1941 a massive merchant shipbuilding program for the United States. He allocated $350,000,000 to the program, one that in a few years would increase by more than 50% the world's pre-war shipping capacity.
American shipyards were also stretched to the limit as the nation labored to meet its own goals for naval expansion and modernization in the face of an imminent Pacific war. To meet the needs of the newly announced merchant shipping program, eighteen new shipyards were built to handle the demand. The British had modified the Ocean Class vessel for modularized construction, and this was the design eventually adopted by the U.S. Maritime Commission for U.S. production. With alterations to handle the building practices and standards of American shipyards, it became the EC2-S-C1 "emergency ship" design upon which the Liberty Ship and its many variants were based. It was a bit outdated, even by pre-war standards, but extremely easy to build. The first ship off the ways was the S.S. Patrick Henry, launched in Baltimore on September 27, 1941 and completed on December 30. Considering the fact that there were no shipyards or workforce to build her until several months after President Roosevelt announced the program earlier in the year, this was a singular achievement.
Initially, the new EC2 merchantmen were simply referred to as "emergency ships," or "ugly ducklings," a nickname that by some accounts originated with President Roosevelt himself. In time, however, they acquired the "Liberty Ship" designation, usually attributed to the last line of the famous "give me liberty or give me death" speech of Patrick Henry, namesake of the first American Liberty Ship. Roosevelt cited the line in his speech commemorating the launching, and he mentioned that the new ships would eventually "bring liberty to Europe." It is interesting to note, however, that the British design given to the U.S. Maritime Commission as the basis for the original Liberty Ships was Thompson & Sons' design for the British Empire Liberty, which suggests at least one alternative source for the "Liberty Ship" family name.
The American Liberty's could be built very quickly. Sections of the ships were prefabricated in 250 ton modules at various locations around the country, and these were freighted to the shipyards for assembly. The entire aft deck house, for example, was a single prefabricated module; the large midships deck house was assembled from six principal modules. Typical construction time for a Liberty Ship was about two months, although one ship, the S.S. Robert E. Peary, was launched within four days of the keel being laid, and was completed only three days after that! The total cost of a completed ship was less than $2,000,000 -- very inexpensive, even by 1940's standards. This was not the first instance of mass production techniques being used for wartime merchant ship construction. The wooden-hulled Hog Island type was fashioned using such techniques during the First World War; but nothing approached the Liberty Ships in terms of overall volume of construction. By the time the program tapered off in favor of the more modern (and much faster) Victory Ships in 1944 and 1945, a total of 2,751 Liberty Ships was built.
The Liberty Ships came in several distinct variants. Some of these were built keel-up using variations on the basic design; others were modified after the fact to fill new roles. There were basic freighters, colliers, tankers, troop carriers, hospital ships, aircraft repair ships, and so on. Of these, the two most common were basic freighters, and freighters refitted to serve a combined cargo and troop carrying role. As luck would have it, only two of the more than 2,700 Liberty Ships survive in seaworthy condition today, and they represent these two primary variants. The S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, an original freighter restored to near mint condition, is berthed today in San Francisco. The S.S. John W. Brown, a freighter converted to fill the dual role of freighter and troop carrier, has been almost completely restored, and is presently berthed in Baltimore, just a few miles from her birthplace in the city's Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards.
Although the Liberty Ships and many other wartime merchantmen were built by the United States government and came under the control of the War Shipping Administration (WSA), they were actually operated by some 90 different shipping companies under a "general agency agreement." This agreement stipulated that the companies would be paid a management fee to operate the ships, but with complete government control over cargoes and ports of call. The ships were crewed by Merchant Marine seamen, usually about 45 in number. The ships were armed, but the guns and the overall defense of the ship were the responsibility of the U.S. Navy's "Naval Armed Guard," which numbered from about a dozen to almost 50, depending on the ship's configuration and armament. Despite this formal arrangement, the lines frequently blurred when vessels came under attack, and merchant seamen often fought side by side with the Naval Armed Guard in defense of their ships.
Given the shortage of steel armor plate during the war, portions of the Liberty Ships were protected by "plastic armor," a material that was produced aboard ship during construction by heating a combination of Trinidad asphalt and crushed stone to 600°F and then pouring it into a set of molds matching the areas to be protected. Slabs of the resulting material, roughly five to six inches thick, were applied externally and held in place by retaining disks or steel framing. Even the plastic armor was used sparingly, however. It was applied to the front of the bridge, to the exterior of the radio room, chartroom and captain's quarters, and to the outside of the 20mm gun tubs atop the flying bridge and in the bow. Officers other than the captain had to do without.
The S.S. John W. Brown was a product of the most prolific of the shipyards building the EC2 design. The Bethlehem-Fairfield yard, located on the Patapsco River in southeastern Baltimore, produced 384 Liberty Ships just prior to and during World War II. The S.S. John W. Brown, Hull Number 312, was the 62nd Liberty Ship built at this location. Her keel was laid on Way Number 12 on July 28, 1942; and she was launched barely 41 days later, on Labor Day, September 7, 1942. Her namesake was a well-known East Coast labor leader who had died the year before. The ship was delivered from the yard on September 19, 1942.
Although the Brown was built in the original cargo configuration, she made only one transatlantic voyage as a standard cargo ship. On her return, she went back to the yards for refitting as the first of about 220 Limited Capacity Troopships, modified to carry up to 550 troops or POWs, in addition to a significant amount of cargo. The changes made during the conversion included the following, among others:
After her conversion to a Limited Capacity Troopship, the Brown carried close to 10,000 Allied personnel, as well as two shiploads of Axis POWs. She served at Anzio, Naples, and in the invasion of southern France. Despite a long combat history, she received only minor damage in action, and was credited with the downing of one Axis aircraft. Following the War, the ship helped transport cargo to aid in rebuilding Europe, and at the end of 1946 she was loaned to the City of New York for use as a floating high school. Her role as the nation's only nautical secondary school continued for 36 years, during which time she was carefully tended and, perhaps most importantly, kept in her original post-war condition, without further modification. After the school closed in the early 1980's the S.S. John W. Brown was eventually turned over to Project Liberty Ship, which was then seeking to acquire and restore a Liberty Ship to its original World War II condition. The Brown was in the best shape of those still surviving, and she was eventually moved from New York to Baltimore where restoration work commenced. Today, she is in excellent sailing condition, and makes periodic day trips on the Chesapeake Bay, as well as occasional coastal trips up and down the eastern seaboard and as far as the Great Lakes.
|Length (LOA)||441ft 6in (129.8m)|
|Draft||27ft 9in (8.16m)|
|Powerplant||Triple expansion steam engine, max 76 rpm, 2500 hp|
|Speed||11 kts (max)|
|Gross cargo capacity||7,176 tons|
|Cargo capacity||Approx. 500,000 ft3, depending on type|
|Armament||1x5in naval gun
3x3in (50 cal.) guns
8x20mm guns (Oerlikon)
Naval Armed Guard: 41
Troops or POWs: 550
The following photographs were taken on April 29, 2001 at the S.S. John W. Brown's berth at Pier 1 in Baltimore.
|S.S. John W.Brown dockside at Pier 1, bow view||Stern view. Note the lack of plastic armor on aft gun tubs; also the extra 20mm gun mounts just aft of the mizzenmast. These were added when the ship was converted to carry troops.|
|Bridge: note plastic armor on bridge front and gun tubs||Port side looking forward from main deck to boat deck. Note plastic armor on aft 20mm gun tubs; also the diesel generator housing to the right (this was part of the troopship conversion)|
|"Monkey island" from the starboard side of the flying bridge; a canvas "tent" could be hung over the frame in bad weather.||Port 20mm gun; note the slanted tube on the near side of the tub, partially hidden by the ammunition locker. It was used to hold a hot gun barrel after it had been swapped out to cool. Flag locker is in the foreground.|
|Detail of 20mm gun mount||Antenna stanchion and base of radio mast|
|Looking aft to the port side 20mm gun tub||Funnel, ventilator and radio mast, port side looking aft|
|Funnel and ventilators, starboard side||Looking aft from the flying bridge toward the mizzenmast and aft gun deck. The large rectangular structure with the mufflers and exhaust pipes visible in the foreground is the housing for the auxiliary diesel generators.|
|Detail of generator housing. Note the added gun tubs on either side of the mizzenmast house.||Lifeboat detail, seen from flying bridge|
|Lifeboat detail, port side, viewed from main deck looking forward.||Lifeboat detail, seen from wheelhouse ladder|
|Wheelhouse interior. Note the brass tubing connecting the wheel and telegraph to their counterparts on the monkey island. Note also small windows and armor plate, otherwise rare on this ship.||Starboard ladder from bridge to flying bridge deck. Note plastic armor extending past chart room and captain's quarters. Depth of porthole framing gives an indication of thickness.|
|Looking forward from the bridge deck; note troop's head just forward of the mainmast house (rafts on top, steps up to door).||Bow, starboard side looking aft past 20mm gun tub. Note the hot barrel receptacle. The gentleman in the foreground is my guide, Mr. Thomas Butterbaugh, a John W. Brown volunteer.|
|Anchor chain detail||Anchor winch detail|
|Number 1 hold hatch cover and loading boom detail||Troop's head, with spare anchor|
|Main deck, port side, looking aft. Note added 20mm gun tub in midground, as well as "Brownie the Riveter" artwork on aft deck house.||Looking aft from Naval Armed Guard quarters (aft deck house).|
|Aft bridge, Naval Armed Guard quarters, and artwork (recent).||Aft bridge; wheel and binnacle are covered, though telegraph and chart table are visible. The ship could be conned from here in case of damage to the wheelhouse and flying bridge.|
|Aft 5 inch gun. Note Fort McHenry across the river to the left.||5 inch gun from starboard. Note fuser's station.|
|Starboard 3 inch gun on aft gun deck.||Cargo winch detail, looking forward from starboard boat deck. Note that these are steam winches.|
|Aft cargo winches; port side looking toward starboard, just forward of the mizzenmast house.||Aft cargo winch detail.|
|Aft cable winches seen from aft bridge deck.||Mainmast top, looking forward.|
|Foremast looking forward||Foremast house, with winches, "jumbo" block, and bow gun tubs in background.|
|Mainmast house, looking forward. Note troop's head just forward of mast house.||Mainmast top detail.|
|Cargo boom detail||Mizzenmast detail, facing starboard.|
|Additional mizzenmast detail.||Mizzen topmast detail.|
|Mizzenmast house detail.||Foremast detail. Note that booms here are shipped.|
|Foremast house, winches, jumbo, Number 2 hatch cover, etc.||Fore topmast detail.|
|Mainmast boom stowage detail||Foremast "jumbo" block.|
|Fore topmast rigging details.||'Tween decks, starboard side looking aft toward galley (#3 hold). Shows a few of the five-deep racks that served as troop (and POW) accommodations.|
The pictures for this article were taken on a day when the S.S. John W. Brown was not open for visitors. I am especially grateful to Mr. Thomas Butterbaugh, a retired schoolteacher and long-time volunteer with the Brown, for taking time that day to drive me to Pier 1 and escort me on board and around the ship. This article is a salute to him and all the other volunteers who keep this 60-year old piece of America's vibrant history alive and well and functioning as a memorial to those who served in the World War II Merchant Marine and Naval Armed Guard.
There are numerous sources of information on the Liberty Ship program available on the Web and in other publications. Some that were particularly important to this article include:
Copyright © 2001 by William H. Geoghegan