Before daybreak on September 1, 1939, over 1 million German troops began their invasion of Poland. Two days later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. It marked the beginning of World War II. Though at the time our Nation was neutral, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Nazi threat to democracy. The United Kingdom’s military was ill-prepared for the conflict as was its merchant marine. The British needed munitions, food and other materials, but it was cash poor. By the end the first nine months of war, U-boats had already sunk 150 ships. It was soon apparent that the German navy was sinking Allied ships faster than they could possibly be built and launched.
To provide the massive sealift to nations at war with Germany, Italy and Japan, President Roosevelt decided to increase production of U.S. built ships and devised a program called Lend-Lease. It permitted the sale, “transfer of title to, exchange or otherwise dispose of any ships, materials,” etc to any government deemed vital to the defense of the United States.
Placed in charge of the War Shipping Administration, Rear Admiral Emory S. Land directed the building of 441 feet long, 56 feet wide cargo ships, that were named Liberty ships. Looking over the plans for these ships, President Roosevelt commented, “I think this ship will do us well. She’ll carry a good load. She isn’t much to look at though, is she? A real ugly duckling.” The nickname stuck but Liberty ships proved decisive in helping win the war, transporting some two-thirds of needed battlefield materials.
The launch of the first Liberty ship occurred on September 27,1941. Built in 244 days at Baltimore’s Bethlehem Steel Fairfield Shipyard, the vessel was named SS Patrick Henry, after the Revolutionary War hero who once stated “Give me liberty or give me death.” By April 1943, shipyards on both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico were launching 140 per month of the mass-produced cargo vessels. The SS Robert E. Peary, built at Richmond, California’s Kaiser shipyard, was built and launched in a record of just a little more than 41/2 days! The vessel survived the war; it was scrapped at Baltimore in 1963. From 1941 to 1945, a total of 2,710 Liberty ships were built at 17 of the Nation’s shipyards.
Initially called EC2 ships (=Emergency Cargo, 2= size of ship), Liberty ships were built using some 250-ton prefabricated parts that were transported to shipyards aboard railroad flatcars. The vessels had 5 cargo holds; three forward of the engine room and two aft. The crews’ quarters were located mid-ship. The metal sections were welded while wood, because of shortage of metal, was used for many parts of the interior. Equipped with a 2,500 horsepower steam engine and a single four-blade propeller, their maximum speed was 11 knots (=12.7 mph).
Typically, a Liberty ship crew consisted of 38 to 64 civilian sailors and 21 to 40 naval personnel. With some 4 ships launched daily, there was a shortage of merchant seamen. Staffed by US Nany personnel, ships’ officers, deck and engine-room cadets were trained at the Kings Point (NY) Merchant Marine Academy. Training was also provided at three other sites, Waukegan, IL, Treasure Island, CA and Sheepshead Bay, NY. The US Navy personnel aboard the Liberty Ships maned the 3, 4 or 5 inch guns at the bow and stern along with the anti-aircraft guns positioned over the bridge and on the after deck house. They were also armed with large caliber machine guns.
Despite travelling in escorted convoys, Liberty ships were always at risk of attack. During the war, over1500 US merchant marine vessels were sunk by enemy action. Of those, approximately 200 Liberty ships were lost to storms, accidents and/or enemy ships and aircraft. On April 20, 1944, Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton was approaching Algiers when the convoy was attacked by German aircraft. An aerial torpedo launched by a Junker Ju 88A struck the ship, sending it immediately to the bottom. None of her officers, crew, armed guards or military troops being transported survived. There was a total loss of 580 men. During the attack, four other ships were torpedoed. The destroyers USS Lansdale and SS Royal Star were also sunk. The two other wounded vessels managed to reach Algiers. At about the same time in the Gulf of Alaska, the Japanese submarine I-180 torpedoed and sank Liberty ship SS John Straub. A week later, the US destroyer escort Gilmore located and sank submarine 1-180 with its depth charges.
Following the war, of the approximately 2,400 remaining Liberty ships, 624 were sold to Italian and Greek shipowners. Other Liberty ships and surplus transport vessels were designated as the Defense Reserve Fleet, (=Ghost fleet). They were kept available for quick deployment. The remaining vessels were mothballed, coating them with a preservative paint. They were held at anchorage at Wilmington, NC, Hampton Roads, VA, Hudson River, NY and San Francisco, CA. By 1970, most of the mothballed fleet had been scraped while a few others were turned over to some coastal states for use as artificial reefs.
These vessels were modified as artificial reefs by cutting away all of their superstructures, removing any pollutants and then towing them out to be sunk at an approved location. The submerged wrecks became habitat for barnacles, marine worms and other marine creatures that provided food and shelter for various species of fish. According to Florida Sea Grant, it “takes about 3 – 5 years for the reefs to reach a level of maximum production for both fish and invertebrate species.” The Liberty ship artificial reefs have become favorite sites for sports fishing and scuba diving. A number of them are located in the coastal waters of Virginia, North Carolina and the Gulf of Mexico.
There are only two remaining, fully functional Liberty ships; they both serve as museums. Be sure to take a guided tour through maritime history aboard one of these vessels. On the East Coast, the Liberty Ship John W. Brown is located at Pier 1, 2020 South Clinton Street, Baltimore, MD. The 76-year old historic vessel is opened to visitors on Wednesdays and Saturdays, 9am to 2pm. Occasional cruises aboard the ship are also provided. For more information, go to their website http://www.ssjohnwbrown.org/. The West Coast Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien, moored at San Francisco’s Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf, is open daily from 9am to 4pm; firstname.lastname@example.org.