Yes, I know, it’s all about ships again. Liberty ships in this case. Last year I had a little field trip across the bay to Baltimore to see the USS John W. Brown, one of the last two surviving Liberty Ships in operation. She was built in Baltimore in 1942 and has been part of the city landscape for the last ten years or so. She is fully operational and certified for public use and steams up and down the east coast during the summer months. Here she is out chugging on the Chesapeake Bay.
These ships have an interesting genesis and history, back in 1940 the British ordered 60 ships from US yards to replace early war losses. The ships were designated “Ocean” class and were nominally 10,000 ton freighters built to a design dating from the 1880’s, riveted hull, open bridge, basic accommodations and steam-powered winches, capstan and bilge pumps. The single main engine specified was an 1878 Scottish design, a steam-powered, triple expansion, reciprocating engine fed from coal-fired boilers (coal being readily available in wartime Britain). The engine stood twenty feet high and weighed in at about 130 tons. Here’s a drawing that gives some idea of the size of the beast:
The ships and engines were intended to be built quickly by yards having little prior knowledge of ship or engine building.
Most of the sixty Ocean class ships were built, delivered and paid for during the following two years. Then in late 1941 (while the Oceans were still being delivered but after Pearl Harbor) the US decided that it needed to add significantly to it’s own merchant fleet. The shipyards that were building the Oceans were familiar with the design and the engines and it was decided to build more ships to this design. So the project was expanded to numerous yards and over the course of the war over 2,700 Liberty ships were built, all to the same obsolete design. One or two “improvements” were made, the Liberty hulls were mostly welded, and the boilers were oil-fired, oil being fairly plentiful on this side. The ships had a design speed of 15 knots (80 rpm on the engine) none did better than 10 knots and that was in danger of shaking themselves to destruction (no engine balancing was ever done and the engines were thereafter limited to 65 rpm)
A little digression here: Late in World War 1 (1917) the US had developed a standard cargo ship to be built for wartime use. They were, for their time, a modern design having an all welded hulls and a single, oil fired, steam turbine engine giving them a 12 to 15 knot speed potential. A bigger and better ship than the Liberty. Several shipyards were set up to produce them, one of the largest was at Hog Island near Philadelphia on the Delaware River not far from me, now the site of Philadelphia International Airport.
It was a massive operation over fifty slipways and 30,000 workers. Reminiscent of “The National Shipyards” in Britain during the First World War. The ships were locally known as “Hog Islanders” and though none were completed before the end of WW1 about 300 were built and many saw service in WW2. By the time 1941 rolled around Hog Island shipyard had long been abandoned and any knowledge of the design and construction of the “Hog Islanders” mostly lost.
A smaller digression: The only remnant of Hog Island shipyard is the “Hoagie” a sandwich made by splitting an Italian roll lengthwise and filling it with meat, cheese and salad. The Hoagie (initially Hoggie) was the sandwich of choice in the shipyard for lunch. Other names for the meal include Hero, Grinder, Submarine (or Sub), Blimpie, Rocket, Torpedo and Zep (Zeppelin) all reminders of it’s shape. I’m told in South Africa it is called a “Gatsby”.
Now that’s what I call a sandwich!
So here we have, in 1941, a major wartime effort to build ships to a sixty year old design to be powered by an obsolete and inefficient 1876 engine, uncomfortable, slow (rarely made 10 knots) and totally lacking in comforts, but built they were. The first ship took 122 days from start to finish, she was named USS Patrick Henry (He was a Virginian from the War of Independence, “Give me liberty or give me death” that’s what he said) so FDR launching the Patrick Henry called the ships “Liberty”. The name stuck.
The Sparrows Point Shipyard in Baltimore launched a Liberty every four weeks, it is said that before a ship hit the water another keel was being laid on the same ways. At peak 18 shipyards were building Liberties. One was launched less than 5 days after the keel was laid as a publicity stunt. (Not sure I’d want to go to sea in that one). About 50 were lost on their first voyage, but only about 200 total were sunk during the war, some simply broke into pieces where the sections had been welded together, (later, additional plates were added to strengthen the midships section). A few of the war survivors made it into the 60’s almost none into the 70’s.
Of the 2,700 only two ships survive today, the John W Brown in Baltimore and the Jeremiah O’Brien on the west coast.
The John W Brown has her own website and there is a virtual tour of the engine room here:
An all volunteer operation and well worth a visit.