Give me Liberty………

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.

and back in Baltimore
JohnWBrown 2
Not a thing of beauty even to a diehard marine enthusiast is she?

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:

engine 1

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.

Hog island

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.

There are few wrecks, some like this one, tourist attractions in their decay.liberty
Liberty ship USS Francis Preston Blair , Saumarez Reef, Coral Sea, (tried to outrun a Japanese Submarine.)

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.

Author: Low Wattage

Expat Welshman, educated (somewhat) in UK, left before it became fashionable to do so. Now a U.S. Citizen, and recent widower, playing with retirement and house remodeling, living in Delaware and rural Maryland (weekends).

15 thoughts on “Give me Liberty………”

  1. Absolutely fascinating LW.
    I can see the attraction of being coal fired rather than oil for the UK.
    I suppose being an old design it was more basic and simple both to make and run. But a bit of a sitting duck! Pity the poor sods sailing it!
    V interesting about the origin of the hoagies, often wondered where they got the name from. spousal unit being moved to buy the rolls occasionally.
    Would be a fun trip. Sad that there are only two left.

  2. I’ve seen the name Liberty ships mentioned, but didn’t know anything about their history. Weren’t they used to ship the GIs home at the end of WW2?

  3. Hello Mrs O. : Amazing they did so well, not many fell apart at the dock, but a few did. They were built by people who knew nothing about shipbuilding or engine building in the main. A simple design and a simple engine, There were only two plates that required forming before being put on the hull and many of the engine parts were made by local shops who had no knowledge of the end use of the parts. Late in the war 40% of the workers at Sparrows Point were women, a pattern that was repeated at General Motors (Tanks) and Grumman (Aircraft). A different world from today.

  4. Hello Sheona: The John W. Brown made 11 round trips across the Atlantic, mostly to the Med. She was refitted as a troopship late in the war, so yes, they carried Gi’s (both ways).

    Some became hospital ships, some were just shoved ashore at at Anzio and Normandy to act as breakwaters, they were a commodity to be used where needed. The Liberties made up 27 million tons of shipping by the time the war ended, a major contribution to the effort. Unrecognized in the most part, like most of the merchant service.

  5. Hi LW

    I’d heard of the Liberty ships and thought that I knew a fair bit about them (for a layman.) Probably from a history channel production or similar.

    Never heard of a ‘Gatsby’ though, hero, sub or would you believe baguette is I would think the usual term of reference down here 😉

  6. spousal unit says that when he was a boy after the war there were a huge flotilla of them moored in the Hudson river.just north of Manhattan. Over the years they decreased, picked off one by one until there were none left.

  7. Hello JHL: Yes, the “Fort” ships sometimes built as “Park” ships were the Liberty design built in Canadian yards for the British and Canadian merchant fleets. Together with the Liberties they must easily form the largest number of ships ever built to one design.

    As you may know many of the Liberties (all named after famous Americans) were renamed “Sam something” when they were transferred after the war. They were provided free of charge to the Italians but the British were grossly overcharged for them (one of the benefits of being on the winning side?). I am told that the Sam designation had nothing to do with “Uncle Sam” but came from the class designation “Superstructure Aft of Midships”, probably an old sailors tale.

  8. Mrs. O: Spousal memory still well up to par, the Hudson reserve fleet was originally at Tarrytown and in 1946 was moved upriver to Jones Point close to Dunderberg Mountain and Anthony’s Nose (I chugged right past both spots on my trip up and down the Hudson last year)

    Here’s an old pic (1960’s perhaps), the fleet was used for grain storage for many years.

  9. Spousal unit says the John W. Brown was docked in the Hudson river at one of the lower Manhattan berths for many years and used as a floating specialist High School for the Marine Trades. After the war New York had many specialist High Schools and still do. but that version never survived to the modern day.

    He also says thanks for the memorable photograph!

  10. Mrs. O. Yes the only reason the Brown survived was her time spent as a school ship. The O’Brien (San Francisco) was moved directly from the West Coast reserve fleet to Pier 48. In a bit of friendly one-upmanship (unintended pun) the O’Brien boasts as being the only Liberty ship “in her original configuration”.

  11. “.. a major wartime effort to build ships to a sixty year old design to be powered by an obsolete and inefficient 1876 engine.”

    Err.. not quite. The liberties were based on a British design of 1938 (Dorrington Court) by J L Thompson Sunderland. The Americans used the design because they hadn’t got a better one of their own. Certainly the liberties only did about ten or eleven knots but that wasn’t such a bad speed for those days and fuel economy was paramount. They were powered by reciprocating steam engines because these were reliable and simple to operate, bearing in mind the inexperienced crews called up in wartime.

    The liberties did sterling service until long after the war. I recall seeing one in Auckland circa 1972. Would have liked to have sailed in one but never got the chance.

  12. Hello Jazz: You could well be right, I’m no expert, my one visit to the Brown triggered the post.

    I got that information by Googling Liberty Ships:

    “The predecessor designs, including the Northeast Coast, Open Shelter Deck Steamer, were based on a simple ship originally produced in Sunderland by J.L. Thompson & Sons (see Silver Line) from 1879, and widely manufactured up to the SS Dorrington Court, which was built in 1938. The order specified an 18-inch (0.5 m) increase in draft to boost displacement by 800 long tons (810 t) to 10,100 long tons (10,300 t). The accommodation, bridge and main engine of these vessels were located amidships, with a long tunnel to connect the main engine shaft to its aft extension to the propeller. The first Ocean-class ship, SS Ocean Vanguard, was launched on 16 August 1941.”

    I did just check the Silver Line link and from there:

    “Under the direction of Major Robert Norman Thompson and his son, Robert Cyril Thompson, research led to the creation of a distinctive new ship model – the Liberty Ship.[7][8] The first ship built to the design, Embassage, was launched in 1935 and created “exceptional interest” among ship owners. Orders, once again, flooded in.[9]”

    Regarding designs, arguably the “Hog Islander” from 1917 was a better ship but by late 1941 there were already a number of yards building “Oceans” and the correct decision was made to expand that activity. The first Liberty was launched 120 days later. Starting the “Hog Island” class would have delayed the first ship by too long a period. Merchant sinkings in the Atlantic were alarming in 1941-2.

    You can always get a ride on the Brown during the summer in Baltimore they have quite an extensive sailing schedule, being credentialed they will probably even let you crack a steam valve or two.

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