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Liberty ship sets sail for the 1940s

Tourism and LeisureCruisesShipbuildingArt

The last time Donald Halverson was on a Liberty ship, he was heading across the Atlantic Ocean, a fresh-faced draftee who would spend the next 21/2 years fighting his way across Germany, France, Italy and North Africa during World War II.

A more recent trip, a leisurely six-hour sail down the Chesapeake Bay on the refurbished Liberty ship John W. Brown, a floating museum that has been plying the waters around Baltimore since 1991, proved a lot more pleasurable.

And boy, did it bring back the memories — of wartime camaraderie, an inspirational U.S. president who made you feel you personally could save the world, and getting a lump in your throat when Kate Smith sang "God Bless America."

"The whole scene, everything, it's been terrific," said Halverson, 92, of Charles County, whose daughter, Tracy Burdick, booked the trip for him several months back. "It's been a wonderful memory, I'm lucky I'm around to enjoy it."

Today, the John W. Brown — launched from Baltimore's Bethlehem Steel shipyards on Labor Day 1942 and named for an East Coast labor leader — is one of only two operational Liberty ships remaining, the only one on the East Coast.

The Brown serves as a museum ship and a living memorial to wartime shipyard workers, merchant mariners and the naval armed guard, says Jo Ann Malpass, secretary of Project Liberty Ship, which owns, operates and continues work on refurbishing the 69-year-old vessel.

"The thing that makes this ship special is that we can still sail," Malpass says.

Some 2,700 Liberty ships were built in the United States during the war, transporting cargo and sometimes troops. Built quickly (work on the John W. Brown took 41 days) and with few frills, they were designed to be functional, not to strut and not necessarily to last.

But they proved indispensable, and many remained afloat for years, even decades after the war ended.

Restored to shipshape condition by an all-volunteer group beginning in 1988, the Brown is sent out on a handful of living history cruises annually from its berth, at Pier One off Clinton Street. The most recent, in June, included about 550 passengers; the ship can handle 700. The next cruise, set for Sept. 10, is sold out.

Trip organizers do their best to replicate the wartime experience as closely as possible, short of actually having it attacked. Passengers are encouraged to tour the boat at their own pace. The narrow stairways and corridors leave people marveling at just how 500 men could call this place home for the several weeks it would take to cross the ocean.

The ship's guns, forever pointed at enemies that are thankfully no more than a memory, prove a popular spot for photographs. Its engine rooms are almost unendurably hot, giving an inkling of what the men charged with keeping it afloat and on course had to go through.

The trips extend down the Chesapeake Bay to just north of the Bay Bridge and include a flyover by several vintage Japanese, German and British planes. Throughout the day, a barbershop quartet of men in sailors' uniforms serenade the crowd with 1940s-era music.

Actors portray President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Men and women in vintage uniforms answer questions about wartime service. And everywhere, armed services veterans, many with children and young grand- and great-grandchildren in tow, relive their youth.

"This has been great," said Halverson, adding that he was looking forward to leaving the ship via a stairway. That, he said with a smile, would be something new.

"I've never gotten off one of these before," he noted, "without going over the side and scrambling down."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

The John W. Brown has one final cruise scheduled for this year, a special two-hour Veterans Cruise set for Nov. 5. Tickets, priced at $20, are reserved for armed services veterans, each of whom may bring one guest. Information: 410-558-0646 or libertyship.com.

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