Cheers greet finished John W. Brown Liberty Ship sails again after 45 years


It was enough to make grown men cry -- and cheer -- yesterday morning when the last World War II Liberty Ship on the East Coast steamed away from Canton's Pier One, traveling on her own power for the first time since 1946.

The sight of the refurbished, 49-year-old SS John W. Brown created chatter from Baltimore to the Bay Bridge, said Bob Stine, a pilot from Black Dog Boat Works in Annapolis.

"The radios have been calling about a Liberty Ship all day," he said, recalling how the 441-foot-long cargo ship looked "gray and ominous, without a light on her" when she was towed to Baltimore in 1988 from New York, where she had served as a floating high school for 30 years.

Since then, a corporation of devoted volunteers has spent about 90,000 hours working on the John W. Brown, from stem to stern and from bilge to bridge.

Yesterday was a trial run on the Chesapeake Bay, with three inspectors from the Coast Guard's marine inspection office along for the ride. Capt. Paul J. Esbensen, 61, of Annapolis, master of the vessel and a marine accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said that the crew would test everything from the engine to the whistle.

Black smoke poured from the ship's smokestack as the boilers were fired in the room below. The 80 people on board fell silent, then cheered as the ship's deep-toned whistle sounded and the John W. Brown pulled away from the pier on her own power.

"All this work paid off, didn't it?" said one man, with his eyes brimming. "I don't even feel tired anymore."

"Three years; three years --" said a sweat-soaked engineer.

"We've all worked for this moment," said Dave Aldworth, a computer consultant from Severna Park, former British and American seaman and walking ship's historian.

The John W. Brown was one of a fleet of 2,710 Liberty Ships, dating back to 1941, that carried two-thirds of the essential cargo to Allied forces in World War II. They were civilian ships, crewed by civilian seamen and carrying a cadre of U.S. Naval Armed Guards.

Almost 200 were sunk by the Germans, but "the U-boats couldn't sink them fast enough. There were just too many," Mr. Aldworth said.

Capt. Bill Atkinson, 78, of Essex, captained 11 Liberty Ships.

He was torpedoed once, but that was when he was in charge of a tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. Several crew members were killed.

Looking toward the Bay Bridge shimmering in a bright haze, Captain Atkinson said yesterday, "These old tubs could go almost anywhere in the world and load or discharge cargo. They don't need any special pier, and in some cases, even the crew could do it."

Captain Atkinson was one of about 15 captains and 15 chief engineers on board yesterday.

As the vessel neared the bridge, three yellow World War II AT-6 fighter-pilot trainers circled her, to the delight of the passengers.

The John W. Brown was built in 42 days and launched Sept. 7, 1942, from Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield Shipyard, Mr. Aldworth said. Fairfield turned out 384 Liberty Ships -- more than any of the other 18 shipyards in the nation that were almost mass-producing the ships, he said.

They were running short of names, Mr. Aldworth said. He's still trying to get information on John W. Brown, a labor organizer for the electrical and carpenters' unions.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at first referred to the slow-moving vessels as "ugly ducklings," but in a September 1941 speech he called them "Liberty Ships" because they were going to liberate the world, Mr. Aldworth said. The name stuck.

The John W. Brown made 14 ocean trips in the Atlantic and was one of the 2,500 merchant ships that supplied the Allies at Normandy, he said.

After D-Day, the John W. Brown was modified to carry troops back home and food to Europe.

In 1946, she was berthed in New York City, where she served as a vocational school for the maritime trades until 1982. She is now owned by a Baltimore-based, not-for-profit corporation, Project Liberty Ship Inc. Memorabilia fill a small on-board museum, walls and display cases. But the owners don't want it to be just a stationary museum. It has already sold out her Sept. 21 "matron voyage."

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