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TOLEDO, Ohio - Robert H. Hahn, a 72-year-old former seaman from Rootstown, Ohio, walked contentedly on the old decks under him at the Toledo Ship Repair Co. "We've been waiting for this ship for years," he said.

Nearby stood Capt. Walter J. Botto, 79, of Cleveland. A half a century ago, he was the second mate on this ship, the SS John W. Brown, the 58-year-old, Baltimore-based Liberty ship that has been undergoing six weeks of restoration and repair here before embarking on a Great Lakes tour and a long journey home. Today, he's co-chairman of the tour and the only active member of the Brown who also served on it during the 1940s. On four post-World War II voyages to Europe, he helped the 441-foot long ship take Marshall Plan grain to Europe and ferry U.S. troops home.

"I kissed her goodbye in 1946 and never thought I'd see her sail again after she became a school ship in New York," said Botto.

But today, after hundreds of hours of work in dry dock as part of a 12-year-long restoration effort, the old ship is clean again and back in the water where it belongs, ready for thousands of ship buffs to come aboard during a six-week, nine-city tour of the Great Lakes.

With almost $1 million in repairs, the Brown, one of just two of the 2,751 Liberty ships still sailing, left dry dock yesterday and was to welcome its first visitors today at One Marine Plaza on the Maumee River, leading to nearby Lake Erie.

While the ship's donor-funded bankroll may be slimmer, its hull is safer with thousands of new rivets and its veteran volunteer crew - average age nearly 70 - is happy to be done with the clean-up work far from home.

"A ship in dry dock is hell," said Ellery B. Woodworth, a Stevenson deckhand and Navy veteran who was among 65 crew members who traveled here to help out with the repairs.

Now the crew will tackle a different job - sailing the Brown through the Great Lakes and acting as ambassadors to eager visitors. More than 2,000 people have reserved places on four sold-out lake cruises and another 30,000 are expected to come aboard when the Brown docks in nine U.S. and Canadian cities.

Its crew seems eager to go to sea, make new friends in new ports and explain the role of Libertys in World War II. The ships, turned out by 18 U.S. shipyards from 1941 to 1945, were used to carry cargo and troops to Europe and the Pacific Theater. The Brown was launched in Baltimore in 1942 and sailed on 13 overseas voyages before being retired. It was then a New York school ship for 36 years until a Baltimore group saved it from the scrap heap in 1988. Today, the nonprofit Project Liberty Ship operates the Brown, which is fueled solely by volunteers and donations.

The Brown's repair crew had moments of tension in the past week, as it became apparent the work would last three days longer than scheduled and cost far more than the esti mated $700,000. The delay reduced the ship's public time in Toledo to just two days rather than five.

The scene aboard the ship resembled something like the creation of modern art with noise-makers: hoses sandblasting the hull, hammers chipping paint, lines feeding welding machines, drills hammering rivets, brushes and machines applying paint, high-pressure air and electric lines everywhere.

"Any dry dock is a photo finish," said DeLacy L. Cook of Lutherville, port engineer for the Brown and its overseer at the Toledo shipyard. "There are so many things to do at the end."

Cook, Chief Cate Richard Bauman Jr., Second Mate Frank Schmidt, ex-Coast Guard inspector Steve Ciccalone and a few others were with the ship in Toledo during all the repairs. They were aided greatly by a group of midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. Other volunteers came from Maryland and elsewhere to help finish the job last week.

Installing the new rivets in the hull fore and aft of the engine room was the repair trip's chief purpose. One by one, with the ship propped up on huge wooden blocks, rivet gangs removed the Brown's original rivets, cleaned the holes, enlarged them slightly and inserted new 3-inch-long, 14-ounce steel rivets. After more than 50 years, the procedure has changed slightly at most.

A "furnace man" outside the ship would heat a rivet to a bright orange 1,200 degrees in an ear-splittingly loud kerosene-and-oxygen-fueled stove. Holding it with tongs, he then threw it 15 feet to a "catcher" with a bucket. A "passer" grabbed it with tongs and thrust it through a hole into the double-hulled bottom to an unseen passer. The still hot rivet was then jammed into a cleaned hole, and a "backer" held it in place. Outside, the final riveter pressed a pneumatic rivet gun against the new rivet, flattening it to the size of a silver dollar.

Each operation took 45 seconds. Over and over again this was done, 14,000 times. On Thursday, with an audience of 45 spectators crouching beneath the 4,500-ton ship, a symbolic final gold-plated rivet was installed.

"It's a lost art," said riveter Todd Jagielski. "Ships are mostly welded now. Others rivet, but no one else does our quality of work."

Now, as it heads back to the sea, the World War II steamship also has new wiring and other electrical and radar improvements. Its life rafts have four racks, its crew cabins new decks and its engine room new steel plates. Its port and starboard anchor chains are longer, its No. 1 hold booms (long poles that help lift cargo) have been straightened, and its hull has a new paint job in haze gray.

The odyssey

On its journey home, the Brown and its crew will retrace the course it took here beginning in Canton May 16, but with a difference. The outbound trip from Baltimore was 12 days virtually nonstop. The volunteers will take six weeks going home, with crews changing along the way. The ship is due back in Baltimore Aug.30.

One popular stop will be Halifax, the wartime ship-staging harbor in Nova Scotia where the Brown docked once before, in 1994.

"We had a great welcome then," recalls chief purser and Brown secretary Hercules Esibill, 75, of Catonsville, who adds that then as now, the makeup of the Brown's crew took many by surprise.

"On our trip north in 1994, a pilot in the Cape Cod Canal was amazed that this large ship was being operated by a crew between 16 and 70, average age 70," Esibill said. "He said he would wire all daughters in Halifax, 'Better lock up your mothers.' "

Six years later, he says, "Maybe we should wire Halifax, 'Better lock up your grandmothers.' "

Attired in their new "Great Lakes 2000" uniforms of navy blue hats and shirts and khaki pants, the crew plan to meet more than 30,000 guests. Other times, in work clothes befitting freight-train hobos, the volunteers will tie and untie the ship repeatedly, keep round-the-clock, four-hour watches, scrape, paint, otherwise maintain the vessel. They will eat and sleep aboard without air conditioning.

Typical of thousands of interested Midwesterners, former merchant seamen and Navy veterans who want to see the ship is Robert Hahn, the Ohio man who is all three. He drove 345 miles to Baltimore three times in recent months to work, eat and sleep on the Brown. And he is one of the several Cleveland organizers of Operation Great Lakes 2000 planning the stop there July 28.

"For me, the Brown's a labor of love," Hahn said. "A seaman friend told me he never met a sailor he couldn't be friends with. Me too. I was in the merchant marine at the end of World War II and then the Navy, but the merchant marine is more important to me. We weren't considered servicemen, and it tied us together. I think of the merchant marine and its Navy Armed Guard as the elite."

For Capt. Brian H. Hope of Ellicott City, chairman of Project Liberty Ship, the nonprofit that operates the Brown, "The voyage will be a blast in more ways than one."

On board for the long journey home is the original three-note steam whistle of the admired French luxury liner Normandie. Its career ended in 1942 when it caught fire and capsized at its Hudson River pier in New York City.

The whistle is part of a collection of 10 historic ship, ferry and train whistles loaned to the Brown for the trip by Conrad Milster of Brooklyn, N.Y., chief engineer at New York's Pratt Institute and a steam-engine aficionado. The Brown will also blow the whistles of a wartime British corvette, the Detroit River side-wheel railroad ferry Lansdowne and a new 32-note calliope.

Living history

The revitalized Brown, twice as old as most ships are when they are scrapped, now promises to outlast many of its crew.

For his part, Purser Esibill, a seaman on seven Libertys during World War II, questions whether this trip will really be the last for some of the old-timers. "Seamen always say 'This is the last trip.' But they sail again. It's typical of seafaring people."

But others are more adamant.

"None of us older fellows can take such a long cruise again," said the Rev. Ramon F. Reno, 72, of Burlington, N.C., a World War II Navy veteran and former Methodist minister in Baltimore. "I'll be aboard six weeks. This is my last long voyage."

Somewhere in the Atlantic, Reno will conduct services burying the ashes of seven deceased servicemen and seamen and the wife of one of them. Among those being saluted is Ted Taddei, a former Navy gunner's mate and a popular member of the Brown's Armed Guard who died last year.

All departed U.S. servicemen and women will be honored off Point Judith, R.I. These include 6,800 merchant mariners and 1,800 Navy Armed Guard killed in World War II. Point Judith is near where a German submarine sank the Boston-bound coal carrier SS Black Point May 5, 1945, the last U.S. ship sunk by a U-boat.

One crew member will be glad to get underway and happy when it's over.

Frank Valenti, of Erdenheim, Pa., another merchant marine veteran and retired industry marketing executive, made eight trips in the past 18 months to help plan the Brown's nine Great Lakes stops.

"I've got a 2-year-old car with 55,000 miles on it," he said. "We had to line up the ports when available, tugboats, local groups, food. People in the Great Lakes have been wonderful in donating money and time."

The ship always looks for more volunteers, especially younger ones, for deck, engine room work, docents and other jobs. Leonard Kulacki Jr., 55, of Jarrettsville, a retired phone company manager and former ammunition chief for the Maryland National Guard, 29th Division, worked the first leg to Toledo as a deckhand, then asked to help out again on Lake Erie.

"I love the people and the experience of living history," Kulacki said. "It's a neat team, working together for one goal - keep the ship alive."

Joseph Carbo, the ship's first assistant engineer, has sailed on commercial ships into the Great Lakes twice before and around the world 14 times. He later directed the heating and cooling plants of the Housing Authority of Baltimore and has been a Brown volunteer since it arrived in Baltimore 12 years ago. He knows the trip ahead will be tiring, a strain on both the ship and its crew because of their years, but thinks both are up to the challenge.

"My doctor tells me, 'Joe, you got to let the younger men do the work,' " he says. "I tell him, 'Doc, I'm 72. I am one of the younger guys."

Details on the John W. Brown's trip through the Great Lakes and back to Baltimore can be found on the Project Liberty Ship Web site: www.liberty-ship.com. Ernest Imhoff is a retired editor and reporter on The Sun and The Evening Sun who is working on the Brown this summer.

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