World War II ship one of two Liberties still afloat


The boat began life as MCE Hull 312, Builder's Hull 2062 when its keel was laid on July 28, 1942, in shipway 12 at Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield Yard.

Forty-one days later, the 4,700-ton, 441-foot-long vessel - named the SS John W. Brown, in honor of a Maine shipbuilding union official - finally slid down the ways into the cool waters of the Patapsco River on a bright and cool Labor Day.

The John W. Brown was one of 384 Liberty ships, 94 Victories and 30 LSTs built during World War II at the Fairfield yard, which at its peak in late 1943 employed 46,700 Baltimore workers, including 6,000 African-Americans.

By 1945, the Southeast Baltimore yard, which hummed round the clock during wartime, had set a world shipbuilding record. Workers had built and launched more vessels than any other U.S. shipyard and delivered an astounding 5,187,600 tons of shipping.

The Brown completed eight wartime voyages and five after the war, surviving U-boat torpedoes, mines and air attacks. It even survived a ramming while on convoy.

But just as astounding as surviving the war is the fact that the Brown is still afloat. Most ships last for 20 years, when they become officially "overage," and wind up being broken up or waiting in dead fleets for the price of scrap metal to increase.

Sherod Cooper, author of Liberty Ship: The Voyages of the John W. Brown 1942-1946, published in 1997 by the Naval Institute Press, recalled the vessel's wartime contributions.

The Brown took part in D-Day and in the invasion of Southern France in 1944. Deep in its holds, the boat carried material to help rebuild a war-shattered Europe.

"Steaming a total of about 100,000 miles, she carried approximately 52,525 tons of cargo and more than a thousand troops from the United States to the war zones. It would require 11 freight trains of a hundred cars each to carry the cargo," Cooper wrote. "While steaming between various Mediterranean ports, she moved about 15,585 tons of cargo, more than 5,100 troops, and 336 POWs. Inbound, the Brown up to mid-August 1945 transported to the United States about 8,645 tons of cargo, about 1,000 POWs, and 770 homeward-bound GIs," wrote Cooper.

In 1946, after the Brown's last voyage, the War Shipping Administration transferred the ship to the New York City Board of Education, and it was tied up in the East River and used as a nautical vocational high school.

Shorn of its wartime gray, the Brown was painted black, white and buff. It became a familiar sight to passing motorists on Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, which follows the river.

After it stopped being used as a school ship, the Brown was towed in 1982 to the Reserve Fleet in the James River in Virginia.

That the John W. Brown survived at all is a miracle, made possible by Project Liberty Ship, which was formed in 1978 to preserve the old ship.

In 1988, the group was successful in bringing the vessel to Baltimore, and with restoration efforts well under way by 1991, was able to take a shipload of guests for a cruise down the Chesapeake Bay.

The John W. Brown, docked at Pier 1 in Canton, and its West Coast counterpart, the Jeremiah O'Brien, are the only two working Liberties left afloat.

"The Liberty ship John W. Brown is a survivor of that terrible time in world history. And not just a survivor, but an absolutely essential instrument of that tremendous effort put forward by all Americans in all walks of life, which turned the tides of war in all oceans and enabled America, at the head of a worldwide coalition, to dictate the terms of peace in the conquered enemy capitals of Berlin and Tokyo," wrote Peter Sanford, president of the National Maritime Historical Society, in the foreword to Cooper's book.

The Brown will celebrate its 60th birthday Sept. 7 with a sold-out "Living History" cruise for 730 passengers.

Another cruise is planned for Oct. 19. For information, Project Liberty Ship can be reached at 410-661-1550.

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