Freighted with history

The Baltimore Sun

The SS John W. Brown slowly steams near the Bay Bridge this afternoon with more than 600 passengers and 100 crew members aboard for its summer Living History Cruise. Bob Cleasby, president of the Steamship Historical Society of America, will present its Ship of the Year Award to Capt. George L. Maier, the Liberty ship's master.

Founded in 1935, the society's mission is to continue "recording, preserving and disseminating the history of engine powered vessels."

"It'll be done on our open bridge so our passengers as well as our volunteers and crew members can get a chance to see the ceremony," said Michael J. Schneider, chairman of Project Liberty Ship Inc., which owns and operates the ship. "For those working elsewhere on the ship, it'll be on the public address system."

He added: "It's a very special recognition for us and a tribute to our volunteers who worked hard to bring her back to her present operating condition and keep her steaming."

It's the second major award presented to the Brown in four years.

In 2003, the World Ship Trust of London presented International Maritime Heritage medals to the ship and to the Liberty ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco.

The ships are the last two operating Liberties of a fleet of 2,710 that were built during World War II to supply the Allies with wartime materiel and troops.

"The Brown is the first Liberty to be honored by the society, and it would be incorrect to say she was a military ship. She was not," said Cleasby, from the organization's headquarters in Providence, R.I.

The society is in Baltimore for its annual national meeting, which is being held this weekend at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum.

"We don't present this award every year. Our members nominate vessels and this year it was the Brown," Cleasby said. "There are three reasons why we chose the Brown. First, it is the uniqueness of the ship. They were never meant to last 60 years, and for that very reason it is a portrait in time. It is also a living ship."

Cleasby said the society wanted to recognize the thousands and thousands of volunteer hours that went into its restoration and to pay homage to the merchant mariners who sailed in the Liberties during World War II.

"They have been sadly ignored for far too long," he said. "Without their great convoys, who knows what would have happened? England would certainly have fallen had it not been for their heroic efforts. They are from 'the greatest generation,' and they can never be remembered and thanked enough."

Cleasby added that, with the award, the Brown joins a "very elite group of ships," including the Queen Mary, Delta Queen, passenger liners SS Independence and Rotterdam, and the Badger, the former Chesapeake & Ohio Railway car ferry that plied the Great Lakes for years.

Others are the E.M. Ford, a Great Lakes bulk carrier, and the retired and now restored former New York City fireboat the John J. Harvey, which assisted in evacuating survivors from Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers.

"It's a very prestigious award and a great honor. It certainly shows people how far we've come since we began refurbishing the ship in 1988," said Maier. "It also recognizes the historic value of the Brown."

The John W. Brown, named in honor of a Maine shipbuilding union official, was built in 41 days at Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield Yard and was launched on Labor Day in 1942.

The 4,700-ton, 441-foot vessel completed eight wartime voyages and survived U-boat torpedoes, mines and air attacks. It took part in the D-Day invasion in 1944 and, during its brief career, steamed 100,000 miles.

After its final voyage in 1946, it was assigned to the New York City Board of Education and was tied up for decades in the East River serving as a nautical vocational high school.

Retired to the Reserve Fleet in Virginia's James River in 1982, the Brown marked time with other vessels chained together in long silent rows, whose only visitors were the seabirds that made the ships a floating rookery.

And there they waited until summoned for a final voyage that was certain to be a rendezvous with the scrappers' torch.

But that wasn't to be the Brown's fate. In 1978, Project Liberty Ship was formed to rescue and preserve the old vessel, and a decade later, the inoperable Brown was towed up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, where restoration efforts began almost immediately.

Three years later, the old ship was able to raise steam in its engines and take a boatload of old salts and their guests for a second maiden voyage down the Chesapeake Bay.

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