Jarvis T. Hughes, who helped build Liberty ships in Baltimore during World War II and later assisted in the restoration of the Liberty ship S.S. John W. Brown, died Sept. 28 from heart failure at Hospice of the Chesapeake in Pasadena. He was 95.
Jarvis T. Hughes, the son of Lloyd Hughes, a career non-commissioned Navy officer, and his wife, Gladys Hughes, a schoolteacher, was born in Baltimore and raised in Catonsville. He attended Baltimore County public schools.
Mr. Hughes went to work in 1942 at the Bethlehem Steel’s Fairfield yard, where 384 Liberty ships that carried troops and cargo were built, more than any other wartime yard in the U.S.
“It was after Pearl Harbor, and Jarvis and five buddies were going to join the Navy, but he couldn’t get in because of a hearing problem,” said Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Baltimore Sun editor and author of “Good Shipmates,” a history of the Liberty ship S.S. John W. Brown. “He decided since he couldn’t go to sea, he’d go to a shipyard and help build them.”
“I began working at the Fairfield yard on July 6, 1942, my 18th birthday,” Mr. Hughes told Maryland Magazine in a 1992 interview. “I was living with my family at Long Point in Pasadena. I would drive to Fairfield in a ’36 Studebaker. I worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for 90 cents an hour. By the end of the war, I topped out at $1.20 an hour."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the emergency shipbuilding program that saw 2,750 Liberties — with the first, the S.S. Patrick Henry, constructed at the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard, launched on Sept. 27, 1941.
It had taken just 19 days for the ship to go from its keel laying to its launch. Eventually, workers in 18 participating yards along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts were able to reduce construction time in building Liberties, with the record from keel laying to launch being four days, 15.5 hours.
Mr. Hughes joined a workforce at the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard of 46,700 men and woman who worked around the clock. The only holiday they had off was Christmas.
“I was the signal man on the erection crew. I would guide the crane operator from the ground as he lowered the steel plates into position for the shipfitters whose job it was to weld and rivet the ship together,” he explained in the magazine interview."
Even though he and other shipyard workers worked through the night, their spirits remained high. There was a camaraderie and even a little competition between them.
“There was always friendly competition going on between the crews and shifts to see who could hang the most steel,” he said. “It had to be friendly. We didn’t get paid any more money for working at night. We just wanted the war to end.”
The mass-produced Liberties were 416 feet long and 7,700 gross tons and could steam at 10 knots. They transported much-needed war materiel to the Allies in convoys as well as ferrying troops during the duration of World War II.
But the work building Liberties was not without peril.
“Lots of people were hurt building those ships,” Mr. Hughes told The Baltimore Sun in a 1997 interview. “I think there were casualties once a week. People fell or got hit.”
He explained in The Sun article that he may or may not have worked on building Baltimore’s S.S. John W. Brown, one of two surviving operating Liberty ships in the nation. He estimated that by war’s end, he had helped build 35 or 40 Liberties.
“We worked on so many. We knew them by hull numbers,” he said. “The ships didn’t have names until almost finished. A week before a launching a ship would get hot. We put in overtime to finish her.”
He recalled when work came to an end on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“I remember D-Day as the moment thousands of workers put down their tools and went back home,” he told Maryland Magazine. “The ships in the yard that weren’t completed were cut into 4′ by 4′ sheets so they could fit into the furnace for re-melting.”
Mr. Hughes told Mr. Imhoff, a Mount Washington resident, “I loved my job at Bethlehem-Fairfield.”
“Jarvis worked in the highest places so he could see where the steel parts had to go,” Mr. Imhoff said. “He always took great pride in his work.”
After the war ended, Mr. Hughes became a rigger at the Bethlehem Key Highway yard, where he worked until 1948, when he left and spent the next 38 years until retiring in 1986 as a trouble-shooting electrician for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Captain Brian H. Hope, a retired Chesapeake Bay pilot and former chairman of Project Liberty Ship Inc., who led the effort that bought the S.S. John W. Brown to Baltimore for its three-year restoration to an operating ship that sailed again in in 1991, was a shipmate of Mr. Hughes.
“Jarvis may be one of the last of the Bethlehem-Fairfield workers,” said Captain Hope, a noted maritime artist and Arnold resident. “On the Brown, he worked in the electrician’s department. He was a hard worker and loved the ship."
On Labor Day 1987, Mr. Hughes read a story about the rededication of the volunteer-operated S.S. John W. Brown at Dundalk Marine Terminal.
“I didn’t think there were any left. I said to my wife, ‘We’re going.' At the terminal, I fell in love again,” Mr. Hughes explained in The Sun article. “There were a few tears in my eyes. I joined Project Liberty Ship right that day, the only shipyard worker in the group, the rest were sailors.”