The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate

Larry Holzwarth - May 15, 2021

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Troops transported in Liberty ships did not enjoy much in the way of creature comforts. US Army

9. Despite their shortcomings, Liberty ships were used as troop transports

In late summer, 1942, the War Shipping Administration began the process of converting Liberty ships to troop transports in support of the invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. More than 200 available Liberty ships underwent hasty conversion. The Liberty ships offered little in the way of amenities for passengers, which the troops carried in them were. Field latrines installed on deck offered the only facilities for the troops to relieve themselves, flushed with fire hoses. Berthing in the holds did not include air conditioning, or heat for that matter. There were no recreation facilities of any kind, leaving the troops to their own devices when attempting to alleviate the boredom. The Liberty ships were converted to carry about 550 troops, though in practice most carried many more than that, due to the manner in which Army units were formed.

In 1943 the US Coast Guard recommended the ships be removed from the duty of troop transportation, citing, among other things, the dangers presented by hull cracking. Nonetheless, they continued to transport troops in all theaters of the war. They also returned to the United States laden with prisoners of war, carrying them to camps throughout America and Canada. And when the war came to an end, they participated in Operation Magic Carpet, conveying home the troops which had fought in the European theater, and later those from the Pacific. By the end of the war well over 500 Liberty ships had been converted to troop transports, despite significant opposition to their use in that duty from the US Navy, Coast Guard, and the Senate. The exigencies of war overrode the dangers and discomfort presented to the men and women who sailed in the ships.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Launch of SS Robert E. Peary, built by Kaiser’s Richmond yards in just under five days. Library of Congress

10. One Liberty ship was built and delivered in in less than eight days

American morale in late 1942 needed a boost, particularly on the home front. Henry J. Kaiser decided to deliver one. With the approval of President Roosevelt, he announced a competition between his shipyards to determine which could complete a Liberty ship from keel laying to delivery in the shortest time. To accomplish the fastest time, he had all the components of the ship completed and pre-positioned for assembly at his Richmond yard #2. He also assembled his most experienced supervisors for the “competition”. One minute after midnight in the morning of November 8, with the press and newsreel crews in attendance, the workers began laying the keel of a Liberty ship. By noon the easily recognizable hull and most of the transverse bulkheads were complete, with work on the upper deck underway.

By mid-afternoon of November 12 all of the ship’s miles of wiring, piping, and ventilation were installed. External painting and fittings were complete, and the ship was launched after being christened SS Robert E. Peary by Mrs. James F. Byrnes. Once in the water it still required final fitting out, which took place prior to its delivery to its operator, the Weyerhauser Steamship Company. The latter accepted the ship three days later, November 15, 1942. The entire 14,000-ton vessel went from keel laying to launch in 4 days and 15 hours, and to delivery in 7 days and 14 hours, both records. The Richmond shipyards, owned by Kaiser, built 747 ships during World War II, more than any other shipyard in the world. Nearly all were built using prefabricated parts delivered to the slipways for assembly by previously unskilled workers. One was another notable Liberty ship, SS Stephen Hopkins.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
The gunnery duel between the German surface raider Stier and the SS Stepen Hopkins ended with both ships sinking. US Navy

11. A Liberty ship sunk a German surface raider in a running gun battle

In September, 1942, the Liberty ship SS Stephen Hopkins completed its first and only voyage with cargo. Operated by the Luckenbach Steamship Company, Stephen Hopkins delivered its cargo to South Africa, from whence it steamed toward Surinam. There it was to load bauxite for delivery to the United States. On September 27, Stephen Hopkins encountered the German surface raider Stier, in heavy fog. Stier had rendezvoused with its resupply ship, Tannenfels. By the time the American vessel identified the German ships, they were too close to evade. Stephen Hopkins’ naval contingent engaged the Germans in a running surface battle, using the ship’s four-inch gun as well as its anti-aircraft guns to attack the enemy.

Though it severely damaged the German vessels, it took heavy casualties as well. The crew of the American ship were forced to abandon, and only 19 of the men aboard escaped into the ship’s life raft. Of those, fifteen survived the 30-day voyage adrift at sea to a Brazilian coastal village. Unbeknownst to them, the gunnery from their ship had so damaged the German surface vessel that it sank, its crew transferring to Tannenfels. Stephen Hopkins was the only American merchant ship to sink an enemy surface raider during the war, though it did so at a high cost. Tannenfels, though also heavily damaged, eluded the British cruisers in the area and succeeded in returning to a port in occupied France.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Victory ships awaiting final fitting out before entering service in 1945. Wikimedia

12. A successor to the Liberty ships addressed some of their shortcomings

In February 1942 the newly formed United States War Shipping Administration addressed the already well-known problems facing the Liberty ships. Chief among them was speed, or rather, the lack thereof. Cruising at a mere eleven knots, Liberty ships presented easy targets for German U-boats and Luftwaffe aircraft. They also lacked the carrying capacity to meet the demands of the expanding forces of the Allies overseas. A new design type, designated the Victory ships, permitted greater carrying capacity at higher sustained speeds. As with the Liberty ships, the hulls were welded rather than riveted, and the problems with hull cracking were addressed by placing the welds further apart, which provided more flexibility. Eventually six American shipyards completed 534 Victory ships under contract with the Maritime Commission.

Delivery of the Victory ships proved slow; by early 1944 it was evident that not enough could be completed to support the planned invasions of Europe. Indeed, by May, one month before the invasion at Normandy, only a handful of Victory ships were available for service. War planners had recognized the potential shortage in early 1943. That led to the decision that Victory ships would supplement, but not replace, Liberty ships. Production of the latter not only continued, but increased. Despite the losses of ships in the North Atlantic, which persisted throughout 1943, the speed with which Liberty ships were completed made them irreplaceable. The bulk of the supplies necessary for the invasion of Europe and sustaining the troops ashore in France traveled by Liberty ships. So did the American Lend-Lease supplies to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, often at severe risk to the ships’ civilian crews.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Members of a multinational, integrated Liberty ship crew with their mascot in 1943. National Archives

13. The Liberty ships suffered from being underpowered due to logistics considerations

Contrary to popular belief, the US Navy underwent huge modernization and expansion years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After several Congressional acts passed in the 1930s authorized naval expansion, the United States began building cruisers, battleships, destroyers, aircraft carriers, and support ships. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, 10 fast battleships were under construction in American shipyards with two more on order (they were later cancelled). The preferred method of maritime propulsion at the time were by steam turbines. The expansion put pressure on the shipyards and their subcontractors to manufacture technologically up-to-date designs, and those companies capable of producing them were backlogged with orders. Powering the Liberty ships presented problems to their designers, who couldn’t wait in line for propulsion plants.

To resolve the problem, designers of the Liberty ships deliberately chose a largely obsolete design for the ships’ engines. The engine selected offered the advantages of being constructed by less-skilled and experienced manufacturers, due to its being less-complex. It also offered easier maintenance by the crews at sea. The engines, which weighed approximately 140 tons when assembled, used interchangeable parts, and eventually 18 manufacturers built them and delivered them to the slipways for installation by the shipyard. The disadvantage presented came from the engine’s relative lack of power. Though rugged and easy to maintain, the triple-expansion engine provided just enough power to allow the ship to cruise at 11 knots. Habitual overloading of the Liberty ships by port directors often led to even slower speeds, placing ship, cargo, and crew at increased risk from the German and Japanese navies.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Cross diagram of a Liberty ship in standard configuration, prepared by the Maritime Commission. National Archives

14. Manning the Liberty ships called for volunteers

In 1940, with America still not officially at war, there were about 55,000 experienced merchant seamen active in the United States. By the end of the war in 1945 over 215,000 merchant seamen served in America’ fleets. All were volunteers. They joined a service which suffered the highest rate of casualties of any branch of America’s forces. Over 8,000 died at sea during the war, about 1 in every 26 who served. Another 1,100 died later from wounds or injuries sustained in the course of their duties. During the disastrous days of 1942 roughly 33 ships per day were lost to Japanese and German attacks at sea. Yet boys as young as 16 and men up to the age of 50 continued to volunteer for the merchant marine, and the United States Maritime Service opened several training centers across the nation. They provided basic training as well as advanced training courses for merchant seamen.

Liberty ships were typically commanded by a master employed by the ship’s operating line. So were the rest of the officers aboard, the first mate, other mates, the Chief Engineer, and the Chief Steward, known as a purser on British and Canadian ships. The crew were selected from applicants at the local union hall. When a Master crewed his ship, he informed the union of the number of men needed and those so inclined stepped forward to accept the position. At the time the crewmen were not aware of their destination, though the rumor mill which ground in every port of call usually gave them some idea. Crewmen remained in the vessel until it returned to an American port, where they were paid off. The sheer number of ships departing ports across the country ensured that seamen were not out of work long.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
The 1943 film Action in the North Atlantic presented the dangers confronting merchant mariners and Liberty ships in a patriotic manner. Wikimedia

15. Action in the North Atlantic

During the Second World War, Hollywood produced films featuring several roles in the armed services as an enticement for recruiting. Films featuring motor torpedo boats, Air Force bombardiers, submarine service, and many others all aimed at recruiting young men to sign up for the duty. In 1943, service in Liberty ships received a similar treatment in the film Action in the North Atlantic, starring Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart. In the film, an oil tanker is torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic by a German U-boat. The survivors spent several days adrift on a raft before being located and rescued. Returned to the United States, the survivors recuperate from their ordeal briefly before gathering at the union hall to find themselves another berth. When they do it is an assignment to one of the new Liberty ships, under the same officers with whom they previously served.

The ship deploys on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous of the North Atlantic. It is forced to defend itself against German U-boat and air attacks, supported by its Naval Armed Guard. Despite being bombed, strafed, and torpedoed, the ship succeeds in reaching Soviet air cover, and eventually Murmansk. The film depicted Liberty ships so effectively that Henry J. Kaiser arranged for it to be shown at each of his shipyards, to increase morale among his employees. Copies of the film were provided to Merchant Marine training centers to be included in the training programs, and to the Navy schools where members of the Armed Guards were trained. Popular in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, the film provided a glimpse at the dangers imperiling the Merchant Marine. It also offered a glimpse of the enormity of the work being accomplished by the Liberty ships at the time.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Wreckage of the Victory ship Quinault Victory following the Port Chicago disaster. US Navy

16. Liberty ships were endangered in ports as well as at sea

Although Liberty ships faced their greatest peril underway at sea, they weren’t entirely safe in port, including the ports of the United States. The Liberty ship SS E. A. Brian, while loading explosive ordnance at Port Chicago, California, erupted in an explosion which triggered a massive fireball of nearby explosives on July 17, 1944. Three hundred and twenty were killed, nearly 400 more injured, and E. A. Brian was destroyed. The resultant inquiries and investigations spread blame for the disaster among several US Navy and yard personnel. Another Liberty ship, SS John Harvey, sat at anchor in the port of Bari, Italy, laden with a cargo which included mustard gas bombs. The secret cargo was intended for retaliation had the Germans used poison gas against Allied troops in Italy. When attacked by Luftwaffe pilots on December 2, 1943, the cargo exploded.

Both Churchill and Eisenhower immediately moved to suppress the news of the release of liquid mustard into the harbor at Bari. At least 17 ships were severely damaged in the attack, and sailors abandoning ship entered the water, where they were exposed to the toxic mustard. Regardless of the horrors of the disaster, in which over 600 seamen suffered from mustard gas exposure, a benefit derived from the investigation changed cancer treatments. It was discovered that exposure to small amounts of nitrogen mustard shrank tumors in some types of cancer. Following the war research at the Sloan Kettering Institute based on the discovery developed the earliest derivatives of mustard-based chemotherapy. The American Cancer Society recognized the Bari disaster as the beginning of the “age of cancer chemotherapy”.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Even as Americans streamed home from Europe in 1945 and 1946 Liberty ships continued to be lost to unswept naval mines. US Navy

17. Liberty ships continued to be lost following the end of hostilities in European waters

When World War II in Europe ended in May, 1945, the work of the Liberty ships did not come to an end. The huge Allied armies still required sustenance, which the shattered European economy could not begin to meet. Refugees required repatriation, troops clamored to go home, and replacement troops continued to arrive to occupy Germany and Italy. Although some Liberty ships transferred to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, others continued to serve in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. There they continued to encounter hazards from naval mines placed during the war. Though many of the waters surrounding the approaches to European ports had been “cleared” in numerous incidents it became evident the job had been poorly done.

The Liberty ship SS Pierre Gibault struck a mine off Greece in June, 1945. Badly damaged, the ship could not be repaired and went to the scrapyard. Within days, another struck a mine near the port of Ostend, Belgium and sank. In August, 1945, a Liberty ship bound for Trieste struck a mine and sank. The ship was less than two hours from its destination when it suffered the misfortune. All of its crew were saved, though most of its cargo – horses – were not. Another lost to mines in December 1945 broke in two off the coast of Italy after its Master ran the crippled vessel aground. Enterprising Italians removed the aft section of the wreck, welded it to the fore section of another, and created a “new” Liberty ship which they named Boccadasse. At least nine Liberty ships were lost to mines in European waters following the cessation of hostilities.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
The relatively low power generated by the Liberty ships’ engines made them uncompetitive in post-war shipping markets. National Archives

18. The Liberty ships had varying post-war careers

When World War II ended with the surrender of Japan in 1945 construction on Liberty ships came to an abrupt halt. Existing contracts for additional ships were cancelled. Roughly 2,400 Liberty ships came out of the war in serviceable condition. Of these, the Maritime Commission planned to use just over 800 as the backbone of the American merchant fleet. 624 ships were sold to European shipping lines, with over 500 being purchased by Greek shippers, among them Aristotle Onassis. A few were sold to other shipping lines, but the majority entered the US Reserve Fleets in anchorages at Suisun Bay in California and Philadelphia. Others entered Reserve Fleets in the James River in Virginia, the Hudson near Tarrytown, New York, and other locales. Their use as a major cargo carrier was limited due to their lack of speed. The emergence of containerized shipping sounded their death knell.

In the 1950s the United States Department of Agriculture purchased surplus grain and stored it in the holds of several Liberty ships anchored in the Reserve Fleets. Three reserve fleets were used for the program; Astoria, Washington; Hudson, New York, and James River, Virginia. By 1955 the need for surplus grain storage led to the transfer of 22 Liberty ships from Suisun Bay to the Astoria fleet, laden with grain. The ships were transferred under tow by seagoing tugs. The following year ships were transferred from the Reserve Fleet in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the Hudson River Reserve Fleet, using the same method, also laden with grain. Ten years after the end of the war the ships which had served as the workhorse of the American war effort were little more than floating silos.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Gradually the reserve fleets of World War II era ships were reduced as ships went to the breakers for scrap. MARAD

19. The Liberty ships faded away over the next decades

Although the US Navy purchased several Liberty ships in the 1950s and 1960s for various uses, many of them experimental in nature, by 1970 nearly all of them were out of service. In 1965 more than 180 Liberty ships sat at anchor in the Reserve Fleet in the Hudson River. By 1971 all had been scrapped. The more than 500 Liberty ships held in reserve in California in the early 1960s went to scrapyards beginning that decade. The last Liberty ship to be completed and launched, SS Albert M. Boe, had an unusual career almost from the moment it entered the water. Built in 1945, Albert M. Boe was designed to carry boxed aircraft components. The ship entered the Reserve Fleet in 1946, before being transferred to the US Army. In 1950 the Army turned the ship over to the US Navy. It served in its designed purpose during the Korean War.

After that war, the ship returned to the Reserve Fleet, decommissioned. It languished in that capacity for a decade, before being sold for a little over $65,500 to a company which planned to use it in a manner far removed from its designed purpose. The ship was considered unseaworthy. It was converted by its new owners into an afloat fish processing and canning plant in 1965, renamed the Star of Kodiak. It remains in that use in the 21st century, the property of Trident Seafoods. Star of Kodiak is grounded, as such it is not counted among the Liberty ships which remain afloat. Of those only two remain, both operating as museum ships.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
A Liberty ship disposed of by sale to Greek shipping magnates following the Second World War. Wikimedia

20. There are still some Liberty ships afloat, though only two are operational

In the spring of 1994, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien departed San Francisco and steamed via the Panama Canal to Great Britain. It had made the journey before. During World War II the Liberty ship made four round-trip crossings of the Atlantic in convoy, before remaining in British waters as part of the invasion of Normandy in 1944. The 1994 voyage was to commemorate the invasion, and Jeremiah O’Brien served as the only vessel present during the actual invasion and the 50th anniversary celebration of the landings. Following D-Day the ship made 11 cross channel trips, delivering supplies and equipment to the beacheads. It later served in the invasion of Southern France. It completed its war service in the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. Mothballed after the war, the ship sat idle for decades.

In 1979 the National Liberty Ship Memorial purchased the vessel and restored it to its World War II configuration. Since the 1980s the ship has been based in San Francisco, and offers both tours of San Francisco Bay as well as ocean-going excursions to Pacific ports such as Seattle. The ship also offers dockside tours, with nearly all areas of the vessel open for public viewing and inspection. Another Liberty ship, SS John W. Brown, offers similar tours in the Chesapeake Bay region, operating from Baltimore. Together, John W. Brown and Jeremiah O’Brien are all that remain in operation, of the more than 2,700 Liberty ships built during the Second World War.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“World War Two Produced Shipbuilding Revolution”. Peter M. Tirschwell, The Journal of Commerce Online. June 2, 1994

“Liberty Ship”. Article, National Museum of the US Navy. Online

“Hugh Malzac: Captain, Victim, Survivor”. Philip Quarles, New York Public Radio. July 20, 2017. Online

“The Battle of the North Atlantic 1939-1943”. Samuel Eliot Morrison. 1947

“Savannah, Brunswick played an important role in Liberty ship construction”. Article, Georgia Ports. August 25, 2020. Online

“The Permanente Richmond Field Hospital”. Lincoln Cushing, February 22, 2021.

“Liberty Ships”. Jim Fowlkes, NCPedia. 2006

“Troopships of World War Two”. Roland W. Charles. 1947

“Liberty ship SS Robert E. Peary built in 4 days, 15 hours, 29 minutes”. Article, Online

“Liberty Ships and Victory Ships, America’s Lifeline in War”. Article, National Public Service. December 1943

“Liberty Ship”. Historic Landmark Designation, American Society of Mechanical Engineers. September 18, 1984

“The Merchant Marine Were the Unsung Heroes of World War II”. William Geroux, Smithsonian Magazine. May 27, 2016

“Port Chicago Naval Magazine Explosion”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“Liberty Ships: World War II’s Beasts of Burden”. Jeff Markell, Professional Mariner Journal. February 28, 2007