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
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, Aboutkaiserpermanente.org. 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, USMM.org. 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

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