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

During the months preceding the United States’ entry into World War II the inadequacy of the nation’s merchant fleet drew considerable concern. Under Lend-Lease, America committed itself to deliver an extraordinary amount of supplies and materiel to the Allies fighting Germany and (surreptitiously) the Chinese fighting Japan. American factories shipped railroad locomotives and railcars, trucks and other vehicles, tires, petroleum, and motorcycles. Foodstuffs, raw and processed, needed a means of conveyance to Europe and China. So did medicines, tobacco, clothing and textiles, communication cables, barbed wire, sheet steel, glass, coal, lumber, lubricating oils, and of course, munitions and other weapons of war. Once the United States entered the war the number of ships needed to transport the required supplies simply didn’t exist. The steadily growing number of ships lost monthly to German submarines presented a serious problem to Allied War Planners.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
The United States built more Liberty ships than any other class of vessels in history. Library of Congress

The British presented a design for a cargo ship which could be used in a variety of manners, with only slight modifications for specific roles. Built in American shipyards, from sections built in factories across the country, a new and decidedly ugly vessel emerged in the summer of 1941. American President Franklin Roosevelt attended the launch of the first, SS Patrick Henry, in September. In his remarks, FDR mentioned the role the ships would play in bringing liberty to war-torn Europe. The new class of ships thus earned their designation of Liberty ships. By the end of the war, American shipyards produced 2,710 vessels, making it the largest class of any ship design in history. They served in all theaters of the war, in a wide variety of roles, some decidedly unusual. Here is the story of the Liberty ships of the Second World War.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Ocean and Liberty class ships during final fitting out before acceptance for service. Library of Congress

1. A modified British ship design led to the creation of the Liberty ship

During 1940, British merchant vessel losses increased steadily, due to the attacks on them by German surface raiders and U-boats. In response, the British ordered merchant vessels from American shipyards, under the “cash and carry” policy directed by America’s Neutrality Act. American yards could build the ships, but the British had to pay cash on delivery. Todd Shipyards Corporation accepted the contract to build 60 of the Ocean class design specified by the British, first building new shipyards in which to build the ships. American war planners immediately took interest in the British design, adopting most of its specifications in the early plans for a mass-produced class of cargo ships for America’s merchant marine. One modification altered the plans, requiring the use of welding technology in American hulls, rather than the riveting favored by British designers.

The modifications imposed in the new American design were in response to an increase in the number of merchant ships, crewed by civilian merchant mariners, demanded auxiliary service with the US Navy. The United States Maritime Commission reported that welded hulls reduced the number of man-hours required for the completion of each ship. By early 1941, Liberty ships were available for Lend-Lease, and another increase of the number under construction ensued. The first, SS Patrick Henry, was laid down (construction started) in April 1941. Launched in September, the ship entered active service in late December 1941. By then the United States was no longer neutral. The most massive nationwide shipbuilding effort in history began only weeks after Pearl Harbor. So did a major shift in the makeup of the workforce required to build the ships.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Assembled from prefabricated sections, Liberty ships were rapidly built at considerably lower costs than comparable ships. US Maritime Commission

2. Liberty ships were built by assembling prefabricated sections

Liberty ships were among the earliest classes of ships built by assembling sections prefabricated elsewhere. The sections were assembled on the slipway or construction basin, where they were welded together. The use of welding rather than riveting reduced the number of workmen needed to assemble the sections. Riveting required a team of workers, one to heat the rivets, one to toss them to the riveters, one to hold the rivets in place as the riveter pounded them into the shape required to pin the sections. Each seam required multiple rivets to complete the joint. A welded seam required just one or two welders. Thus, multiple men found themselves free for other duties, a boon considering so many joined the surge to enter the armed forces in the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Another factor altered the manpower required to build the Liberty ships. As Liberty ship production expanded in 1942 (eventually 18 American shipyards were building the ships), acute labor shortages led to the recruitment of women at all of them. Women received rudimentary training in the skills required for their jobs before assignment to work on the ships. When it came to the Liberty ships, Wanda the Welder replaced Rosie the Riveter. The women became so adept at their jobs that the time required for the completion of one Liberty ship contracted from just under nine months to an average of 42 days. By mid-1943 the United States completed 3 Liberty ships every day of the year. At most shipyards, launchings were attended by women workers, dressed in their work clothes, in tribute to their counterparts across the United States.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
The US Navy converted the Liberty ship, SS Matthew Lyon, to retrieved anti-submarine nets in the Solomon Islands in 1944. US Navy

3. Several Liberty ships were modified for specific roles

Until FDR led them to be tagged as Liberty ships, the vessels bore the designation of Emergency Cargo Ships. Given the bureaucratic penchant for obscure designations, the first Liberty ship bore the official identity of EC2-S-C1. “EC” referred to Emergency Cargo; “2” to the length of the hull at the waterline (between 200-450 feet). “S” referred to steam propulsion and “C1” to the design itself. As construction continued, several variants developed. Ships built to serve as colliers (coal ships) substituted “AW1” for “C1”. Others bore the designations of “C2”, “C3” and so on, for ships which served as tankers, those designed specifically to carry tanks and armored vehicles, and others designed to carry disassembled aircraft in their holds. To the general public, they were all Liberty ships.

In 1944 six Liberty ships were acquired by the Army Air Forces, though they remained crewed by the United States Merchant Marine. These ships were converted to serve as aircraft maintenance facilities, which themselves were operated by the Army Transport Service. The ships were part of then classified Project Ivory Soap, a support effort for the B-29 Superfortress bombers based on Guam and Tinian. They were among the first American ships to include landing decks for helicopters. They were also among the first ships to evacuate casualties via helicopter transport. The Army officially designated them as ARUs (Aircraft Repair Unit, Floating). During 1944 other Liberty ships were modified to accommodate larger numbers of heavy trucks, required to support the Allied forces in Europe following the invasions in Normandy and Southern France.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Two Liberty ships named for signers of the Declaration of Independence. John Randolph survived only five months of service before sinking in the Atlantic. Library of Congress

4. Although women helped build Liberty ships, only one was named for a woman

The earliest Liberty ships usually were christened with the names of signatories of the Declaration of Independence, a list rapidly exhausted. All but one of the ships were named for deceased Americans. The exception, SS Francis J. O’Gara, bore the name of a man believed dead, having lost his life in the sinking of another Liberty ship, SS Jean Nicolet. O’Gara served as a crewmember in Jean Nicolet when a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank it in the Pacific. He survived the attack and spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, a fact discovered at war’s end. No other living soul was honored by having a Liberty ship christened in his or her name. Some places were so honored though. SS Stage Door Canteen honored the USO facility of that name which served military personnel in Manhattan’s theater district throughout the war.

Seventeen African Americans were namesakes for Liberty ships. The first, SS Booker T. Washington, entered service in 1942. Besides being the first major ocean-going ship named for an African American, the ship carried an integrated crew. The first African American to earn a Master’s license from the United States Merchant Marine, Hugh Malzac, commanded the vessel. Christened by Marian Anderson, Booker T. Washington served in both the Atlantic and Pacific during the war, and in the operation to return American troops which followed. The only Liberty ship named for a woman also bore the name of a noted African American. SS Harriet Tubman, launched in June 1944, served for the rest of the war. Like nearly all Liberty ships, after the war, the ship sat in mothballs for decades before eventually being sold for scrap.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Eastine Cowner working during construction of SS George Washington Carver, Kaiser Shipyards, 1943. Library of Congress

5. Liberty ships carried armament with which to defend themselves

Liberty ships were conceived and built to operate within the convoy system across the Atlantic from Canada and the United States. In the convoy system, protection for the merchant ships came primarily from the escort vessels. Experience prior to 1941 indicated convoys often needed to disperse as a result of German submarine and surface raider attacks. The designers thus gave Liberty ships some means of self-defense, in the form of a 3-inch gun forward, a 4-inch gun aft, and anti-aircraft machine guns and cannons. Later versions replaced the aft 4-inch gun with a more powerful 5-inch. The guns offered a means of defending the ship against surfaced submarine attacks, and the ship could protect itself from airborne attacks. Against a submerged submarine it remained virtually helpless, entirely dependent on the naval escorts.

Because merchant seamen were not trained gunners, Navy contingents sailed in the Liberty ships. Usually between 12 and 25 naval gunners sailed as supernumeraries, reporting to their own commanding officer rather than the ship’s master. The US Navy sailors were usually considerably younger than their civilian counterparts, with far less time at sea. On some ships, members of the civilian crew received training from the Navy in the operation of the guns. The training provided emergency backups should casualties reduce the efficiency of the Naval contingent (called the Armed Guard). In the Pacific ships often traveled independently, without naval escort, especially in the waters between the West Coast and the Hawaiian Islands, and along the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. They too carried Naval gunners to provide defense against Japanese attacks. Despite the defenses, over 200 Liberty ships were lost over the course of the war.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
A Liberty ship slides down the slipway at a Georgia shipyard built for the purpose of building Liberty ships. Library of Congress

6. Shipyards were built solely to construct Liberty ships

In 1940 Savannah Shipyards of Georgia began construction of a yard. Slow progress led to a revocation of its contract by the Maritime Commission in 1942. Another company, Southeastern Shipbuilding Corporation, took over the yard and completed its construction in just a few months. By early 1943 the first Liberty ship from the yard, SS James Oglethorpe, steamed from Savannah, bound for New York. Ships steaming along the American coastline did so at considerable risk at that stage of the war, but Oglethorpe reached New York safely. Though its holds were fully laden, the ship took on additional cargo. Trucks and aircraft, as well as other vehicles, covered its decks when it departed as part of a convoy bound for Liverpool in March 1943. Ahead of it lay the frigid North Atlantic in the dead of winter.

The convoy, of 50 cargo vessels supported by 5 escorts, encountered its first U-boats on March 16, 1943. Over the next several days three successive waves of U-boat attacks ravaged the convoy. Eight Allied ships sank over a period of eight hours during March 16-17. Among them were SS James Oglethorpe, after just 33 days of active service. Of the 74 men aboard 44 were lost. In all, 13 Allied ships were lost from the convoy, 6 of them American Liberty ships. Back at the Southeastern Shipbuilding yard, work continued in three shifts per day, seven days per week. Nearly two years later, on March 15, 1945, the yard launched its final Liberty ship of the war, SS Patrick B. Whalen. Throughout the course of the war the Brunswick yard launched 85 Liberty ships; its nearby compatriot, the Savannah yards, produced another 88.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
A female welder pauses in her work at Kaiser’s Richmond shipyards in 1943. Library of Congress

7. Building Liberty ships led to the innovation of group health care for workers

Henry J. Kaiser, an industrialist whose companies built the Hoover Dam, owned seven West Coast shipyards which built Liberty ships. He owned several other yards which built warships for the US Navy. These included the escort carriers which contributed greatly to the suppression of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic. Shipyard work was dangerous, and Kaiser and other forward-thinking industrialists recognized the need for both emergency care facilities and long-term health care for his employees and their families. He also realized such care needed to be both readily available and affordable at a time when gasoline rationing precluded long trips by automobile. With the assistance of Dr. Sidney Garfield, Kaiser created a new business, which he called Kaiser Permanente, offering group health care to his employees at his shipyards, which later extended to subsequent industries.

By the late summer of 1944, over 90% of Kaiser employees participated in the group insurance plan and availed themselves of the health care facilities offered by their employer. Kaiser Permanente became one of the first managed care health programs in the United States, despite the steady opposition to it from the American Medical Association. Kaiser shipyard workers were charged 7 cents per day for health care coverage, which from its inception stressed preventative care and work safety. By 1943 health care was offered to the workers’ families. Kaiser decided to continue the program post-war, extending it to other industries, and eventually to the general public. Kaiser Permanente’s health care workers were paid fixed salaries, rather than charging fees based on care provided. That innovation led to dramatic changes in America’s health care industry following the war.

The Liberty Ships of World War II Turned the Tides of Fate
Richmond Shipyards workers arriving for the day shift in 1943. Library of Congress

8. The Liberty ships were an early example of planned obsolescence

The design of the Liberty ships provided vessels which offered a service life of approximately five years, long enough to meet the emergency contingencies of the Second World War. In practice, some remained in service long after the war. Private shipping companies purchased many ships post-war, including many Greek shipping magnates for use in the Mediterranean. Aristotle Onassis was one such shipping titan. The majority though did not last much longer than their design life, at least not in actual use. Most sat in reserve fleets awaiting purchase by a ship breaker for scrap value. The biggest problem they presented to potential operators was the extensive maintenance required to keep them in operation. Another problem was their slow speed, around 11 knots. Post-war shipping required faster speeds to be competitive.

They were also of limited use in the colder waters of the globe. During the war, several Liberty ships presented problems with cracking of their hulls. Over 1,500 Liberty ships required repairs for hull cracks during the war. Three ships cracked so severely they broke in half and sank, with loss of life. Maritime Commission officials blamed the shipyards for shoddy construction. Britain’s Ministry of War concluded the cracking, which occurred on other welded ships but not riveted vessels, was due to the brittle nature of the steel. In cold waters, such as those in the North Atlantic, the temperature grew so low the steel lost its ductile state, becoming more brittle, and failed along the stress lines of the welds. The practice of overloading the hulls added to the problem, though it continued throughout the war.

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.

Also Read: 20 Events of Operation Magic Carpet at the End of World War II.

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 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 canceled). 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’s 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 ships 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 loss 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 canceled. 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 beachheads. 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

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“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