Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veteran's Day, 2015

What is a veteran?

People, of course, are the best known. Those who risk it all to protect others.

But humans certainly aren't the only ones. For most of history, horses were a key factor in military campaigns, serving even into WW2 (although not widely known, most of Germany's logistics early in the war depended on horses).

Of course, dogs have played a key role, and are likely the most important non-human serving in the military today. So have birds, dolphins, bats, elephants, monkeys, and many other creatures.

But what about a ship?

Except maybe warplanes, perhaps no inanimate object carries in it the spirits of those who built and fought in them. The people who mined and processed ores and turned them into metal parts. Sat at a desk and carefully designed the finished product. Welded, riveted, and cut steel to build it. And, finally, lived, served..., even died, on board.

Every country has its museum ships. Here in the U.S. we have an assortment of preserved battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, and a few other fighting machines.

Perhaps the most meaningful ships are the ones that never fired a shot, but contributed as much (if not more) than any warship ever did. Yet they're often the most forgotten.

Sadly, there are only 2 of such left intact in the world. But in the horror of WW2, they were one of the most critical factors in crushing Nazi Germany.

Britain, like Earth's other island empire, Japan, is heavily dependent on trade to supply her people. Food, fuel, and countless other necessities of life are imported through a vast network of oceanic routes. This obvious weakness was attacked twice by U-Boats in the last century. It was a war of numbers: if Germany could sink supply ships faster than the allies could build them, the Nazis would win. And, for a while, this appeared to be the case.

While a late comer to World War 2, the massive American industrial output quickly rose to the challenge. An 1879 (yes, you read the year right) British design for a cargo ship was taken, modified for technical advancements, and simplified for mass construction. Companies run by the American industrialist Henry Kaiser (ironically the son of German immigrants) had developed mass production techniques in building the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams. They turned these skills into the production of freighters - called Liberty Ships - at a level never seen before.

In 4 years, 18 shipyards built 2,710 of these ships. At 1 ship every 2 days, it was by far the largest number of ships ever built to a single design. Like many other industries, their construction depended heavily on the huge number of women - including a large percentage of black women - who entered the workforce in the war effort. Society made some huge changes in WW2, and would never be the same again.

The ships were designed to have a service life of 5 years, though most survived far longer. Although many were sunk by U-Boats, Germany was never able to catch up with the rate of production. This was a key factor that led to the ever-growing bridge across the Atlantic carrying the soldiers, tanks, planes, and other supplies that eventually landed at D-Day and moved into Germany. Many, including the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, served at Normandy. Offshore at D-Day, they rapidly unloaded supplies of every kind onto barges and smaller boats, which were then taken to the beach for the men who needed them.

Cargo ships, while far from the glory that the battleships, carriers, and submarines are accorded, are fighting ships all the same. Without them no overseas war can be fought or won. Logistics and supply lines are everything.

A few Liberty ships actually did fight, including the Stephen Hopkins. Using her single gun, she battled the German raider Stier until they both sank.

The sailors on these forgotten ships gave as much as those in other service branches... if not more. By percentage, more men in the U.S. Merchant Marine died in WW2 than in any other branch, and statistically were over twice as likely to be killed as someone in all other services combined:


(Air Force veterans wondering why you aren't on the list: you're grouped in with the Army. The USAF didn't become its own service until after WW2)

After the war the Liberty ships - so crucial to victory - were forgotten. Now they were just surplus freighters, far more than the world needed. Some were sold off, others put in reserve, and others... just left in port with no where to go.

They sat and rusted, and, eventually, when it was clear they weren't needed, sold for scrap.

But a few of these veterans are still with us. Trident Seafood has the former Albert M. Boe (renamed Star of Kodiak), now land-locked, working as a processing plant in Kodiak, Alaska.

Yes, that's a Liberty ship

The hulls of 2 others serve in Portland, Oregon as dock supports. Another, without engines, is a museum in Greece. Another... isn't quite as popular.

But 2 of them, remarkably, are still operational. One is the John W. Brown, in Baltimore and the other the Jeremiah O'Brien (named after an American Revolutionary War sailor) in San Francisco. I visited the latter this summer.

She's remarkably well-preserved, still set in the 1940's. After the war she quickly went into the reserve fleet, and was never sold off or modified. She spent over 30 years in mothballs before it was decided (in 1979) that a Liberty Ship should be saved for future generations. Amazingly, it was found she was still operational after 34 years of sitting at anchor, and became the only Liberty ever to leave the reserve fleet under her own power. Volunteers swarmed her, cleaning, polishing, and painting.

Under the gray reserve paint at the bow they discovered the original crew had painted a googly-eyed topless lady, and she was carefully restored following the original outlines (ensuring snickers from teenage boys for generations to come).

Inside, the ship is in great condition, with very few restrictions on where you can go. The kids and I wandered the passageways, peering into cabins and imagining the merchant marine sailors who lived here as she crossed the ocean and supplied Operation Overlord. You walk across the simple bridge - a far cry from those on a warship - and imagine staring out at the vicious waves of a North Atlantic winter crossing as the ship pitched and rolled beneath you.

Her single small artillery piece is still there, quite different from the massive guns in fortified turrets you see on warships. Here the fighting men were exposed to the elements and enemy fire, and their aim was entirely by sight. Today the gun is protected... from roosting pigeons by a line of spikes on the barrel.

Marie draws a bead on the Transamerica Pyramid.

The engine rooms are open for access, though it involves squeezing through hatchways and taking steep ladders up & down. Beneath the water line engineering buffs will find one of the few working triple-expansion reciprocating engines left in the world. The engine is so well-preserved that (if it looks familiar) it was where they filmed the engine room scenes in 1995's Titanic.

The film's sound engineers also recorded the creaking and rocking of a metal hull as she steamed through San Francisco bay, and the clanking of the obsolete engines. They went on to win 2 Academy awards for their work.

But the Jeremiah O'Brien wasn't content with just sailing around San Francisco harbor. In 1994, with the 50th anniversary of D-Day approaching, a crew of volunteers climbed aboard her. Many of them were veterans of Liberty Ships (even some who'd served on her) and brought her back to prime shape. She had a long trip ahead.

Setting out from northern California, her outdated engine and single propeller drove her south to the Panama Canal, from where she crossed into the Atlantic and turned north again.

On the morning of June 6, 1994 she was again off the beaches of Normandy. She'd brought a crew and passengers who'd fought there. Now, 50 years later, she was back at the site of the largest military operation in history.

She was the only large ship who'd been there originally and returned for the anniversary. Only one other big ship that served that fateful day still exists - the battleship U.S.S. Texas - and she's long been immobile.

In a former cargo hold aboard, there's now a D-Day museum. One of the items there is simply this picture, taken at Normandy beach on the morning of June 6, 1994. The simplicity of the black & white print belies the subject: 4 men who'd swarmed ashore that terrible morning 50 years earlier, and now returned to the same spot, alone in their thoughts.

All around them, but not seen, are many others who never left the beach that day.


Heidi said...

Truly fascinating! Thank you so much, I love your ship posts more than I can say.

Pam said...

Beautiful tribute. Thank you.

bobbie said...

A beautiful post that brought tears to my eyes ~

Here is to all those men who served, and the ones that still do.

felixkasza said...

Thanks. Just … thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this! Just this past weekend, I so coincidently landed randomly on the Wikipedia page for Liberty Ships. Although I was already familiar with their indefatigable service, I came to think, like too many things in this country, how awful and how quickly such things fade into obscurity. Thanks for bringing them back into the light!

Mage said...

Thank you. Very moving. In my left sidebar are links to the Liberty and Victory ships that are still afloat.

Ms. Donna said...

Thank you. I can remember being at a dock with my Dad, a naval officer. I was asking about all the ships I could see, when a decrepit, dilapidated ship sputtered to the dock.

To call her a "rustbucket" would have been charitable.

To my surprise, Dad saluted the hulk.

I asked him why, and he explained what you did, Grumpy. That these mass-produced, one-every-other-day were the reason we weren't speaking German. He mentioned Stephen Hopkins. That she took down a heavily-armed opponent was testament to her crew who were (most posthumous) decorated for their action and to how well these hurry-up ships were built.

I don't think Dad ever knew of the few remaining ships, but thank you for reminding us.

Edward said...

Thank you for this post.

My uncle (now deceased) served in the Merchant Marine in Liberty ships and made several runs across the Atlantic - including the Murmansk run which was so very dangerous. He ultimately received a medal from the Russian government for his service and he proudly displayed it.

Ivan Ilyich said...

There were also Victory ships, slightly newer than the Liberty ships. The SS Lane Victory was restored and its operators planned to take it to Europe in 1994, but they had to turn back for some reason.

Packer said...

I want to save this for later , I want to savor every word. I very well remember the liberty ships anchored in the Hudson River near the Tappan Zee in the 1950's. It was an amazing flotilla.

Rita said...

I remember for decades,from childhood until relatively recently, passing the mothballed ships in the Carquinez Straits near San Francisco Bay. Most of it is gone now, the gradually deteriorating hulls were dumping lead paint chips and other environmental hazards into the water. But they were quite a sight, all lined up in the channel.

A. Marie said...

Dr. G., this post is absolutely marvelous. By the final photo, I was in tears. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. (And tell your Marie that another Marie says hi.)

lost lenore said...

I feel sad as the remaining Liberty ships are being dismantled due to the aforementioned environmental concerns. Thank you for the history lesson. I'll have to stop in and pay my respects one weekend.

jen said...


Anonymous said...

Quite interesting. So very. The article covered a great many topics and provided many graphic pictures in my mind, but the description that made it all the more memorable, and for which I will come back again to reread the details is the 'great clanking'.

If anything describes passage on a vessel in the water it is that 'clanking' in the waves. I try to avoid passage on watery routes, or maybe haven't had much opportunity, but I recall its sound on the ferries in Lake Champlain, and ocean near Seward, on a scenic tour down the Moldau, and Niagara Falls.

Y'know, Dr. G, if you ever decide to retire from the brain-picking business, you'd make the study of maritime history so much more alive if you embarked on that venue.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking time to write this moving and honoring tribute, Dr. G. I enjoyed reading the comments, too. We all have our own stories to tell, and how they relate to that of each other.

LCB said...

I'm not positive, but I believe the Jeremiah O'Brien sales once or twice a year with tourists on board. The main reason they do/did this is to keep the ship in running shape.

Thank you for the article.

Javahead said...

Our back-fence neighbor sailed on them during the war, volunteering right out of high school (I think he was 17 when he started).

He died a few years back, but up until the end he was one of the regular volunteer docents on the Jeremiah O'Brien. A good man, and modest about his service. I think of him every time I visit.

It's amazing how few of the teeming tourists in the Fisherman's Wharf area know - or care - what's just steps away.

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