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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Selected Ships' Histories

As the years went by, age took its toll on the Liberty and Victory ships. Many ships became too expensive to operate; insurance companies did not want to cover these old merchant ships. In most cases, they were sold for scrap. The reserve fleet was also being sold for scrap. What was once a proud fleet was now down to a precious few vessels. Some historic preservation and veterans organizations became interested in these ships and a handful were saved from the ship breakers. The following are the histories of five of these ships that have been preserved as floating museums to honor their service to the United States and to honor the mariners who sailed upon them.

The Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien
The SS Jeremiah O'Brien is a World War II cargo ship and the product of a standardized design. The ship was named for Jeremiah O'Brien, a Revolutionary War hero who lived in Machias, Maine. In 1775, O'Brien led other residents of Machias in the capture of two British merchant ships. Using these captured ships, O'Brien captured the British armed schooner HMS Margaretta. This was the first naval action of the American Revolution.

The keel (the bottom beam or plate juncture that runs the length of a ship) for the SS Jeremiah O'Brien was laid at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation, in South Portland, Maine on May 6, 1943. She was launched on June 19, 1943. The ship was owned by the federal government and operated by Grace Line, Inc. For the next year, the ship carried ammunition and grain, as well as other dry cargo. In June 1944, the Jeremiah O'Brien supported the D-Day invasions by ferrying supplies between Great Britain and Normandy, France 11 times.

After the war, plans were made to transfer the ship to the U.S. Army for conversion to a hospital ship. The conversion never occurred and the ship was "mothballed" at the reserve fleet near San Francisco. In 1966, the U.S. Maritime Administration wanted to preserve a Liberty ship and chose the Jeremiah O'Brien. The ship was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1986. NHLs are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they illustrate the heritage of the United States. Over the years, the ship was restored and is now a museum in San Francisco, CA. She is only one of two Liberty ships still operational. The ship participated in the 50th anniversary of the D-day landings in 1994.

The Liberty Ship SS John W. Brown
The SS John W. Brown is a World War II cargo ship built by the U.S. Maritime Commission. In 1942, she was built in 41 days at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland. She was launched on Labor Day, September 7, 1942. The ship was named after an American labor leader who organized workers in shipyards.

After being launched, the ship sailed to New York and departed on its maiden voyage on September 29, 1942 carrying supplies to the Middle East. In 1943, the ship was converted to carry troops as well as cargo. Later, the John W. Brown supported combat operations in the Mediterranean Sea. The ship was involved in the Allied landings at Sicily and Anzio in Italy, and southern France. After the war ended in Europe, the John W. Brown carried U.S. military personnel home.

In 1947, the Maritime Commission loaned the ship to New York City to use as a training vessel for high school students interested in maritime jobs. However, it became too expensive to run the school, and the ship was returned to the Maritime Commission and put into storage with the reserve fleet on the James River in Virginia. Historic preservation groups, including Project Liberty Ship and the Baltimore Museum of History (MD), wanted to protect the ship and it was transferred to them to turn into a museum in Baltimore, MD. She is one of only two Liberty ships still operational.

The Victory Ship SS American Victory
The SS American Victory was launched on June 20, 1945 at the California Shipbuilding Corporation yards in Los Angeles, California. The ship was named after American University in Washington, D.C. in honor of the school's contribution to war training and weapons research in both World War I and World War II. The ship's first voyage was in July 1945 carrying military supplies to Manila, Philippines.

After the war, the ship was used by the American Export Lines carrying cargo in support of the Marshall Plan, a U.S. economic diplomacy plan to help rebuild Western Europe after the war. On one of its many voyages, the American Victory was caught by ice in Odessa, Russia. Rather than wait for an ice breaker to clear the shipping lanes, the captain of the American Victory used her to break the ice!

In 1947, the American Victory was put into the reserve fleet. In 1952, the ship was brought out of "mothballs" to carry military supplies in support of the Korean conflict. After the Korean War, she was again sent to the reserve fleet. In 1963, the Navy planned to convert 15 Victory ships, among them the American Victory, as forward depot ships. These ships would be loaded with supplies and ammunition and placed around the world to support American troops if needed. However, the Navy canceled the plan in 1966 and that same year, the American Victory was again brought out of "mothballs" to support the Vietnam War. She carried military vehicles, telephone poles, explosives, and bombs.

In 1969, she was again put in the reserve fleet. In 1999, the American Victory was acquired by a preservation group and turned into a museum in Tampa, FL.

The Victory Ship SS Lane Victory
The SS Lane Victory was built by the California Shipbuilding Corporation in Los Angeles. She was launched on May 31, 1945. The ship was named for Lane College, which was established as a high school for black youths in 1882 by Isaac Lane, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Jackson, Tennessee. The school grew into a prominent liberal arts college. On her first voyage, June 27, 1945, the ship carried supplies in the Pacific. She was operated by American President Lines.

In 1950, the Lane Victory was used to evacuate Korean civilians and U.N. personnel at Wonsan, South Korea during the Korean War. The ship also saw duty during the Vietnam War. In 1970, the ship was placed in the reserve fleet. Because of her excellent condition, the Maritime Administration decided to set aside the Lane Victory for preservation. In 1988, the Lane Victory was acquired by the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II and turned into a museum in San Pedro, CA. In 1990, the ship was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Victory Ship SS Red Oak Victory
The SS Red Oak Victory was built by the Permanente Metals Corporation, Shipbuilding Division Yard 1 in Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco. Her keel was laid August 15, 1944 and she was launched November 9, 1944. She is one of the last ships built by the Richmond Shipyard during World War II. The ship was named after the community of Red Oak, Iowa, which suffered the highest per capita casualty rate of any American community during World War II. On December 5, 1944, she was commissioned as the USS Red Oak Victory (AK-235) for the the U.S. Navy to be used as an ammunition carrier.

In January 1945, after sea trials, she loaded over 10,000 tons of ammunition from the Port Chicago Ammunition Depot, Concord, California and departed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In February 1945, she steamed to a remote area of the South Pacific called Ulithi Atoll where the worlds largest formation of Allied forces had amassed for the invasion of Japan. From March to May 1945, the USS Red Oak Victory (AK-235) replenished numerous vessels of the Pacific fleet. From June to October 1945, she supported the liberation of the Philippine Islands. In November 1945, she headed home to Seattle, Washington were she was decommissioned on May 21, 1946 and returned back to the U.S. Maritime Commission.

In May 1947, she was leased to the Luckenbach Gulf Steamship Company, Seattle, Washington. She made several voyages, most notably supporting the UN forces engaged in the Korean War with military cargo. From 1957 to 1965 she was in storage by the U.S. Maritime Commission. In December 1965, she was leased to the American Mail Lines and until December 1968, supported U.S. forces engaged in the Vietnam War. She was placed back into storage until September 1998, where she was obtained by the Richmond Museum Association to be restored back to her original operational launch condition. Today, the Red Oak Victory is an integral part of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What was some of the cargo these ships carried?

2. Looking at a world map or atlas, locate some of the places to which each of these ships carried cargo. Does this give you a better appreciation for the mission of the seamen who served in the Merchant Marine? Why or why not?

3. Unlike the Liberty ships, which were built to be expendable, the Victory ships were designed to last for at least 20 years after being built. What examples can you find in the reading to support this?

4. Of the thousands of Liberty and Victory ships built, only a few remain. Why do you think it is important to preserve these ships?

Reading 3 was compiled from John Gorley Bunker, Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of World War II (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1972); Harry Butowsky, "SS Jeremiah O'Brien" (San Francisco County, California) National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1985); James P. Delgado, "Lane Victory" (Los Angeles County, California) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form (Washington DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990); Curtis P. Junker, revised by Peter E. Kurtze, "SS John W. Brown" (Baltimore City, Maryland) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1996); Shelby Sampson, "SS Red Oak Victory" (Contra Costa County, California) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000); L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell, Victory Ships and Tankers (Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles Publishers, 1974); and Timothy J. Teahan and Barbara E. Mattick, "SS American Victory" (Hillsborough County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001).

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