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Liberty Ships

The Liberty ship was considered a "five-year vessel" (an expendable, if necessary, material of war) because it was not able to compete with non-emergency vessels in speed, equipment and general serviceability. However, Liberties ended up doing well, plodding the seas for nearly 20 years after the end of World War II. Many Liberties were placed in the reserve fleet and several supported the Korean War. Other Liberties were sold off to shipping companies, where they formed the backbone of postwar merchant fleets whose commerce generated income to build the new ships of the 1950s and 1960s. However, age took its toll and by the mid-1960s the Liberties became too expensive to operate and were sold for scrap, their metal recycled. The first Liberty built, the Patrick Henry, was sent to the ship breakers (scrap yard) in October 1958.

Of the nearly 3,000 Liberty ships built, 200 were lost during World War II to enemy action, weather and accidents.

After the War, Liberty ships found a variety of uses. The rapid influx of people due to the military buildup stretched Anchorage AK city power sources to the absolute limit in the 1940s and 1950s. Anchorage developed at a phenomenal pace. In 1939, the population of Anchorage was just 4,000 people. By 1941 there were 10,000 in the city. From 1939 to 1948 the city population increased 570%.

Rolling blackouts during peak load times were imposed throughout the city. The city leased and then purchased the stern half of an old oil tanker that had broken in half during a storm near Adak. The ship, a WWII Liberty Ship called Sackett's Harbor, was equipped with a coal generating power plant with a 3,000 kW capacity-larger than the Eklutna plant's 2,000 kW capacity. At first, the Navy intended to haul the ship near Anchorage waters and use it for target practice. But after its power capabilities became known, locals encouraged the city to use the ship as a power resource. It was brought into Anchorage and outfitted for connection to the municipal distribution system.

The ship was used for the next eight years as, "the biggest generating unit in the whole hodge-podge of municipal facilities." The arrival of Sackett's Harbor marked the end of an era for the old Eklutna power plant. No longer was it the largest power supplier in Anchorage (though it remained the most economical power source until the new Eklutna plant was completed).

Even with the additional energy provided by Sackett's Harbor, power shortages were critical. The AEC's old coal plant was intermittently brought back into service, and several diesel generating units were purchased. Electrical demand had far exceeded the combined generating capacity of Anchorage power plants. Upgrades and expansions were no longer an option for the old Eklutna power plant. The city had simply outgrown the facilities.

The Corps of Engineers mobile nuclear reactor, MH-1A, was mounted inside the Sturgis, a converted World War II Liberty Ship. The reactor was built in 1966 and went critical in early 1967. The Sturgis, a 45-megawatt power plant, was first harbored at Fort Belvoir for operational testing and training. It was then towed to the Panama Canal Zone where it generated electrical power from 1968 through 1976. The MH-1 was shut down in 1976 and towed to the James River Fleet.

Today, only two unaltered Liberty Ships remain afloat; the San Francisco-based Jeremiah O'Brien and the John W. Brown of Baltimore.

Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien

Launched on June 19, 1943 from South Portland, Maine, where the ship was built at the West Yard of the New England Shipbuilding Corporation, the SS Jeremiah O'Brien is the sole survivor of the 6,000-ship armada that stormed Normandy on D-Day, 1944. She is one of two extant Liberty ships of the 2,751 in service during World War II. 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 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 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. O'Brien made seven World War II voyages, ranging from England and Northern Ireland to South America, to India and Australia. In June 1944, the Jeremiah O'Brien supported the D-Day invasions by ferrying supplies between Great Britain and Normandy, France. The vessel made 11 crossings of the English Channel carrying personnel and supplies to the Normandy beaches in support of the D-Day invasion.

After the war, the O'Brien was "mothballed" and laid up in the Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay, north of San Francisco. 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. Skillful maneuvering by a U.S. Maritime Administration official (himself a former Liberty ship sailor) saved the O'Brien from the scrap yard. In 1979, following dry-docking, generous donations of money and supplies by numerous individuals and companies and thousands of hours of restoration work by her volunteer crew, the old ship entered service on San Francisco Bay in like-new condition.

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.

In 1994 the O'Brien, in what was to be an epic eighth voyage, steamed through the Golden Gate, down the west coast, through the Panama Canal, and across the Atlantic to England and France, where the O'Brien and its crew (a remarkable collection of old salts whose average age was 70 and a few cadets from the California Maritime Academy), participated in the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord--the Allied invasion at Normandy that turned the tide of World War II in Europe.

She is a steaming memorial to the seamen of the U.S. Merchant Marine who served on Liberty ships in World War II, to their Navy gun crews and to the civilian men and women who built the largest single class of ships in history.

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.

Liberty Ship SS James E. Longstreet

The coast of Eastham, Massachusetts is home to the remains of one Liberty Ship, the James E. Longstreet, which until recently was a visible fixture on the horizon for many residents of Cape Cod.

The James E. Longstreet was constructed in 1942 by the Todd Houston Shipbuilding Corporation of Irish Bend, Houston, Texas, for a cost of approximately $1,833,400. As a standard Liberty Ship, it measured close to 417 feet in length, 57 feet in breadth, and drew nearly 37 feet of water. The vessel was named for Major General James Longstreet, a hero of the Confederate Army and one of General Robert E. Lee's top officers during the Civil War.

Although by measurement and design the James E. Longstreet was a typical liberty ship, its career was far from ordinary, seemingly marred by mishaps right from the start. While awaiting a pilot to take the vessel into New York Harbor following its arrival from Southampton, England, the Longstreet was caught in a violent gale that continued for more than 24 hours. Together with two other vessels, the Exilona and the Fort Douglas, the Longstreet was driven ashore at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, on October 26, 1943. Given the order to abandon ship, the freighter's crew of about 70 was removed by the Coast Guard.

Although the rescue was conducted more for the benefit of observing reporters--most of the crew was capable of wading safely to shore--the Longstreet nevertheless sustained damage when its hull split near the number three hold. Temporarily repaired on site, it was re-floated on November 25, 1943, after a channel was dredged from behind. From there, the scarred vessel was towed to New York Harbor.

Declared a total loss, the James E. Longstreet was ready for the scrap yard when the U.S. Navy requested it for use as a target ship for secret experiments involving early air-to-surface guided missile systems. Stripped of its equipment and painted chrome yellow, the Longstreet was delivered to the Navy in June of 1944.

Following repairs of missile damage sustained over the summer months, the Longstreet was under tow back to the target area when it broke loose and grounded for a second time, near the Ambrose Channel, not far from New York. Once again, the vessel was re-floated, repaired, and towed to the target area where it was moored until a severe winter storm parted its mooring cable allowing it to drift some 80 miles out to sea. Recovered 10 days later, the Longstreet was finally towed to the waters off Eastham, Massachusetts where it was sunk in approximately 20 feet of water to serve as a target for new air-to-surface guided missile experiments involving a heat-seeking system known as the Dove. By the middle of 1946, the service of the Longstreet was no longer required for the Dove program and the vessel was used periodically by the Navy and Air Force for live ammunition target practice until 1971.

Today, the Liberty Ship James E. Longstreet remains approximately three and a half miles off Eastham, Massachusetts in 20 to 25 feet of water with only a small portion of its structure above the surface. Full of holes and nearly cut in two, the large hulk is a favorite diving and fishing spot as the area is home to numerous flounder, tautog, fluke, and lobsters.



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