May 20, 2016 – The all-volunteer crew of the World War II Liberty Ship, S.S. John W. Brown, sailed the 73-year-old warship into Norfolk, Virginia for the Maritime Day celebration, May 20-22.
The S.S. John W. Brown is one of two fully operational World War II Liberty ships left in existence and is now a living museum dedicated to honoring those who built, defended and sailed the Liberty fleet.
|S.S. John W. Brown sails up the Elizabeth River arriving at Norfolk, Va.|
Clouds of War Looming
Liberty ships were a class of cargo ships introduced in 1941. The U.S. war effort required cargo ships which could be built quickly, affordably and in large quantities.
The resulting ships were commonly referred to as “emergency ships” or “ugly ducklings” because of their basic appearance. This moniker changed, however; when President Roosevelt told the nation that the fleet of ships would bring liberty to Europe. From then on they became known as Liberty Ships.
Mike Schneider, a retired U.S. Navy officer, and a Fireman/Watertender in the Brown’s engine room said, “At the beginning of World War II, before the Americans were involved, the German U-boats (submarines) were wreaking havoc on the Atlantic Ocean and sinking more ships than could be replaced. The United States embarked on an emergency shipbuilding program and a big piece of this program was to build Liberty Ships like S.S. John W. Brown.”
“The United States built 2,710 Liberty Ships which were almost all carbon copies of each other,” said Schneider. “These Liberty Ships transported the majority of their overseas cargo to the war-front and Britain.”
Despite over 200 Liberty ships being lost to enemy combat, fire, collision, or other disasters, the vessels could be constructed inexpensively and on large scale. This enabled continuous supplies to reach the allied forces fighting in the European and Pacific theaters.
S.S. John W. Brown Enters the Fight
“S.S John Brown was launched on Sept. 7, 1942, from Baltimore, Maryland, along with six other Liberty Ships,” according to Schneider. “Each of these ships was named after a labor leader, and the Brown was named after John W. Brown, who died in Maryland in 1941.”
“Ships like the Brown were built to make one trip,” said Duff Potter, the S.S. John W. Brown’s spokesman. “The Brown cost the tax payers 1.7 million dollars to build. The government determined that if the Brown could transport 10,800 tons in one trip; the ship would pay for itself.”
“Brown was modified after its initial production to transport both supplies and combat troops and thus spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Schneider. “The Brown was able to transport an entire military unit to include all of their logistical needs such as trucks, artillery, and ammunition and the unit’s personnel. They would all be transported to the war on the same ship. So as the war shifted across Europe, ships like S.S. John W. Brown moved needed troops and materiel into critical places and brought prisoners of war back to the U.S.”
Brown made eight voyages during World War II. Her maiden voyage was to the Persian Gulf carrying military equipment for Russia, which could only be supplied from the Persian Gulf or via convoys to Murmansk, the infamous “Murmansk run.” On this voyage, the Brown proceeded through the Caribbean Sea, through the Panama Canal, south along the west coast of South America and around Cape Horn, across the South Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope, north along the east coast of Africa, and into the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, the Brown sailed alone and unescorted for most of this voyage.
Her route, especially the portion along the west coast of South America, was planned to minimize the chances of encountering enemy submarines. The Brown returned to North America, making a stop in South America to load a cargo of bauxite which is used in making aluminum products.
Most of the rest of the Brown’s wartime voyages were to the Mediterranean Sea including duty during the Anzio landings. She was also a part of the invasion force of southern France during Operation Dragoon in August 1944. While in the Mediterranean, the Brown typically spent several months moving between ports in North Africa, Italy and southern France, moving supplies, equipment and troops as needed, before finally returning to North America. On all of these voyages, the Brown sailed in convoys.
“The United States learned after World War I that we did not have enough ships to supply the war effort,” said Potter. “In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Merchant Marine Act which was designed to provide merchant crews with suitable training and a fleet of ships which could be deployed to carry cargo anywhere in the world.”
“World War II was a global war and countries all over the world were affected,” said Potter. “As such, we required the capability to deliver supplies all over the globe and we needed ships to accomplish this.”
“The average building time to build a Liberty Ship was less than 50 days and the Brown was constructed in 45 days. By 1943, the average build time for a Liberty Ship was approximately 20 days.” said added Potter. “We needed to show the world exactly what the industrial might of the United States amounted to.”
The Original Hybrid Crew
The Brown was crewed by approximately 45 civilian merchant seamen. The ship’s weapons were manned by 41 Navy Armed Guard personnel who were assigned to the ship. The size of the merchant marine crew varied slightly from voyage to voyage, depending on the number of troops transported.
The concept of how the S.S. John W. Brown was manned is similar to Military Sealift Commands’ hybrid crew concept which has been implemented on platforms such as USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB 3), USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), USS Emory S. Land (AS 39) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20).
“The Brown carried two crews,” said Potter. “One was the merchant crew which consisted of a master, three mates, chief engineer, three engineers and all of the mariners which you would expect to find on a merchant ship.”
The Navy Armed Guard consisted of active duty Sailors who were responsible for the defensive firepower on merchant marine vessels like the Brown.
“The Navy Armed Guard was a separate contingent on board the Brown,” according to Schneider.” The sailors messed and bunked separately from the merchant marines. Depending on the temperament of both the merchant marines’ master and the Navy Armed Guard’s commanding officer, sometimes the relationship was acrimonious and sometimes the two were very cooperative. It just depended on the personalities of the two leaders.”
“However, 99 percent of the time the concept of having the active duty sailors serving alongside civilian merchant marines was very effective,” said Potter. “When they ran into internal difficulties they figured out how to work them out.”
“When it came down to the serious business of war, the mariners and Navy Armed Guard worked very well together,” said Potter. “For example, during ‘General Quarters,’ the mariners, not on watch, would pass ammunition to the Sailors who were manning the guns. The nature of war at sea built a lot of camaraderie between the two cultures.”
|S.S. John W. Brown is one of two remaining Liberty ships still operating.|
Service in the Face of Danger
Serving about Liberty Ships like the Brown during a war was very dangerous and the mariners who crewed these ships were all volunteers.
“There were many reasons the Brown’s merchant marines volunteered to undertake such a dangerous duty,” said Schneider. “Many of the volunteers were already professional mariners before the war and because of their experience it made sense for them to serve as merchant marines.”
“The physical requirements to join the merchant marines were less stringent than the armed forces,” added Schneider. “So if you had a patriotic citizen who wanted to serve their country and could not pass a military physical, merchant marine service provided an additional option.”
“Many citizens joined the merchant marines and served on Liberty ships out of a sense of patriotism and a desire for a maritime vocation,” said Potter. “These guys were very patriotic and really wanted to serve their country.”
Though armed with defensive weapons, the mariners and sailors who served on Liberty ships were under the constant threat of enemy attack.
“According to mariners who have served in the past, they couldn’t worry about the danger which comes with service at sea,” added Potter.
If you focused on the danger, you could become paralyzed and not be able to do your job,” added Potter. “The way to handle the danger and fear was to stand your watch, do your job and you hope the ship doesn’t get hit. But a bunch of the Liberty Ships did get hit,” said Potter. “The attrition rate during the war for the merchant marines was higher than any other service with the exception of the U.S. Marine Corps.”
Immediately following the war, the Brown carried government cargoes to help rebuild war-torn Europe.
The Roots of Modern Military Logistics at Sea
The Brown was built by the federal government and was under the oversight of the War Shipping Administration. This ship and her many sister-ships were operated under what was known as a general agency agreement by almost 90 different American steamship companies were paid by the government to manage the ships. The cargo they carried and the ports they visited were entirely controlled by the U.S. government.
During World War II, four separate government agencies controlled sea transportation. In 1949, the Military Sea Transportation Service became the single managing agency for the Department of Defense’s ocean transportation needs. The command assumed responsibility for providing sealift and ocean transportation for all military services as well as for other government agencies.
Nine months after its creation, MSTS responded to the challenge of the Korean War. On July 6, 1950, only 11 days after the initial invasion of South Korea by communist North Korean troops, MSTS transported the 24th Infantry Division and its equipment from Japan to Pusan, South Korea, for duty.
During the Vietnam War, MSTS was renamed Military Sealift Command.
Project Liberty Ship
Project Liberty Ship is a dynamic, all-volunteer organization with the sole purpose of preserving the Liberty ship S.S. John W. Brown as an operating museum ship with the primary focus of educating people about the nation’s maritime history during World War II and the vital role played by our merchant marine and military veterans.
“When I got out of the Navy, I quickly discovered I missed being on ships and going to sea and being around fellow seamen,” said Schneider. “I found the camaraderie aboard the Brown to be very rewarding.”
“Nobody understands the relationship ‘shipmates’ have, except other ‘shipmates’,” said Potter. “And in order to be a shipmate, you gotta’ have a ship. Like many of the Brown’s crew I was drawn to the maritime environment.”
“The volunteers aboard the Brown come from all walks of life,” said Schneider. “We have volunteers who are retired merchant marines and active merchant marines. We have a lot of volunteers who work in areas such as refrigeration, air conditioning or machinery who just want to go to sea. A lot of our crew volunteers because they are history buffs. The Brown’s crew comes from everywhere.”
Following her service in World War II, S.S. John W. Brown was loaned by the government to the Board of Education of the city of New York. From 1946 to 1983 she served as a floating maritime high school training thousands of young men to be merchant mariners. Some of those former students have found their way back to the ship and now serve as volunteer crew members.