The “ugly ducklings” that kept America’s allies in the game

Liberty Ships

SS John W. Brown, one of the few Liberty ships still operational 

With the Third Reich's attack on Great Britain in 1940, the British could no longer produce ships in sufficient numbers and also needed food and supplies. Under the Lend-Lease program, the U.S. agreed to build, among others, commercial ships for its allies as its contribution to the Allied effort before the country officially joined the war. Liberty ships were low-cost and quick to build, and they were a good indication of U.S. wartime industrial production. Based on ships commissioned by Britain to replace ships sunk by German U-boats, Liberty ships were purchased for the U.S. fleet and for lend-lease deliveries of war material to Britain and to the Soviet Union. The program initially had a poor public image. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the Liberty-class ship “dreadful looking object” when announcing the program, while Time magazine reported it as “ugly duckling”. The U.S. government, in an attempt to appease public opinion, designated September 27, 1941 as Liberty Fleet Day marking the day when the first 14 vessels were launched. The first ship, SS Patrick Henry was built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland. In the christening speech at the launching ceremony of the vessel, Roosevelt quoted Revolutionary War hero, Patrick Henry's "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" speech of March 23, 1775. Roosevelt said that this brand-new class of mass-produced ships would bring liberty to Europe. They were usually named after famous Americans, starting with the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.

Launch of SS Patrick Henry, the first Liberty ship
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Eighteen American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945, easily the largest number of ships produced of the same design. The ships were made assembly-line style, from prefabricated sections. Although it took 244 days to build the first ship, the average production time of a single vessel dropped to 42 days per ship by 1943 also resulting in the launch of three ships a day. One ship, the SS Robert E. Peary, was built in an astonishing four and a half days, but it was an achievement rather meant for publicity purposes.

The original British design was modified by the United States Maritime Commission to make it even quicker and cheaper to build. The vessel was designated 'EC2-S-C1'. 'EC' for Emergency Cargo, '2' for a ship between 400 and 450 feet (120 and 140 meters) long, 'S' for steam engines, and 'C1' for design C1. 

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The plan of a Liberty ship

The ship was powered by an obsolete and underpowered steam engine, which was easier to build in the numbers required for the program. It propelled a Liberty ship at the slow pace of 11 knots (20 km/h or 13 mph) thus they had to sail in convoys and needed war ship escort to provide protection against enemy attacks. Its armament consisted only of a stern-mounted 4-inch (102 mm) deck gun and a variety of anti-aircraft guns.

New technologies and methods were used also in the production of these ships. For instance, riveting was replaced with welding, but no one had previously built welded ships, consequently the work force was newly trained. The shipbuilding yards employed also many women to replace men who were enlisting in the armed forces.

Some Liberty ships suffered hull and deck cracks, and a few were lost due to such structural defects. Tests discovered that the ships in the North Atlantic were exposed to temperatures that could fall below a critical point at which the steel became brittle, allowing cracks to start easily. Furthermore, the ships were frequently grossly overloaded, increasing stresses.

Each Liberty ship had a crew of civilian merchant sailors and naval personnel (Armed Guards) to operate defensive guns. The Merchant Marine served in World War II as a Military Auxiliary. Of the nearly quarter million volunteer merchant mariners who served during the war, over 9,000 died. They suffered a greater percentage of fatalities (3.9%) than any branch of the army.

A convoy of Liberty ships

In order to illustrate the fighting spirit of the crews of these ships, let’s mention the story of SS Lawton B. Evans. On 10 March 1943, it survived an attack by German submarine U-221. Then in January 1944, the Evans was involved in the Battle of Anzio in Italy. It was under frequent bombardment from coastal batteries, machine gun fire and aircraft. The gun crew returned fire and shot down five German planes.

Another notable Liberty ship was SS Stephen Hopkins, which, on its first cargo run, sank the German commerce raider Stier in a ship-to-ship gun battle on 27 September 1942 and became the first and only US merchant ship to sink a German surface combatant during the war. Ordered to stop by the German ship, Stephen Hopkins refused to surrender, so the Stier and her tender Tannenfels with one machine gun opened fire. Although outgunned, the crew of Stephen Hopkins fought back, replacing the Armed Guard of the ship's lone gun with volunteers as they fell. The exchange of fire was short. Stephen Hopkins sank quickly, with most of its crew dead. The survivors drifted on a lifeboat for a month before reaching the shores of Brazil. The heavily damaged Stier was scuttled by its crew less than two hours after the fight.

To provide better protection against enemy attacks, the Victory-class ships were developed. They were slightly larger and had more powerful steam turbine engines giving higher speed to allow participation in high speed convoys and make them more difficult targets. A total of 531 Victory ships were built between 1944-46.

More than 2,400 Liberty ships survived the war. 200 were lost during the war to enemy action, weather and accidents. After the war, some were lost to naval mines, too. Despite their planned five-year lifespan, hundreds were sold to private shipping companies, many of which rebuilt their fleets with these ships and used them for decades. A couple of them were converted to technical research ships collecting electronic intelligence, while some were used to store surplus grain.

Unfortunately, the name of the SS Grandcamp, a reactivated Liberty ship rechristened by a French company after the coastal town of "Grandcamp-les-bains” in Normandy (named Grandcamp-Maisy today), is linked to the one of the deadliest industrial accidents in United States history, namely the Texas City Disaster of 16 April 1947. A fire of unknown source detonated her cargo of about 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. This started a chain reaction of fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities, and a 15-foot (4.5 meters) tidal wave killing at least 581 people and injuring more than 5,000 people.

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The destruction caused by the explosion of SS Grandcamp

Today, two Liberty ships are still operational, both are used as museum ships. The SS John W. Brown is in Baltimore, Maryland, while the SS Jeremiah O’Brien is in San Francisco, California. The latter made eleven crossings of the English Channel carrying personnel and supplies to the Normandy beaches in 1944. She steamed from San Francisco to France for the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.

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SS Jeremiah O’Brien on its way to France in 1994

In 2011, the U.S. Postal Service released a commemorative postage stamp featuring the Liberty ship as part of a set on the U.S. Merchant Marine.

The commemorative stamp of a Liberty ship


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