Visiting Liberty

Get to Know an Old Liberty Ship

Looking forward, bridge SS American Liberty

I admit I have a strong attraction to a specific type of ship that has almost vanished from the planet. Currently there are very few of these historic ships still in existence. My fondness for this ship is because I spent a little over two years serving on one in the 1960’s while in the Navy.

Before the United States entered World War II, England was fighting for its very survival. England is an island nation and depends on its merchant ships to keep its industries supplied with raw materials along with its people fed and their gas tanks full. Nobody knew this better than Germany and they had a plan to choke off England.

The bridge on the SS American Victory

At the outbreak of war German U-boats spread out over the North Atlantic with orders to sink any merchant ship flying British flags. As the war advanced Germany launched more of these submarines with more range and munitions and eliminated over a third of British merchants.

Even before the entry of the U.S. into the war England placed emergency orders for ships to be made in American shipyards using a British design. The class was developed to meet British needs for transports to replace ships that were being torpedoed by German U-boats. These ships became known as Liberty ships.

The Liberty ship featured a simple design and low-cost construction and soon were being mass-produced on an unprecedented scale and the ship came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial might.

In the 1950’s the U.S. Navy upgraded and converted a number of these Liberty ships to serve as support ships in the active fleet. Some were configured as ammunition supply ships designated AE, others as refrigerated supply ships designated AF and a few like the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) were used as technical research ships (electronic spy ship). The USS Liberty was attacked by Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 Six-Day War. She was built and served in World War II as SS Simmons. By the 1960’s the Navy was fazing out these ships for modern, specially designed ships called “fast fleet support ships”. By early in the 1970’s all of these WWII work horses were retired.

SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Fransisco

Only three operational Liberty (Victory) ships still exist and they are museums, the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, home ported in San Francisco and SS American Victory in Tampa.

Main deck forward, SS American Victory

We have visited the O’Brien some years back and she is well preserved and actually still makes cruises. We also found out that the engine room scenes from Cameron’s movie The Titanic were filmed on board.

This past summer we visited the American Victory in Tampa and discovered that she is a work in progress and could really use donations and volunteers. She is docked right next to the Florida Aquarium with free admission (donations welcome) and free parking (which is worth its weight in gold in that area). While, as I said, I have a soft spot for these old ships it is probably a good opportunity to get acquainted with these pieces of American history.

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