Liberty Ships – Small Pieces of History

Above The USS Alstede 1965

Get to Know an Old Liberty Ship

Looking forward, bridge SS American Liberty

There are ships that having been retired (decommissioned) are now serving as living history museums. Ships like the aircraft carrier Intrepid a Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City and a number of battleships like the North Carolina and Missouri. There are also a few less glamours ships that are now being restored and they represent the real ships that won WWII – The Liberty Ships. These ships carried millions of tons of supplies and troops across the Atlantic to England, organized into convoys, they were torpedoed and sunk by the hundreds.

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

Back in the early nineteen forties 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 the Nazi’s and they had a plan to choke off England.

Galley, SS American Victory
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 a British flag. As the war continued Germany launched more of these submarines with longer range and munitions and eliminated over a third of British merchant ships.

Even before the entry of the U.S. into the war England placed emergency orders for ships to be made at American shipyards using a British design. The class was developed to meet British needs for transports to quickly replace ships being torpedoed by German U-boats. These ships as a class 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 quickly becoming a symbol of U.S. wartime industrial might.

The #4 Cargo Hold on The American Victory
Main deck passageway, SS American Victory
The USS Alstead 1968

As the war ended there were literally hundreds and hundreds of these ships that were no longer needed. Being sold at auction there were a number of mostly Greek shipping companies that saw these ships as a big opportunity. Buying up these ships became the beginning of the modern Greek merchant marine. One such buyer was Aristotle Onassis, who founded an empire with these Liberty Ships. Today you can find one of these Greek Liberty Ships in Piraeus harbor open as a nautical museum.

By the 1950’s the U.S. Navy upgraded and converted a number of these Liberty Ships to serve as support ships in the active fleets. Some were configured as ammunition supply ships designated AE, others as refrigerated supply ships designated AF and a few were used for special configurations.

One Liberty Ship became the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) designated an environmental research ship but actually an intelligence spy ship, which was attacked and captured by North Korea in January 1968 in international waters. Another, the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was designated a technical research ship but actually was another intelligence spy ship. The USS Liberty was attacked by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War while in international waters. The USS Liberty was built and served in World War II and named the SS Simmons.

In the 1960’s the Navy fazed out these ships replacing them with modern, specially designed ships called “fast fleet support ships”. By early in the 1970’s all of these WWII work horses were retired (decommissioned) out of the U.S. Navy.

SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Fransisco
Main deck forward, SS American Victory

Only three operational Liberty or Victory ships still exist in The United States and they are museums. They include the SS John W. Brown docked at Pier 13, 4601 Newgate Ave. in Baltimore., the SS Jeremiah O’Brien docked across from Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco and SS American Victory tied up in Tampa. The SS John W. Brown is open as a museum in Baltimore with guided tours available on Wednesday and Saturday at 9 and 11 am. The American Victory docked in Tampa right next to the Florida Aquarium has a modest admission fee and is open Mondays from noon to 5 pm, and Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm with free parking. The parking alone is worth its weight in gold in that area of Tampa.

Interestingly the S.S. O’Brien was used for the engine room scenes in James Cameron’s movie The Titanic. These ships are a good opportunity to introduce yourself and your children to this now often overlooked piece of American history.

Note: The American Victory is now sea worthy and has a number of sailings scheduled around Tampa Bay each year.

Read more about the Greek fleet of post WWII Liberty Ships HERE.

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