Liberty Ships – Little Pieces of History

Above The USS Alstede 1965

Get to Know Some Old Liberty Ships

Looking forward, bridge SS American Liberty

There are ships that, having been retired (decommissioned) are now serving as living history museums dotted around the U.S. and the world. There are ships like the aircraft carrier Intrepid a Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. The submarine USS Nautilus commissioned in 1954 was the first nuclear powered ship in the United States Nav it’s now a museum in Groton, Connecticut. There are a number of battleships like the North Carolina, Alabama and Missouri that are open to the public.

Less well known there are a few less glamours ships that are now restored representing the real ships that won WWII. They are the Liberty Ships. These ships carried millions of tons of supplies and troops across the Atlantic to England and organized into convoys, they were torpedoed and sunk by the hundreds.

Galley, SS American Victory

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

Their story begins in the early nineteen forties before the United States entered World War II while 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 England into surrender.

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 more munitions and eliminated over a third of Britian’s 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. They quickly become 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 using 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 Navy fleets. Some were configured as ammunition supply ships designated AE and named for things that blow up like the USS Nitro or volcanos like the USS Diamond Head., Others were configured as refrigerated supply ships designated AF named after constellations like the USS Denebula and a few were used for special configurations.

One of these special Liberty Ship became the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) designated an environmental research ship but actually an intelligence spy ship, that was attacked and captured by North Korea in January 1968 in international waters. Another, the USS Liberty 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 originally built and served in World War II and was 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” designated AFS. By early in the 1970’s all of these WWII work horses were retired (decommissioned) out of the U.S. Navy. My ship the USS Alstede was sunk in target practice off Hawaii.

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

Only four operational Liberty or the upgraded Victory ships still exist in The United States as 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, the SS American Victory tied up in Tampa and SS Lane Victory another American Victory ship in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles, California. As a rare surviving Victory ship, she was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark.. 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 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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