WW2 Liberty Ships - The Bridge of Steel - Spanning the Atlantic - Linking Britain to America

(see some more pictures here see also this article from the Brunwisk [Georgia] news)


Liberty Ship, Jeremiah O'Brien
Liberty Ship, Jerimiah O'Brien

In the early years of WW2, it was Britain aided by her Dominions, Canada, New Zealand and Australia that stood alone against Germany.

To obtain sufficient food to sustain her people, and to import the raw materials to prosecute the war, of necessity, Britain needed to look westwards to North America.

The German U-Boat service decimated Britain's Merchant Fleet in the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic.

In April of 1941, 800,000 tons of shipping was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, by U-Boats, these ships were being sunk at a faster rate than they could be built.

In September of 1940, Britain sent a delegation off to the United States with a ship design, and an order for 60 ships, designated as the Ocean Class, of 10,000 tons with a 2,500 horse power engine to produce a speed of 10 knots.

This inititive really acted as the catalyst, setting in motion the US move to develop their ship building program, that resulted in the Liberty Ships.

US Maritime Commission
The Chairman of the US Maritime Commission, Admiral Emory Scott Land, to accommodate the British order for 60 ships, called in six West Coast Construction and Engineering Companies, they included firms that had built the Grand Coulee and Hoover Dams. It was Henry Kaiser who headed up this consortium.

With the Battle of the Atlantic raging, time was of the essence, if the sea routes across the Atlantic Ocean were to carry sufficient ships loaded with Britain's needs; (a.) to survive and (b.) to build up a supply base to allow for a second front by the invasion of Fortress Europe.

President Franklin Roosevelt's Involvement
It was early in 1941, when President Franklin became directly involved in the ship building program. Admiral Land showed him the British Ocean plans, commenting:

"This ship will meet our plans, she is not much to look at, A REAL UGLY DUCKLING!"

The President called these ships, "Dreadful looking objects," but in February 1941 announced a construction goal of 200 emergency cargo vessels.

This target was soon expanded to 2,300 ships to total 23, 000,000 tons for 1942, and 1943.

Admiral Land, in an attempt to upgrade the "Ugly Duckling" image, on the 17th. of September 1941, named it "Liberty Fleet Day" as 14 of these ships were launched across America.

Patrick Henry was the first, and provided the impetus for this event, this ship's namesake had said: "Give me Liberty or Death."

Britain's first Ocean Ship was launched by the Admiral's wife, Mrs Emory Land, in October 1941, and she named it Ocean Vanguard.

German Navy Strategy
The head of the German Navy U-Boat arm, Admiral Donitz, had indicated in May 1942: "The total tonnage the enemy can build will be about 8.2 Million tons in 1942, and about 10.4 Million tons in 1943. This would mean we would have to sink approximately 700,000 tons per month to offset new construction. Only what is in excess of this amount would constitute a decrease in enemy tonnage. However, we are already sinking 700,000 tons now."

The big mistake made by Donitz, was to grossly underestimate the ship building capacity, efficiency, and industrial know how of the American ship yards.

New building Methods
The Liberty ship program broke new ground in the annals of ship building.

Once the keel was laid, ship sections were fabricated away from the basic slipway, and were then transported to the keel site, and lifted into position by local cranes for assembly onto the hull.

Use of Welding
In lieu of the older method of riveting sections of the ship together, all the Liberty ships were constructed by the use of welding techniques. Each ship contained 600,000 feet of welded joints, and of all the labouring hours needed to build one Liberty Ship, 1/3 of them were taken up by the welding crews.

Liberty Ship Numbers.
Between 1941 and 1945, 2,751 Liberty Ships were constructed in 16 United States ship yards. (My research also turned up a figure of 2,580 ships built being quoted at the total number, but I believe the larger figure is probably the correct one. )

What were the dimentions of a Liberty Ship?

Length: 441 feet, 6 inches.

Beam: 56 feet 10 3/4 inches.

Draught: 27 feet, 9 1/4 inches.

Dead Weight Tonnage 7,000 tons.

Cargo carried: 9,140 tons.

Speed: 11 to 11.5 knots.

Crew: 41.

Ship Building Workforce
By 1943, the workforce in the US building ships totalled 700,000, and 30% of these were women ship builders.

Fastest Built Liberty Ship
This title goes to Robert G. Peary, launched from No 2 Slip at the Permanante Metals Corporation at Richmond California on the 12th. of November 1942, but 4 days, 15.5 hours after her keel had been laid. In a further 3 days she had been fitted out for sea.

This class of Merchant ship was fitted with a low angle 4 inch deck gun, and Anti-Aircraft guns were a 12 Pounder, 40mm and 20mm Bofors and Oerlikon guns, plus PAC Rockets, quite formidible in a Merchant Ship, and these were manned by Service Gunners.

Expected Life
Initially it was desired for these ships to have a life expectancy of five years, but it was often said during WW2, if a Liberty Ship delivered its cargo but once, it had paid for itself.

Not too many would have believed that these quickly thrown together vessels would outlast every prediction, to become the backbone of the World's Merchant Fleets over the ensuing 25 years.

Last two Liberty Ships in existence
Right now, only two of these amazing ships still survive, one, SS Jeremiah O'Brien, faithfully restored, is berthed in San Francisco.   This Liberty Ship carries the name of the Commander of the First American Flying Squadron of the War of the Revolution, Jeremiah O'Brien, a Military Commander, a Privateer, and a Naval Officer.  The second, SS John Brown is in Baltimore, and Project Liberty Ship is dedicated to preserving this last such ship on the east coast of America.

Book: The Last Liberty
A recently published book is available:

Jaffee, Walter, W. Captain, The Last Liberty, The biography of the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, Glencannon Press.

This amazing class of ship, that essentially, in WW2, plied  back and forth, across the most dangerous waters in the world, The Atlantic Ocean, was instrumental in delivering final victory to the Allies.

I have no doubt, without the wonderful contribution of the United States ship building industry, and the men and women who built the Liberty Ships, victory would have taken much longer, and may not have happened at all.

We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these UGLY DUCKLINGS, who delivered the goods over the years of 1941 -1945.

Thank you to all who were involved, the designers, the ship builders, and the crews who manned them in those dark days.



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