Living History at Sea: Recording Oral Histories on the SS John W. Brown

Nov 14, 2014

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

This summer, as part of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, I visited the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, MD, one of only two remaining, fully operational Liberty ships from World War II, amassing a series of oral history interviews to add to SCI’s growing collection. While on board the vessel, I spent two nights in the crews’ quarters, ate in the ship’s mess (alongside a fascinating lineup of crewmates) and descended into the engine room to see the vessel’s massive steam engine at work.

Historians have written much about Liberty ships, the cheap and efficient merchant vessels that American shipyards could construct and launch in under five days by the end of World War II.[1] Deemed the “ugly ducklings” of the American merchant fleet by President Roosevelt, 2,710 Liberty ships carried two-thirds of all cargo that left the United States during the War.

Today, only two Liberty ships remain operational. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien serves as a floating museum in San Francisco, while the SS John W. Brown found a home in Baltimore after serving as a floating high school in the New York City public school system. Today, the non-profit organization Project Liberty Ship maintains the Brown and hosts living history cruises several times a year. The Brown remains a ship of memories for many veterans who sailed on vessels just like her as young men during the War years.

The SS John W. Brown launched at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore on Labor Day, September 7, 1942. Appropriately, the ship received its name from a renowned labor leader active among the shipyards of Maine and the carpentry shops and mines of Colorado. The Brown made thirteen trips during World War II, mostly in the Mediterranean Sea but also along the western coast of South America and the eastern coast of Africa. After the War, she continued sailing to deliver supplies to European port cities devastated during battles.

Between 1946 and 1982, the Brown docked along the East River and served as a floating maritime high school within the New York City public school system. Three of the school’s alumni—Gilbert Garcia, Bob Clancy, Jr. and Ernie Gaspari—sat down with me and reflected fondly on unconventional class assignments like scraping and repainting the exterior of the ship, tying knots and cooking lunch for classmates in the ship’s galley. Many of the Brown’s students went on to careers in maritime industries or the merchant marine itself.

When the New York City Department of Education decommissioned the Brown as a school ship, an all-volunteer organization known as Project Liberty Ship stepped in and made sure the ship would not meet the same fate as hundreds of other Liberty ships: sent for scrap or intentionally sunk to create artificial reefs. Unable to find a berth for the Brown in New York, the Project—made up of a diverse group of maritime history buffs, War veterans and mariners—managed to save the Brown from the James River Reserve Fleet and bring the vessel back to her original birthplace in Baltimore in 1988.

Derek Brierley, a World War II veteran with the British Royal Navy who sailed on Liberty ships during the War, recounted the herculean effort that went into getting the Brown back into sailing shape. While one-time students and instructors meticulously cared for her as a school ship, The Brown had fallen into disrepair while sitting the in the Reserve Fleet. Derek described the first encounter that Project members had with the Brown after they took over.

“The sun was up. They had pulled it out of the [James River Reserve Fleet], and they had it tied up in Norfolk. And we came to the dock gate and looked at it. It was beautiful. The sun shining on it, looked like brand new.”

Despite initial impressions, the Brown required a great deal of work. Equipment needed replacing, the interior and exterior needed stripping and painting, and the entire ship required a thorough cleaning. But after months of hard work, the volunteers of Project Liberty Ship had the fires of the Brown’s massive steam engine roaring back to life. Having passed inspection with the Coast Guard, the Brown received authorization to take on passengers, and the Project began hosting the first of many living history cruises in the Chesapeake Bay.

The Brown has kept the memories of merchant mariner veterans alive for over twenty-five years. For many visitors, like World War II veteran merchant mariner Carlos Ralon, a casual visit often led to a decision to get more directly involved with Project Liberty Ship. Before passing away in July, Carlos told me about the first time he saw the Brown.

“While we were up [in Baltimore] I had heard about this Liberty ship being restored, and I told my wife ‘Let’s go down and look at that ship. I’ll show you what I used to sail on.’ And as soon as I came down and saw this I said, ‘I’ve got to join this project.’ That was back in 1994 … almost twenty years now on this ship.”

Visit SCI’s online American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, and listen to audio clips from this and other interviews I conducted on board the Brown here.

[1] See: Peter Elphick, Liberty: The Ships That Won the War (U.S. Naval Institute Press: 2006)