Good Shipmates: The Restoration of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown

Joe Carbo, 80, in the engine room of John Brown. The average age of the crewmembers is well over 70. (Ernest F. Imhoff)
Good Shipmates
The Restoration of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown
By Ernest F. Imhoff
Foreword by Russell Baker
Volume One: 1942-1994, 416 pages
Volume Two: 1995-2006, 416 pages
The Glencannon Press, 2006
One would suppose that this book is the story of ship. It is that, but Good Shipmates is also another chapter in the epic of the greatest generation.
Baltimore newspaperman Ernest F. Imhoff chronicles the life of the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown and the lives of those who love it. The Glencannon Press has become the keeper of traditions for the Merchant Marine.
In World War II, the United States built bridges for fighting men and their supplies across both the Atlantic and Pacific. Those bridges from here to there were the Liberty ships. The United States built 2,751 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945. Though any seaman knows that no two ships are ever exactly the same, the general characteristics were 441 feet in length and a displacement of 14,245 tons. The Liberty ships were made with haste, using preassembled parts in 18 shipyards.
The Liberty ships were crewed by civilians of the United States Merchant Marine. Also embarked to man guns would be members of the Naval Armed Guard. It was perilous duty, as the Axis enemy attacked this Allied lifeline from the air and from on and under the sea.
The merchant mariners of World War II who lost 8,000 of their own at sea, were not officially recognized as combat veterans until 1988. Yet the war would not have been won — or even fought — without them.
SS John W. Brown was a typical Liberty. It made 13 overseas movements in four years and 47 days of service. It sailed in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Arctic, the Med, the Persian Gulf, around the Horn and through the Panama Canal. Named for an aggressive American labor organizer, Brown was no more or less heroic than its many twins.
What makes it unique is that it is still sailing. The Liberty ships were built to meet a specific need and were never intended to last, though last many did. But both time and the incredible diminishment of the U.S.-flag fleet almost made the heroic and tangible history of the Liberty ships disappear. But not quite.
Today, two Liberty ships remain. There is Brown, moored as a floating museum in Baltimore, and SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco.
From 1946 until 1982, Brown was a school ship in New York, a technical high school for students intending maritime pursuits. However, this high endeavor faded with time and in 1983 Brown was towed down to Chesapeake Bay to join the James River Reserve Fleet.
However in 1988, Project Liberty Ship, a national volunteer organization, rescued Brown and found it a home in Baltimore. Not only was the ship rescued, but it was eventually restored, made seaworthy and began sailing again — to New York, to Halifax, to the Great Lakes. And the ship is still sailing with and for guests who want to learn something of a heroic era whose makers are fast leaving us.
Those who did most of the saving and sailing were the men who had sailed in Liberty ships in the war, or perhaps had been in the Victory ships or with the Navy or Coast Guard. They brought Brown back to life, a bunch of old salts who demonstrated, as Russell Baker notes in his foreword, “that though the years rush past, sound character does not fade simply because youth is quickly over.
A ship without a ship’s company is just a mass of metal and wires. Good Shipmates tells the stories, often in their own words, of some good folks who went down to the sea in ships in order to save the world.
By Professional Mariner Staff