During World War II, the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown shuttled troops between battle zones in the Mediterranean. These days, John W. Brown, one of two surviving Liberty ships from the fleet of over 2,700 built during the war, still operates as a transport. Although it no longer carries young men and women to war, it does carry people back in time, evoking images and memories of those war years that transformed so many lives.
On May 24, John W. Brown steamed out of New London, Conn., into Long Island Sound. Aboard were almost 700 passengers and 170 crewmembers for the ship’s 55th living history cruise.
These World War II re-enactment cruises are put on by Project Liberty Ship, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the ship. Passengers get to see and hear President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gen. George S. Patton Jr. Weather permitting, vintage aircraft simulate attacks on the ship (weather did not permit on this most recent trip).
The theatrics are in keeping with the mission of Project Liberty Ship: to preserve and operate Brown as a living memorial to the workers who built Libertys, the merchant mariners who sailed on them and the Navy Armed Guard contingents who served as the gun crews.
As John W. Brown cruised along with the Connecticut shore to starboard and Long Island to port, a light rain fell intermittently from a leaden sky. Despite the rain and blustery winds, three older men remained on deck, after many of the other passengers had gone below to listen to the swing band. Protected in the lee of the deckhouse, the three sat in plastic chairs, each of them wearing a baseball cap with the name SS Joshua Alexander embroidered across the front.
A fellow passenger asked if any of them had ever served on a Liberty ship. Sure did, replied Jack Friedman, a 77-year-old veteran from Lynnfield, Mass. He pointed to his cap and explained that Joshua Alexander was the Liberty he sailed on in 1944.
The voyage to Murmansk in the Soviet Union was far from the most pleasant experience in his life. He served in the menial role of mess boy. He was seasick much of the time, especially at the beginning. His bunkmate was a virulent anti-Semite who repeatedly threatened to stab him while he slept. He complained to the captain, who refused to intervene. Twice his ship came under air attack. And during much of the crossing of the North Atlantic and Barents Sea, he could feel the vibrations of exploding depth charges dropped by escort vessels hoping to destroy the U-boats lurking all about.
And if that were not enough to make this a memorable voyage, when Friedman got back to the United States, he learned that while he was at sea, his older brother Gene, a B-17 bombardier, had been shot down over France.
Gene did manage to survive. Over a half century later, he sat in the rain on the deck of John W. Brown with Jack and another brother, Noel, 62. By all appearances, the three brothers were having a great time, telling stories and needling each other.
Jack explained his reasons for going to sea: “I had just turned 18 years old. I had heard they were the unheralded heroes of the war, so I joined the merchant marine. I wanted to be an unheralded hero.”
Noel retorted, “You succeeded; no one ever heard of you.”
All kidding aside, this was a serious time in Jack’s life. He knew his brother had been shot down, but he did not know if he was dead or alive. His solution was to quit the merchant marine and join the army so he could search for Gene.
“I was going to liberate my brother. Absolutely, that’s what I had in mind,” he declared.
Gene was alive. He got out of his crippled bomber, parachuted to earth and landed safely, in the middle of a German airbase, right between two runways.
Gene ended up in a camp run by the Luftwaffe called Stalag Luft III, where he spent the next 11 months. Improbable as it might seem, Jack very nearly succeeded in his quest to find and free his brother. Jack arrived at Stalag Luft III just days after Allied forces had liberated the camp. Although Gene was gone, Jack was assigned to stay on at the camp that was now being used to hold German prisoners of war. So Jack became a guard at the very place where his brother had been held prisoner just 10 days before.
Why would these men want to relive those days of death, sorrow and hardship? One reason is that even terrible times are interspersed with wonderful moments and experiences.
Jack has fond memories of the members of the Armed Guard on Joshua Alexander. As mess boy, he served them at meal times and got to know them well. “I had happy times on the ship. I made friends,” he explained. “All the gun crews were young, my age; they were fun to be around.”
Then, too, there is the pride that comes from being associated with something of great historic importance. “It was such a big part of my life,” Jack said. “We were serving in a war, a very popular war. There was something heroic about it.”
So he really did succeed in becoming an unheralded hero.