Museum ships teach timeless lessons about life and sacrifice at sea

I had graduated from the California Maritime Academy a few weeks before and just finished my first job with a large West Coast tug company out of Long Beach, Calif. While waiting for my next work assignment, I was lucky when the parents of Jim, a friend of mine from school, offered me a spare room at their home in Santa Ana until I got my financial feet on the ground. His dad Tom was a retired first engineer and though he didn’t go to sea anymore, he volunteered on the Liberty-class museum ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien. One Friday evening during a family barbecue, Tom told me, “I worked on Liberty ships during and after the war, Kelly. Now when I drive up to San Francisco to be part of the volunteer crew, it’s like going back home.” Liberty-class ships were the workhorses of the World War II effort, and hundreds were destroyed in convoys. In fact, of the 2,710 that were built, only two in the U.S. are still operational — the museum ships John W. Brown and Jeremiah O’Brien.

Several years later, while working as a third mate on an 890-foot crude oil tanker, we were at anchor at San Francisco’s Anchorage 9. With a three-day wait for an open berth, the captain arranged for launch service from the ship to the city every four hours. The launch company’s dock was close to Fort Mason, where the museum ship was berthed. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I decided to walk over and tour Jeremiah O’Brien — something I had wanted to do since Tom first told me of his experiences years earlier.

Jeremiah O’Brien had a distinguished career, one that included being part of the nearly 7,000-ship armada that participated in D-Day — a turning point of the war in Europe. I went down into the engine room for a look at the triple expansion steam engine with its Babcock & Wilcox boilers, and then later went up to the wheelhouse to check out the old telemotor steering gear. On the bridge, I imagined being the third mate on watch, doing my job while constantly facing the threat of deadly German U-boats. Thinking about the sacrifice and bravery of the civilian merchant mariners manning these ships during the war gave me pause, and it was sobering to contemplate all those who died “delivering the goods.” On the launch ride back to the ship, I thought about my visit and how I had more of an appreciation for the hard work, danger, and feeling of contribution the officers and crew must have felt operating Liberty ships during the war. Twenty years later, I considered it an honor when my book was chosen to be carried in Jeremiah O’Brien’s gift shop.

Memorial ships, commonly known as museum ships, are so called because when these historic vessels were taken out of service, they were preserved for educational and remembrance purposes. There are about 150 museum ships in the United States. Many of them are “stand-alone” attractions, with others attached to a larger maritime museum complex. Generally open to the public, the list of museum ships here in the United States includes Navy, Coast Guard and other military vessels of distinction. A significant number of museum ships had distinguished careers in the U.S. merchant marine. Three Victory-class ships, a faster and larger successor to the Liberty class, are now museum ships: Lane Victory (Los Angeles), American Victory (Tampa, Fla.) and Red Oak Victory (Richmond, Calif.). All three have been designated United States National Historic Landmarks.

It may come as a surprise that there are a number of museum ships in port areas of the Great Lakes as well. My dad, who sailed as an able seaman and boatswain on deep-sea ships for years, was born in Minnesota. He told me how he got his start as a coal passer in U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes fleet. I recall when he went back for his 50th high school reunion, excitedly planning to visit his sister and nephews, and see the new museum ship William A. Irvin that had just opened up in Duluth. A 619-foot, steam-powered “straight decker” Great Lakes ore carrier, William A. Irvin was named for the president of U.S. Steel and was the flagship of the fleet during its illustrious career on the Lakes from 1937 until 1978.

I have had the pleasure to visit a number of merchant marine museum ships of various types — and ages — over the years. The iron-hulled, full-rigged Falls of Clyde, launched in 1878 and berthed in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the square-rigger Balclutha (1886) in San Francisco were both in the merchant trade during the time of sailing ships. The sternwheel steamboat Portland (1947) is berthed in Portland, Ore., and is home to the Oregon Maritime Museum. The famous wooden tug Arthur Foss (1889) and the retired Mosquito Fleet steamer Virginia V (1922) are well known to Puget Sound maritime historians; both are home-ported in Seattle not too far from where I live.

Whether it was a Liberty-class ship or an old wooden tug, visiting the various museum ships I have toured over the years has given me many insights — not the least of which is how far the industry has come in a relatively short period of time. From the days of sails and celestial navigation, reciprocating steam engines and Loran-A, to computer-controlled ships using satellite navigation and enormous diesel engines, the advancement in commercial vessels has been truly amazing. Museum ships serve to remind us that, despite these advances, there is something solid, permanent and unchanging about a life working on the water. Facing the elements in an unpredictable environment, the camaraderie of a close-knit crew united by a common purpose, and the communion of ship and mariner in a job well done are the bedrock of a life at sea. In the words of the famous astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” That’s why I heartily recommend that you visit and support a museum ship in your area. That way you can pay homage to the past, get a better understanding of how we got to where we are now, and maybe get an idea or two of where the future is leading us.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff