West Coast Liberty ship pays homage to mariners who served in WW II

“Everything in this office is original,†claimed Capt. Patrick Moloney with pride as he surveyed the captain’s office on board the Liberty ship Jeremiah O’Brien.

From the institutional green walls with their brass clock and barometer, gimbaled oil lamp and blackout-curtained portholes, to the hooded brass desk lamp and the wood cabinet on which sits an ancient typewriter, this room, like every corner of the ship, has been lovingly restored to the look that it had in 1944 when the ship took part in the D-Day landing at Normandy.

The restored Liberty ship Jeremiah O’Brien is moored alongside the maritime museum at San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The 441.5-foot vessel is one of only two remaining World War II-era Liberty ships still active. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

One of the only two active Liberty ships remaining of the 2,710 built during World War II, O’Brien, based in San Francisco, continues to bear testament to the achievements of this class of ships and their crews. The other surviving Liberty is the museum ship John W. Brown, in Baltimore. O’Brien and Brown pay homage not only to the gargantuan efforts of North American shipbuilders in that time, but to the bravery of the men who sailed these ships through waters strewn with mines and lurking submarines.

Moored astern of the low-slung World War II-era submarine USS Pampanito at San Francisco’s maritime museum, O’Brien looks huge. But compared with the 1,000-foot container ships across the way at Oakland or the huge cruise ship just down the way on the Embarcadero, O’Brien looks small. But it is very much a “ship†with an overall length of 441.5 feet and a 57-foot beam. Cargo capacities to the Plimsoll line varied with the season but were reported at 9,146 tons, although this was exceeded at times in the urgency of war.

The teak monkey island on the ship’s upper bridge has been rebuilt. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

The captain’s cabin is representative of ships of its day. Located on the bridge deck, which is just the third deck above the main deck, it was just a short distance down the companionway to the wheelhouse. Here the tiny windows, which could be reduced to mere slits with the heavy steel panels in place for blackout, give evidence of wartime readiness. Other armor is the concrete deck covering about the wheelhouse and radio shack. As for other ships of the time, the compass and sextant were the primary navigational tools. To meet current safety standards, radar has been added.

The wooden wheel, brass telegraph and speaker tubes on O’Brien are all as they were on June 30, 1943, when the ship completed sea trials and was delivered by the shipyard to the War Shipping Administration. It had been just 56 days since its keel was laid on May 6 at the New England Shipbuilding yard in South Portland, Maine. The rapid building of O’Brien was by no means a record. One Liberty ship, Robert E. Peary, was built in just four days and 15.5 hours. It left San Francisco with a full cargo just 17 days after the keel was laid, with the final touches completed en route.

An important factor in the speed with which these ships were built was the increased use of welded seams rather than the traditional riveting. If there was a wartime “Rosie the Riveter†working on O’Brien, she would have been riveting the hull plates to the frames down to the tank tops as that was the only use of rivets. The actual hull plate seams are all welded, perhaps by a “Wendy the Welder,†as are the frames below the tank tops.

Capt. Pat Moloney in his office on the third deck of Jeremiah O’Brien. The brass desk lamp and many other features are original to the vessel. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

Moloney explained that welding in ship construction was in its infancy during the 1940s and various yards used different combinations of weld and rivet over the war years.

Upon acceptance, O’Brien was turned over to a private company, Grace Line, under a service agreement for operation. The 53-member crew that then came aboard were civilian mariners with an additional 28-man Navy armed guard. These latter manned the 3-inch and 20-mm antiaircraft guns mounted in metal tubs on the bridge wings as well as fore and aft.

With a good union crew on board and experienced officers, O’Brien was assigned to its first North Atlantic convoy. Over the next 15 months, from July 1943 to October 1944, O’Brien would make four North Atlantic voyages. The fourth including 11 trips between Southampton, England, and the Omaha and Utah beachheads at Normandy.

On the Atlantic crossings there was the constant threat of submarine attack, and on the approaches to the British Isles there was concern over floating mines. But the greatest day-to-day challenge for the seamen was the bitter cold and storms of the Atlantic winter on the often overloaded ship traveling at convoy speeds of about 9 knots.

The connecting rods and crank of Jeremiah O’Brien’s steam engine, which turned out 76 rpm and enabled a sailing speed of 10 knots. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

Some 200 of the Liberty ships have sunk. Those crews whose ships came through safely suffered under the constant fear of attack and often endured the terrible sight of other vessels going down around them.

As the war in Europe wound down, O’Brien was assigned to the Pacific Theater. First the ship made a voyage that included Chile and New Orleans. Then it was sent with a cargo of munitions to the Pacific islands.

According to Capt. Walter W. Jaffee’s excellent history of Jeremiah O’Brien (Glencannon Press, 2008), it was in the Pacific that the term SNAFU emerged as an acronym for “situation normal: all (expletive deleted) up.†Such was the case for O’Brien when it sailed from Galveston Bay in January 1945 loaded with 10,000 tons of bombs and other munitions. Bound for the Philippines via the Panama Canal, New Guinea and Hollandia, the ship joined various convoys along the route. When the ship finally reached its destination hoping to offload the dangerous cargo, the ship met with delays and was shunted from anchorage to anchorage and harbor to harbor for several weeks before the ordinance was finally offloaded.

Capt. Moloney explained, as he showed me around the ship in San Francisco, that the crews would move from the crowded and stifling wheelhouse up to the flying bridge when the weather permitted. Here on a teak monkey island with a canvas awning, the officers and helmsmen would have had great visibility. Of course the original wooden monkey island has rotted away, but a replica built by the current ship’s keeper, Phil O’Mara, has replaced it.

The Liberty ship’s armored wheelhouse. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

The ongoing work of O’Brien’s staff and volunteers is really remarkable. Their work is aided by an extensive workshop located between decks in the No. 4 and 5 ’tweendecks. Here ample spares are stored along with heavy lathes and drill presses for fabrication of parts. Moloney pointed proudly to a huge set of heavy drill bits scavenged with support from the Mare Island naval base when it was being decommissioned. The support for O’Brien in the Bay Area is impressive and again demonstrates the local population’s understanding of its relationship and dependence on port activities.

With the bombs offloaded, O’Brien was sent off to India to load general cargo for Shanghai, China. During that voyage, the Japanese surrender was announced. From Shanghai, the ship took on its final wartime assignment. Turning bows south, it made for Australia, where it picked up cargo that included nine Australian war brides and three children. The women were accommodated aft in the former armed-guard quarters and the captain had the boatswain paint a line across the deck with Australia on one side and USA on the other. Fraternization was forbidden, but as the engine turned out its 76 rpm to make a leisurely cruise across a calm Pacific, there was a little visiting back and forth.

The ship’s speed of just over 10 knots made for a long voyage from Australia to San Francisco. When the ship arrived, it offloaded the Australian brides and the cargo of Australian wool. It was to be O’Brien’s last cargo.

The vessel was ordered to the “mothball fleet†in Suisun Bay off North San Francisco Bay. The idea was to keep ships in readiness in the eventuality of other hostilities.

The starboard gun on the bridge of Jeremiah O’Brien. While its cargo was bombs and other munitions, the vessel itself had antiaircraft guns mounted in metal tubs on the bridge wings and also fore and aft. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

Moloney explained that, unlike some ships, its through hull penetrations were not welded up and it was well prepared by her engineers to survive an extended lay-up. The simple triple-expansion steam engine with its oil-fired boilers was properly oiled and treated against rust before the engine room crew left it. The British-designed engine had been chosen for its simplicity and that made the mothballing easier.

This shutdown was in February 1946, just two and a half years since acceptance. During that time, the shaft had made 39,439,700 revolutions.

Over the next 30 years, O’Brien and other Liberty ships became obsolete with their small capacities and maximum speed of about 11 knots.

Those that had not been sold to foreign owners in the 1950s were designated for scrapping in the 1960s. That was when Rear Adm. Tom Patterson of the Maritime Administration first noticed O’Brien’s exceptional condition and lack of modifications. He began to protect that vessel from the scrapping program and eventually led a movement to have it become a National Historic Site and a museum ship. Through great efforts and contributions from government and industry, the engines were once again, after 33 years, fired up. On Oct. 6, 1979, O’Brien moved on its own steam out of Suisun Bay.

The restoration was, thanks to dedicated volunteers, successful. And it led to still bolder plans. First there were harbor cruises, but then a new dream emerged — an 18,000-mile voyage to Normandy to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1944 D-Day landing. Like most events involving O’Brien, a combination of excellent planning and dedication led to this actually happening.

The voyage, with official visits to Southampton and London on the way to Cherbourg and Rouen, was, of course, a huge success.

On the return voyage, O’Brien stopped in Maine to revisit its birthplace. Finally it returned to a tumultuous welcome in San Francisco, where it occupies a place of honor on the waterfront. The ship continues to be visited by thousands of visitors who increasingly have no memory of World War II, but they are given the opportunity to walk the decks where merchant mariners served in those trying times.

By Professional Mariner Staff