Where have all the Victory ships gone?

Catawba Victory as it appeared in the James River Reserve Fleet in 1999. The ship was scrapped in Chesapeake, Va., in 2004-2005.

Most people know what happened to the Liberty vessels of World War II and how many are left — two are still sailing. Yet what about their successors, the 531 bigger and faster Victory ships built in 1944 and 1945? How many are still on the water?

Not long ago, Joseph Carbo, an 80-year-old steamship engineer from Towson, Md., who once sailed Victory ships, learned that one of his old Victory ships, SS Occidental Victory, was still afloat, but the end was near.

“I was surprised she was still around,” said Carbo, who relished adventures on her when he was young. He later learned Occidental was removed from the National Defense Reserve Fleet, in Suisun Bay, Calif., on Oct. 5, 2006 and was then scrapped in Texas six decades after Carbo signed off. By December 2007, 10 Victory ships were listed in the Reserve Fleet inventory of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MarAd). They all served in World War II. Some sailed during the Vietnam War. The emergency Victory ships remained intact in the three National Defense Reserve Fleets on the James River at Fort Eustis, Va., Suisun Bay, Calif., and Beaumont, Texas.

Three modified ships had served the Navy:

USS Gage (named after a Nebraska county), an attack transport vessel (VC2-S-AP5 design), came under kamikaze attack at Okinawa, landing Marines and others during many South Pacific adventures. It also received one battle star. Now on historic review at James River, the ship is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
USNS Range Sentinel (VC2-S-AP5) was launched as USS Sherburne (a Minnesota county), carried troops in the South Pacific, entered Tokyo Bay with U.S. occupation forces as Japan surrendered on USS Missouri and earned one battle star. It was later converted to be a missile range instrumentation ship and is now held on historic review at James River.
USNS Dutton (VC2-S-AP3) was launched as Tuskegee Victory (Tuskegee Institute), used as support for a ballistic missile program, and then reclassified as a survey ship. It is being held at Beaumont for disposal.

Four other Victory ships were at Suisun Bay awaiting eventual disposal: Earlham Victory (named for a college in Richmond, Ind.), Pan American Victory (university in

Ships in the James River Reserve Fleet in 2001. At the time, there were about 100 ships in the fleet. Now the number is down to about 40.

Edinburg, Texas), Rider Victory (college in Trenton, N.J.) and Winthrop Victory (college in Rock Hill, S.C.). Another Victory, in the Beaumont, Texas fleet, was Hattiesburg Victory (home of the University of Southern Mississippi). It is on historic review.

The government has been busy busting up useless ships. Two other Victory ships were to produce recycled steel at shipyards in Brownsville, Texas, said Shannon Russell, MarAd’s director of Congressional and public affairs. The Sioux Falls Victory (city in South Dakota), and Queens Victory (Queens College), both from L Row in Suisun Bay, were still listed as being in Texas in MarAd’s April 2008 inventory.

MarAd had 125 ships still scheduled for eventual disposal, as of that inventory. These were among the overall total of 227 ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet Inventory at the three reserve fleets and out-ported at Newport News, Va., New Orleans, San Francisco and elsewhere.

“MarAd has disposed of 70 ships in the past seven years from just the James River, Va., site at Fort Eustis,” Russell said. That left 41 ships there, five of which were on retention, able to be activated and sail any time. There were 30 such available ships in the Reserve Fleet inventory.

Altogether since 2001, when the current disposal program began, the Maritime Administration has ordered broken up more than 100 obsolete ships from different places in the United States.

The 2,710 Liberty ships are largely history except for the two active, well-publicized examples still steaming on the East and West Coasts: SS John W. Brown in Baltimore and SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco. The operating museum ships take passengers on day trips.

Another Liberty, Arthur M. Huddell, was scheduled to be taken from the James River Fleet this summer to have dangerous PCBs removed before she was to be towed to Greece as a floating museum in Piraeus. MarAd donated the vessel to the Greek government as part of an agreement signed in June. Leonidas Raptakis, a Rhode Island state senator of Greek-American heritage, helped arrange the gift.

Huddell is described by some as the last Liberty. As of April 2008, a modified Liberty also remained on the James River, Sturgis, formerly Charles H. Cugle. She was once a floating nuclear power plant for the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal and was deactivated in 1976.

Near the end, USS Lauderdale rests uneasily between two other ships in the James River in 2000. The ship was cut up for scrap in Baltimore in 2005.

Two Victory ships also sail as operating museum ships. They are Lane Victory in Los Angeles and American Victory in Tampa, Fla. Volunteers on Red Oak Victory, in Richmond, Calif., hope for the same renewed life for their baby. All five museum ships were built for World War II.

Driven by a steam-turbine engine, the basic Victory was larger than a Liberty. At 455 feet 3 inches long, a Victory was 14 feet longer, 5 feet wider, 1,000 tons larger and over 5 knots faster. Of the basic cargo ships, 97 were converted to troop ships.

While Liberty ships were named for dead people (except one) Victory ships were named after a variety of things, including historic cities, educational institutions, counties and countries. Their steam-turbine engines ranged in power from 6,000 to 8,500 horsepower. The Liberties, with their old-fashioned triple-expansion steam engines, put out a mere 2,500 horsepower.

The first of its class, United Victory was delivered on Feb. 29, 1944 by Oregon Ship Building, on the Columbia River at Portland, Ore.

Four Victory ships were lost during World War II — three at Okinawa in kamikaze attacks — Canada Victory, Hobbs Victory and Logan Victory. Quinault Victory was destroyed at the Port Chicago, Calif., ammunition depot on July 17, 1944, when the Liberty ship E.A. Bryan exploded, killing hundreds.

How did Victories and Liberties differ? Louis S. Rizzo, 85, of Baltimore, sailed both types of ships in World War II as a young chief steward. He is an active Brown crewmember today and recalls the stark differences between the first and second-generation emergency wartime vessels.

“I sailed five Liberties and then signed on with the Waycross Victory, worked on her during her sea trials out of Baltimore and sailed on her as a troop transport to Europe and back.

“The Victories were faster, had better crew quarters and more efficient cargo-handling facilities. The Liberties weren’t as comfortable, they were always rolling. I don’t mean to say the Victory was a Cadillac. It was a Chevrolet Suburban compared to the Model T Liberty.”

Ernest Imhoff is a former reporter and editor at The Baltimore Sunpapers. He made his first ocean voyage, to Europe, in 1958 on Holland America Lines’ SS Groote Beer, formerly a Victory ship called Costa Rica Victory. He is the author of Good Shipmates: The Restoration of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown 1942-2006, Volume One and Two.

By Professional Mariner Staff