Baltimore’s Liberty ship is a labor of love

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The yacht club’s T-shirt reads: Clinton Street Yacht Club: My yacht is 7,176 tons of gray steel because it is the official off-duty hangout of the crew of the SS John W. Brown. And the shirt almost always has grease on it, since it is a reward to the hardest workers on the Brown, one of two surviving Liberty ships from World War II.

The John W. Brown is a museum ship and a memorial to those who served aboard her.

Created as part of the world’s largest shipbuilding program, the Brown was a throwback even when she was built, with a 19th century hull design and a triple-expansion steam engine — a disposable break-bulk ship to carry men and material to the war in both Europe and the Pacific, across seas infested with U-boats, mines and kamikazes. Staffed with civilians from all walks of life and Navy Armed Guardsmen manning the guns, the 2,710 Liberty ships were the “ships that won the war,” saving a blockaded England and carrying everything from bullets to locomotives to every theater of the conflict.

The crews that staffed Liberty ships were a colorful bunch, and many came back as volunteers when the Brown was restored in the 1980s. Hearing their stories has been one of the rewards of working as volunteer crew. Lou Rizzo, who died last year, came back as an engineer but remembered his days at sea as a teenager in the Steward’s Department. “I was made chief steward at age 19,” he told me. “The previous chief steward was a failed doctor, and when alcoholism got the better of him, I was moved up.”

Carlos Ralon, piano tuner to U.S. presidents, who has also passed away, reminisced about the war’s end in Europe. “We were in Lourenco Marques, Portuguese East Africa [now Maputo, Mozambique],” he said. “The Portuguese were neutral and didn’t appreciate our victory celebrations. Some of the crew wound up in the local hoosegow for the night.”

The Brown's lifeblood is dedicated volunteers. Several times a year there are living history cruises on the Patapsco River.

After the war, many of the surviving vessels were sold to shippers that were rebuilding commercial fleets, particularly in Greece. A young Aristotle Onassis bought seven Liberty ships to start his shipping empire. Today, the Liberty ship Hellas Liberty (originally named the Arthur M. Huddel) is a museum ship in Piraeus, Greece.

The Brown was taken to New York, where she became the city’s Maritime Vocational High School from 1946 until 1982. Alumni have been involved with their former classroom, assisting with the restoration, maintenance and operation.

When the Brown was retired from service as a high school, it was towed to the James River Reserve Fleet near Norfolk, Virginia, and mothballed, along with the other surplus vessels that no longer served. It remained there until 1988, when a group of volunteers established Project Liberty Ship to turn it into a living history museum dedicated to the mission and crews of these ships. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said of these men: “They brought us our lifeblood and paid for it with their own.”

The museum project attracted sailors, engineers, businessmen, doctors and veterans from all branches of the service, and together they begged, borrowed and “liberated” the parts (many from other ships in the Reserve Fleet) needed to restore the SS John W. Brown at its original home port, Baltimore, where it was built at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard/Fairfield in 1942.

Today, the John W. Brown is berthed at Pier One, Clinton Street, in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore, as a living and sailing museum. Restored to its 1944 form as a cargo ship and troop carrier, the Brown boasts on-board museums dedicated to the Naval Armed Guard, WWII shipbuilding, the New York Maritime Vocational School, the American Merchant Marine and Liberty ships in general. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, crewmembers are aboard making repairs and upgrading the museums.

The Brown conducts cruises on the Patapsco River several times a year, taking passengers back to the WWII era. Period warplanes do fly-bys, and there is 1940s music by the Manhattan Dolls, along with comedy by the Ultimate Abbott and Costello Show, military demonstrations by re-enactors and guided tours. The ship also travels to other ports, logging more than 24,000 nautical miles and making 29 visits outside Baltimore. New Orleans, New London, Connecticut, and Portland, Maine, are possible destinations in the near future.

Mark Hannon

The crew ranges from teenagers learning the workings of steam engines to nonagenarians teaching cordage skills. Brushing the sawdust off his sleeves in the carpenter shop, Stan “Chips” Sdanowitz says, “My shipmates, they’re like family to me now.” 

For information about the John W. Brown, visit www.ssjohnwbrown.org. For information about the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, the Brown’s sister ship in San Francisco, visit www.ssjeremiahobrien.org.

June 2015 issue