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Thanks for the Liberty:
a tour of the Jeremiah O'Brien

by Townsend Twainhart

Townsend Twainhart, a noted California historian, is also published as Chris. J. Wright.  For more information on him visit his myspace page. 
          “As for me give me liberty or give me death,” quoted a stubborn and sincere Patrick Henry in 1775 much to the chagrin of his fellow compatriots. On the twenty seventh of  September in 1941 congress granted him that liberty in Chesapeake Bay as the first of the line of Liberty Ships named after him slid into the icy northern waters.

            It’s doubtful if the United States could have won the second world war if it had not been for these undaunted little cargo ships. Shipbuilding was not a major industry in America before World War II. But as the war with Germany progressed, their U-boats began sinking ships off of our east coast within full view of land. With England on her knees, and the Japanese conquering Asia, the western Pacific and threatening Australia it was imperative that the United Stated build a large enough U.S. Merchant Marine fleet to a carry cargo and war materials to our allied fighting forces.  The Patrick Henry was the first of these compartmentalized (each cargo hold and every other part of the ship was separated by a sealable steel wall) Merchant ships to be built. More than 47,000 people built a record 2,710 Liberty Ships in the period from 1941 through 1944. These lightly armed ships hauled millions of tons of cargo throughout the various theaters of war in the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Visit the Jeremiah O'Brien when you're in San Francisco

          America’s last unaltered Liberty Ship now stands as a reminder of the brave men who served aboard her and as a credit to the shipbuilders who kept her one of the finest cargo ships ever built.  This last remaining Liberty Ship the SS Jeremiah O’Brien stands proudly alongside Pier 23, Fisherman’s Warf in San Francisco, California.

            The gray hull of the 10,428 ton ship protrudes rakishly up and out of the water.  Its likewise gray booms stick up at regular intervals vectoring the locations of its cargo holds.  As I approached the seemingly massive ship I was impressed with its size albeit small in comparison to modern day supertankers with can boast over 137,000 tons deadweight.

          The long metal gangplank swayed and bobbed up and down as I went aboard.  The primary deck is laid out with five main cargo holds, three forward of the main bridge and two aft (seaman’s lingo for behind) of the bridge and main living quarters. Armament consists of one five inch gun on the stern and one three inch gun on the bow. At numerous points along the deck surrounded by ferrous cement bunkers bristle eight 20MM aircraft guns. Most of the guns are accessible to the public and you can turn, pivot, rise, lower and generally do anything but fire them (a bonus for kids). 

          A brochure is provided for everyone who comes aboard the ship explaining all about the SS Jeremiah O’Brien and Liberty Ships in general. Each of the crew members is usually helpful and friendly provided it’s not during mess call. There is also limited food and drink you can purchase aboard the ship. 

          The ship has enough interesting places for anyone who it a bit of an explorer. My girlfriend particularly like the engine compartment and all of it’s moving parts and cubby holes. Even with the enormous 2,500 @ 76 RPM engines running it was amazingly quiet. The massive engines were watched over by an elite hand picked crew of mostly volunteers. The oil slicked shafts pumped up and down stroking the pistons as they pushed upwards from the crankshafts forced onwards by the boilers and streamlines. From the top of the bridge to the cargo holds and the engine compartment below, the ship is remarkably clean and amazingly well taken care of.

        The SS Jeremiah O’Brien had seven voyages beginning in October of 1944 and ending in January or 1946.  She sailed to Australia, Peru, Calcutta, Shanghai and the Philippines on some of her voyages winning her six decorations for wartime services; The Merchant Marine Combat Bar, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean/ Middle East War Zone Bars, the Philippine Liberation Medal and the Victory Medal. In February of 1946 she was put in the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay near San Francisco. It wasn’t until thirty three years later before she was returned to service.

         For an interesting family outing a little different than all the rest try a visit to the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. While you’re on board watch and listen for the old retired merchantmen visiting the ship just like the one they were in World War II.  If you’re lucky you will hear names like John Brown or William Williams whispered mouth to mouth as they re-explore the familiar haunts of by-gone days.  If you listen as just the right locations you might even be able to hear the sound of Glen Miller’s band playing Moonlight Serenade or String of Pearls. For a small fee you will not only gain access to the ship but to a little piece of American history. This is a great destination for kids no matter how old.  With your ticket aboard you will get a fascinating historical treat and a chance to explore the many compartments and cubby holes that abound throughout the ship.

            A large diorama of the Normandy Landing during WWII was given by the French government to the ship for participating in the Normandy Landing reunion celebration.  The unique 12 by 25 foot piece is on display in Cargo Bay One in the new museum along with a small gift shop. 

            For further information you can contact the SS Jeremiah O’Brien (on board) at 415 441-5969 or you can write to them care of National Liberty Memorial, Pier 23, San Francisco, California 94111.

            Always remember what old Townsend says, “If your foot feels wet when you leave the boat it means you’ve missed the dock!”

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