Liberty Ships were mass-produced cargo ships built during World War II to give the Allies much needed merchant tonnage (the weight of the cargo of a merchant ship). Of the 2,710 Liberty Ships built during the war years 1941 to 1945, over 2,400 survived the conflict.
The original design for these ships came from a British steamer first built in Sunderland, UK, in 1879, and which continued to be used, with modifications, up to 1939. With the outbreak of war, Britain quickly began losing more merchant tonnage than she could build, and in 1940 placed an order with America for 60 steam-driven, coal fired, Ocean-class merchantmen. Staying true to the basic design, the first ship was launched in August 1941.
During this period America also realised the need to increase its own merchant fleet. Design changes to reduce production times and costs were incorporated. New welding techniques were introduced for some, while others continued to have riveted hulls. Oil fired boilers were specified to make use of America’s oil reserves, and the ships were built of modular construction, with sections being built at different shipyards around the country.
The first true liberty ship, SS Patrick Henry, was launched in September 1941 from Baltimore, along with a further 13 on the same day. Launched by President Roosevelt, it was during his launching speech, in which he said these mass produced ships would bring liberty to Europe, that the word liberty became synonymous with this new type of mass produced cargo carrier.
With a top speed of just 11 knots, the ships were designed to carry up to 10,000 tons of cargo, though this total was often exceeded. They were used as tankers, to carry troops, tanks, jeeps, guns and supplies, as well as being put into service as hospital ships and mobile repair facilities. Each ship was named after a famous historical American, Patrick Henry being one of those having signed the American Declaration of Independence.
With a crew of 40 plus sailors and a 20 plus gunnery squad, the ships defence capability could be anything from one 3 inch bow mounted gun. Two 37mm machine guns mounted on the bow, and/or one 4 inch stern mounted gun. They also carried an additional six 20mm machine guns. Although some 300 liberties were lost during the war, not all were lost due to enemy action. Due to poor quality materials or faulty construction, 1500 of the early welded mass-produced ships developed cracks in the hulls known as brittle fractures. Of these, 12 actually broke in half, including three liberty class vessels.
Of the 2,400 liberty ships still operational after the war, over 800 continued service in the American merchant fleet. Between 1946 and 1965 more than 700 were mothballed. Over 500 were bought by Greek shipping companies and nearly 100 by the Italians. Between 1955 and 1959 the American Navy re-bought 16 liberties and converted them to radar ships.
Today, of the three whole liberty ships remaining, just two still put to sea. Both are floating museums. In 1994 the SS Jeremiah O’Brien steamed from her base in San Francisco to France and the UK for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, while the SS John W. Brown is based as a floating museum and trip ship in Baltimore. The third liberty, SS Arthur M. Huddell moved to Greece in 2008. Renamed the Hellas Liberty, although no longer seaworthy, she sits in Piraeus, Greece, and is also open to the public as a floating museum.
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