The Liberty ships were slow plodding vessels and, with 2,751 ships built, the Navy knew they needed self-protection because destroyers could not be assigned to each individual cargo vessel. Her armament, therefore, included a 3-inch/50 caliber gun at the bow, one 5-inch/38 caliber gun and two 3-inch/50 caliber guns at the stern and eight 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Two of the 20mm guns flanked the 3-inch/50 bow gun, four more 20mm guns were at the corners of the flying bridge and two 20mm guns were in elevated gun platforms on the port and starboard afterdeck. It was perceived that Liberty ships would always be moving away from a given threat and not towards it as a warship would - hence the defensive-minded armament. The Brown was fitted to carry 500 troops as well as cargo and, thusly, carried more guns than standard merchant ships charged with carrying only cargo.
The base crew for Liberty ships were small as compared to previous large-class cargo vessels. Eight Merchant Marine officers ran the ship with thirty-eight merchant sailors. Stevedores helped load the ship with the dock crew and ran the engine and bridge operations. Running the ship's armament was one United States Navy Armed Guard officer and forty USNAG seamen. The US Navy Armed Guard was a service branch of the United States Navy that was responsible for defending US and Allied merchant ships from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships during World War 2. The men of the Armed Guard served as gunners, signal men and radio operators on cargo ships, tankers, troop ships and other merchant vessels. The USNAG was disbanded following the end of the war and, today, few know or remember the courage and sacrifice of the Armed Guard even in today's Navy.
The purpose of the Liberty ship was to supply fighting men at the fronts with supplies and arms anywhere around the world and, as such, Roosevelt's "Ugly Ducklings" became the workhorses of the deep. The ship was designed - and rated - to carry about 10,000 tons of cargo - a shipping standard that continues even today. However, many times due to needs on the front, the warplanners had them carry much, much more. Warplanners in the military were given the exact "cube" (or length, width, height and weight) of each item and its packaging schedule for the cargo. The equipment was then placed by weight and arranged on a "last-in-first-out" basis based on missions needs at the destination port. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the cargo was then expertly fitted together in the hold. The Liberty Ship was some 440 feet long and had a steaming radius of 21,000 miles for 80 days. The ship had five large holds, each having a hatch, with the largest one being 35 feet by 20 feet. Three large booms - one forward, one amidships and one aft - were used to load and unload the cargo. The largest boom could lift 50 tons of cargo, tanks or other vehicles. Most ships were loaded with hundreds of items in a given journey - up to a thousand even - but to understand the ship's vast capacity, the cargo listed below on each line, or split line, could fill one Liberty ship:
A) 2,840 x Jeeps - if boxed and loaded on 40' flatcars, an equivalent train would be 2 1.5 miles long.
(B) 525 x Armored Cars - if loaded on 40' flatcars, an equivalent train would be 2 miles long.
(C) 525 x 3/4 ton Ambulances - Bumper-to-bumper they would be 1.5 miles long.
(D) 440 x Light Tanks on one ship or 260 x Medium Tanks per ship load.
(E) 390 x M3 Half Track Personnel Carriers per ship or 425 x 2 1.5 Ton Cargo Trucks per ship.
(F) 7,200 x 1.75 Ton Cargo trailers per ship or 3,600 x 1 ton Cargo Trailers per ship.
(G) 156,000 x boxes holding 234,000,000 rounds of 0.30 caliber ammunition.
(H) 156,000 x boxes holding 41,340,000 rounds of 0.50 caliber ammunition.
(I) 430,000 x cases of "C" rations that could feed 3,440,000 men for 1 day.
(J) 217,000 x crates holding 651,000 rounds of 75mm projectiles.
(K) 150,000 x boxes holding 300,000 rounds of 105mm projectiles.
These enormous amounts of ordnance, food or equipment serve to help the reader truly understand the massive numbers of supplies that were needed in the forward operating areas and those as moved on the 2,751 Liberty ships in addition to all of the other cargo ships used in World War 2.
The Brown was launched in late September of 1942 and made 13 voyages during World War 2. Her maiden voyage consisted of supplies bound for Russia via Lend-Lease and she was further sent with no convoy or escort as protection. The target port was in the Persian Gulf so the Brown sailed thru the Caribbean Sea to the Panama Canal then south along the coast of South America, passing the Cape of Good Hope, then north along the coast of Africa and finally into the Persian Gulf (this exhaustive journey was specially plotted to shield her from enemy submarines). On her return trip, she stopped in South America to take on a cargo load of bauxite. By now, she had officially "paid" her way by making it back in one piece.
For the rest of the war, she sailed to the Mediterranean Sea supplying the Anzio landings and the invasion force in France during August of 1944. She spent months moving troops and cargo around various ports in North Africa, Italy and France - these voyages all being tied to convoys now. At the war's end by mid-1945, she was not retired but rather still used in her original role and ran supplies to Europe to help in the rebuilding programs there.
Back in America in 1946, the US Navy loaned the Brown to the city of New York where she became a floating maritime high school - the only such school in the United States. She served in that capacity from 1946 to 1982, graduating thousands of students prepared to begin careers in the oft-forgotten merchant marine. In 1988, she herself now needed to be rescued and so the "Project Liberty Ship Baltimore" was organized. The project eventually found her a home in Baltimore, Maryland - the place of her birth. In September of 1988, the John W. Brown was rededicated as a memorial museum ship. In 1977, she was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.