SS John W. Brown B4611
Cargo Ship Vessel
Liberty Ships such as the SS John W Brown were critical to Allied victory in World War 2.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
The SS John W. Brown (B-4611) was a "Liberty" ship launched at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 7, 1942 - the "Labor Day" national holiday being celebrated across the United States. Six Liberty ships were ultimately launched that day from various shipyards along the coast and all in support of American actions throughout World War 2. Despite her 1940s origins, the Brown has remained an operational vessel even today, albeit in limited cruises, and generally rests as a floating museum ship docked at Pier1, Baltimore Harbor, USA. The ship was named after labor union leader John W. Brown who helped to organize Local 4 - the Shipbuilding Workers of America.
In 1936, with the rise of unrest throughout Europe, the United States Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act that allowed some 50 ships to be built each year. By 1940, the growing presence of the Empire of Japan across the Pacific led to an increase in the number limit of these vessels to 200 per year. The ships became a mixed bag of varying-sized cargo and tanker ships with the act requiring propulsion to be via steam turbines. However, few were ultimately built due to this advanced new engine technology and the lack of proper production facilities in America.
By 1939, England was under siege by German U-boats prowling the Atlantic between the East Coast of America and the British Isles - some 600 vessels would be either sunk or damaged in this span of ocean - a critical artery of survival for the British people. As logistics have always won and lost wars, American President Roosevelt called for a new ship to be constructed to transport goods from America to her soldiers abroad and allied parties anywhere around the world; the concept was to simply build more ships than the enemy could sink. The new vessel design would be a larger copy of the "Hog Islander" cargo ship built for the same purpose during World War 1 decades before.
The United States Maritime Commission modified the design of the current Lend-Lease vessels being built for England. The new ship was numbered "EC2-S-C1" and designed to coincide with American shipbuilding practices for both economical reasons and to reduce overall building time. The class was EC = "Emergency Cargo", 2 = length of 400 to 450 feet, S= steam engine propulsion and C1 = the design number. Henry J. Kaiser won the defense production contract and created a conglomerate group of companies named the "Six Companies" to be based along the West Coast. Coal-fed boilers would be replaced with engines fed from oil-fired boilers to help reduce the threat of onboard coal dust explosions. Hull construction included both riveting and welding - rivets were individually heated to a white hot state and then placed into pre-drilled holes between two plates and finally jack-hammered into place. Welding sections together was cheap and required less labor - though the main concern was that ships had never been welded together before and some questioned its resilience under the stress of loads in severe weather conditions common to the Atlantic.
The construction workforce had to be trained from scratch as no one had previously attempted welded-hull ships to this point. As America entered the war after the events of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the shipbuilding yards began employing more women to replace the men who were enlisting in droves for the armed forces - in fact, World War 2 did more to integrate women into the workforce than any other previous American event. President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally saw a completed ship and told the press it looked like an "Ugly Duckling". The administration knew it needed to change a possibly similar public opinion of the vessels and designated September 27th, 1941 as the patriotic-minded "Liberty Fleet Day" - the first 14 such vessels were launched on that very day. The first ship completed was the SS Patrick Henry with President Roosevelt on hand to personally launch the ship. At the ceremony, FDR referred to Patrick Henry's 1775 speech in which he sternly stated the famous phrase "Give me liberty or give me death". Roosevelt said that this new class of ships would bring "liberty" to Europe so the name of "Liberty ship" stuck with the class from thereon.
Kaiser knew how to build ships and having the Federal Government behind him allowed him to create a shipbuilding program like no other. This force consisted of seventeen shipyards located along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. He wanted the ships be turned out in fewer days than before and used incentives in the way of bonuses to set up healthy competition between the various shipyards. In the early days of the program, switching to welding each ship took about 230 days to complete one vessel. However, this average dropped to just 42 days when the work force was full trained and highly experienced. The record for shipbuilding output went to the SS Robert E. Peary which was launched after just four days and 15 1.5 hours after her keel was laid. The ships were built assembly-line style - ala the American automotive industry - using prefabricated sections to hasten construction. The expected cost of a Liberty ship was an estimated $2,000,000 though the actual cost at the various shipyards could range from $1,543,000 to $2,099,000 per ship. Based on the cost of the 10,000 ton cargo to be carried as compared to the cost of the ship itself, it was considered "paid for" if the ship delivered the goods on just her maiden voyage - if the ship made her return trip it was deemed a bonus. It is of note that each ship was built to have just a five-year life span.
Some of the first Liberty ships suffered hull and deck cracks due to the limited training on the new welding practice - three of the 2,710 Liberty ships built broke in half and sank without warning and at the cost of some loss of life. The shipyards often used new inexperienced workers and this lack of training, combined with the new welding technique needing to produce large numbers of "emergency" ships, naturally created some faults in the construction process. Studies eventually showed the fractures were not only initiated by the rushed welding but also by some lower grades of steel being used that caused the metal to brittle. The ships in the North Atlantic were exposed to temperatures that could cause brittle failure resulting in a critical hull fracture. To complicate the issue, the ships were overloaded with cargo and, when the ship encountered severe storms at sea, it would place them at high risk. Structural reinforcements were applied to the Liberty ships to help stop the cracking problems and the next design, the "Victory ship", was designed as stronger and less susceptible to metal fatigue.
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.