Technical Report—New Life for a Liberty (2023)

She made the landings at Anzio and Salerno, ferried elements of the U. S. Army’s First Armored Division overseas in preparation for the Normandy invasion, returned Royal Navy seamen from the United States to England, and participated in the invasion of southern France carrying troops from the 45th Infantry Division, Bill Mauldin’s old outfit.

On her first voyage, she went through the Panama Canal, rounded Cape Horn east-about and steamed for the Persian Gulf with a cargo of tanks and ammunition destined for Russia. The round trip lasted eight months.

Now the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown, one of the “Ugly Ducklings,” as the Liberties were called, is at it again with another challenge to meet. But this time, instead of battling the oceans of the world and the roving U-boat wolf packs of Nazi Germany, her challenge is to become a living memorial honoring those who built and sailed her, and those who sacrificed their lives to deliver supplies to U. S. and Allied troops.

For a time her survival was questionable, but the strength of the Liberty ships is in the hull, and that is as sound as ever. The goal is to restore the ship to fully operational, seaworthy condition, with as many original fittings as possible.

The John W. Brown was one of many Liberty ships that were converted to troop carriers to accelerate the flow of troops to the European theater of operations during World War II. These converted cargo- carriers are credited with the transport of 202,247 men and women from the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation from June 1943 to May 1944.1 The decision to use these vessels was made by the U. S. Army’s Chief of Transportation in the spring of 1943 after it was determined that large transports could not discharge men where they were needed in the Mediterranean and Africa. Thus, these workhorses of the sea were put to yet another use. The converted Liberty ships carried approximately 40% of the troops that shipped out of Hampton Roads.2

To house and feed the embarked troops the three forward holds were converted, number one and number two to house the troops in an arrangement of five-tier high bunks. The number three hold was divided into officers’ quarters, sick bay, a washroom and operating room combination, and a brig. A portion was set aside for food preparation by installing large steam kettles and a steam serving table.

The John W. Brown was launched on 7 September—Labor Day—1942 at Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s Fairfield Yard in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, it took about 41 days to launch a Liberty ship at Fairfield; subsequent outfitting required an additional 21 days. The cost per ship in 1942 was estimated at $1.7 million.

Concerned that a significant portion of World War II history was about to disappear, a dedicated group established Project Liberty Ship in New York in 1977 and began efforts to acquire the John W. Brown. Money was raised and word put out to industry, former crew members, and the U. S. Navy Armed Guard who served so gallantly. Interest grew and the organization began publishing a newsletter, “Liberty Log.” Over the years, many volunteers have come forward to assist in restoring the ship. Some served on Liberties in World War II, others on similar ships, and some were people with no wartime experience but an abundance of enthusiasm for maritime history.

In October, 1982, Representative Mario Biaggi of New York introduced a bill to have the John W. Brown transferred to the group for preservation. President Reagan signed the bill on 18 October 1983, and the preservation project was on its way.

Recognition was needed to improve the odds of success and an application was submitted to the National Park Service to have the ship placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In March 1985, the John W. Brown became the second Liberty ship to be so honored. She became a “National Register Ship,” along with the Jeremiah O'Brien on the West Coast. Of the 2,751 Liberties built during World War II, these are the only two being preserved.

Most project volunteers first became acquainted with the ship on the 26-hour run from the shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, to her temporary berth at Pier One, Clinton Street, Baltimore, Maryland, in March 1988. A few volunteers had been on board the vessel at the Reserve Fleet in the James River, off Fort Eustis, Virginia, but the newcomers found many changes from a conventional cargo-carrying Liberty ship, even considering that the vessel had been modified into a troop carrier.

After her World War II service, the John W. Brown spent the years 1946-82 as a New York City vocational high school with a nautical theme. Many changes were made to ’tween-deck areas to accommodate classrooms and equipment. Teaching aids in the form of a cutaway boiler, generators, steam pumps, and motors for instructional purposes, were located throughout the various ’tween-deck areas. Additional galley ovens and ranges had been installed for instruction in the culinary arts. These were located in the number 3 hold and in converted sleeping quarters on the upper deck. Bulkheads had been removed to make larger rooms for office space. The ship’s original machinery had been used for hands-on instruction and explanation of steam equipment and was in relatively good condition.

To bring her back to her original condition, dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers can be found on board daily; twice a week a larger force assembles in the officers’ mess before commencing work. Volunteers range in age from young to a bit older, male and female alike. The work accomplished thus far by this crew was evident during the Armed Guard convention in Baltimore, Maryland, when the vessel was open to the public for four days in late September 1989. The visitors waited in line to come aboard, even in the rain, and made many favorable comments after seeing the results that have been achieved to date.

The engine room crew is giving first priority to boilers, feedwater systems, auxiliaries, and firefighting equipment. During school-ship days the boilers were run at reduced load, pressure was kept low, and the boilers operated on natural draft. Every effort will be made to have the boilers rated for original pressure of 250 pounds per square inch for the sake of main engine steam rate.

For safety, all through-hull fittings on sea chests were welded closed from the outside during the July 1988 drydocking; this has been a mixed blessing. All sea valves were then opened, inspected, and cleaned—valves and lines that had not been used for 40 years showed an accumulation of Hudson River flotsam well known to those who use the river. Expansion joints in the main circulating system were original equipment, still holding, but were prime to rupture and flood the engine room. Thus the requirement to weld steel plates over the hull openings to maintain integrity. On the minus side, the boilers cannot be fired nor can ship’s fire pumps and other equipment that requires sea water be used until the sea chests are in operation; these are scheduled for repair during drydocking in the spring of 1990.

Work on the sea chests, valves, boiler mounts, and other operating equipment is under way. A lathe in the shop area is being assembled for resurfacing of valve seats as required. The two boilers, which are fitted with superheaters, are open; the preliminary inspection revealed considerable deterioration. The port boiler has a good number of tubes with large holes. The starboard boiler has held a head of water, but some leaking is evident. Cleaning, hydro-testing, retubing, and rebricking are in the planning stages. For inspection, there are 396 five-inch by five-inch hand-hole covers to be removed from each boiler, a strenuous and dirty job.

During World War II, all skin valve bodies were made of steel to resist depth charge shocks. But internal fittings, such as gates, were iron and have deteriorated accordingly. The main centrifugal circulation pump is driven by a reciprocating steam engine. Pump RPM was limited by the engine speed; with a 25-inch impeller, this resulted in a net head of only 25 feet. This was good, expedient engineering for 1942, but corrosion of the large double-suction pump case has caused the stuffing box throats and case wear ring locating shoulders to vanish. Replacement of a pump with such unusual operating requirements may be an impossibility.

One piece of equipment regularly used during the John W. Brown's, school-ship career was the auxiliary condenser. As old Liberty ship sailors will remember, this condenser was serviced with a simplex wet vacuum pump (condensate and non-condensibles), driven by a single steam cylinder placed between the pumps, with all on a common piston rod. Aside from cracked castings and missing valves, we found a one-half-inch clearance between the fluid pistons and their cylinders. Water boxes held the remains of long deceased eels and crustaceans.

The ship’s engine was built by Worthington Pump and Machinery in Harrison, New Jersey. It is a direct-acting, condensing, three-cylinder, triple-expansion engine that produces 2,500 shaft horsepower at 76 RPM. We have learned that the engine was disconnected from the shaft and turned over weekly while the vessel was serving as a school ship. To protect the ungoverned, unloaded engine from “running away,” the main steam line was fitted with a restricting orifice plate. This orifice has yet to be found. The main propulsion shaft, tail shaft, rudder, steering engine, and thrust bearing have not been rotated in 40 years but you can still read the manufacturer’s nameplate on the thrust bearing— Kingsbury Machinery, Frankford, Pennsylvania.

Conditions of the tailshaft sleeve and stem bearing are unknown and are presumed to be bad. These items will be examined during the next drydocking.

Boiler work in itself is dirty work. All volunteers on the ship wind up dirty, but the residue found in the boiler is “special.” The black soot found in boilers just sticks to you and the more you sweat the more it sticks. We have a dedicated crew in the engine room, some with over 1,000 hours to their credit.

The main engine is still to be opened up. The cylinder sizes are 24 inches, 36 inches, and 76 inches. With all the operating rods below the cylinders shined up, it will be a sight to behold when the ship gets fired up and the shaft starts to rotate at 72 RPM.

The ship now has lighting in most areas, but many problems remain because the electrical system has undergone extensive modifications through the years. The three original General Electric 20 kilowatt 120 volt direct current (DC) generators are in place and usable through the open-front (knife blade) switchboard. No shore-power connection was provided on the vessel, but a short period with a commercial operation required some changes. The coal-fired stove was removed, and a DC-galley was installed that required a feed from the switch-board. This is now used to provide shore power to the ship’s original lighting via the switchboard.

The school required a considerable amount of electrical power to illuminate the ’tween-deck classrooms. Power also was required for the 24-circuit power panel in number five hold for shop machinery. The result is a hodgepodge of distribution panels, cables, and conduits that in no sense meets shipboard standards. The installation of ventilation during the spring of 1943, or during the second phase of the troop conversion in the spring of 1944, was originally DC; it was later converted to 208-volt alternating current (AC) in a temporary fashion that resulted in more odd wiring. Most original plans have been found for the lighting, but none are available for the troop conversion. This makes for a fair-size problem in trying to decipher what goes where. To compound the tracing difficulties, the ’tween deck was heated with small individual overhead steam coils and electrical fans. The steam supply lines and return condensate lines are in many cases under and in front of the electrical system. With changes over the years there are unused cable and piping in many areas.

To enable the volunteers to move about the ‘tween decks in a safe manner, five portable leads plugged into outlets on the pier were brought aboard to light up passageways. The ’tween deck shore power panel was energized on 14 January 1989.

The vessel’s outward appearance was enhanced with a complete coat of cosmetic paint, and much work on deck has been finished. Canvas covers over the five holds are being turned over and additional material used to eliminate the leaks. The steel bands across the tops have been cleaned and wood wedges along the sides renewed. Some fire hoses have been installed, although the piping system has not been tested. Many spare parts were found after the lights came ablaze—file cabinets, books, boxes filled with electrical meters, pressure gauges, rigging blocks for the lifeboats, plus an original companionway.

The armed guard group has cleaned and painted the gun tubs on deck. As Navy men they remember well how to “chip and paint.” They manufactured replacements for the missing hatch covers for the lower holds. We all know what the missing hatch covers have become— shiny coffee tables with metal bands and hand-holds on each end. The hatch covers are a definite safety item for all who work on board. In the number three hold, which is still missing hatch covers, the area is roped off for safety.

The armed guard group also has in stalled a 5-inch/38 gun in the aft center gun tub and 3-inch guns in the aft port and starboard tubs.

Many of the staterooms were modified by removing bulkheads to accommodate office and storage space, and a ship’s carpenter is getting things back to the original configuration.

Transformation of number four ’tween deck is under way. A pipe shop has been set up in the forward area of number four hold and the multitude of fittings found on board is being catalogued. The ship’s piping system is as confused as the electrical system. Only time and diligent tracing can solve the puzzle.

The bridge deck is one of the better-restored areas and rightly so, for this includes the captain’s quarters, wheel house and chart room, and the radio room. The woodwork has been redone and bulkheads and overheads are being painted; the equipment in the chartroom looks new. The radio room, with its antiquated equipment, remains a challenge to restore.

The John W. Brown's crew experienced the war close up. The ship made half a dozen trips in and out of the Anzio beachhead, shuttling troops under enemy fire, and then took part in the invasion of southern France, so close to the beach that shells from Allied battleships were flying directly over the ship. During the Anzio action, her crew claimed the downing of a German aircraft and traded shots with German 88s. The John W. Brown shuttled thousands of Italian and German prisoners of war and, finally, she brought home one of the first shiploads of victorious American troops. She did her job from start to finish and she did it well.3

The restored John W. Brown will not remain pier-side. Project Liberty Ship intends to get her under way and steam to ports of call where visitors can learn firsthand the story of the merchant marine and the U. S. Navy armed guard in World War II. The ship will be fitted with appropriate exhibits and will be made available for seminars and conferences.


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