Naming Liberty Ships

by John Delach

During the first two years of World War II Great Britain lost so many cargo ships that this island nation was forced to recognize a dreadful possibility; she would be starved out of the war unless she quickly acquired replacement ships. New ships had to be constructed rapidly, be simple to operate by the rawest of crews and be easily replaced. Only America had the resources to build them and the Roosevelt administration, in its “short of war” policy, consented. The Maritime Administration, Marad, adopted the British design, but modified and standardized it to produce a new freighter, officially the EC2-S-C1, but better known as “Liberty Ship.”


The first liberty, Patrick Henry, was laid down on April 30, 1941, launched on September 27th and finished on December 30th.  FDR personally christened this ship one of fourteen launched that day. Patrick Henry took 150 days to fabricate from first steel to launch with a total building time of 244 days. Building time dropped dramatically to an average of 42 days as prefabricating techniques improved and, one ship, Robert E. Peary, went from first steel to launch in 4 days, 15 ½ hours.


In all 2,711 Liberty Ships were built in 18 shipyards. Almost all U.S. Flag Liberties were named after dead Americans. The famous included Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt but also James Buchanan and even Jefferson Davis. John Hancock was among signers of the Declaration of Independence so honored, but so were the less notable; William Hooper, Francis Lewis, Josiah Bartlett and Button Gwinnett.


Other patriots abound; Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Nathan Hale, Betsey Ross, Samuel Adams, Israel Putnam, John Paul Jones, Molly Pitcher, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine and Paul Revere. Names familiar from our Civil War; Julia Ward Howe, Matthew B. Brady, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Fredrick Douglass, Joshua Chamberlain, Barbara Frietchie, George A. Custer, Harriet Tubman, Jubal Early, Stephen A. Douglas, Winfield Scott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Longstreet and Philip H. Sheridan. (Alas, SS John W. Brown didn’t bear the fiery abolitionist’s name; John W. was an early 20th Century labor leader.)


Men and women adventurers and explorers included Davy Crockett, Wyatt Earp, Ponce De Leon, James (Wild Bill) Hickok, Amelia Earhart, Geronimo, Daniel Boone, Annie Oakley, Amerigo Vespucci, Kit Carson, Pocahontas, William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.


Those of letters were represented; Mary Austin, Charles Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, Anne Hutchinson, Zane Grey, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Emma Lazarus, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Ring Lardner, Joyce Kilmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Cullen Bryant.


Song, dance, stage and sports; Abner Doubleday, P.T. Barnum, John L. Sullivan, Edwin Booth, Lou Gehrig, John Philip Sousa, Carol Lombard, Will Rogers, John Ringling, George M. Cohan, Christy Matteson, George Gershwin, Knute Rockne and George Gipp.


Inventors, industrialists, household names; Alexander Graham Bell, George Eastman, Samuel Colt, Richard Gatling, James Bowie, Edison, Morse, Robert Fulton, George Pullman, R.J. Reynolds, W. R. Grace, Goodyear, DuPont, John Deere, Glenn Curtiss and Wilbur Wright.


Architects, engineers, doctors, scientists, jurists; Mayo Brothers, George Washington Carver, Sanford White, George Goethals, Johns Hopkins and Booker T. Washington. Publishers, attorneys and politicians: Adolph S. Ochs, Edward Everett, Wendell Wilkie, Horace Greeley, Clarence Darrow, William Gorgas, John Marshall, James G. Blaine and Louis Brandeis.


Names local to New York; Al Smith, Samuel J. Tilden, Franklin K. Lane, C.W. Post, Floyd Bennett, William Floyd, Jacob Riis, and Peter Cooper.


The forgettable and forgotten; Uriah Rose (Arkansas politician founded the Rose Law Firm: see Hillary R. Clinton), Billy Sunday (evangelist), Sun Yat Sen (first president of the Rep. of China), Nachman Syrkin (Zionist), Andreas Honcharenko (no record found except her ship), Virginia Dare (first white person born in America), Albino Perez (Mexican politician, governor of New Mexico, assassinated one month in office), Archibald Mansfield (Reverend Mansfield led Seaman’s Church Institute), Sewell Seam (Appalachian coal mining developer), Hinton Helper (North Carolina, opposed slavery for curious reasons before the war; a white supremacist after the war.)


These and other names of ships can be explained by a fund raising provision that any group that raised two million dollars in war bonds could nominate a name for a ship.


Far more Liberty Ships survived the war than had been anticipated as the tide for the Battle of the Atlantic turned in favor of the Allies by the later part of 1943. After V.J. Day, almost 1,000 U.S. Flag Liberties, declared surplus, became the backbone of international merchant fleets replacing the ships they lost during the war. They remained a mainstay well into the 1960s until the container ship revolution finally sent them to the breakers. There they where joined by their U.S. Flag sisters who had spent almost all of the years after the war resting and rusting tied up side-by-side in reserve fleets located in American bays and rivers. Deemed old and obsolete, they too were towed to scrap yards.


But two survived to carry on, the aforementioned, John W. Brown, based in Baltimore (named for the labor leader) and the Jeremiah O’Brien based in San Francisco. The O’Brien carries the name of a native of Maine who commanded the sloop, Unity that captured the HMS Margaretta at the Battle of Machias, ME, the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War. Both Liberties remain operational and make several short voyages in protected bays each season. May they live long and prosper.