S.S. George Handley

When I was researching last week’s piece about Liberty Ships, I discovered that one of these ships was the S.S. George Handley named after a man who served in the 1st Georgia Battalion of the Continental Army where he rose to the rank of captain. He was taken prisoner at Augusta, Georgia in 1780. After the war, Handley served as Governor of Georgia from 1788 to 1789 and was instrumental in the drafting of Georgia’s state-constitution. He died in 1793 at the age of forty-one.

George Handley was the second of over three dozen of her sisters constructed at the Southeastern Shipbuilding Corporation’s pop-up yard in Savannah, Georgia. Designated. Hull No. 342, construction began on May 28, 1942 and the Handley was launched on December 7, 1942, the first anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

George Handley never entered commercial service. The government agency, War Shipping Administration Transport, (WSAT), requisitioned the ship and turned it into a troop carrier to be operated by the U.S. Army Transport Service, (USAT). Handley was used to transport European Axis prisoners to POW camps that sprang up in various rural parts of America including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Imagine how lucky these POW’s felt escaping the war to perform manual labor in the lap of luxury.  

Handley had a carrying capacity of 550 men per voyage. There is no record, I could find of what Handley carried on its outbound voyages. Neither is there any record about its post-war career, if any. I did find that George Handley was scrapped in 1964 and it is reasonable to believe that the ship sent those 19 years mothballed in one of those reserve fleets like those on the Hudson River south of the Bear Mountain Bridge.     

Ordinarily, the saga about this ship would peter out right here. However, by a curious coincidence, when I first joined Marsh & McLennan in 1971, the manager of the firm’s world-wide marine operations was George W. Handley.

George was bigger than life and a natural leader. You knew Handley was present every time he entered the room. As one of my colleagues put it, “Working for Handley is like working for George C. Scott when he played Patton!”

Our George was a force that influenced and motivated all who fell under his spell. At the time I was beginning to come of age at the firm, I became his go-to guy for international business. George would travel to Europe and the far East to acquire shares of insurances for me to place in our domestic hull market. Soon, I came to realize that I was his assault trooper certain to fail in making the deal to convince marine underwriters to take a share of the latest international fleet George sent me out to peddle.

Sometimes, more aggressive underwriters gave me a lewd and blasphemous message to take

back to Handley. I never told him these messages and, when I’d report back to him that John Blackman, Terry Deeks, or Bill Petersen essentially threw me out of his office, he would thank me for my efforts and say, “I’ll get back to you later today.”

Later those afternoons, George would tell me over the phone to come up to his office. I was on nine, he was on eleven, at our head-quarters at 1221 Avenue of the Americas. I took the closest stairway two steps at a time.

George would explain to me what participations on our house clients I would have to set aside for those insurers he favored to place that risk. One time, I vented my frustration to him. I said, “You know, George, it can be tough being your sapper. I throw myself on the enemies barb wire with an explosive charge to create the path to glory.”

George got my message, In 1974, I was promoted to Assistant Vice President before anybody else. George, as was his style sent me the binder folder that the Marsh & McLennan directors received at their meeting in Dallas. It contained a personal note to me that read:


From: GWH

Congratulations. It was a close vote, but I voted for you.

George Handley passed away in 1975 from a heart attack

The ironic part of this story is that in the 1960s and 1970s those Liberty Ships reached the end of any usefulness and were being scrapped in droves. One maritime entrepreneur thought up the idea to make scale model Liberty Ships cast from the steel from the actual sisters being scrapped.

George loved the idea and started collecting these steel models to give away to visiting customers and overseas brokers when they visited his office. I asked him one day: “George, I wonder what the Japanese and Germans really think about you giving them models built from the steel of the ships that heled to defeat them?”

That comment received a super scowl!

George never learned that one Liberty bore his name. There would have been no living with hm if he made this discovery.

Grant me this aside. George had a wicked sense of humor and loved to brag when good things were said about him. Sometime in about 1973, a short interview with Marsh’s CEO, Jack Regan.  appeared in Time Magazine when Time was an important news source. The piece quoted Regan as saying:

“Even Exxon, with all their expertise counts on Marsh & McLennan for their needs. For example, they depend on the advice of George Handley for their extensive marine operations.”

When George became aware of the piece, he let us all know, “Isn’t it nice. Time mentioned all four of us, Jack, Henry (Marsh), Don (McLennan) and me”

I informed those of us still around who knew George back in the day about my discovery. I voiced my opinion that had he known about that ship, he would have commissioned a heroic portrait of the SS George Handley fighting its way through rough seas on the North Atlantic in pursuit of victory.

Perhaps he would have lithographs made, framed for VIP customers, rolled up copies for the rest of us. Maybe, even Christmas cards!

The best reply to the idea of a framed original oil of the US George Handley hanging in GWH’s office behind his desk came from his former secretary, Diane Robertson, “John, you are absolutely right, and guess who would have had to feather dusted that stupid painting every single day!”

“On The Outside Looking In” will not publish next week, but, God willing and the Creek don’t rise, will return on July 13.