'We Play Ships'
Picture an elderly couple sitting at a picnic table at Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore Harbor early one morning last September. Of the several dozen people around, the two probably were the only ones old enough to remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. I approached them and said, "If you wait here for 15 minutes and look at the end of the North Locust Point pier, you'll see a large World War II ship coming around the corner."
Right on schedule, the ship came into view, the Star-Spangled Banner played on board, and her passengers and crew stood at attention on the starboard side, hands on hearts and faces turned to the fort's own star-spangled banner behind us. As the ship entered the harbor, a city fireboat saluted her with a water spray. The couple was delighted and surprised to see the ship, having heard of her but never having made the short trip into the city from the suburbs to check her out.
The 63-year-old Liberty ship SS John W. Brown is a bit of a ghost ship today, mainly because she is tucked away most of the time in the industrial Canton area of East Baltimore. But when she's under way, it's a different story. On this day, for example, the ship had taken 650 paying passengers on one of her frequent and popular living-history voyages on the Chesapeake Bay.
That she is generally unfamiliar to the public is frustrating for the crew of the 441-foot operating museum ship. After more than a million hours of volunteer work, 15 years of sailing with passengers, and publicity as one of the few World War II vessels steaming today, people still wonder about the one-time troop/cargo workhorse. "What's the BrownT they ask the crew, who are always on the prowl for donations, new workers, and dues-paying members. The old gray vessel, a ship type that inspired the wartime put-down "ugly duckling," is a smash hit with her members-but not necessarily to everyone. Given the dearth of knowledge about such things in schools today, this is no surprise. In fact, the crew members recall one Maryland high school teacher who came on board with a class and asked the dumbfounded veterans, "Now, when was World War II?"
A talented volunteer team of licensed officers-who on other ships are compensated-directs the ship down the bay. Captain Brian H. Hope, a Chesapeake Bay pilot and Vietnam War seaman who was the energetic first chairman and idea man of Project Liberty Ship, is filling in as master for the ailing Captain George L. Maier. Another bay pilot, Captain Richard A. Bauman Jr., a veteran of oil-rig duty off Newfoundland, is chief mate. Frank J. Schmidt. a Merchant Marine officer who helped turn over a Liberty ship to the Japanese after the war, is second mate. Captain David Goff, a Floridian who sailed as master of tankers and other ships for 20 years but now prefers being an able seaman, is substituting as third mate. Two World War II engineers, DeLacy Cook, chief engineer, and Joseph Carbo, first assistant, sailed for years in the merchant service, Carbo having steamed around the world 14 times.
To these men and their crew, the Brown is a jealously protected corner of their lives, apart from family and occupation (for those not retired). In some cases, whole families are crew members. The retirees and younger pals delight in the vessel-a way to save a historic ship, a way to go to sea several times a year, a way to honor the U.S. Merchant Marine, the U.S. Navy Armed Guard gunners who protected merchant ships, her Baltimore shipbuilders, her New York high school ship days, and a way to be part of what multipurpose Brown workers Doris Groh and JoAnn Malpass call "our second family."
"We lucky few," wrote Brown able seaman Louis Jerbi in an essay about the camaraderie on board. He works as a manager in the vast Social security headquarters, but with his wife, Diane, and two sons, John and Mike, he finds work and adventure among scores of devoted Brown crew members. Many don't mind chipping paint, wiping up oil or grease spots, repairing the engine, hosting scouts, and guiding visitors.
"Some play golf in retirement, we play ships," says Captain Maier. But this is no normal game. He succeeded Captain Paul J. Esbensen, the first Brown revival master. Maier sailed as an officer with the United States Lines before "retiring" to what is the just-as-serious business of sailing the Brown, with or without passengers. When not sailing, he has hung over the rail in a bosun's chair to paint the hull.
The Brown is owned by her 2,800 dues-paying members. In her years of sailing with passengers in inland waters, from the Great Lakes to Jacksonville, Florida, she has logged almost 70 money-raising living-history cruises under the watchful eye of the U.S. Coast Guard.
On a typical trip, cruisers are charged $125 for a day that includes two meals, historical narration, and selfguided tours (including the triple-expansion steam engine). Also featured are four museums honoring the seamen, Navy gunners, shipbuilders, and school ship students, a wreath-laying memorial service for departed seamen, a band playing big-band music, and re-enactors posing as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General George Patton, and comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In good weather, vintage warbirds such as a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a North American P-51D Mustang, a German Messerschmitt Me-208, or a Japanese Nakajima B5N2 "Kate" carrier attack bomber make flyovers. (The Brown's authentic and noisy but impotent guns have never missed bringing down the enemy.)
Passengers can also hear sea stories. All-purpose seaman Louis Rizzo is a modest sort who needs coaxing. A crew member once asked him about big storms at sea. Rizzo replied: "A man came into the Brown mess one day and said he was a soldier going home on a ship once when a huge wave broke the mast. I said, The Waycross Victory? He said, 'Yes.' I said, I was chief steward on that same ship, same time. 1945. English Channel. Going from LeHavre to New York. They said it was the worst storm in 100 years. The mast broke off at the base. The captain asked for volunteers to secure the free-standing mast. I went out on deck. The waves were more than 50 feet high. I did it with steel cables." End of story. No embellishment.
Another yarn is the dubious distinction of helping launch the film career of a young Austrian named Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was filmed in scenes on board the school ship Brown in New York City, playing the title role in Hercules in New York. The 1970 movie is generally regarded by film buffs as an all-time stinker, so awful it's worth watching. When the actor ran for governor of California, he joked that his enemies liked to bring up his film debut.
Michael J. Schneider is chairman of Project Liberty Ship, Inc. He served in U.S. Navy submarines and commanded an antisubmarine Knox (FF-1052)-class frigate, the USS Robert E. Peary (FF-1073). He began sea life at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, and later switched to the Navy.
"It's kind of interesting," says Schneider. "The Merchant Marine hymn has a phrase, 'Damn the submarines.' And submariners say there are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets." When Schneider assumed command of the Peary at Pearl Harbor, his submarine pals gave him a large photographic mosaic of his new command as seen in a series of images taken through a periscope.
Schneider came aboard in 1988, soon after the moribund, rusty, guano-covered Brown was towed to Baltimore from the National Defense Reserve Fleet in the James River, at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He was looking for something challenging in retirement after shore jobs, and he found it.
I missed ships. I was always on deck before, but I was intrigued by the engineering plant and fell in with the good group down there. And after years as a manager, I wanted to get as far away as possible from that. I started as an apprentice fireman-watertender and continue to do that, cleaning, repairing and standing watches below. I remember the camaraderie of small crews, all pulling together in difficult conditions on diesel submarines.
That can-do spirit is met or exceeded here on the Brown. It was epitomized when we cut the rudder off the Arthur M. Huddell, an old cable-carrying Liberty ship in the James River. Imagine a bunch of mostly elderly veterans, working all day with a torch and rigging and finally freeing the rudder. It's our rudder today. Another example of resourcefulness? The crew machined a replacement piston in the machine shop once and installed it in a steam-driven pump while we were under way. With the marine engineering skills and talent here, we have repaired many things without resorting to outside workers.
Challenges ahead include finding a permanent pier in Baltimore (the ship is now at a state-loaned berth) and continually attracting new workers, members, and funds. This is a complicated non-profit organization.
The Brown was launched on Labor Day, 7 September 1942, at the Bethlehem Fairfield shipyard across the harbor from the ship's current berth. John W. Brown the man was a shipbuilding, carpentry, and mining labor organizer who accidentally shot and killed himself in 1941. The ship sailed 13 times, the first eight during the war, mostly to the Mediterranean Sea. After the first solo trip to the Persian Gulf by way of Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope to supply the Soviet Union, the Brown was converted to carry U.S. troops and prisoners of war besides her normal 9,000 tons of jeeps, tanks, trucks, ammunition, airplanes, and other cargo. She landed troops in the invasion of southern France.
The Brown was lucky in the war, coming under fire but surviving. Today, her caretakers honor the memory of 6,795 merchant seamen and their 1,810 U.S. Navy Armed Guard defensive gunners lost in the war. A poignant moment in recent Brown history came in 1998, when shipmates buried at sea the ashes of their colleague, Tommy Tickner, a veteran of the British Merchant Navy in World War II, when he served as a teenage cabin boy. A few days earlier, Tickner, 75, was a deckhand on the Brown crew and planned to lay a wreath in the Atlantic for his British shipmates. Half the crew was killed in 1942 when a U-boat sank his ship, the Margot, off New Jersey. The Brown steamed to Charleston, South Carolina, 56 years later, and Tickner bought his wreath. But he had a heart attack and died. On the ship's way back to Baltimore, his shipmates laid a box with his ashes, along with the wreath, in the Atlantic.
After the war and five peacetime trips, an unusual high school was established on the stationary Brown, teaching seamanship to future mariners for 36 years in the New York City public school system. The young salts kept her in good shape, but a valiant effort to save her as a historic ship failed, and in 1983 she was towed to the James River. While New York yawned, however, Baltimore took over.
In a Winter 1990 article by Chief Warrant Officer Theodore A. Dietz, U.S. Navy (Retired), a World War II veteran, Naval History magazine reported on the difficult technical challenges of restoring the Brown from stem to stern. "Forty-Watt" Dietz directed the rewiring of the ship and continues to serve as her remarkable chief electrician. His nickname stems from his 40-watt bulbs and his pleas for power saving on a nonprofit ship. "Turn off the lights when you leave," he barks.
More than 100 historic naval and other craft remain as museums in the United States. What makes the Brown and a few others different is that they still get under way. Just as remarkable is that the Brown s crew from the start has included many retired ex-seamen who, decades after their World War II sailing days, began the hard physical task of reviving the ship in 1988 with hopes of steaming again. None had ever embarked in the Brown, and most were strangers to each other.
The Brown became the second Liberty ship restored as an operating historic vessel, after the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, now in San Francisco, first resumed steaming in 1980. No more fixable Liberty ships are left out of the 2,710 launched in the war in 18 shipyards.
The bring-'em-back trend continued with other wartime vessels turned into passenger-carrying historic ships: among them, the Victory ships SS Lane Victory in San Pedro, California; the SS American Victory in Tampa, Florida; and the SS Red Oak Victory in Richmond, California. Another ship breathed new life after her heralded, gutsy transatlantic voyage from Crete in 2000-01. The tank landing ship LST-325 has found a home on the Ohio River in Evansville, Indiana, and in 2005, she steamed under her own power to visit Alexandria, Virginia, and Boston.
Sailing the old ships is the main magnet for many in the Brown's crew as well as other crews "The only time I really like it is when the ship moves," said Danish-born able seaman Torben Hansen as he leaned over the Brown's rail one day and watched the dark green sea flow by. "People wouldn't be on this ship if it didn't move." the Allied wartime seaman pointed out.
"Going to sea is a mystery. We're escaping land. People here have higher IQs and lower IQs. Some prize their authority more than their sailing. But we all want to go to sea. It's genetic, something to do with spawning. We go to sea. We come home. We go to sea again."
Project Liberty Ship, Inc. is a non-profit, all-volunteer, tax-exempt group dedicated to the preservation, restoration and operation of the SS John W, Brown as a living memorial, museum, and operating ship. Gifts to Project Liberty Ship are tax-deductible. For additional information, contact Project Liberty Ship, SS John W. Brown, P.O. Box 25846, Highlandtown Station, Baltimore, MD 21224-0546. Office phone is 410-558-0646. Web site is www.liberty-ship.com