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This article originally appeared August 7, 1994, as the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien visited Portland Harbor for eight days.

Liberty Ship carries proud heritage

  • The Jeremiah O'Brien, an "ugly duckling" launched in South Portland, was a "luck ship" throughout World War II.
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    By Herbert Adams

    Click on the images and maps for more information

    NE Shipbuilder WomenThe day she was built, she was expendable. The Navy wanted only one voyage out of her to call her a success. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called her and all her kind ''dreadful looking objects.'' The press delighted in calling them all the ''American ugly ducklings.''

    They were the Liberty ships. Ask any of the 30,000 Mainers who built or sailed in them from 1942 to 1945 if they were ugly or awkward or anything less than Mainers could make them, and the answer is always a resounding ''No.'' Liberty ships were the workhorses of World War II, the largest class of civilian-made warships ever built, simple square-hulled vessels welded and hammered by the hundreds.

    They carried cargoes of grain and mail, ore and ammo, trucks and troops in the fabled horizon-filling convoys that crossed the Atlantic to the Allies, part of Roosevelt's famous ''bridge of ships'' from the New World to the Old.

    Maine built about 10 percent of all Liberty ships. Their expected life span was only five years, and so great was the expected casualty rate that the Navy considered one safe voyage per ship a full quota.

    NE Shipyard MapMaine's one Liberty shipyard was the combined East and West yards of the New England Shipbuilding Corp. in South Portland.

    Today there is only one unaltered, operable Liberty ship left: the Maine-built Jeremiah O'Brien, which steamed into Portland Harbor Saturday for an eight-day visit.

    Like the last of anything, the O'Brien bears a string of solitary honors. She is the sole survivor of the 5,500-vessel Allied armada that stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944. She is the last sailing Liberty left of more than 2,000 built for the war. And she is the last of the 236 Maine-built Liberties to come home to the port where she was born.

    The Jeremiah O'Brien served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war, survived attack and made seven voyages. Her latest voyage may be her most poignant, freighted with symbolism from the D-Day ceremonies at Normandy, bound home for the birth port she has not seen in 50 years.

    Nothing remarkable marked the launching of Hull No. 230, the future Jeremiah O'Brien, on June 19, 1943. It was the only vessel to leave the West Yard ways that day.

    Construction from keel to completion had taken 57 days, an average time for this fast yard, and the bustle on other hulls continued about her even as the bunting was hung on her bows.

    Mrs. Edward Starling, wife of Calvin Coolidge's chief of the White House Secret Service, did the launching honors in ceremonies not open to the general public due to wartime security.

    She christened the hull the SS Jeremiah O'Brien in honor of the Machias seaman who led the rebel raid on the British sloop HMS Margaretta in the Machias River on June 12, 1775, the first naval battle of the American Revolution.

    Sister ships from nearby ways also bore Maine names: the SS Joshua L. Chamberlain (Hull No. 229, launched June 14, 1943) which went into convoy service, and the SS John A. Poor (Hull No. 231, launched June 23, 1943), which was torpedoed a month later en route from Boston to Halifax.

    So great was the threat from prowling U-boats that the O'Brien made her first voyage from Portland to Boston in total blackout. From there, laden with steel and grain, she made her maiden trans-Atlantic voyage to England, arriving safely in convoy on Aug. 9, 1943.

    From the first, the O'Brien seemed a lucky ship. Three more safe trans-Atlantic trips followed, carrying grain and goods, as one more trustworthy link in the ''bridge of ships.''

    Then, in the spring of 1944, the O'Brien was suddenly diverted to Southampton, England, for an assignment with history. She was to participate in ''Operation Overlord,'' the D-Day landings - one ship in the greatest armada ever assembled for the greatest invasion ever attempted.

    From England and Belfast, Ireland, the O'Brien made 11 crossings of the channel, loaded with troops, armor and explosives for Omaha and Utah beaches. Luck sailed with her. She was bombed at 3:45 a.m. on June 11, 1944, but only a lifeboat was damaged.

    As the war surged east across Europe, the O'Brien headed west to the Pacific. For the next year and a half she sailed cargo from Gulf and West Coast ports to South America and Australia, and the O'Brien's crew celebrated the war's end south of the equator.

    No retirement awards awaited her. Selected to be a hospital ship, in 1946 she was instead assigned to the National Defense Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay, Calif.

    On paper it was a ready reserve of seaworthy ships for a peacetime world. In reality it was the infamous ''mothball fleet,'' a ghostly graveyard of rusting ships listing a little closer each year to the scrap torch. Here the Jeremiah O'Brien waited 33 years.

    Again her luck, and a bit of benign bureaucratic paper shuffling, saved her.

    One day in 1962, Adm. Thomas Patterson, surveyor for the U.S. Maritime Administration, stepped aboard the O'Brien and was amazed at what he saw.

    ''She was completely unaltered. All the charts were there, from Normandy to the Pacific,'' he recalls. ''The captain's night order book at Normandy Beach was in the desk drawer. The ship was a time capsule.''

    Patterson promptly hid the ship. When scrappers came calling, the O'Brien was dropped to the bottom of the ''Desirable'' list. When strippers came poking for spare parts, the O'Brien was quietly moved elsewhere.

    In 1966, at Patterson's urging, the Maritime Administration approved her as a Liberty ship museum. But not until 1978 did the newly formed National Liberty Ship Memorial Inc., a California charitable organization, ride to her rescue.

    By then, she was a valiant but rusted relic moored a mile offshore without water, lights or toilets.

    It took a half-million dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours to make her seaworthy again. On Oct. 8, 1979, with flags flying and 500 guests and crew aboard, she steamed under her own power out of the Suisun Bay boneyard to the Bethelehem Steel shipyard in California, for a stem-to-stern facelift.

    Congress declared her a National Historic Landmark in 1980. Today the O'Brien is berthed at Fort Mason in San Francisco, where Patterson, now retired, and hundreds of volunteers maintain her as a museum and for charter cruises around the bay.

    When the Jeremiah O'Brien steamed past the Golden Gate last April bound for the D-Day ceremonies at Normandy, she bore a heavy cargo of history.

    Return to PortlandHer commander was Capt. George Jahn, 78, who captained a Liberty ship at Normandy in 1944, and a crew of veterans - average age about 70. Hundreds of applications poured in for her 55-man crew.

    European ports of call would be Chatham, England, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and Rouen, France, for the Armada de la Liberty, celebrating the liberation of France.

    At Normandy, where 50 years ago 5,500 ships eclipsed the horizon, she was the sole survivor of the original armada. The president of the United States, not yet born when she was built, was piped aboard.

    The 20,000-mile trek from the Golden Gate to Normandy and home again may well be the Jeremiah O'Brien's longest and last voyage.

    ''This is the Last Convoy. . . an Atlantic Pilgrimage'' said the spring issue of Sea History magazine, ''probably to be remembered as the last great effort of aging (veterans) to redress, relive, and/or reconcile their war experience.

    ''It may be the last great group catharsis of the servicemen of World War II.''

    Return to PortlandThe return of the 51-year-old ship with its 70-year-old crew to the port where it was born is guaranteed to call up deep personal responses, says Edward Langlois, President of the South Portland Shipyard Society, himself a veteran of the yards.

    ''For the younger generation, it will be their first chance to see her under sail,'' he says. ''For my generation, it may well be the last.''

    The O'Brien is docked on this visit at the Maine State Pier in Portland. Her long-ago birthplace, the basins of the West Yard, now are home to the Portland Pipeline Corp. and a public ramp where families now launch pleasure boats into Casco Bay.

    She returns to a very different Portland than the one she left, a living reminder of a war and an era gracefully fading from memory into history. As with all World War II veterans, the years and miles have taken their toll, but the Jeremiah O'Brien remains a symbol of the days when Mainers willingly sailed out to do the world's work.

    ''More than any other emissary,'' Sea History said, the O'Brien ''represents all the Americans, from shipyard workers to assault troops, that helped the Allies breach Hitler's Atlantic wall.''

    For Ed Langlois' generation, the meaning may be more personal. ''We built them when we were young, and part of a great cause,'' he says. ''When I see a Liberty ship, my eyes and my heart fill up.''

     

    Herbert Adams is a state representative and historian who lives in Portland.


    The O'Brien was one of 5,000 vessels that supported the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Here's how it might have looked on one of its 11 trips across the English Channel to the beachheads of France - loaded to the gunwales with men, munitions, machinery and food. Imagemap of Liberty Ship

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    Sources: The South Portland Shipyard Society; George Elliot; Historic Preservation Magazine; Red Senechal; John Cochran; "The Last Liberty"; "Portland Ships Are Good Ships"

    Staff art by Pete Gorski, Rick Wakely & Jamie Peloquin (web versions)