The John W. Brown Liberty ship at 75
Volunteers aboard the SS John Brown are maintaining more than a boat. They’re keeping alive a symbol of Baltimore’s industrial heyday and the World War II homefront, when jobs were plentiful, and people were united in a common purpose. The SS John Brown, which turns 75 next week, is one of the last Liberty Ships still in operation.
Fuel burns bright orange inside the belly of the SS John Brown, leaving a light smell of exhaust. Sweat drips down the temples of the crew members. The lights sporadically cut out – they use flashlights to check the oil levels, ensuring the engine doesn’t overheat. “Most of what you do is check the oil levels,” said Jamie Murray, who sports a thick mustache and a workman’s jumpsuit with his name on it. On land, he’s a Christmas tree farmer.
Murray and the rest of the volunteer crew are maintaining more than a boat. They’re keeping alive a symbol of Baltimore’s industrial heyday and the World War II homefront, when jobs were plentiful, and people were united in a common purpose. The SS John Brown, which turns 75 next week, is one of the last Liberty Ships still in operation.
It runs on a triple steam expansion engine, a geriatric technology even by 1940s standards. It “was state of the art in the 1870s,” said Murray, “and then obsolete by the time it was installed.” But the relatively simple technology could be made quickly during wartime, and would free up the more advanced factories to manufacture the high-tech engines necessary for planes and warships.
“The plain-Jane Liberty won no beauty contests,” former Sun reporter Ernest F. Imhoff wrote in his book about the ship. The ships had been built in a hurry – “not so much built as assembled,” according to Imhoff, who also volunteered on the John Brown. 2,710 nearly identical Liberties were constructed during WWII, and many of them were built in Baltimore’s Bethlehem Steel shipyard. One of them was the SS John Brown, named not for the abolitionist, but for a labor leader of Maine.
Back on board, Murray sticks his hand on the side of a churning pump to feel the temperature. If it’s too hot, we’ve got a problem. The crew is preparing for their upcoming anniversary cruise, and Murray says they don’t want any surprises.
He gives two thumbs up. The day is going well.
Up on deck, a painting of a reclining pinup girl named “Brownie” watches from overhead like the Virgin Mary. WWII era propaganda signs call demand: “Let’s finish the job!” and “We can do it!”
That plucky attitude seems to be shared among the volunteers, who’ve run the ship since it was restored in the late 1980s. “We all get dirty and do what needs to be done,” said Captain Rick Bauman, 63. “It’s a unique group of people.”
Paul Johnson, 71, grew up hearing stories of his dad, who worked on Liberty Ships during WWII; he’s even plotted his father’s journeys. Today, he regularly commutes from his home in Harrisburg to Baltimore to help out on the ship. “I wouldn’t do this for a paid job, but for nothing I’ll do it,” he said of the drive.
Philip Mullikin and Michael Gisriel have been friends since they were 14. They’re both 74 today. “The ship is 6 months older than we are,” said Gisriel. They laugh and tease one another as they catch the swinging monkey knots from the ship’s deck, preparing to tie her up to Baltimore’s Pier 1, where it’s normally berthed. “We give each other a bad time all the time, but only because we’ve been friends for so long,” said Mullikin, himself a retired ship captain.
“We’re the strangest group of volunteers you’ll ever see,” said Andrea Horrocks, the resident photographer on board the Brown. She also maintains the Brown’s Facebook page and a blog from the perspective of her blue heeler named Jack, who she said likes to follow the captain around when the ship is at sea.
Staffed by Merchant Marines with Navy protection, the Brown first launched on September 7, 1942. The ship, said Horrocks, functioned as a sort of at-sea truck during the war, hauling cargo – including horses and cars – in some of her massive hulls to destroyed European landscape. “It wouldn’t be crazy to see a plane” on the deck, said Horrocks.
The Brown made 13 voyages during and just after the war, later becoming a vocational school in New York for students who wanted to learn to work on ships. But the school closed in 1980s, and a group of volunteers – many of them WWII vets – began an against-all-odds effort to bring the ship back to the city of its birth and restore her to her former glory.
The effort won a champion in Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, who Imhoff quoted as saying that Baltimore needed a symbol of its maritime heritage. “The SS John Brown W. Brown would be that symbol. Time has the ability to dim the memory of past achievements and deeds. The Brown will be a living memorial.”
Visitors interested in witnessing the memorial to Baltimore’s maritime history can buy tickets for the Brown’s anniversary cruise, scheduled for Sept. 9. The ship will sail from Baltimore to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and back; weather permitting, some WWII-era planes will reenact an “attack” on the boat.