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The Liberty Ships


Why build

The Liberty ship was born out of the crippling losses wreaked upon on the merchant fleet of the allies by German air & sea attacks, losses became so service that tonnage losses were greater that shipping tonnage produced in dock years both in the UK and in America. These losses meant that convoys suffered from delays, slow turnarounds, roundabout routing, and crew shortages and once at sea a long and hazardous voyage was made worse by the Wolf-pack.


The German Wolf-pack was an elite unit of Submarine commanders who during the 1940/43 period had what they called "The Happy Time" where they were able to roam the Atlantic with very little worry of Allied attack.


Back in late 1939, just after the start of hostilities in September 1939, the US Maritime Commission had sold a significant number of its obsolete World War I reserve fleet to the Royal Navy. This gave the US commence a much needed boost & also let the US navy dispose of its unwanted ships, more importantly it gave the UK the number of ships it needed up to the required level to fight a war against an enemy who clearly had far greater fire power in its arsenal, the deal was struck at a time when the survival of the UK was much in doubt.


In the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Merchant Fleet had already increased its aid to the Allied forces, the Lend-Lease Act signed in 1941 saw another increase in shipping to the UK, the US also sent supplies to British troops on the front line in the Middle East, Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, during the last seven months of 1941, U.S. tonnage supplied British campaigns in the with 48,958 vehicles, 302,698 tons of dry goods, and 814 airplanes.



Birth of a Legend

Despite general wide held belief of being an all American ship, the Liberty Ship was in fact adopted from a British design for an emergency vessel capable of eleven knots with a dead weight of some 10,800tons dry cargo ship powered by reciprocation oil fuelled steam engines it had been designed for rapid mass production with welded steel construction. The design so impressed the US Maritime Commission it decided to put the ship into full production.


Because of its slow speed the Liberty Ship was proven not to be commercially viable, the hoped for turbine propulsion could not be fitted as this was reserved for fighting ships & not cargo ships. Through out the war the Liberty's would have to slowly plod their way across the pond with the escort frigates and their ship board guns as the only protection against the marauding German surface air and sub fleets


The US originally ordered 260 Liberty's of which 60 were for the UK Merchant Navy. On the eve of Pearl Harbor the original order of 500,000 of shipping had increased to 5.000.000 tons by 1943 this had gone to 7.000.000tons this figure was to double by the end of the war.




Both the UK & US governments decided that to give the merchant navy the best possible chance of recovering the huge losses it had accorded was to concentrate the vast majority of the ship building program in the US far from the air attacks wreaking death 7 destruction all over the UK. Prime Minister Winston Churchill & President Roosevelt agreed that all the Merchant ships would be constructed in the US whilst the UK would concentrate what resources it had on constructing fighting ships for the Royal Navy. This deal saw the US construct 85% of all the Merchant shipping used in the conflict.


During World War One the US was capable of producing one ship every 13days whilst in the Second World War this had been cut to one ship every 3.5 days. With the production of Liberty Ships spread through-out the States it was not un-heard of to have five ships launched on a single day, this growth through 1943 saw 19,210,000 tons of shipping being launched more that the entire period between 1914 to 1938. Most of the Liberty Ships built were on the West Coast, with San Francisco Bay & the Henry J Kaiser yard on the Columbus River producing the most.


The Kaiser yard was better known as the constructors of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee, Bonneville, and Hoover Dams. The company had little problem converting to mass production of ships, by the end of construction they had turned out 1,552 ships between 1941 and 1945. Kaiser was responsible for developing prefabricated construction sites across the States. This enabled the transportation of whole sections & components for assembly in the huge new shipyards whose multiple Slipway's lined the hitherto virgin banks of numerous American rivers. Kaiser launched its first Liberty Ship on 7th September 1941 from the Bethlehem Fairfield Yard in Baltimore, Maryland. Named the USS Patrick Henry it was pressed in to service three weeks after launch, named after an American Movement for Independence fighter who proclaimed, "Give me liberty or give me death"


The Atlantic coast of the US saw eight new giant ship yards built consisting of 62 slipway's; four on the Gulf of Mexico with 35, and six on the Pacific coast with 62 building ways, the entire yard building project costing $300 million. New shipyards were also built on the Gulf & Atlantic coasts including the Delaware River and at Chesapeake Bay.


Despite being officially at war the US awarded the Liberty Ship building contracts to a number of privately owned US firms that were dotted around the country.



Naming the ships

The US flagged Liberty Ships were all named after people in its history, the British flagged ships were all prefixed "Sam.....", despite many US based historians claiming that this was in tribute to "Uncle Sam" it was in-fact because all British Liberty's were oil fired with mid-ship accommodation the name "Sam" came from the design Superstructure Aft of Md-ships, Canadian flagged had "Split" accommodation & various other modifications differing to the US Liberty's to confuse attacking German U-boats most were named after parks & were crewed by Canadians, British manned but Canadian built Liberty's were named after forts, whilst standard merchant shipping built in the UK were known as Empire...



During the early days of construction it took between 225 & 230 day to construct a Liberty Ship costing $1.78million by the end of hostilities construction times were down to as little as 42days but more commonly it took around the 60day mark, the record for the fastest construction was the Robert G. Peary which was launched from No. 2 slipway of the Permanente Metals Corporation of Richmond, California on 12 November 1942, some four days fifteen hours and thirty minutes after the keel was laid, it took just another three days to completely fit the ship out before it set sail. The mass-production & pre-fabrication of the welded steel ships was to prove a success with a rate of 3 Liberty's being completed every day. Once the Royal Navy captured an intact Enigma coding device & code books, the code breakers at Bletchley Park UK were able to decipher the German messages and re-route convoys round the waiting subs, (A very fictional story of the capture is told in the film U597 this claims that it was an American Sub that captured enigma when in fact it was a Royal Navy Ship!)




For protection the Liberty Ships carried a 4-inch low angle surface defense gun, and an anti aircraft defense system comprising a 12 ponder, 40 mm Bofors and 20 mm Oerlikon guns together with PAC rockets,




Before the introduction of the Liberty Ships the most common cruising speed of the convoys was 5knots. The Liberty's had a top speed of 11 knots but would cruse at l0 knots in the private sector this would have proved far too un-economic this was out-weighed by the fact that there was a war on & the fact that the Liberty's could carry a large amount of much needed supply's to the hard pressed allied forces.



The Victory Ships

During 1944 it was becoming clear that the was in the Far East would go on longer that that in Europe, it was decided to build a new type of Liberty Ship to help the forces fighting on the front. The Victory Ship was a highly modified Liberty Ship, it was slightly longer, had further range & had a greatly increased speed of 16.5knots it also benefited from the more commercially viable turbine drive. Many of the Victory's built were taken on by the Armed Services for troop transport or hospital ships, a small number were used as destroyers, mine hunters or submarine tenders. A secondary program saw 700 large flat ocean tankers built, along with 700 other vessels all using a basic Victory Ship design.



The Port Chicago Disaster;

During the night of 17th July 1944 the Liberty Ship The E A Bryan and the SS Quinault Victory a new Victory Ship were birthed at the Port Chicago (California) naval base on the Sacramento River. The Bryan had been in port for four days being loaded with explosives for transportation to the front lines in Europe, some 4600 tons had been loaded. The Quinault had arrived at 6pm that evening and was positioned at the same pier; a coast guard fire-fighting vessel was also moored up on the pier.


The Bryan had 98 Black enlisted men assigned to it along with the 31 US Merchant Marine & 13 Naval Armed Guard, the Quinault had 100 Black enlisted men, 36 Crew & 17 Armed Guard, a 12-ton diesel locomotive based on the 1200ft wooden pier had a civilian crew of three and a single marine sentry. There was 430tons of bombs waiting on the pier to be loaded when...


At 10:18pm a massive blast rocked the area,  The Bryan was obliterated by the blast with no identifiable bits remaining, the Quinault was lifted clear of the water before being turned up-side down and falling back to sea 500ft from its original location, all 67 crew and 30 armed guard then on board died instantly in total including the deaths on the pier & railway 320 were killed. The largest section of the Quinault that remained was a just 65 foot long section of keel which still had its propeller attached, it lat 1000ft from where the pier once stood.


The Miahelo a Coast Guard patrol boat 1500ft from the pier had its wheelhouse wrecked, with the pilot suffering serious injuries, a 30ft tall wall of water almost capsized the boat, an unexploded shell smashed into the engine room of the SS Redline a small tanker passing near by.

The blast was heard 200miles away, half a mile away a number of small boats were flipped over by a 30ft wall of water. The Naval base had been wrecked with the town of Port Chicago 1.5 miles from the blast was heavily damaged.   Windows over 20miles away were shattered by the blast with the glare from the blast visible in San Francisco some 35 miles away. The cost of the disaster ran in to multi-millions of dollars.


After the War

After the end of hostilities in Europe & the Far East many Liberty's were sold into private hands whilst went into the Fleet Reserve.


As time wore on the remaining Liberty's became more & more expensive to run & maintain. The US Navy however did have a further use for the Liberty Ships. A number were pressed into service in the late 1940's early 1950s where they were used in "Operation Chase".


Operation Chase saw a number of Liberty's loaded up with large amounts of surplus munitions & chemical weapons these ships were then towed out to sea where large holes would be cut in the side hence the name Operation Chase (Cut Holes And Sink Em').


The victors of the Second World War were left to deal with 307,875tons of German chemical weapons containing 14 different types of toxic agents. It is thought that the Soviet forces destroyed over 35000tons of artillery gas shells, these were loaded on to two ships that were then sunken in the Baltic Sea. The Allied forces sunk up to six Liberty's in the Kattegat & Skagerrak Straights, a further 27 were sunk 20 miles off the western Swedish port of Lysekil a small number were also sunk off the Southern Norwegian port of Arendal, the full details of what these ships were carrying has & may never be released.


In 1964 the John F Shafroth was scuttled 50 miles West of the Golden Gate Bridge with 10,000 tons of munitions on board she settled in just over 8000ft of water. On 10th August 1967 the Robert Louis Stevenson was loaded up with 5OOOtons of munitions and taken 5Omiles out of Amchitka, pressure mines were fitted to detonate at 4000ft and she was sent to the bottom. August 1970 it was the turn of Le Baron Russell Briggs 300 miles off Cape Kennedy she went down in 2700 fathoms it took 5minites to hit the seabed at which point the ship broke up, any of the deadly gas on board that might have escaped would have been instantly hydrolysed. Also in the same month the David F Hughes was sent down to 5000ft l00 miles off New Jersey but the munitions on board detonated before reaching bottom obliterating the ship.

Back on the civilian scene many Liberty Ships were converted for varying other uses these included, the Thomas Nelson which saw a 25ft long section added, new engines fitted, new deck cranes and sliding hatch covers fitted this enabled the ships deadweight to be increased she was scrapped in 1981.


The Janet Lord Roper was shortened by 30ft into a self-unloading collar whilst the Charles H Cugle was converted into a floating nuclear power plant; John Lawson became a Liquefied Gas carrier.


Other conversions included a passenger conversion, floating crane platforms & floating warehouses. However most were kept as war time spec with only the armaments removed. Throughout this time the Liberty's where the most common cargo ships of the post-war shipping fleets, during the 1960s they still made up 40% of the worlds fleet. They were still carrying loads up to 10,000tons but age was beginning to catch up with the ships insurance was going up and maintenance costs were high. For some still trading with the last remaining Liberty Ship it was too enticing to load them up with cargo and "accidentally" run aground causing the ship be written off as a total constructive loss. Other uses for the redundant Liberty have been to create artificial reefs off the Pacific, Gulf & Atlantic coasts. This saw 12 Liberty Ships drained of all pollutants; these were then cut to the tween-decks before being towed out and sunk by explosive charge.


Back to war

With the out break of the Korean War a number of Liberty Ships held by the fleet reserve were pressed back into service, these included the George Eastman who later went on to become a radio controlled fall-out vessel and was scrapped in 1977, Bert McDowell was also sent to Korea & was scrapped in 1970, the Samuel Bowes one of the few war veteran Liberty's that went to Korea after service there it went back to the fleet reserve where she was sold for scrap in 1974, other Liberty Ships that saw action in the Korean War were George Vancouver, William "Big Foot" Wallace & the British Samjack.


The American flagged Liberty's saw further action in the ill-fated war in Vietnam with 726 Liberty's still in the fleet reserve only 150 were "possible" of re-activation eventually only 28 were pressed into service they were among 956 in the US Navy. The Harry L Gluckman was taken to Vietnam as a mine sweeper & deemed to be unsinkable, she had been filled with plastic foam & had been fitted with deck mounted engines that enabled the ship to be pushed sideways in the narrow twisting rivers she was scrapped in 1976. The last "war" damage thought to be sustained by a Liberty was on the Robert M La Follette in December 1971 when she was hit by shellfire during the Indian-Pakistan war she was scrapped in 1972.




The Last Liberty Lost.

Henry W Corbet this was the worlds last sea-going working Liberty, built at Oregon she was damaged in a storm where when hull plates cracked on 24th December 1943 in the area of No2 hold she was laid up & repaired at which point she was transferred to the Soviet Forces, re-named Alexander Nevsky after the war she carried on sailing mostly out of Vladivostok. On the 26th September 1973 she was retired from Sea-going service for technical reasons and towed up the First River ay Amur Bay Vladivostok, here she became a training ship, in use until 1997 when she was towed out to the Republic of South Korea & sadly scrapped.


Last of the Liberty Ships

The seabed around the world it littered with the smashed remains of Liberty Ships, probably the most famous is the ticking time bomb in the Thames Estuary the USS Richard Montgomery just 1 mile from land with over 3000tons of explosives on board in shallow water even with the highest tides her masts can bee seen above water.


More Liberty Ship parts that are thought to exist are the Superstructure of the William H Alien, which was held by the University of Texas in use as a teaching aid in fighter fires on board ships. The Albert M Boe she became that last Liberty to be built finished on 30th October 1945 named "Star of Kodiak" she can be found at an in-filled area at Kodiak Alaska no longer afloat she is used as a fish cannery, holes have been cut in the hull to allow access some of the superstructure has also been removed.


Two Liberty's have been preserved in full sea going condition, these are the John W Brown based out of Baltimore & the Jeremiah O Brian based out of San Francisco. With the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in 1994 the US government arranged the sale of a number of ships held in reserve, the money raised was to be given to the operators of the two Liberty Ships and another ex merchant vessel to make the trip across the Atlantic the commemorate the turning point of the Second World War. Shortly before the voyage the John W Brown was taken into dry-dock for a pre-crossing check sadly it was found the hull needed to be completely re-worked, re-welded & re-riveted, the work needed was far to great to be completed in time & on budget so she dropped out the crossing. As the other merchant vessel was preparing to depart its engines fail leaving the Jeremiah O Brian the sole ship to cross the Atlantic.


She visited Portsmouth, Southampton & Normandy, before returning to the States she made her way up the River Thames to the Pool of London as she passed the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery the O Brian let out a long solitary blast on her whistle as a mark of respect to her lost sister. This was probably the very last crossing of the Atlantic by a Liberty Ship a ship that saved the country and won a war.



Liberty Ship Statistics:

Displacement (Max.): 14,245 tones

Length: 441 ft 6 in (129.81 m)

Beam: 57 ft (16.76 m)

Draft: 27 ft 8 7/8 in (8.16m)

Block Coefficient: 0.745

Weights: Hull: 3,425 tons

Plate: 2,727 tons

Shapes: 700 50,000 castings.

Propulsion: 2500 hp (1.86 MW)

Speed: 11 kts



Holds: 5 Three forward of the engine spaces and two aft.

Deadweight: 10,856 tonnes

Gross tones: 7,176 tones

Max Load: 9,140 tons (with a full fuel load)

Cargo volume: 562,608 ft3 grain (14,297 m3)


Cargo Loads possible:

300 railroad freight cars.

2,840 jeeps. 440 light tanks.

230 million rounds of rifle ammunition.

3,440,000 C-rations.



Varies but comprised of:-four inch Bofors (fitted on Stern)

Three inch guns, (Bow)

20mm and 37mm cannon, (fitted either side of Bofors) (fore mast)

0.3 and 0.5 inch machineguns. (Four on Superstructure or a mix with the 20mm cannon)


On some Liberty's the single 3inch Bow gun was replaced by two 27mm cannons.

Crew Compliment: 81


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