For 33 years, the all-but-forgotten Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien was mothballed, collecting barnacles and gathering a coat of rust that only a sandblaster could love.
Today, volunteers join Capt. Ralph G. Wilson to fire up the ship’s steam engine once a month. They take the gleaming vessel out for a spin around San Francisco Bay twice a year, hauling tourists who also can visit the vessel at its berth at Ft. Mason.
The fleet of 2,751 Liberty Ships cranked off the assembly lines during World War II to carry emergency supplies around the globe were dubbed “ugly ducklings” for their bulky, utilitarian contours. But the O’Brien has undergone a Cinderella-like transformation in the last five years.
It has been changed from a dilapidated hulk into a majestic maritime museum memorializing the men and women who built, sailed and supplied the wartime fleet.
The O’Brien is the only Liberty Ship left that still runs and has not undergone major modifications or been sold for scrap.
Most Promising Candidate
Salvation arrived in 1966 when then-U.S. Maritime Administrator Thomas J. Patterson began checking out the approximately 300 Liberties on the West Coast, and decided the O’Brien was the most promising candidate for restoration.
Retired seamen and history buffs helped start the cleanup and promote money-raising activities that led to grants from state and federal government agencies, as well as the National Maritime Museum Assn.
Volunteer engineers, deck sailors and stewards--who spend most workdays as firemen, insurance salesmen, bankers or at other jobs--troop aboard to finish the ship’s restoration and keep it in shape.
Visitors are treated to a glimpse of the O’Brien as it looked when it steamed out of a Maine shipyard in 1943 and spent the next three years carrying food, troops and ammunition to Canada, the United Kingdom, Normandy, South America, India, Australia and the Philippines.
About 90% restored, the ship features a refurbished captain’s room complete with gas lights above a wooden desk, pictures of stormy seas and ships and detailed wood trim around the doorways.
“Everything in a modern ship is steel and it’s shiny and square,” Wilson lamented. “This is all shipwright. A ship’s carpenter was a carpenter before 1950, and now they’re metal workers.”
All gear in the radio room is hooked up and working. A shiny black gyroscope decorates another room. People can even sleep in the ship’s various cabins, which have been restored to original condition, and eat in one of several mess halls.
Anti-aircraft guns decorate the O’Brien’s deck, and visitors can sit behind them as did the men who watched the skies for attack by enemy planes.
“The restoration is pretty well accomplished,” said Wilson, a former merchant marine who captained several Liberty Ships. “Our biggest problem now is maintaining it.”
Visitors make it all worthwhile, he said. “You’d be amazed at the people who come on and a real nostalgia sets in.”
The first cruise of the year is dedicated to the Liberty Ship makers and crews, and includes a band, color guard and ceremonies just beyond the Golden Gate. The second is just for fun.
Even with a price of $75 a person, the May cruises have sold out a month in advance.
There have been requests for more trips, but Wilson said they are not likely to expand. “To move this thing gets pretty complicated,” he said, pointing out that it takes two weeks to prepare for the weekend events.