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SS Jeremiah O'Brien

October, 2003

Jeremiah O'Brien bow.
1. Jeremiah O'Brien bow
2. Lifeboat
Crew member.
3. Crew member
Golden Gate Bridge.
4. Golden Gate Bridge

During the first week of September, we were passengers aboard the WWII Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien (see thumbnail photo #1 at left). It is one of the more than 2,700 Liberty Ships that were built by the United States during the war. Built in less than two months during the spring of 1943, the Jeremiah O'Brien made 7 wartime cruises. It took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and 50 years later it was the only ship that returned to Normandy for the 50th Anniversary ceremonies.

The Jeremiah O'Brien now belongs to the National Liberty Ship Memorial, a non-profit organization that maintains and operates the ship in the same condition it was in during the war (photo #2). All of the crew (photo #3) are volunteers, and most of them were crew members on Liberty Ships during WWII. It was very interesting talking to them about their experiences.

Several times each year, the volunteer crew takes the Jeremiah O'Brien out for a cruise. This is a way to generate interest in the ship and earn some of the funds needed to maintain it. This year, the ship cruised up the Sacramento River from its berth in San Francisco to the Port of Sacramento. We signed up (with about 600 other passengers) for the return trip down the River. A local jazz band provided entertainment and a local restaurant prepared one of the best barbeque lunches we've ever tasted. One of the more interesting aspects of the trip was an opportunity to explore the engine room while the boat was underway. The steam engine was designed in Britain during the late 19th century. These engines were simple, reliable, and easy to build, which was very important during the war. These triple-expansion engines use large steam cylinders driving a massive crank shaft. (The Jeremiah O'Brien's engine is the same design as the Titanic's engines and was used as a stand-in for them in the recent movie.)

Although the Liberty Ships are small and slow by today's standards, they were built in huge numbers and carried the goods and soldiers that won the war for the Allies. Looking aft from the bridge deck, the view includes a sample of the machinery and cranes it takes to load and unload the ship in primitive ports throughout the world. The ships were built under war-time resource restrictions. Electric motors, and the copper for the wires to power them, were in short supply. So the Liberty Ships were equipped with steam engines for most ship-board power needs. The dock lines and anchor chain were large and heavy, the cargo was very heavy, and powerful steam winches were needed to handle them. Ventilation was provided by large cowls that directed fresh air below decks.

The Liberty Ships were cargo ships, but they were built to defend themselves. They had large caliber guns on both the bow and stern to defend against submarines and surface ships. This 5-inch gun is as large as the guns used on modern destroyers and cruisers. The Liberty Ships also carried 10 of these 20-mm cannon for defense against aircraft.

Our ship made quite an impression as we steamed down the river. Highway bridges were raised for us to pass underneath. An old WWII Navy trainer biplane flew out to give us an escort. And even a gull flew with us for a while. Along the way, we watched the many boats using the river, including this US Army landing craft, being towed by a tugboat.

When we entered San Francisco Bay, our tugs weren't ready for us, so we steamed out through the Golden Gate Bridge (photo #4) to fill the time. Then the tug arrived, our crew prepared heaving lines for docking, and we were back at Pier 45, the ship's home in San Francisco. From the deck of the ship, we had a great, patriotic view of San Francisco.

We had a wonderful trip down the river, and learned a lot about the WWII Liberty ships. If you would like to see more of the Jeremiah O'Brien, you can visit the website of the National Liberty Ship Memorial. They offer daily tours of the ship, and are always looking for young volunteers to help carry on the traditions of the Liberty Ships.

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