WWII Liberty Ship visits Cambridge

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan Dorchester resident Dr. Paul Stagg welcomed the “John W. Brown” to Cambridge on Saturday. Dr. Stagg, now 91, served on a similar ship during the Second World War, when he was 19 years old.

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan
Dorchester resident Dr. Paul Stagg welcomed the “John W. Brown” to Cambridge on Saturday. Dr. Stagg, now 91, served on a similar ship during the Second World War, when he was 19 years old.

CAMBRIDGE – The Liberty Ship “John W. Brown” docked at the city’s wharf by Governor’s Hall on Saturday afternoon, escorted up the Choptank River by a fleet of small boats and welcomed by a crowd lining the waterfront. The Second World War-era ship will be in town until Aug. 11.

Seeing a 441-foot vessel pull up to the wharf was a thrill for many spectators. But none more so than Dr. Paul Stagg,
Wearing a hat displaying his status as a veteran of the Merchant Marine in WWII, he said he had served on a Liberty Ship during that conflict. “I was 19 years old,” he said, recalling his time in the Pacific in 1945. “Three months after the end of the war, I was in Tokyo.”

A man listening nearby leaned closer and said to Dr. Stagg, “God bless you.”

Emergency shipbuilding
When the United States joined the struggle in December of 1941, one of the nation’s primary tasks was to send supplies to the United Kingdom, holding out against the Nazis and in desperate need of food, fuel and weapons. But German submarines waged a very effective campaign against U.S. shipping on the East Coast, and many vessels were lost.

Then, as American involvement increased in the Pacific, North Africa, Europe and elsewhere, keeping the troops supplied with guns, butter and everything in between strained the commercial fleet, known as the Merchant Marine.

What the country needed was a rugged, simple cargo vessel that could be built quickly – and in great numbers – to standard plans. What it got was the Liberty Ship.

“There were 18 shipyards located along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts that built Liberty Ships,” the website www.ssjohnbrown.org says.
One of those yards was Bethlehem-Fairfield in Baltimore, where the Brown was launched on Sept. 7, 1942. She joined about 2,700 others in the class, which formed the backbone of U.S. logistics.

‘Brown’ fought in France in ’44
They earned the name “Liberty” because the first vessel constructed was named the Patrick Henry. The “Brown” was named after Maine labor leader John W. Brown, who died in 1941.

The “Brown” made 13 voyages during the war, and saw action. Her guards shot down at least one enemy plane during the invasion of Southern France in 1944.

“Two-thirds of all the cargo that left the United States during the war was shipped in Liberty Ships,” the website says. “Two hundred of them were lost, either to enemy action or to a range of maritime mishaps such as collision, grounding, fire or sea, but there were simply so many of them that the enemy could never hope to sink enough Liberty Ships to close the sea lanes, and the supplies got through.”

The danger faced by the sailors is indicated by the weapons aboard. The Brown was armed with three 3-inch guns (that fired artillery shells with a base diameter of 3 inches); one 5-inch gun; and eight 20-millimeter automatic weapons.

That’s about the firepower of a WWII escort destroyer, but the vessels were not considered warships. The guns were for defense, and were operated by U.S. Navy personnel.

Still, a commercial sailor like Dr. Stagg was in danger, and that is why men who were in the Merchant Marine during the war years are considered military veterans.

From warfare to classroom
After the war, nearly all the Liberty Ships were scrapped or sold. Now, only two remain operational.

The Brown, in fact, has been in use ever since, included many years as a vocational school for sailors in New York. Here in Cambridge, she’ll have more students aboard, this time from the Calhoon Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) school outside St. Michaels.

“From the time minute it gets here, they’ll be certifying” engineers, Brandon Hesson said on Saturday as he waited for the ship to come into view downriver. Mr. Hesson is the City of Cambridge’s Associate Director of Economic and Community Development, and took a leading role in bringing the ship to town.

With the wharf at Governors Hall just recently renovated and strengthened, the facility is being inaugurated in grand style. “It’s the biggest ship that’s been here in 50 years,” Mr. Hesson said.

Open to the public
The ship has been open for tours. Hours on remaining days are:
Wednesday – 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Thursday – 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Friday – 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Saturday – noon to 7:30 p.m.
Suggested donation for adults in $10, children are free. Veterans will be admitted for free all week.

Dave Ryan is editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at dryan@newszap.com.

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