Stagg shares Liberty Ship experience with Rotary

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan Dr. Paul Stagg was a Merchant Marine crewman who served on a Liberty Ship in the months following the war.

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan
Dr. Paul Stagg was a Merchant Marine crewman who served on a Liberty Ship in the months following the war.

CAMBRIDGE — Captain Richard Bauman of the Liberty Ship “John W. Brown” spoke to members of the Cambridge Rotary Club on Aug. 9. In addition to historical information, Capt. Bauman reported that the ship’s stay at the city wharf was proving successful.

“We’ve averaged 1,100 [visitors] a day,” he said. “I think the high was 1,280.”

Those numbers apply to the first half of the ship’s week-long visit – there were many more locals and tourists who went aboard the rest of the week, including during Saturday’s Seafood Feast-I-Val, held at nearby Sailwinds Park.

“The most common thing we’re hearing is, ‘Thank you for coming, I hope you come back,’” Capt. Bauman said.

The “Brown” is one of only two Liberty Ships still afloat. It is one of 2,710 built during the Second World War, when shipping supplies to U.S. troops and their overseas allies was crucial.

Stagg recalls time as sailor
Club member Dr. Paul Stagg introduced the captain, as he related his own experiences during the war years.

“I joined the Merchant Marine in December of 1944,” Dr. Stagg, now 91, said. “I had three months of training.”

His sea duty occurred in the months immediately following the war, when the 19-year-old Paul Stagg was purser about the Liberty Ship “Thomas Hartley.” After going to Manila and Subic Bay in the Philippine Islands, the “Hartley” went on to Japan.

“We turned the ship over to the Japanese government,” Dr. Stagg told the club members. With many Japanese soldiers still on islands bypassed by U.S. forces during the Pacific campaign, and Japan’s own ships having been sunk, the defeated nation needed vessels to bring their men home.

Details of the ‘Brown’s’ service
Capt. Bauman had a slide show prepared, during which he shared details of Liberty Ships’ and the “Brown’s” service.

When the United States entered the Second World War in December, 1941, the nation was not prepared to protect its commercial fleet, also known as the Merchant Marine. Convoys were not formed along the East Coast, and cities were not blacked out at night, throwing slow-moving cargo ships into sharp contrast against the bright lights — very convenient for enemy submarine captains hunting in the dark waters.

As a result, the U.S. began to lose ships at an alarming rate. From Jan. 1 to March 1, 1942, the United States lost 216 vessels off the East Coast alone. “June of 1942 marks the single worst month of Allied shipping losses, totaling some 834,000 tons of goods at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean,” the website www.secondworldwarhistory.com says.

No matter how you cut it, the Allied war effort was in real trouble — no guns, no butter, no victory.

That’s where the Liberty Ships came in. Built to an 1880s design, the steamships were simple, sturdy cargo vessels that were cranked out of shipyards faster than the enemy could sink them — a lot faster.

The first was the “Patrick Henry,” the vessel that gave the class its nickname “Liberty.” It was built in 285 days.

The “Brown” was put together in 43 days, about the average once production got up to speed. The fastest was the “Robert E. Perry,” which went from piles of pieces to steaming on its first voyage in just four days, 17 and a half hours.

When the “Brown” began its service on Sept. 7, 1942, it headed to Iraq with a cargo of supplies bound from the Persian Gulf by rail for Russia. Missions to North Africa, Italy and France followed.

A particular honor was the “Brown’s” return to New York City in 1945, the first troop transport to come back after VE (Victory in Europe) Day.
The “Brown” went on to 36 years as a floating vocational school in New York. But by 1988, the ship was in rough shape and an effort to preserve it fell short for lack of cash.

It went to the James River Reserve Fleet, generally an old ship’s second-to-last stop. In fact, it looked as if the “Brown” would make its last voyage to Japan, as scrap.

“She was very close to being Toyotas,” Capt. Bauman said.

That’s when Project Liberty Ship came to the rescue. The nonprofit, all-volunteer group raised the money, installed 15,000 new rivets to keep her in one piece and acquired enough surplus gray paint, courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy, to bring the ship back from the brink.

With those tasks and many others completed, the “Brown” is now in good shape, and still serving the country as an educational, training and entertainment venue. “We now give living history cruises,” Capt. Bauman said. “If I remember correctly, we’ve done 111.”

The ship is berthed in Baltimore. Monday was the 30th anniversary of its stay in the city where it was built.

To learn more about the ship, visit www.ssjohnwbrown.org.

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

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