Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
A Liberty ship being fitted out at an American shipyard, circa 1943. (Photo: Frederic Lewis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Liberty ship

What it’s about: In early 1941, with the U.S. not yet in World War II, but lending material aid to the British, the U.S. Maritime Commission modified a design for a merchant marine vessel to make a cheap, easy-to-build cargo ship for mass production. FDR called it “a dreadful-looking object” and Time called it the “Ugly Duckling,” but by war’s end, 2,710 of these mass-produced “liberty ships,” as they came to be known, were a crucial part of the war effort.


Biggest controversy: The ships were prone to cracking. Three Liberty ships broke in half, and there were 1,500 other instances of smaller hull and deck fractures. Testing by Britain’s Ministry Of War Transport revealed that the ship’s steel became brittle in the cold temperatures of the North Atlantic, and the fact that the ships were constructed hastily and usually overloaded didn’t help matters. The Victory ship, built in the last two years of the war, was redesigned to correct the flaw.

Strangest fact: Anyone could name a Liberty ship. The first batch of ships were named after signatories of the Declaration Of Independence (SS Patrick Henry was the first), and many more were named after other notable Americans (17 of whom were black, including Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman). But any group that raised $2 million in war bonds (the approximate cost of a ship; more than $34 million in today’s money) could name its own ship. (The closest the fleet got to SS Boaty McBoatface seems to be SS Stage Door Canteen, named for a USO club.) Despite a custom that no ships were named after living people, one was by accident—Francis J. O’Gara was believed dead when a submarine sank his ship, but was in fact alive in a Japanese POW camp.


Thing we were happiest to learn: The Liberty ships were versatile. In 1943, 225 of the ships were converted to troop transports to ferry soldiers to North Africa for Operation Torch. A few even went into battle. SS Stephen Hopkins was the only U.S. merchant ship to sink a German warship. In 1942, when Hopkins’ captain refused to surrender to an enemy commerce raider, the heavily outgunned ship fought back. The Armed Guard onboard (Navy sailors assigned to protect merchant marine ships) took turns manning Hopkins’ only gun, replacing fallen comrades until the German ship went down.

In 1943, SS Lawton B. Evans survived a U-boat attack, and then a year later fought in the Battle Of Anzio. Despite being bombarded by land and air, the ship held together and the crew shot down five German planes.


Also noteworthy: The Liberty ships outlasted the war; 2,400 were still on the seas at war’s end, about a third of which became America’s postwar cargo fleet. Hundreds more were sold to Greek and Italian merchants—Aristotle Onassis started his shipping empire by buying decommissioned Liberty ships. To this day, a “Liberty-size cargo” is a shipping term for a cargo of 10,000 long tons.

The Navy continued to use the ships as well, converting some to radar ships in the ’50s and research ships in the ’60s. At present, only two Liberty ships are still sailing (a few have been converted to docks). SS John W. Brown was modified to be a training vessel, and SS Jeremiah O’Brien is a museum ship. O’Brien sailed from England to France on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the only large ship from the original operation to do so.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: If you want to read more about WWII, you may as well start at the top. Operation Overlord was the official name of the D-Day invasion, in which SS Jeremiah O’Brien and more than 5,000 other ships ferried soldiers from the U.K., U.S., France, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland across the English Channel to invade Normandy, France by sea. The Allied soldiers at Normandy fulfilled Eisenhower’s call to a “Great Crusade” that would, “bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

Further down the Wormhole: Casablanca was far from Humphrey Bogart’s only WWII film. Bogie also starred in Action In The North Atlantic, as a sailor whose oil tanker is sunk but returns to the sea on a Liberty ship that tangles with a U-boat. Bogart wasn’t a religious man, but his parents were Episcopalian and Presbyterian. Lowercase “presbyterian” refers to a church led by a council of elders, rather than a hierarchy of clergy, a system that was popular in Scotland following the Reformation. When James VI and I united the English and Scottish crowns, he pushed the Scottish church to adopt an episcopal hierarchy. The Scots accepted this, but openly rebelled when Charles I tried to force further changes. Charles was considered a tyrant by many (in particular the Parliamentarians who had him beheaded), but he had his supporters as well. Chief among them was George Villiers, the First Duke Of Buckingham and rumored lover of Charles’ predecessor on the throne, James I. We’ll try and determine whether they were in love or just really, really good friends next week.


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