(Above): The main deck of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien moored at Pier 45 in San Francisco. [Photo: Brokensphere | Wikimedia Commons]

The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, one of the most storied ships that sailed the North Sea and ports all over the world, now sits at Pier 45 in San Francisco. An operating monument to those unheralded men who braved the crossing, the O’Brien is open to the public on a daily basis, writes Al Auger.

As France fell, Britain was next in the Nazi’s crosshairs and unprepared for the coming onslaught. Although America had yet to officially enter the war, it offered England’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill assistance. This was the genesis of the Merchant Marine fleet of cargo ships that braved the dangerous crossing of the North Atlantic that was patrolled by a flotilla of German and Italian submarines. These U-boats sat waiting beneath surface of the ocean waiting with armed torpedoes to stop the shipment of supplies, armament and fuel to t he embattled British.

This was the genesis of the legendary Merchant Marine Liberty Ship fleet that changed the war and the world. “There was no miracle formula available,” wrote Allistair Cooke in his 1974 book, ‘America,’ “to the shipbuilders, who were suddenly called on to provide transport and supplies for the Atlantic and (later), also for the huge Pacific. The government kept insisting on a miracle, however, and got it in the shape of a lumbering tub called a ‘Liberty Ship.’”

By the end of World War II in 1945, over 2700 Liberty Ships were commissioned. The largest single class of ships built in history.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): The maze of dials in the engine room “tells all” what’s going on while the powerful steam engine pounds away. [Photo: SS JEREMIAH o’BRIEN]

In the beginning, the United States had yet become an ally in the war, as a consequence the Merchant Marine fleets sailed without U.S. Navy protection and, as a result, were sitting ducks for the feared Germany U-Boats waiting below the surface. The only armament aboard were a few small caliber guns; practically BB-pellets against the torpedoes of the submarines.

The men of the Merchant Marine who manned these Liberty Ships were the unsung heroes of the war, pitting their navigational skills, muscle and luck against the unseen. With the entry of the U.S. into the war, the Merchant Marine fleets were augmented with protection by American, British and Canadian navies and air forces. After the Germans surrendered in 1945, the Liberty Ship program had become the longest continuous military campaign of World War II.

The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, one of the most storied ships that sailed the North Sea and ports all over the world, now sits at Pier 45 in San Francisco. An operating monument to those unheralded men who braved the crossing, the O’Brien is open to the public on a daily basis. Come aboard and not only listen to the stories of that time, but feel it under your feet and at your fingertips. The ghosts of those men and ships are palpable as you step from the swaying gangway to the steel deck.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): The SS Jeremiah O’Brien at sea.

The O’Brien slid down the ways at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation in South Portland, Maine. Her namesake, Jeremiah O’Brien, was the first American to capture a British naval vessel during the Revolutionary War. During the WWII, it made four crossings to Northern Ireland and England, plus voyages to South America, India, Australia. She made eleven crossing of the English Channel on D-Day carrying materiel and personnel to Normandy beaches.

After the war she spent the next 33 years in the “mothball fleet” at Suisun Bay alongside the city of Benicia in the San Francisco Bay Area. Saved from the scrap yard, hundreds of volunteers spent hundreds of hours rehabilitating the O’Brien and in 1979 the O’Brien sailed to San Francisco for a complete restoration. The Jeremiah O’Brien is the only operating Liberty Ship still in its original configuration. It now sits as a National Liberty Ship Memorial and naval museum at Pier 45, a monument to the Merchant Marine personnel, Navy gun crews and thousands of workers who built the largest single class of ships in history.

In 1994 the O’Brien cemented its place history sailing to England to participate in t he celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion at Normandy. The voyage was made without incident as the O’Brien was manned by a crew of veteran Liberty Ship volunteers with an average of 70 years and a few cadets from the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, California (Still alive and well and operated by the University of California). Of the 5000 ships that took part in the attack at Normandy, the O’Brien was the sole large ship to attend the ceremonies.

(Right): Our fully knowledgeable docent was San Francisco’s Ray Conrady. A 40-year Maritime Marine veteran, He and wife, Monica, were crew members on the historical trip to England to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normany. [Karen Misuraca photo]

Every day the O’Brien is manned by a host of volunteer docents, most of them former or current members of the Merchant Marine service with unimaginable knowledge of the history, machinery and operations of these Liberty Ships. Our group had the good fortune of being led by Ray Conrady, a 40-year veteran Merchant who was, along with his wife Monica, were aboard the history-making voyage in 1994.

He took us from the flying bridge to the shadowy darkness of the engine room, all the time filling in the images before us with the details so arcane to us landlubbers.

An interesting dichotomy is noted as we toured the personnel quarters. While the seemingly large crew of 56 men, including eight officers and the gun crew, were the people who made sure the Ship arrived at their destination, it was the cargo that held priority; gross tonnage is 7176 tons. The quarters were small and living conditions confined, though well laid out for movement and what comfort facilities were available.

Another highly intriguing aspect of these plain, slow behemoths of the sea was the engine room deep in the bowels below the huge holds. A friend of mine who joined the service as an “oiler” in the last year of the war described it as: “A perfect preview of Hell.” According to Ray, the low-ceiling engine room can reach temperatures of 110F degrees in the tropics. My friend Earl described his job to keep the moving parts of the giant steam engine coated manually with cooling oil during his four-hour shift.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Inside the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. [Photo: SS JEREMIAH O’BRIEN]

The massive 3-cylinder, reciprocating triple expansion steam engine is a gear- head’s dream. The three cylinders range in diameter size of 24.5, 37 and 70 inches with a stroke of 48 inches. I can only imagine what a race driver would do with 2,500 horsepower at 76 rpm (not a typo); the mind boggles. The rest of the room is wall-to-wall with immense piping and boilers snaking everywhere, doing who knows what. I asked Ray how could anyone create such an operational maze. “Actually,” he responded, “the engines are designed by committee, each one doing a particular section, later to be connected up with the others.”

Fully seaworthy, the boilers are “lit off,” and the engine is operated on Steaming Weekends (normally the third Saturday and Sunday of each month) so visitors show and hear the power available. The O’Brien is open to the public every day, except major holidays and on cruise days in the Bay. The floating museum also has a vast schedule of events and is available for rent by individuals and groups. The availability is so extensive there isn’t enough space to share it all and the Website Jeremiahobrien.org is no longer available, please go to either Google, Bing or other such Websites and search for Jeremiah O’Brien for full information on tickets, groups, rentals and cruises. Without a doubt, visiting the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien is one of the best dollar-to-dollar entertainment and informational value in the Bay Area.

The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien is open every day for tours, except major holidays and cruise days. She is berthed at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. (www.ssjeremiahobrien.org)