Take the Jeremiah O’Brien to Sacramento

The noble story behind the restoration and upkeep of the World War II Liberty Ship the Jeremiah O’Brien is oft told. The public can become part of this floating legend in a rare opportunity to join the volunteer crew on a cruise to Sacrament.

By Wes Starratt, P.E. Senior Writer 
Published: August, 2002

The Jeremiah O’Brien is one of the 2,751 Liberty Ships built during World War II about which Winston Churchill wrote, "Without the supply column of Liberty Ships that endlessly plowed the seas between America and England, the war would have been lost."

At the outset of World War II, in spite of some six million tons of shipping destroyed by Germany in 1940 and 1941, the United States virtually lacked shipbuilding capacity. The British, growing more and more concerned, sent a mission to this country to order vitally needed ships, but found that the few operating shipyards were overloaded with Navy work. In desperation, they headed to the West Coast and met with members of the joint venture led by Henry Kaiser, which had recently completed Boulder (or Hoover for Republicans) Dam.

"Can Do" entrepreneur Henry Kaiser stressed the need to establish a standardized ship design that could be used to turn out ships on a production-line basis. So, a standardized ship design based on the British EC2 cargo ship, transformed from coal- to oil-burning, was adopted. It was called the "Liberty Ship." Eventually, a total of 18 shipyards were established on both coasts, from the Bath Ironworks in Maine to the four Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, which, at their peak, employed 90,000 people. With German submarines continuing to take their toll, it was essential to produce more ships than they could sink, so production schedules were streamlined to the point that it required an average of only 26 days from keel laying to outfitting a Liberty Ship, down from 253 days at the beginning of the war. Ultimately, this country’s shipyards produced a total of 2,751 Liberty Ships which were credited with breaking "the Hitler blockade," according to Jim McCloud, a former head of Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond.

Getting back to the Jeremiah O’Brien, she is

»   A Class EC2-9-C1 Liberty Ship

»   Launched on June 19, 1943 at South Portland, Maine

»   Length 441 ft. 6 in.; Beam 57 ft.; Draft 27 ft. 9 in.; Gross tonnage 7,175

»   Maximum speed 11 knots

»   Powered by a single-screw, triple- expansion 2,500 horsepower steam engine

»   Cargo capacity, 10,500 long tons

The 59-year-old Jeremiah O’Brien is now well into her third life, the first of which comprised wartime duty in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, followed by 34 years tied up in the so-called "mothball fleet," and finally her resurrection as one of the last operating Liberty Ships of World War II. Today, she is a prominent feature on the San Francisco waterfront and on the bay. The stately ship almost commands a salute as one approaches her imposing hulk at Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf. So well maintained by a crew of dedicated volunteers, it is hard to believe that this very ship, launched in June 1943, played an active role in World War II, with participation in D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandie on June 6, 1944, and then sailed back to those same beaches in June of 1994 on the 50th Anniversary of the landings. In between, the ship lay at anchor, almost forgotten, among the scores of ships "mothballed" by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) at Suisun Bay near Benicia. For some 34 years, she was waiting either for the call to duty or the summons of a wrecking crew from the scrap yard.

The wrecking crew might have been the fate of the Jeremiah O’Brien had it not been for the foresight and energy of an officer who had sailed aboard one of the Liberty Ships during World War II after graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York. Years later, as Western Regional Director of MARAD, Rear Admiral Thomas J. Patterson was determined to preserve at least one of the "liberties" as a living memorial to the merchant seamen and shipbuilders of World War II.

Patterson inspected some 300 Liberty Ships in the reserve fleets, and, upon boarding the Jeremiah O’Brien, was impressed with the excellent condition of the ship, as well as her name, that of a famous Revolutionary War naval hero. He targeted the ship for preservation, and formed the National Liberty Ship Memorial, an all-volunteer maritime industry group comprising labor, management, and government, including the Navy and the Coast Guard, that is dedicated to preserving the ship. With a grant of more than a half-million dollars from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and matching grants, sufficient funds were available for a thorough restoration of the ship.

To everyone’s surprise, it proved possible to activate the boilers and the engines of the O’Brien so that it could steam out of the reserve fleet in Suisun Bay under its own power for the 45-mile trip to the Bethlehem Shipyard in San Francisco (now San Francisco Dry Dock) where a complete restoration took place. Said Patterson, "This is her first time underway in 35 years, a great day." On May 21, 1980, "We left the shipyard, looking like a brand new Liberty for a recommissioning ceremony outside of the Golden Gate with some 550 guests aboard. President Carter proclaimed that special day ‘National Liberty Ship Day’ in addition to National Maritime Day."

Off to Normandie

Not satisfied with a restored Liberty Ship that could cruise around the Bay and beyond the Golden Gate, Patterson soon began planning for the return of the ship to Normandie for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1994. The writer’s first contact with Patterson was at that time for consultation on public relations and fund-raising. I had the temerity to express concern about being able to raise the funds needed for the 18,000-mile voyage and to question whether such a voyage was physically possible for such an old ship. I was told in no uncertain terms by Patterson that "yes" they would raise the funds, and "yes" the ship, after some dry dock work, was going to make the voyage. He and his crew did both. I was both pleasantly surprised and very impressed, although I didn’t see Patterson again until writing this article.

An accompanying photograph by Don Maskell shows the triumphant return of the Jeremiah O’Brien from the D-Day Anniversary in 1994, which also included a cruise of Western Europe and the East Coast of the United States. Later, the O’Brien made a tour up the West Coast to Vancouver, showing again that she is the ship that can!

Still a Full Schedule for Visitors

The Jeremiah O’Brien remains an active part of the Bay Area scene. Docked at Pier 45 in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, the ship has a crew of 240 volunteers who welcome visitors daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided tours are available with advance reservations (415/544-0100). Nine weekends this year, including August 17/18, September 21/22, and November 16/17, are "steaming weekends," when the boilers are fired up. Fleet Week cruises of the bay are scheduled for October 12 and 13.

And Now a Special Cruise to Sacramento

For the first time this year, the Jeremiah O’Brien is entering the "big time" cruise business. You can sail away to Sacramento on the World War II Liberty Ship on this Labor Day weekend, visiting Old Sacramento, the famous Railroad Museum, and the State Fair, following a beautiful nine-hour cruise along California’s most famous river.

Departure from San Francisco is scheduled for Friday, August 30 at 0900 hours (ship’s time), and the return from the Port of Sacramento is scheduled for Tuesday, September 3, also at 0900 hours. Secured parking will be provided.

Coffee and doughnuts will be waiting when you arrive on board. Complimentary box lunches will be served at mid-day, and afternoon snacks and beverages will be available. On board, there will be plenty to do, including exploring the ship, watching the sights along the bay and up the river, listening to a live jazz band, taking part in a raffle, and more. A barbeque dinner will be waiting when you arrive in Sacramento about 6 p.m.

You can either return to San Francisco on Friday evening by chartered bus, which will be waiting at the pier in Sacramento, or you can stay for the weekend and return by ship on Tuesday morning. You’ll be on your own, but Sacramento’s hotels are available and can be reached by shuttle bus. One-way passage by ship and return by bus the same day is $195, and the round-trip by ship is $300.

What a great way to spend the Labor Day weekend, and enjoy a cruise on the beautiful Sacramento River aboard a World War II Liberty Ship! Call 415/544-0100 for reservations.