Jeremiah O’Brien in front of the Golden Gate Bridge during Fleet Week, October, 2010
Liberty Ship S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien
Given its Pacific Coast location, it is not surprising that the San Francisco Bay Area is home to many historic ships. In our inaugural “Steamship Saturday” post, we introduced you to one of them, the Victory Ship, Red Oak Victory, moored in Richmond Harbor near where she was built during World War II in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. Before the Victory ships were the Liberty ships and the U.S. shipbuilding industry cranked out 2,710 of them to support the war effort. Coming later in the war, the slightly faster and larger Victory ships were fewer in number than the Liberty ships. The subject of today’s post is another historic ship moored in San Francisco Bay, the Liberty ship, Jeremiah O’Brien. She is named for named for the American Revolutionary War ship captain Jeremiah O’Brien (1744–1818). O’Brien is one of three remaining Liberty ships, and one of only two fully functional survivors. She is the only unaltered Liberty ship, thus she is historically accurate.
She is moored at Pier 45 in San Francisco behind another historic ship, the Baloa-class submarine, U.S.S. Pampanito. Because she is fully functional, O’Brien makes occasional forays onto the Bay, particularly each October during Fleet Week.
O’Brien was built in just 56 days at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation in South Portland, Maine and launched on 19 June 1943. Deployed in the European Theater of Operations, she made four round-trip convoy crossings of the Atlantic and was part of the Operation Neptune invasion fleet armada on D-Day. Following this she was sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations and saw 16 months of service in both the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean calling at ports in Chile, Peru, New Guinea, the Philippines, India, China, and Australia.
The end of the war caused most of the Liberty ships to be removed from service in 1946 and many were subsequently sold to foreign and domestic buyers. Others were retained by the U.S. Maritime Commission for potential reactivation in the event of future military conflicts. Jeremiah O’Brien was mothballed and remained in the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay adjacent to San Francisco Bay for 33 years.
In the 1970s, the idea of preserving an unaltered Liberty Ship began to be developed and, under the sponsorship of Rear Admiral Thomas J. Patterson, USMS (then the Western Regional Director of the U.S. Maritime Administration), the ship was put aside for preservation instead of being sold for scrap. In a 1994 interview printed by the Vintage Preservation magazine “Old Glory,” Patterson said the ship steamed to her anchorage in the mothball fleet (unlike the many that were secured as unservicable and towed into storage), and frequently placed at the back of the list for disposal which undoubtedly contributed to her survival.
An all volunteer group, the National Liberty Ship Memorial (NLSM), acquired Jeremiah O’Brien in 1979 for restoration. At that time, she was the last Liberty ship at the anchorage. Amazingly, those who volunteered to resurrect the mothballed ship (led by Captain Edward MacMichael, NLSM Executive Director and Master) were able to get the antiquated steam plant operating while she remained in Suisun Bay. After more than three decades in mothballs, Jeremiah O’Brien‘s boilers were lit. The ship left the mothball fleet on 21 May 1980 bound for San Francisco Bay, drydocking, and thousands of hours of restoration work. She was the only Liberty Ship to leave the mothball fleet under her own power.
The Jeremiah O’Brien then moved to Fort Mason on the San Francisco waterfront just to the west of Fisherman’s Wharf to become a museum ship dedicated to the men and women who built and sailed with the United States Merchant Marine in World War II. She was named a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1984 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Licensed to carry tours around San Francisco Bay, it was suggested that the ship be restored to oceangoing specification. After efforts in securing sponsorship, this was accomplished in time for the 50th “D-Day” Anniversary Celebrations in 1994.
In 1994 the Jeremiah O’Brien steamed through the Golden Gate bound for France. She went down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal, and crossed the Atlantic for the first time since World War II. Stopping first in England she continued on to Normandy, where Jeremiah O’Brien and her crew (a volunteer crew of veteran World War II-era sailors and a few cadets from the California Maritime Academy) participated in the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, the allied invasion that turned the tide of World War II in Europe. She was the only large ship from the original Normandy flotilla to return for the event.
Docked today at Pier 45, she makes several passenger-carrying daylight cruises each year in the San Francisco Bay Area, and occasional voyages to more distant ports such as Seattle and San Diego.
Footage of the ship’s engines was used in the 1997 film Titanic to depict the ill-fated ship’s own engines.
Click to enlarge – plan of the Liberty ships.
Though British in conception, the design that became the Liberty ship was adapted by the United States for its simple, low-cost construction. Mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, the Liberty ships came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output.
The class was developed to meet British orders for transports to replace those torpedoed by German U-boats. The vessels were purchased both for the U.S. fleet and lend-lease deliveries of war materiel to Britain and the Soviet Union. Eighteen American shipyards built the 2,710 Libertys between 1941 and 1945, easily the largest number of ships produced to a single design.
The California Maritime Academy’s Golden Bear is in front of Jeremiah O’Brien in this photo taken during Fleet Week, 2010 on San Francisco Bay.
You can visit Jeremiah O’Brien if you are in San Francisco. She is at Pier 45 near Fisherman’s Wharf and shares the pier with the restored WWII submarine, Pampanito. The ship is open daily from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Portions of this text were adapted from the O’Brien website and from two articles at Wikipedia.
“Chris-to-Fear” invites us all to a series of Pancake Breakfasts aboard Red Oak Victory: