Designed as cheap and quickly built cargo steamers, the Liberty ships
formed the backbone of a massive sealift of troops, arms, materiel and
ordnance to every theater of war. Two-thirds of all the cargo that left
the United States during the war was shipped in Liberty ships. Two
hundred of them were lost, either to enemy action or to a range of
maritime mishaps such as collision, grounding, fire or sea, but there
were simply so many of them that the enemy could never hope to sink
enough Liberty ships to close the sea lanes, and the supplies got through.
Class: EC2-S-C1 Type Liberty Ship
Launched: September 7, 1942
At: Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland
Length: 441 feet, 6 inches
Draft: 27 feet, 9 inches
Displacement: 14,245 tons
Gross: 7,176 tons
Capacity: 8,500 long tons
Armament: Three 3-inch/50 caliber guns; one 5-inch/38 caliber
gun; eight 20mm guns.
S.S. JOHN W. BROWN looks now almost exactly as she did toward the end
of World War II. Despite her grey paint and many guns, she is not a warship
but rather a merchant ship. The BROWN was built by the government and was
under the control of the War Shipping Administration. This ship and her
many sisters were operated under what was known as a general agency
agreement, by almost 90 different American steamship companies, which
were paid by Uncle Sam to manage the ships. The cargo they carried and
the ports they visited were entirely controlled by the government.
A Liberty ship can carry almost 9,000 tons of cargo, about the same as
300 railroad boxcars. Liberty ships carried every conceivable cargo during
the war - from beans to bullets. Some, like JOHN W. BROWN, were also fitted
out to carry troops as well as cargo. Around 500 soldiers at a time could
be carried aboard this ship. She saw duty in many Mediterranean ports
during invasions and steamed in convoys that were attacked by enemy aircraft
and submarines, but she was never seriously damaged by the enemy.
The BROWN was launched at the
Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 7, 1942,
Labor Day. Six Liberty ships were launched that day from various shipyards,
all of them named after a labor leader. The BROWN was named after
John W. Brown, a labor leader from
Maine who had died in 1941.
The ship is powered by a reciprocating, triple-expansion
steam engine, a relic from an
earlier day in maritime history. The engine is fed with steam from two
oil-fired boilers and drives a single, four-bladed propeller, 18 feet in
Like all U.S. merchant ships during World War II, the JOHN W. BROWN carried
defensive weapons. Her armament included a
3-inch/50 caliber gun in the bow; one 5-inch/38 caliber gun and two 3-inch/50
caliber guns in the stern; and eight 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Two of the 20mm
guns flanked the 3-inch/50 bow gun, four more 20mm guns were at the corners of
the flying bridge, and two 20mm guns were in elevated gun platforms on the port
and starboard after deck. Since JOHN W. BROWN carried troops as well as cargo,
she had a greater number of guns than was the case with merchant ships that
carried cargo only. A cargo-carrying Liberty ship would typically have had
one 5-inch/38 caliber gun, one 3-inch/50 caliber gun and eight 20mm guns.
As with U.S. and other Allied merchant ships, the guns on JOHN W. BROWN were
manned by a detachment of U.S. Navy personnel assigned to the ship. They were
known as the U.S. Navy Armed Guard. All American and many Allied
merchant ships carried Armed Guard gunners during the war. The gunners of JOHN
W. BROWN shot down at least one enemy plane during the invasion of southern
France in August 1944.
The BROWN made 13 voyages during World War II. Her maiden voyage was to the
Persian Gulf, carrying military equipment for Russia, which could only be
supplied from the Persian Gulf or via convoys to Murmansk, the infamous
"Murmansk run." On this voyage the BROWN proceeded through the Caribbean Ocean,
through the Panama Canal, south along the western coast of South America and
around Cape Horn, across the South Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope, north
along the east coast of Africa, and into the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, the
BROWN sailed alone and unescorted for this entire voyage. Her route, especially
the portion along the west coast of South America, was planned so as to minimize
the chances of encountering enemy submarines. The BROWN returned alone to North
America, making a stop in South America to load a cargo of bauxite, used in making
Most of the rest of the BROWN's wartime voyages were to the Mediterranean Sea,
including duty during the Anzio landings. She was also a part of the invasion
force of southern France during Operation Dragoon in August 1944. While in the
Mediterranean, the BROWN typically spent several months moving between ports in
North Africa, Italy and southern France, moving supplies, equipment and troops
as needed, before finally returning to North America. On all of these voyages,
the BROWN sailed in convoys.
The BROWN was crewed by about 45 civilian merchant seamen and, as already
noted, her guns were manned by 41 Navy Armed Guard personnel assigned to the
ship. The size of the merchant marine crew varied slightly from voyage to voyage,
depending on the number of troops she carried.
Immediately following the war, the BROWN carried government cargoes to help
rebuild war-torn Europe.
In 1946 the government loaned the BROWN to the City of New York, where she
became a floating maritime high school,
the only one in the United States. The ship served in that capacity from 1946
to 1982, graduating thousands of students prepared to begin careers in the
merchant marine. During that time the BROWN was lovingly cared for by her
students and instructors, making her reactivation by our volunteers that much
Acquired by Project Liberty
Ship, Inc., the BROWN arrived in Baltimore to serve as a museum
ship and memorial in 1988. She is the only Liberty ship on the East Coast.
The BROWN has been rededicated as a memorial museum ship. She honors the
memory of the shipyard workers, merchant seamen and Naval Armed Guard who
built, sailed and defended the Liberty Fleet. S.S. JOHN W. BROWN is listed
in the National Register of Historic Places.
There are some fifty old navy ships located all around our coasts as
naval memorials, but only five merchant ships. With one exception, none
of the naval vessels are active, steaming vessels; all are static displays.
(The one exception is
LST-325.) But four of the five merchant ships are living, steaming
memorials, whose all-volunteer crews have returned them to operating
condition in order to show visitors just how it was to operate a World War
II-era merchant ship. These men and women, many of whom are themselves
veterans of the shipyards, merchant marine or Armed Guard, are convinced
that this is the best way to rekindle the American spirit that saw this
country through the dark days of World War II. JOHN W. BROWN is a living
example of how America united can accomplish any goal!
Our volunteer crew (we
are all volunteers - we have no paid staff) invite you to enjoy your visit
aboard this historic ship and ask that you please leave the BROWN a generous
donation. Your generosity will help continue the restoration process aboard
this piece of living American history.
For readers who are interested in detailed information about JOHN W.
BROWN, our Ship's
Store sells three very interesting books on the operational history
and the more recent restoration of the ship. The authors of these books are
Project Liberty Ship members.
"Liberty Ship: The Voyages of the JOHN W. BROWN, 1942-1946"
by Sherod Cooper, focuses on the wartime and post-war voyages of the
"Good Shipmates, The Restoration of the Liberty Ship JOHN W. BROWN,
Volume One, 1942-1994"
"Good Shipmates, The Restoration of the Liberty Ship JOHN W. BROWN,
Volume Two, 1994-2006"
both by Ernest Imhoff, relates the wartime experiences of Project
Liberty Ship volunteers and later efforts to restore the ship.
Please contact Project
Liberty Ship if you are interested in purchasing any of these books.