Scrap vessels may send Liberty ship to sea again Goal is Normandy landing celebration

November 22, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Baltimore's surviving World War II Liberty ship may be sailing again -- to France for next year's 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion -- thanks to bills passed Saturday by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The legislative action authorizes the scrapping of six Naval Reserve Defense Fleet ships to speed the restoration of Baltimore's John W. Brown and two other wartime supply ships.

"I'm thrilled. This is something we've been working for for years. We've put in over 200,000 hours of work into this," said merchant marine Capt. Brian Hope, chairman of the Baltimore-based Project Liberty Ship.

Volunteers have been restoring the John W. Brown, moored at Pier 1 on Clinton Street, since 1988.

Of the 2,700 Liberty ships built during World War II, only two survive -- the Brown and the Jeremiah O'Brien of San Francisco. The other supply ship is the Lane Victory in San Pedro, Calif., the last of approximately 500 cargo-carrying Victory ships built for the war.

Each ship has its own restoration organization, and each will receive two of the reserve ships to sell for scrap.

Captain Hope said that after each organization sells its ships, the money they obtain will be divided evenly among them. They are hoping to realize $300,000 for each ship for a total of $1.8 million.

One of the former merchant marine sailors hoping to sail aboard the John W. Brown is Leo T. Vogelsang, 66, of Westminster.

In 1944, he was an ordinary seaman aboard another Liberty ship. After four years of helping to restore the John W. Brown, Mr. Vogelsang is an apprentice oiler in the ship's engine room.

"We need 20,000 rivets replaced, we need a couple new steel plates on the hull and we need all-new boiler tubes," he said.

"If each ship wouldn't get two scrap ships to sell, we wouldn't be able to go to Normandy," he said.

After making the trip, the Brown will return to Baltimore to become a memorial to those who built, sailed and defended the fleet of supply ships.

The 441-foot John W. Brown was built at Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield shipyard in 42 days and launched on Sept. 7, 1942. It could carry 500 troops and 10,000 tons of cargo with a crew of 45 merchant seamen and 41 Navy guards. It was armed with a 5-inch gun on the stern, three 3-inch guns and eight 20-mm guns and could steam at 11 knots.

Its renovation is primarily a volunteer effort, though the state has contributed about $225,000 toward the estimated $750,000 cost.

The plan for next May is for the John W. Brown, the other two renovated ships and several vintage warships to rendezvous in New York harbor and off Nova Scotia, before sailing in convoy to Southampton, England. They will cross the English Channel for the June 6 celebration of the D-Day landings on France's Normandy coast.

Maryland legislators Republican Helen Delich Bentley, in the House, and Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, in the Senate, were the authors of the bills.

Congressional leaders are expected to quickly reconcile any differences between the two bills and the president is expected to sign the legislation, said David Richardson, an aide to Mrs. Bentley.

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