Failing rivets halt Liberty ship D-Day crossing

April 17, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

A two-year effort to sail Baltimore's last surviving World War II Liberty ship to France for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion has ended because of deteriorated rivets.

Volunteers who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the 441-foot John W. Brown seaworthy don't have enough money or time to replace thousands of rivets that hold the hull plates together.

Without the repairs, estimated to cost at least $600,000, the Coast Guard will not allow the ship and its 52 crew members to make the trans-Atlantic trip.

Workers are now concentrating on riveting the 80-feet section of plates under the engine room. With that done, the John W. Brown will be allowed to steam to New York to watch the convoy of several vintage warships start its journey to France early next month.

For people involved in the John W. Brown project -- begun in 1988 when volunteers decided to turn the old ship into a floating museum -- the Coast Guard ruling means that the major World War II commemoration in Europe will be lacking a slice of Baltimore war history.

"It's just a shame that there's no trip," said Ray Thompson, a public relations man and former Evening Sun reporter who wrote a book about his experiences aboard a Liberty ship. "These ships carried millions of tons of cargo every day for four years. If it weren't for these ships, we never would have been able to wage such a far-flung war."

The John W. Brown was built at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Fairfield shipyard in 42 days and launched Sept. 7, 1942. It could carry 500 troops and 10,000 tons of cargo with a crew of 45 sailors and 41 Navy guards.

Of the 2,700 Liberty ships built during World War II, only two survive -- the Brown and the Jeremiah O'Brien of San Francisco. Another restoration group's plans to take the O'Brien to France are threatened by a shortage of money, too.

Capt. Brian Hope, a Chesapeake Bay pilot and chairman of the Baltimore-based Project Liberty Ship, said the organization began raising money for the D-Day trip two years ago.

Legislation last year authorized the scrapping of six Naval Research Defense Fleet ships, with the money raised from the scrap to go to the ship restoration groups. The Baltimore group got $588,000; donations accounted for another $100,000.

But Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a 2nd District Republican, said yesterday that the Baltimore group had expected to get $1.8 million from the scrap-metal sale.

The shortfall, coupled with the result of the Coast Guard inspection two weeks ago while the John W. Brown was in dry dock at the Bethlehem Steel yard, has ended plans for the Atlantic crossing.

Captain Hope said about 30,000 rivets hold plates together on the hull, and several thousand need to be replaced.

For the Atlantic crossing, the Coast Guard is requiring that the rivets in the 200-foot midsection be replaced. Bethlehem Steel has estimated the cost at $600,000.

The old rivets have to be burned out with a blowtorch, and each hole has to be drilled before new rivets are inserted.

Captain Hope said there are no qualified riveters on the East Coast, and he had to hire riveter Max Hughes of Cleveland, who brought three workers. They have replaced 500 rivets in the past week -- not fast enough to finish in time for the D-Day commemoration.

Mrs. Bentley said she asked the Coast Guard to allow the vessel to be towed to Normandy, but the request was refused. "They thought it wouldn't make it," she said.

After the ship returns from its New York voyage, it will sail to Virginia Beach for a local Normandy invasion observance June 4 and 5.

Captain Hope said the work of creating a floating museum will continue.

"The Normandy trip was the culmination," he said. "But this is not going to shut us down. Our idea was to preserve this ship. We wanted this ship to be a living steam memorial to tell the story of the merchant marines in World War II."

He said 350 people wanted to make the four-month roundtrip to France, and 52 were selected.

"They are really crushed by this," Captain Hope said. "You don't go to Normandy every year. The 50th anniversary of D-Day happens once. It is too bad that it has worked out like it has. It is not for lack of trying."

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