At liberty to relive the seafaring life

Memories: The Liberty ship John W. Brown is a magnet for British veterans who served during World War II.

June 04, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Liberty ships, many of them built in Baltimore, helped win World War II, but they weren't always shipshape.

Derek Brierley of Joppatowne, a former seaman of the British Merchant Navy who sailed on the cargo-and troop-carrying workhorses, recalls immigrating here later as a passenger on another Liberty ship, SS Paul Bunyan.

"Part way over, the propeller fell off," Brierley said. "We floated around for five days. The only cargo on board was $3 million worth of Scotch whisky. Finally the ocean tug Eugene Moran came and took us to New York.

"The cargo," Brierley insisted, "arrived intact."

Brierley treasured his days on the 11.5-knot Samdart Liberty ship during World War II. Now 74, he works as a still able seaman on the SS John W. Brown, a restored Liberty ship docked in Canton. He is especially known to the retired British Merchant Navy seamen who come to Baltimore and the Brown -- one of only two Liberties still sailing among the 2,700 that were built -- to relive their days aboard the ships.

Ron Quested of London and his twin brother, Len Quested of Melbourne, Australia, were here in late May, steaming again on a World War II ship, twiddling dials in a radio shack and working with the Yanks whom they had always known only in spirit -- other former merchant seamen and Navy Armed Guard on the Brown.

"It's absolutely wonderful to be here; thanks to Derek, Brian Hope [the Brown's chairman] and others for helping us get here," said Ron Quested. "The captain asked if we were having a good time," marveled Len Quested.

"I love it," they both said, still responding like twins though living half a world apart for the past 34 years. Their keen appetite for the Liberty ships was identical.

Visits from British Liberty ship veterans have become an annual tradition on the Brown, most of whose volunteers once served in the American Merchant Marine. It helps a trend to honor World War II heroes before it's too late. The men are in their 70s, and they want more than memories and museums. The Brown -- with World War II veterans, younger volunteers and lots of work -- makes it possible.

Each morning for more than a week, the Questeds rose from shipboard bunks, ate and, working for first mate George L. Maier, hauled on lines, moved cargo, cleaned up trash and painted deck fixtures, besides sailing down the Chesapeake Bay and back on one of the Brown's all-day cruises.

They delighted in helping pull aboard a dozen portable bathrooms for the 730 paying passengers. Fellow ex-mariner Ron Barnes, 64, of Manchester, England, yanked hard and remarked with gusto, "We're the best Limey outhouse movers in the United States."

The Questeds also shared tales about their convoys fighting Germans and facing treacherous northern seas that frightened them out of their 17-year-old wits. Their hosts in turn joked about the significance of a flag waving over Fort McHenry just across the Patapsco River, where some Englishmen took on some Americans in the War of 1812.

Liberty ship veteran Ray Witt, of Bath, England, visited six years ago (he still comes) and has directed others here. He and Brierley, working different sides of the Atlantic Ocean, explain what's expected of British visitors on board. This summer, 10 Englishmen, a Scot and Australian Len Quested will be welcomed here.

"Absolutely; they are good shipmates," Brierley said of the visitors. "The common bond is their service on Liberties. We had 200 of those ships in England -- most had the prefix SAM -- but they're all gone."

The Brown is alive, however, so the sea dogs return to re-visit the home of their youth.

"They work their butts off; they sometimes complain they don't have a full work list," said David R. Aldworth, 62, of Severna Park, a one-time British Merchant Navy man who is the Brown's librarian and Website master. "But we don't push them too hard. They're in their 70s and some aren't not used to the hot weather here."

Teen-agers go to war

Ron and Len Quested were teen-agers when they joined the British Merchant Navy in 1944 and became radio operators. Under the Red Ensign of the Merchant Navy, they served on different ships so both wouldn't be lost to German U-boats or airplanes.

Sailing on a tanker, British Promise, and a freighter, North Devon, Len Quested made two round trips on the Russian run to Archangel and Murmansk. Ron Quested sailed for six years on six ships including two Liberties, the Samnebra and the City of Newport. Too young for World War II, Barnes sailed for five years on the Liberty Samlamu and other vessels.

It was old times again when they boarded the Brown. "I looked out the porthole of the Brown's radio shack and saw the lifeboat just below me," said Ron Quested. "Fifty-five years ago came back. The Liberties were all built the same way."

Len Quested thinks President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wrong when he called the Liberties ugly ducklings. "Look at how many they built [2,700]. I didn't sail on them but I saw so many. I loved their beautiful lines."

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