Recalling a maritime legend

Way Back When

Leader: J.M. Willis was called by many the `world's greatest shipbuilder.'

November 27, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Recent news reports announced that the John W. Brown, one of the nation's two surviving World War II Liberty Ships, will have a permanent home by 2003 at a new 500-foot-long Key Highway pier between the Baltimore Museum of Industry and General Ship Repair.

The pier is part of a $8.5 million project for the Inner Harbor sponsored by the Museum of Industry and the nonprofit Project Liberty Ship, which owns and restored the John W. Brown.

For years, the ship, much off the beaten tourist track, has been tied up at the old Pennsylvania Railroad pier on Clinton Street in Canton.

The new pier for the John W. Brown, the 62nd of 385 Liberties built by Bethlehem Steel Corp. in its Fairfield yard in 1942, will be a memorial not only to those who sailed them across the oceans of the world, but also to the 47,000 shipyard workers who built them.

It will also be a tribute to the wisdom and shipbuilding genius of John Macy Willis, often referred to as the "world's greatest shipbuilder," who had been identified with shipbuilding in Baltimore from 1914 until his retirement in 1960.

Willis, the general manager of the Baltimore district shipbuilding and repair division of Bethlehem Steel, oversaw the company's Sparrows Point, Key Highway and Fairfield shipyards and compiled an impressive record between 1941 to 1945.

The Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard launched 509 ships -- 385 Liberties, 94 Victories and 30 landing craft. The ships totaled more than 5.1 million tons and represented one-tenth of the fleet launched by the country during the war.

"Here was the young man who came east and made good; the man who further defied the attitude that nothing very much ever gets done around Baltimore by proceeding to build more oceangoing ships here between 1941 and 1945 than came off the ways of any other port in the world," said an editorial in The Sun at Willis' death in 1961.

"Day and night, seven days a week, the tall erect figure of Mr. Willis could be seen stalking the ways as he made certain Baltimore was giving its best in the war effort," reported The Sun.

"Baltimore has its own face that has launched a thousand ships -- and much larger ships than Helen of Troy ever dreamed. The face belongs to Jack Macy Willis," wrote Helen Delich Bentley, then a Sun reporter, in a 1952 profile in The Sunday Sun Magazine.

"He had a flair for shipbuilding and he knew how it all worked," said Bentley, later a federal maritime commissioner and member of Congress from Maryland. She described Willis as a "tough but dear man who was an absolutely fantastic person."

Born in 1885 in Oakland, Calif., Willis left school at 13 and went to work as a rivet boy in the Union Iron Works in San Francisco.

Learning shipbuilding from the ground up, Willis later held supervisory positions at the Navy's Mare Island, Norfolk and Puget Sound yards.

He came to Baltimore in 1914 to work for the Skinner Dry Docks and Shipbuilding Co. The company later was reorganized as the Baltimore Dry Docks and Shipbuilding Co.

In 1921, when the company was acquired by Bethlehem Steel, Willis was the general manager, a position he retained until retiring.

A man with intimate knowledge of how ships were built and of the people who built them, Willis refused to sit behind a desk and took an active role in the new ships that lined the ways.

"He had a magic touch with the workers, who adored him. He never put himself above his workers," said Bentley, who added that part of Willis' daily routine included touring the yards under his supervision.

According to Bentley, nothing was more exciting to Willis than a ship launching, and he managed to take part in 1,300 of them.

"A launching in Baltimore would not be a launching without Jack Willis screwing up his face -- eyes closed and mouth open -- as the sponsor cracks the champagne across the bow," reported The Sunday Sun Magazine.

"He can't explain why he always looks as if he is about to break down and weep when the champagne bursts. `The Lord made me that way and I can't change it,' " he said.

Willis was killed in a 1961 traffic accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge while en route to Kent Island for a day's fishing. He was 76.

"A roll call of outstanding Baltimoreans in the Twentieth Century will have to include, if it pretends to any completeness, the name of John M. Willis. The top man in Patapsco shipbuilding during both world wars and equally so in peacetime, Mr. Willis was a figure to be reckoned with by anybody having business with Baltimore's most important economic activity, the port," said an editorial at his death in The Evening Sun.

"John M. Willis was simply a man who knew intensely what he wanted to do in life, and who had the brains, the personality and the great energy to get it done," concluded the editorial.

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