Liberty Call

Crewed by seniors, the World War II Liberty ship SS John W. Brown departs its Toledo, Ohio, dry dock bright and shiny for a victory tour of the Great Lakes.

July 18, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TOLEDO, Ohio - Robert H. Hahn, a 72-year-old former seaman from Rootstown, Ohio, walked contentedly on the old decks under him at the Toledo Ship Repair Co. "We've been waiting for this ship for years," he said.

Nearby stood Capt. Walter J. Botto, 79, of Cleveland. A half a century ago, he was the second mate on this ship, the SS John W. Brown, the 58-year-old, Baltimore-based Liberty ship that has been undergoing six weeks of restoration and repair here before embarking on a Great Lakes tour and a long journey home. Today, he's co-chairman of the tour and the only active member of the Brown who also served on it during the 1940s. On four post-World War II voyages to Europe, he helped the 441-foot long ship take Marshall Plan grain to Europe and ferry U.S. troops home.

"I kissed her goodbye in 1946 and never thought I'd see her sail again after she became a school ship in New York," said Botto.

But today, after hundreds of hours of work in dry dock as part of a 12-year-long restoration effort, the old ship is clean again and back in the water where it belongs, ready for thousands of ship buffs to come aboard during a six-week, nine-city tour of the Great Lakes.

With almost $1 million in repairs, the Brown, one of just two of the 2,751 Liberty ships still sailing, left dry dock yesterday and was to welcome its first visitors today at One Marine Plaza on the Maumee River, leading to nearby Lake Erie.

While the ship's donor-funded bankroll may be slimmer, its hull is safer with thousands of new rivets and its veteran volunteer crew - average age nearly 70 - is happy to be done with the clean-up work far from home.

"A ship in dry dock is hell," said Ellery B. Woodworth, a Stevenson deckhand and Navy veteran who was among 65 crew members who traveled here to help out with the repairs.

Now the crew will tackle a different job - sailing the Brown through the Great Lakes and acting as ambassadors to eager visitors. More than 2,000 people have reserved places on four sold-out lake cruises and another 30,000 are expected to come aboard when the Brown docks in nine U.S. and Canadian cities.

Its crew seems eager to go to sea, make new friends in new ports and explain the role of Libertys in World War II. The ships, turned out by 18 U.S. shipyards from 1941 to 1945, were used to carry cargo and troops to Europe and the Pacific Theater. The Brown was launched in Baltimore in 1942 and sailed on 13 overseas voyages before being retired. It was then a New York school ship for 36 years until a Baltimore group saved it from the scrap heap in 1988. Today, the nonprofit Project Liberty Ship operates the Brown, which is fueled solely by volunteers and donations.

The Brown's repair crew had moments of tension in the past week, as it became apparent the work would last three days longer than scheduled and cost far more than the esti mated $700,000. The delay reduced the ship's public time in Toledo to just two days rather than five.

The scene aboard the ship resembled something like the creation of modern art with noise-makers: hoses sandblasting the hull, hammers chipping paint, lines feeding welding machines, drills hammering rivets, brushes and machines applying paint, high-pressure air and electric lines everywhere.

"Any dry dock is a photo finish," said DeLacy L. Cook of Lutherville, port engineer for the Brown and its overseer at the Toledo shipyard. "There are so many things to do at the end."

Cook, Chief Cate Richard Bauman Jr., Second Mate Frank Schmidt, ex-Coast Guard inspector Steve Ciccalone and a few others were with the ship in Toledo during all the repairs. They were aided greatly by a group of midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. Other volunteers came from Maryland and elsewhere to help finish the job last week.

Installing the new rivets in the hull fore and aft of the engine room was the repair trip's chief purpose. One by one, with the ship propped up on huge wooden blocks, rivet gangs removed the Brown's original rivets, cleaned the holes, enlarged them slightly and inserted new 3-inch-long, 14-ounce steel rivets. After more than 50 years, the procedure has changed slightly at most.

A "furnace man" outside the ship would heat a rivet to a bright orange 1,200 degrees in an ear-splittingly loud kerosene-and-oxygen-fueled stove. Holding it with tongs, he then threw it 15 feet to a "catcher" with a bucket. A "passer" grabbed it with tongs and thrust it through a hole into the double-hulled bottom to an unseen passer. The still hot rivet was then jammed into a cleaned hole, and a "backer" held it in place. Outside, the final riveter pressed a pneumatic rivet gun against the new rivet, flattening it to the size of a silver dollar.

Each operation took 45 seconds. Over and over again this was done, 14,000 times. On Thursday, with an audience of 45 spectators crouching beneath the 4,500-ton ship, a symbolic final gold-plated rivet was installed.

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