First Liberty ship was built in Baltimore during WWII

Way Back When

September 15, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a $350 million emergency shipbuilding program in January 1941, its goal was to construct in three years more than half of the existing pre-war merchant fleet.

To meet this need, shipyards across the nation were expanded to meet Roosevelt's goals.

In Baltimore, Bethlehem Steel Corp's Sparrows Point yard was jammed with work for the Navy, so the company looked to Fairfield, in the southeast section of the city, for expansion of its facilities. On the site of a former Pullman Co. plant that had built railroad passenger cars, Bethlehem constructed a sprawling yard that included 19 slipways.

At its peak in late 1943, Bethlehem-Fairfield employed 46,700 workers, including 6,000 African-Americans, who worked around the clock.

From the yard's opening in 1941 until its last ship, the Atlantic City Victory, slid down its ways in October 1945, the yard delivered more vessels than any other American shipyard, and even managed to establish a world shipbuilding record.

Baltimore workers had built 5,187,600 tons of shipping. They had constructed during the duration of the war, 384 Liberty ships, 94 Victories and 30 LSTs.

The very first Liberty ship, the Patrick Henry, built by Bethlehem-Fairfield, took eight months to construct and was finally launched Sept. 27, 1941.

"Baltimore's harbor is to `dress up' for the launching Saturday of the Patrick Henry, first of the Liberty ships, and accord her the finest display and ceremony ever to attend a launching here ... ," reported The Sun.

The launchings, which took place on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico as well, were the nation's largest since World War I. They began Sept. 27, 1941, at 6 a.m., in Chester, Pa., when the hull of the cargo ship Surprise met the cool waters of the Delaware River, and ended that day with launching of the cargo ship Venture, in Richmond, Calif.

"This is a memorable day in the history of American shipbuilding - a memorable day in the emergency defense of the nation," Roosevelt said in his "Liberty Fleet Day" national address over the radio from the White House.

"The shipworkers of America are doing a great job. They have made a commendable record for efficiency and speed. With every new ship, they are striking a telling blow at the menace to our nation and the liberty of the free peoples of the world. They struck fourteen such blows today. They have caught the true spirit with which all this nation must be imbued if Hitler and other aggressors of his ilk are to be prevented in crushing us," he said.

At 12:19 p.m., as a warm September breeze washed over the more than 1,000 spectators gathered for the launch - including four descendants of the Virginia patriot - the Patrick Henry glided down from the place of her birth into the waters of the middle branch of the Patapsco River, 11 minutes ahead of schedule.

Mrs. Henry A. Wallace, wife of the U.S. vice president, carrying three dozen Rome Glory roses, swung and broke a quart of champagne over the vessel's bow.

During the war, the Patrick Henry carried and delivered vital cargoes to Casablanca and other North African ports. She sailed to the Red Sea, England, Russia, South and East Africa, and survived the dreaded Murmansk run. Despite numerous attempts by submarines and airplanes to sink her, she sailed on.

Her war record was impressive. She transported 75,000 tons of cargo and steamed 141,000 miles. Her only damages were a few machine-gun bullet holes and minor damage from depth-bomb explosions.

In 1946, after being overhauled for peacetime shipping duties, she scraped her bottom off of Florida and was laid up in Mobile, Ala., with other retired Liberties.

In 1958, she was sold to Bethlehem for scrap and returned to the Fairfield yard of her birth, where she was cut up and melted down in the blast furnaces of Sparrows Point.

When Lykes Lines launched the Solon Turman at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point yard in 1961, her plates contained steel from the Patrick Henry.

To celebrate the 60th-anniversary launching of the Patrick Henry, the S.S. John Brown, one of the nation's two surviving Liberty ships, will open its new Shipbuilding Museum, dedicated to the men and women who helped build the Liberty ship fleet.

Former World War II Fairfield shipyard workers and their families are invited to the museum opening and a luncheon that will be held aboard the John Brown beginning at 11 a.m. Sept. 27. The ship is docked at Pier 1, Clinton Street, in Canton.

Space is limited and reservations are required. For reservations and other information, those interested should call Project Liberty Ship, 410-661-1550.

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