Thursday, September 28, 2017

S.S. John W. Brown, Liberty Ship

On Saturday I met up with DCUE in Baltimore to explore one of the last remaining three liberty ships in the world, the S.S. John W. Brown. There were originally 2700. The second ship is in San Francisco while the third is in Greece. The Brown is still a sea faring vessel and has cruises a couple of times a year to raise funds. All restoration and maintenance works is paid for by voluntary contributions.
Today we had all happily paid for this opportunity to explore and photograph the ship, and meet some of the volunteers working on board. Our group was given a brief oversight in which this cargo ship was likened to being a 'pick-up truck of the sea' which I liked. The deck had many huge metal loops, painted bright yellow, which had once held down many vehicles, such as planes, tanks and jeeps, along with other heavy equipment and guns. Because there would have been so much cargo, wooden platforms would then have been constructed for people to walk over the top. I stood there for a while picturing this in my mind as I looked about the boat. There were 5 ton booms as well as a 55 ton boom used for swinging tanks and planes on board. Once fully loaded, the ship would sit in the water 3 ft from the top of the plimsoll line.
On board there was a museum area with many photos and explanations of the construction, the engine and the ship personnel, and the man after whom the ship was named. The vessel was built here in Baltimore with Bethlehem steel that was carried down on a railroad from Bethlehem, PA to Fairfield in Baltimore.  There was also a small chapel area, in a nautical theme which was very endearing.
Because most of our group had made a beeline to go down below, I had stayed up on deck to avoid crowding, but after a couple of minutes I became restless; there was only one place I wanted to be, and that was the engine room.
I climbed through a hatch and followed my nose, past a dining area with photos and posters from when the ship was operational, down some stairs and then I found the open door, towards which a wonderful oily fragrance was drawing me.
This diagram sat on top of the engine, a triple expansion steam engine, which powered more ships than any other steam engine. Because of the thick bunker oil that once lubricated it, to get up to full steam would take two days. now it only takes 12 hours. It moves up and down 4ft 76 times a minute, something I would have loved to watch, but today the engine was quiet, the staff performing maintenance checks instead.
The desk where the crew kept returning to, marking jobs done and seeing what was next on the agenda.
Today was the day for flushing water through parts of the engine, so metal filters were wrapped with towels, then suspended in the water to catch any debris or globules of oil.
Looking up at tags for emergency shut off valves and up through the engine room walkways. I kept walking back and forth along these grate pathways, loving the tight corners and the maze like effect, constantly turning tight corners or squeezing between pistons and water tanks. I likely walked a longer distance in the engine room than I did around all the upper decks.
Then, oh joy, I was shown a small hatch, which I would likely have passed by without noticing, but then again, no, I walked about so much down here, I would have come across it, but this doorway led to a dimly lit tunnel in which was housed the drive shaft. I was so excited to see this, wishing I could sit and watch it while it was running. For some reason it made me think of the inside of a Star Trek Federation space ship, the huge long metal pipe disappearing into the distance.
Not sure what this guy was doing but he was so involved in his task I didn't want to interrupt him. He had no idea that I took this photograph, he was so intent on his work.
Original tools for the engine room and the huge shiny and smooth pistons. I had to touch one of these, just a tiny finger tip dab, and the metal actually felt warm, coated in a fine film of oil.
The generators that make the electricity for the vessel.
This shot was from the top of the engine room, looking down between all those pipes. I felt I should leave and at least check out the rest of the ship. I hadn't even seen what else there was on board, so I slowly climbed the up the stairs and back out into the gangway.
I came across a tool room, and spotted an incredibly neatly detailed chart on the door which grabbed my attention, a huge work room with spare parts labeled on shelves, some bunks, which didn't look the least bit comfortable and the medical room, which appeared downright horrific and extremely basic.
I met an interesting elderly gentleman in the wheel room, who saw me inspecting the folded signal flags in pigeon holes and told me some stories regarding them. He has a bumper sticker on his car depicting the Delta flag, which of course few people would recognize, but I loved it. Click here for the flag meanings.
When I had been down in the engine room I had spotted huge round open pipes and correctly guessed that they were air vents. One of the mechanics explained further that they led up to giant funnels on the deck, which could be rotated to catch the wind. One side of the ship would have them turned into the wind so the air blew down into the engine room, and the other side of the ship would have them turned away from the wind so the air in the engine room would be drawn up. In recent years the mechanics have added fans inside the pipes to further assist this wind flow.
 I strolled around the crew's deck, checking out their cabins and sleeping quarters, walked around the whole upper deck but soon found myself heading back down below to the engine room, down to the heart of the ship. I loved the smell, the metal sounds of tools clanging against machinery and the silky feel of the engine oil greasing pipes and shafts and joints.
The top of the engine, the first thing you see when you step down into the engine room,...
... and looking down to the lower two levels, where some of my group were working at their shots.
This brass box caught my eye, since it had some beer labels hanging from it. It's a box that holds the correct amount if oil needed for lubricating the engine for one day. The guys thought it was amusing to add the tags, but I'd rather have drunk the engine oil than the beers on offer here!
More toweling filters being added to metal cylinders which would then be submerged into water underneath the trapdoors over which they were suspended.
I spotted these little tufts that looked like woolen threads hanging down in pairs from narrow pipes. I saw they were saturated with oil and wondered if they were catching the drips from the pipes. I was wrong. They were actually being fed tiny amounts of oil from the pipes, and then as the pistons moved up and down, the shoulders would gently touch these tufts. An ingenious lubrication system.
Absolutely everything down here was aesthetically pleasing to me, these wonderfully meandering walkways, the maze of pipes, the buttons, switches and valves, those gloriously massive pistons, and even the color scheme, which is actually chosen by the Captain, who could order everything to be painted in hot pink if he so liked. I might have to dare him...
I leisurely ambled about some more, just looking at everything down here and studying every angle, trying to imagine what it would sound like when it's cutting through the ocean waves. There will be a 'living cruise' on the ship next June, and I intend to be on it. The ship will sail and we will be allowed in the engine room while its actually running. I'm almost bouncing in my seat in anticipation as I write this.
 I very reluctantly climbed up the ladder for the last time and made my way up to the group where we posed for a photo.
While we waited to leave, a 95 year old gentleman came on board who had served on a liberty ship as an electrician during WWII. I had to have his photo and was pleased that the guy on the left posed too. He had been my main source of information in the engine room, patiently answering all my questions, and had opened the secret hatch door to the drive shaft, offering me a view before I'd even spotted the doorway. He had held the door open as though it were the lid of a treasure chest, I'll never forget that. Magical.
There's some great photos and more information here.
And finally, 
“I emphasize to all of you the simple historic fact that throughout the period of our American life, going way back into colonial days, commerce on the high seas and freedom of the seas has been the major reason for our own prosperity and for the building up of our country….We propose that these ships sail the seas as they are intended to. We propose to the best of our ability to protect them from torpedo, from shell, or from bomb.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the launch of the first Liberty Ship, September 27, 1941.