Saving the SS John W. Brown

Veterans Voices

WWII ship SS John W. Brown finds permanent home in Baltimore

BALTIMORE, Md. (WDVM) — After years of bouncing from one pier to another in the Inner Harbor, the SS John W. Brown, one of only two of 2,700 World War Two Liberty ships built during WWII, has finally found a permanent home, but that’s at least two years down the road.

The Brown is returning to the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard where it was built in Baltimore and launched on Labor Day in 1942.

Volunteers like Able Seaman Mark Hannon, who has spent ten years keeping the Brown “ship shape,” is happy the ship has found a home. “It was getting a little dicey for a while there, but we’re glad we’ve found a place where it was originally built.

Mike Barnes, chairman of the Pier Committee, agrees. “We were built on Way No. 13 at that yard and will use the pier that was there in 1942.”

Photo of SS John W. Brown in final stages of contruction at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard courtesy of Project Liberty Ship

Joann Malpass, the ship’s secretary for the past 30 years, has a personal connection to the Brown. “My husband who is now deceased sailed on Liberty Ships when we were dating back in the 40s and my father worked at the shipyard and he was at Fairfield when the ship was built. I hoped he helped build the John Brown.”

Photo of SS John W. Brown leaving Baltimore for war courtesy of Project Liberty Ship

Barnes says Liberty Ships were built quickly. “They were built in modular fashion. The bow was built in 42 days in the building ways and then spent another 14 days at the fitting out pier, getting finished up, sea trials and then off to war.”

The Brown made eight wartime voyages to far away ports during WWII, before being modified to carry 650 American soldiers. The Brown also brought back German prisoners-of-war. But the Brown never fired its 3-inch cannons or 20-mm anti-aircraft guns in anger during any of those voyages.

Today, the guns fire propane charges that sound like real gunfire during six-hour cruises down the Chesapeake Bay. “We call the cruises Living History Cruises,” said Barnes, “because it gives the people on the cruises an opportunity to experience life on a ship during the 1940s in wartime.”

In addition to eating breakfast and lunch, passengers are treated to mock attacks by warbirds like Japanese Zeros.

Volunteer gunner firing propane charges from 20mm anti-aircraft during simulated attack on the SS John W. Brown courtesy of Project Liberty Ship

On January 4, 2020 the Brown left Pier C at the foot of South Clinton Street in Baltimore bound for drydock at a private shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia. While there, the U.S. Coast Guard will inspect the hull of the 441-foot ship named for a Canadian-born American labor leader in the 19th century, and certify that the ship is seaworthy. The Brown will also be repainted. The past 78 years have taken a toll on the ship.

Photo courtesy of Project Liberty Ship

When the Brown returns to Baltimore, it’s not certain where it will be temporarily berthed while its old pier at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard is restored. The lease at Pier C has expired, and Mike Barnes is in negotiations with other locations for a temporary pier that has public access. Pier C does not have such access.

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