The History of the Liberty Ship


Happy summer everybody! We hope that everybody is staying cool and enjoying themselves. Today I want share one of our truly Phantastic Phinds that arrived the other day. This piece is so rich with history that it just needs it's own blog post.

WWII Liberty Ship hatch converted into a coffee table.
This exceptional ship hatch table was made out of a salvaged WWII Liberty Ship hatch cover. The WWII Liberty Ship was a pivotal factor in the Allies ability to defeat the Axis powers in the second World War. 

Originally British in conception, it's design was adapted for American mass production because of its simple and inexpensive construction. This class of cargo ship was developed to replace the loss of ships to German U-boats.

Liberty Ship at Sea
The American Merchant Marine Act was passed in 1936 to subsidize the construction of 50 commercial shipping vessels annually. These vessels could be used in wartime by the US Navy as naval shipping vessels. In 1939 and again in 1940 the number was doubled to a total of 200 ships per year. There were four classes of ships to be included in this act, but all were to be powered by steam turbines. 

The British government ordered 60 Ocean-class freighter ships in 1940 to replace war losses and boost their merchant fleet. At the time these ships for the British were designed with a reciprocating steam engine powered by coal. This obsolete but reliable engine design was requested because the British had extensive coal mines but no reliable access to foreign or domestic oil.

Cut away diagram of a Liberty Ship

The original design was modified by the United States Maritime Commission for American construction. Most of the design modifications were to conform to US construction practices but other changes were made to increase the speed of construction and decrease cost. The mass produced US version was designated "EC2-S-C1"
  • EC for Emergency Cargo
  • 2 for a ship between 400 and 450 feel long
  • S for their steam engines
  • C1 for its design number
The newer, American design replaced much of the expensive and time consuming riveting with welding. Oil fired boilers replaced the less efficient coal fired boilers of the ships produced for Britain in 1940. This new design was accepted as a Merchant Marine Act design and suitable for subsidized production under the Merchant Marine Act of 1939. Liberty Ships were designed to carry 10,000 tons of cargo, but during wartime, cargo loads generally exceeded this original design limit. 


2,710 Liberty Ships were produced in the United States from 1941 to 1945 easily making it the largest number of freighter ships produced from a single design at the time and probably still to this day.

Most ships of the time were constructed using rivets, to speed up construction time the ships were assembled from pre-welded sections. As it was with most industrial production of the time, most of the workforce was women due to most of the male population being enlisted in the Armed Services. By the end of the war 18 different ship yards were involved in the construction of the Liberty Ships.

The following series of pictures shows the construction of a Liberty Ship at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards in Baltimore, MD in March and April of 1943.
Day 2: Laying of the keel plates.

Day 6: Bulkheads and girders below the second deck are in place.

Day 10: Lower deck is completed & upper deck is being erected.

Day 14: Upper deck has been erected. Mast houses and after-deck house in place.

Day 24: Ship is complete and ready for launch. 
The first Liberty Ship, the SS Patrick Henry took 244 days to build and by the end the average construction time dropped to only 42 days. The Patrick Henry was launched on September 27th, 1941 by President Roosevelt. September 27th was dubbed Liberty Fleet Day as an attempt to raise the low public opinion of the ships. They had a rough start, even Time Magazine had called it an "Ugly Duckling." During the launch ceremony of the Patrick Henry, President Roosevelt cited Patrick Henry's 1775 speech that included "Give me liberty or give me death." FDR also stated that this new class of ships would bring liberty to Europe, these two quotes gave rise to the name Liberty Ship.

Some of the first Liberty Ships completed suffered from hull and deck cracks and some were actually lost to these early defects. During the course of WWII there were nearly 1,500 instances of significant brittle fractures due to low grade of steel which suffered from embitterment. It was discovered by Constance Tipper of Cambridge University that ships that were used in the North Atlantic were exposed to temperatures that could fall below a critical point and cause the hull to fracture quite easily. One of the most common types of crack began at the square corner of a hatch with coincided with a welded seam with both the weld and the corner acting as stress concentrators. Along with the poor quality of steal the ships were usually grossly overloaded and many of the problems occurred during severe storms at sea that placed the ships and crew in even more danger. Various reinforcements were applied to the design to deal with the cracks.

Post War and Today

Over 2,400 Liberty ships survived the war. Of the remaining ships 835 made up the post ware cargo fleet. 526 ships were purchased by Green entrepreneurs and 98 were sold to Italian companies. Some great shipping companies are known to have started their shipping fleets with purchased Liberty ships. Even to this day you may hear the tern "Liberty-size cargo" to describe 10,000 tons of cargo. There were even a few post war loses due to inadequately cleared naval mines.

58 Liberty ships were lengthened by 70 feet in the late 1950's. This additional 70 feet gave the ships an extra 640 long tons of cargo capacity at a small additional cost. The Maritime Administration instituted the Liberty Ship Conversion and Engine Improvement Program in the 1950's. The program's goal was to increase the speed of the older Liberty ships to 15 knots, making them more competitive with newer ships. 
In 2011, the United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp featuring the Liberty ship as part of a set on the U.S. Merchant Marine.
The SS Jeremiah O'Brien is currently one of the only 2 Liberty ships still active. You can actually get a free tour of the ship at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

More Pictures

The first day of construction

Engine Room

2011 Stamp

Unloading cargo at sea

The SS Jeremiah O' Brien passing through the Golden Gate. 

Two tourists lifting a hatch cover off of the SS Jeremiah O'Brien

Thanks for reading everyone. You can come by and see the table in person...for now.

-Mike McFadden

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