Baltimore-based SS John W. Brown is headed to drydock in Norfolk this month for preservation. Photo: Project Liberty Ship, Inc.

WWII Liberty Ship Heads to Drydock in Norfolk, Thanks to Fundraising Rally

The World War II Liberty ship John W. Brown is a fixture on the southeast Baltimore waterfront and a treat to spot when she’s underway on the Bay. One of the last two remaining of 2,700 Liberty ships built during WWII, SS John W. Brown will soon be southbound for repairs.

The Liberty ship needs about $1.2 million in maintenance, repairs, and the cost of fuel for the 440-foot-long, 1942-built ship. Project Liberty Ship, Inc. is the volunteer-run nonprofit that owns, preserves and operates the John W. Brown. With the help of a half-million-dollar government grant and countless donors that matched that amount, Project Liberty Ship will be able to give the Brown the repairs and maintenance she needs in order to continue carrying passengers.

On July 13-14, the group will take the ship to drydock in Norfolk , where volunteers will put in an estimated 14,000 work hours. Tasks will include a full hull painting (to the tune of $300,000), fresh water tanks, preservation of the anchor chain locker, and many other technical tasks. A massive 14″ valve, weighing at least several hundred pounds, will need replacing. They will also replace the ship’s original depth finder.

Volunteers tell us they’re in a constant battle against rust and corrosion. The ship is one of few that is still riveted in many of its seams and working with them is a dying art. If any of the riveting needs to be re-done, a crew will have to be brought in from the Great Lakes. Of course, like any inspection, this drydock period could uncover additional problems that must be paid for.

After Project Liberty Ship, Inc. was able to secure some grant money, it hadn’t quite reached the amount needed. Individuals and groups also chipped in.

With $45,00 left to raise and only a few weeks before the trip, the nonprofit came up with the idea to auction off two “crew passes” to make the overnight voyage to Norfolk aboard the ship. The winners get a double bunk, food and passage aboard the John W. Brown, and a story to tell. When the auction closed, its price on Ebay was up to $3,150, bringing the ship closer to its fundraising goal.

“Donors big and small, we appreciate them all,” says Dick Sterne, an engine room volunteer on the Brown and the secretary of Project Liberty Ship. Even a person in a nursing home who is struggling to send us $10… that means a lot,” Sterne says.

Preserving this vessel is important because it stands as one of only two surviving, operational Liberty ships left. Sterne says the Brown stands out from other museum ships. “A submarine or a battleship went to war, but our ship operates. That’s the big difference—we keep it operational.”

The 81-year-old ship was converted during the war to transport 500 troops with heavy equipment. It’s the last remaining troopship of its kind that landed combat forces on a beach invasion, according to its owners. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Project Liberty Ship wants to make sure people young and old still know about the vital role the merchant marine and military veterans played in the Allied victory in World War II.

Anyone who wants to support the ship can donate here or mail a check to:

Project Liberty Ship, Inc.
P.O. Box 25846 Highlandtown Station
Baltimore, MD 21224

The work in drydock is expected to take about a month and the ship’s owners are planning activities for the fall back in Baltimore. In addition to a living history cruise, Project Liberty Ship is working with a haunted attraction company to create a ghost ship for people to tour come Halloween. Stay tuned for more details.