Last summer’s Sailabration brought the rare yet familiar site of dozens of tall ships to Baltimore Harbor. For a different experience, visit the World War II Liberty Ship John W. Brown, which is 70 years old this year.
Launched on Labor Day, 1942, the 441-and-a-half foot steel ship, grey and austere, lacks the grace and romance of an 1812-era schooner. But the John W. Brown embodies a different facet of the human spirit—toil and persistence, organization, giving and receiving orders, doing what’s necessary to get the job done.
Built in just 56 days at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard on Sparrows Point, the Brown first voyaged to the Persian Gulf, with supplies and war materials for our World War II ally, Russia. It then served as a “limited capacity troopship,” ferrying personnel and cargo between ports in the Mediterranean Sea.
The John W. Brown carried nearly 10,000 troops during her active career, both during and immediately after World War II. At two points, she carried shiploads of prisoners of war from North Africa to the United States.
John W. Brown the man was a labor leader, at various times in carpentry, mining, and shipbuilding. After his untimely death from an accidental discharge of his hunting rifle in 1941, the Liberty Ship that today sits at Pier 1 in Canton was named for him.
The John W. Brown is preserved and curated by Project Liberty Ship, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization of volunteers.
“It’s like a family,” said Mike Schneider, a retired Navy captain and former chairman of Project Liberty Ship. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect. That’s one of the benefits of an all-volunteer organization.”
Schneider said that of the 1,700 to 1,800 people that officially volunteer on the John W. Brown, there is a core group of “150 to 160 members in a five-state area who are on the ship four times a month.”
Though the sea is often the common denominator, the volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds—Navy, Merchant Marine, engineering, and history buffs.
Eighty percent are retired.
“There are a lot of retired folks who are happy to get together with people they like and work on a project they find rewarding,” he said.
The core volunteers do more than preserve the ship. They offer its use as an educational tool for any student involved in aspects of the marine, engineering, or history. Prior to coming to Baltimore, in fact, the John W. Brown was a floating vocational school in New York for 35 years after World War II.
Today, the ship continues to offer opportunities to young people. It’s a popular sleep-aboard destination for local Scout troops. According to Schneider, the crew assists them in obtaining maritime-related merit badges on board the John W. Brown.
It’s also a popular destination for high school students interested in maritime industry or engineering. Volunteering aboard the Brown is an early step in pursuing a career in one of those fields. The John W. Brown usually attracts mature students who know where they want to go and have a good idea of how to get there.
“This project makes old people young and young people old,” joked Schneider.
Former Brown volunteers include sisters Karen and Alaina Basciano, both graduates of Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy. Karen took an apprenticeship with the Sandy Hook Pilots. Basically, a pilot boards a ship entering a harbor and guides it safely to dock.
Alaina has obtained a Second Mate’s license and hopes to also get an apprenticeship with the Sandy Hook Pilots.
“Alaina was 10 when she started [on the John W. Brown],” said Schneider.
The Brown’s reciprocating steam engine, though not feasible for modern vessels, is an attraction to engineers.
“These were obsolete before they were put into ships,” said Schneider, “but they could be installed during war time.”
He added that the technology comes from British tramp steamers of the early 1900s.
Hollywood has visited the John W. Brown multiple times—the similar-style lifeboats made the ship a good fit for a documentary on the Titanic.
Series such as “Empires of Industry” and “Undersea Detectives” have filmed on the Brown.
It’s a lot of action for a big, grey ship that’s a little off the beaten path and not readily noticed by passers-by. Since Project Liberty Ship began, the John W. Brown has visited 29 ports outside of Baltimore.
“We have entertained thousands more visitors in other ports,” said Schneider.
The John W. Brown is open to visitors on Wednesdays and Saturdays. For more information, visit liberty-ship.com or call 410-558-0646.
by Erik Zygmont