With the German Navy taking a devastating toll on British merchant shipping during the early part of the Second World War, the UK needed new ships to be built to replace the tonnage lost and bolster the capacity for carrying much needed supplies. The Government placed an order with the United States for the construction of 60 freighters. Known as the Ocean-class of ships, the order was given to the Todd Shipyards Association, with their yards in California and Maine. The Ocean-class vessels were based largely on a previous design dating back to the late 19th Century. The first of the sixty Ocean-class ship, the ss Ocean Vanguard, was launched on 16th August 1941.
The general arrangement of the ship was modified by the United States Maritime Commission into what would become known as the Liberty Ship. The enhanced design made the vessels cheaper and faster to construct, with much of the riveting being replaced by welding. The coal-fired power plant specified by the British for the Ocean-class ships was replaced with oil-fired boilers. Liberty ships were designed to carry around 10,000 tons of cargo but under wartime conditions their loads often exceeded this. Optimised for simple, low cost and expedited construction, the Liberty Ships were mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, with eighteen American shipyards producing over 2,700 between 1941 and 1945.
The early ships required a construction time of around 230 days, however, over time, the average dropped to an astonishing 42 days. The record was set during the construction of the ss Robert E. Peary, which was launched a mere four days and 15½ hours after the keel was laid. This was a deliberate public relations exercise, however, and the incredible feat was never repeated. The Jeremiah O'Brien took just 56 days to build at the yard of the New England Shipbuilding Corporation in Maine.
The ship was named after Captain Jeremiah O'Brien, commander of the sloop Unity, who was the first American to capture a British naval vessel during the Revolutionary War. Launched on 19th June 1943, she immediately entered the service of the War Shipping Administration, and was operated by Grace Line. For the ship's first voyage, 44 merchant seaman and a 28-strong gun crew of Navy sailors were embarked and she set sail on the first in several Atlantic convoy runs in July, loaded with cargo for Britain.
Like other United States merchant vessels operating in war time, Jeremiah O'Brien carried a secret log book issued by the Navy Department. Although ships were allowed to keep regular deck and engine logs, it was prohibited to record in these any details of latitude, longitude, course steered, bearing or distance to markers, name or position of other ships or movements within in the convoy. The idea was to keep under one cover all secret information, whilst providing the master of a ship a place to record all events or observations of "naval interest".
In March 1944, after completion of her third voyage, Jeremiah O'Brien underwent maintenance and inspection at New York before loading stores and fuel for her next voyage across the Atlantic. Cargo was loaded and the ship took her position - column 13, row 2 - in a convoy of 81 ships leaving Halifax, designated Task Unit W-1, HXF 287. She arrived in Newport, South Wales, on 27th April 1944. In the following weeks, earmarked to support the Channel crossing of Operation Neptune, aircraft recognition training intensified and anti-gas drills were carried out. All hands were required to have their masks in place within seven seconds of hearing the alert "gas".
On Monday 5th June the ship anchored at Poole Bay on the south coast of England, before moving to berth in Southampton. She began loading troops and by the time this was complete the ship was crammed with soldiers. Each man carried his own rations as the crew were unable to provide them with any catering. During the night they observed the glare over the horizon from the massive Allied bombardment. The following morning, they witnessed the roar of the armada of aircraft flying towards the coast of France.
On 7th June, D+1, an officer from the Royal Navy came aboard the Jeremiah O'Brien and brought with him a special radio receiver marked "Reception Set R109". Tuned to a special frequency the device would allow the ship to be warned of attacks and receive instructions during the crossing and anchoring in Normandy. She moved to anchor near the Isle of Wight on D+2, and finally sailed for Normandy with her valuable cargo at 22:20hrs the following day. She was destined for Omaha Beach, with over 560 troops on board, plus vehicles and 161 tons of explosives. The ship would go on to make eleven round trips between Southampton and the sands of Omaha Beach and Utah Beach in the American sector of Normandy following the landings.
Following her deployment to Europe, she was sent to the other side of the world where she spent sixteen months operating in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, calling at ports in Chile, Peru, New Guinea, the Philippines, India, China, and Australia. After the War many Liberty Ships were sold or scrapped, but a number of them were deactivated but retained by the US Maritime Commission for possible use should the they be needed in support of a future military conflict. Jeremiah O'Brien became part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet and steamed into Suisun Bay in Northern California under her own power. She would be mothballed and would spend the next 33 years moored there.
In the 1970s, an idea to preserve a Second World War Liberty Ship was gathering interest. Jeremiah O'Brien, was put aside for preservation instead of being sold for scrap. An all-volunteer group called the National Liberty Ship Memorial (NLSM) acquired her in 1979 with the aim of fully restoring her. Incredibly, after 33 years of sitting idle, the antiquated steam plant was made operational by the volunteers while she sat in Suisun Bay. After more than three decades in mothballs, the ship's boilers were lit and she became the only Liberty Ship to leave the mothball fleet under her own power.
After dry-docking and hundreds of hours of restoration works Jeremiah O'Brien became a floating museum near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Dedicated to the men and women who built and sailed with the United States Merchant Marine during the Second World War, she was named a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1984 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Although operational and licenced to makes journeys around San Francisco Bay, further restoration work was required to make her capable of one final journey to the beaches of Normandy in 1994. For the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, Jeremiah O'Brien and her volunteer crew made her way through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to Southampton - a port she visited repeatedly in 1944. She also visited London, where for a time she was moored alongside another maritime veteran of the Normandy Landings HMS Belfast. Following the Queen's Spithead Review in the Solent, Jeremiah O'Brien then crossed the Channel with dozens of other vessels, including the cruise ships Canberra and Queen Elizabeth 2, to take part in the Normandy ceremonies.
In 1997, her engine room was used to film scenes for James Cameron's epic film Titanic. Today, she still operates from her base at Pier 45 in San Francisco, and can be visited whilst alongside where visitors can explore much of her hull and superstructure. You can visit the official ss Jeremiah O'Brien website here. Only three Liberty Ships remain today, with ss John W. Brown being the only other operational example. The third ship, originally christened Arthur M. Huddell is a museum ship moored in Greece, now named the Hellas Liberty.
In May 2020, the ship narrowly avoided disaster when dockside building adjacent to her berth caught fire. The huge blaze lit up the night sky, and flames cames perilously close to the ship itself.