Liberty ship history

What it Was Like as a School...

 This blog was written by Gil Garcia, one of the alumni of the SS JOHN W BROWN, class of 1964.

The Brown was launched on Labor Day, September 7, 1942, at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard located in Baltimore Maryland.  Of the 2710 Liberty ships built during World War 2, only two remain operational.  The Brown is the only one the East coast.

After thirteen voyages, in the maritime service during World War 2, the ship was loaned to the NYC Board of Education by the Maritime Administration.  It was the only floating maritime high school in the country, with the mission of preparing young men for careers in the Merchant Marine service.


The Brown served as a school ship from 1946 to 1982.  It was affiliated with Metropolitan Vocational High School until 1961, Food & Maritime Vocational High School until the late 1970s, and Park West Vocational High School until 1982.

You can imagine my excitement, when in September 1961, I reported aboard as a sophomore student, at the age of 15 years old.  For most of the students, this was their first venture outside of the neighborhoods where they received their elementary education.  We got to meet other students from throughout New York City including such far away places as Long Island and Staten Island.

For a young man, what a great toy this was. We had a World War 2 ship to explore.  We wore our uniforms as a badge of honor.  There was no fooling around on the ship.  Our instructors, most of them having served in the Merchant Service, treated and expected us to act like grown men.  While on board the ship, our actions could get us hurt or hurt our fellow classmates. 

After a six month indoctrination where we all learned to go aloft, go over the side, learn our basic knots and shipboard procedures, we were assigned to our departments, being deck, engine or steward.

I was an engineering student.  My course of study included pipefitting, machine shop, and electrical theory.  In my junior year, I had to learn all of the ship’s mechanical systems, auxiliary equipment, and main engine.  During my senior year I fired the boilers, operated the auxiliary steam equipment and the ship’s main engine.


Having recently retired, after over forty years, as a licensed stationary engineer, I attribute much of the advancement and success in my trade due to the ideals and fundamentals I learned while I was a student on the school ship. 

All of our alumni members firmly believe that the Brown and our instructors were instrumental in our developmental growth and successes.

As students, we would sit at the fantail where we shared our growing up stories, along with a smoke and coke break which we earned from our instructors.  We often spoke and dreamed of what we would do if we were given the opportunity to sail the Brown out of New York harbor.  Never in my lifetime would I have imagined I would be “living the dream” so many years later, when as a crew member of Project Liberty Ship, I stood on the fantail of my school ship admiring her wake and feeling the turn of her propeller under my feet.

Project Liberty Ship originated in 1978 to preserve the ship as a memorial to the men and women that built the ships, and the merchant seamen and armed guards who sailed them.  In July 1983, the Brown was towed from New York harbor to the James River Reserve fleet. 


In 1988, Project Liberty Ship started the restoration of the Brown.  The first Living History cruise was held on the Chesapeake Bay in 1991. This year will be the Brown's 75 birthday.   She has sailed the eastern seaboard from Windsor, Ontario to Jacksonville, Florida. 

The all volunteer crew, from around the country and the world, work tirelessly to maintain the ship in operational condition.  Our motto is:


Please visit the Project Liberty Ship and Alumni Association websites.  Thank you for reading my story and that of many of my classmates. 


Project Liberty Ship, Inc is a 501(c)3 non-profit, all volunteer organization engaged in the preservation and operation of the historic ship JOHN W. BROWN as a living memorial museum. Gifts to Project Liberty Ship are tax deductible.

Trigger Happy

The JOHN W. BROWN was built with the express purpose of going to war. She was part of the worldwide logistics effort to support the United States and her allies. As an important part of the need to move men and material around the globe, merchant ships became prime targets for our enemies.

  The US began arming merchant ships with defensive armaments as an outgrowth of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. This Act had many provisions but one allowed for the government to start designing and building ships which were intended, from the beginning, to have not only self-defense weapons but the structures, such as munitions magazines, increased electrical , fire fighting and mechanical systems needed to support them.  The Liberty Ships were only one of the ship types which resulted from this effort.

  The JOHN W. BROWN, was armed with increasing amounts of weaponry as the 2nd World War progressed. She originally had a 5 in. 51 caliber main gun on the gun deck aft as her principal defense against enemy vessels. The 5 in. 51 caliber gun was developed sometime between the Spanish-American War and World War I and was intended for action against surface vessels. She also had anti-aircraft weapons which increased in number when she was designated for the Mediterranean theater, following the conversion to a partial troop transport.

  When the JOHN W. BROWN came to Baltimore in 1988 it was decided to find a weapon to place on the after gun deck to further the appearance of the ship as a WWII memorial. The major problem was that 5 in. 51 caliber guns had become incredibly rare. As a result a more modern weapon, a 5 in. 38 caliber, dual purpose gun, was found in the Reading Penn. Naval Reserve Center and it was in search of a new home!

  This gun mount was trucked to Baltimore and lifted onboard in the early 1990’s. This type of gun was shipped on many wartime merchant vessels and was appropriate as a substitution for the JOHN W. BROWN’s unobtainable vintage gun.

  An interesting part of naval weapons systems is that they are never given away but loaned to an organization for display. Thus they always belong to the Navy and U.S. Government. We are required, by the loan agreement, to maintain and display the artifact in a dignified and useful manner. As part of this commitment we have spent some of our recently awarded matching grant funds on renewing wasted steel on the gun mount deck. Every effort was made to preserve original parts where possible and reproduce material and instillation processes when necessary.

  Not only has the crew and our young weapons “Czar” Cameron M. been removing, restoring and repairing parts of the gun in conjunction with the steel work but they have started a major effort to repaint the gun and return it to pristine condition.

We welcomed some help from an interesting quarter. Young sailors, fresh out of “Boot Camp” and continuing their naval education as Public Information Officers, while at school at Fort Meade, volunteered to spend a day helping with anything we need assistance with. It seemed fitting that they should, in the spirit of the Naval Armed Guard, help with the weapons restoration and other associated displays. Bob Jackson and Cameron welcomed the group, gave them a tour of the ship and put them to work returning the 3 in. 50 caliber rounds to the ready service boxes on the upper gun deck, cleaning the M1 Garands,  as well as lending a hand with the work on the 5 in. 38 caliber main gun. In the spirit of our motto “if you feed them, they will come” Bob provided lunch for this group of newly minted sailors as his way of thanking them not only for giving us a hand but for their service to the nation.

  Soon the JOHN W. BROWN’s major defensive artifact will once again be ready for the public. There is even talk of making a canvas cover in order to protect the gun from the weather during the winter. But Cameron, Bob and the rest of the weapons gang won’t be idle long, there are three 3 in 50 caliber guns waiting for their time to shine.


Project Liberty Ship, Inc is a 501(c)3 non-profit, all volunteer organization engaged in the preservation and operation of the historic ship JOHN W. BROWN as a living memorial museum. Gifts to Project Liberty Ship are tax deductible.

Thanksgiving on the SS JOHN W BROWN

Our blog this week is a bit like stepping back in time.  We'll be going to Thanksgiving Day 25 November 1943.

There was a man named Paul Baran who was a member of the US Navy Armed Guard (they were the ones who manned the guns to protect the ship). Paul was aboard on the SS JOHN W. BROWN’s third voyage and we have lots of information about this because Paul kept a journal of each day he was  aboard.  The info we have is in the form of letters to his girlfriend.  The ship departed the Chesapeake Bay on 15 Sep 1943 for Oran, North Africa. She carried Sherman tanks, Locomotive, Purple Hearts medals, clothing, and hazardous materials.  The voyage took almost 19 days.   


From Paul Baran’s journal:

Oran NAfrica              day 65                                              Nov 24, 1943

Hello!!! Darling!!!

Well today is my liberty day so I guess I go up to the Red Cross to see a couple of movies.  I hope you don’t mind, it’s the only enjoyment there is over here.  I don’t know what I’d do with myself if they didn’t have the Red Cross.  This will be short for I’m going ashore soon.  I hope I meet someone I know today.  I hear that some of my friends are over here now. Well tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.  They brought some turkeys board today, so I guess will have a good meal for a change. Well honey! I guess I better sign off.  I wrote you another Vmail today.  I hope you get them all soon.  So long Darling & God Bless you  & have a wonderful time on Thanksgiving for both of us. Love xxx


Oran, Africa               day 66                                              Nov. 25, 1943
                                                                                       Thanksgiving Day

Hello !!! Honey!!!

          Well I sure did meet someone I know of all persons, Stinky Margie’s boyfriend. We had a nice long talk & departed. Well today is a day to be thankful & believe me honey! I’m plenty thankful. One reason is to still be alive & fighting for what I believe is right & to come home to my love one Josephine.  Oh! Yes! I went up to the Fleet Post Office while I was ashore yesterday & sent you a cablegram & one to Mom Baran.  I hope you get them soon. I saw two good movies yesterday.  “Zigfield Follies” & “This is The Army”  two good pictures. Well I wrote you another letter today. Be pulling out of here soon almost all loaded up with the French mechanized unit. So long now, God Bless you.  Love & Kisses, Paul xxx



Paul did not write about the Thanksgiving Day dinner, but we know that most Thanksgivings the crew had a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

This is a sample menu from a Liberty Ship during the war:

Tomato Soup
Roast Turkey with Oyster stuffing
Mashed potatoes
Giblet gravy
Creamed corn
Fruit & assorted nuts
Pumpkin pie

 The SS JOHN W BROWN spent five Thanksgivings away from home during the war.  Holidays are a time for people to gather with family and friends, but for merchant marines and other enlisted men, they had to work through holidays and spend extended periods of time away from their loved ones.  As we gather tomorrow with friends and family, let us be thankful for those past and present who keep us safe.  Happy Thanksgiving from the crew and members of Project Liberty Ship and the SS JOHN W BROWN!

Project Liberty Ship, Inc is a 501(c)3 non-profit, all volunteer organization engaged in the preservation and operation of the historic ship JOHN W. BROWN as a living memorial museum. Gifts to Project Liberty Ship are tax deductible.



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