WWII Liberty Ship


Every occupation and/or art generates its own language for many reasons. The tradition of seafaring goes back almost as far as civilization and is said to be in the running for the title of the oldest profession. It has, as a result, developed a rich language of its own derived from many languages and cultures reaching back through time.

  Part of the unofficial mission of Project Liberty Ship and the crew of the JOHN W. BROWN is to not only memorialize the history of Liberty Ships in general and one Liberty Ship in particular but to help preserve the language and traditions of the maritime community. Seafarers have made what is considered “modern society” possible (regardless of when in history one defines modern) through the not so simple act of moving goods across the globe at a cost which makes the products of one nation affordable anywhere on the globe. The maritime industry and the seamen who are an indispensable part of it have learned to communicate across national and cultural barriers and have created a unique culture with its own language and customs.

  I have been asked why it is so important to remember that we are standing on a deck or that you can lean against a floor but you cannot stand on a floor without hurting your feet. The answer is simple. If you want to become a part of anything you must first learn the language. Maritime language is specific in its nature and is practiced not to maintain a separation from common people but in order to ensure that important information can be transmitted clearly and precisely during times of danger, high stress, adverse weather, poor hearing conditions and the lack of any common language save that of the sea. It is unthinkable that when sailing in heavy weather one could tell someone (while shouting over the wind’s roar) to “go up there and slip that rope, from the sail up there, around that round thingie so I can turn down wind”. A mariner would simply say “go forward and ease the sheet while I bear off”.  Another good example would be don’t say “there is a ship or something, over there (pointing in a general way) which looks like it’s getting bigger, moving from right to left (said while facing aft and gesturing with your right and left hands)”. Far better and less likely to cause, at a minimum a number of questions, would be “there is a ship on the starboard bow moving from stbd. to port and closing”. This rather unambiguous report would tell the person in charge everything he needs to know in order to keep the vessel safe.

  So I present my first attempt at “Nauti-language”. This is a glossary of maritime language based on what I have been taught during years of bumping up against the culture of the seafarer. I began this project believing that I could cross check things and take the cultural high ground. I find that it is much more difficult and resource intensive than I would have imagined. I will try to confirm the meaning of the words and phrases I include and am sure (and welcome) that some of my pronouncements will generate debate.

I hope you enjoy my glossary of Nauti-language.


Richard Bauman


Able Seaman:    The second rank for unlicensed deck persons in the deck department. Often abbreviated as A.B. Originally this rating was granted to men who could “set,       reef and steer”. An A.B. is still assumed to be a person who can and will go aloft. The term “able bodied” has no history in the maritime or naval services and is a good indicator that a “lubber” is speaking.  Here are pictures of crew in the deck department.  Not all of them are A.B.'s but many are. 


Lubber:                Derisive term for an un-seaman-like person, reportedly derived from “land lover. Its not a term we usually use, since we're TRYING to get more visitors  and passengers on the ship.  

Aloft:                     Overhead especially up the mast. When a sailor dies he is said to have gone aloft.


Above:                 To go above is to move to a higher deck or up onto the open deck.

Alow:                    Everything which is below the deck. It is also a term to describe a sailing vessel when drifting down wind, due to heavy weather or abandonment.

Below:                  To go below is to move to a lower deck or to go into the house or hull and “out of the weather”.


Master:                The captain of a merchant vessel - due to the fact that the officer in charge must obtain a master’s certificate before taking command. Derived from an           old naval rank at first equal to lieutenant and later commander, the master was in charge of navigation. The title of captain was reserved for the military officer in charge of a naval vessel. Later the term “master and commander” was assigned to the senior naval officer.

   Note: There is no certificate or license for captain! When someone says they have a “captain’s” license they have never bothered to read the certificate they hold. Even naval officers are captain by virtue of their military orders not a license!

DSC00877 1.jpg


Mate:                    In naval ratings a mate is a petty officer serving under a warrant officer, such as Boatswain’s mate. On merchant vessels a mate is next in line of command after the master. Today the mates are ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd according to the license they hold and their experience level.


Flake:                    To lay out a line or chain up and down the deck so that the whole length is exposed.


Fiddle:                  A rack fixed to a table to stop things from sliding off.


Floor:                    The bottom part of the frames where they become horizontal or nearly so. The floors of modern ships are almost always in the bilge or double- bottoms and form, with the keel, the structural backbone of the vessel. The floor in a steel ship is a piece of steel plate stood on edge and athwartships, thus “you can stand on the floor but you’ll hurt your feet”.

Deck:                     The nautical name for what would be a floor in a building ashore. A deck inside the hull must reach from side to side but not necessarily all the way from stem to stern.

Ceiling:                 The planking or any material which covers the inside of any compartment on a vessel. The ceiling may cover the overhead, bulkheads or even the floors where they are not covered with a deck. A ceiling is any interior structure which prevents direct viewing of the structural components of a vessel.


Bulkhead:            A vertical partition either athwartship or fore and aft.

Escutcheon:       A shield or plate hung from the stern of a vessel showing its name and port of registry. Often escutcheons were very elaborate on sail vessels but modern regulation requires the same information be painted directly on the hull.

Stem:                    The fore most part of a vessel’s hull; the bow. The part of the hull which cuts the water when a vessel is moving forward.


Stern:                    The after most part of the hull. The stern may have many shapes from fine to round to a flat transom. The stern is often the most expensive part of the hull to build and to repair as its structure is intricate and must accommodate the rudder(s) and propeller(S) as well as be strong enough to withstand overtaking seas.

Starboard:           The right side and direction of a vessel when looking forward. It is believed to have been derived from the term “steer board”. One of the first methods of steering a vessel was with a board or oar trailed behind the ship. Early ships generally had a high stern post and the steering board was usually lashed to the right side of this post, thus becoming known as the “steer board side”.


Port:                      The left side and direction of a vessel when looking forward. Originally called the larboard side this term was easily confused with starboard and was abandoned in favor of port. (The British were one of the last maritime nations to do so!) Port is generally believed to have derived from the fact that the “steer board” side of a ship was not the best side to land against a pier due to the possibility of damaging the steer board. The left side of the ship was the best side to land at a port for unloading and thus the name port side!

Stay tuned for more Nauti-language coming to a blog near you, soon.  Thanks for reading and following us. 


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.


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.

Back to Top ↑