Every American’s life changed on Dec. 7, 1941. Our country had two fronts; the war front had males from 17 to 45 fighting the Axis nations. The home front required everyone to sacrifice and do their part to make America “The Arsenal for Democracy.” Even children participated by collecting scrap iron, tires, bacon grease, an ingredient for glycerin, and grew victory gardens.
Eighteen million American women of all races and ages, who were single, married or widowed, replaced men on the home front.
What did those women have to endure? First, there were negative attitudes because women replaced men. They learned new skills. Second, there were no women’s work clothes. They purchased boy’s jeans. Third, women had to arrange day-care for each child not attending school. Fourth, women’s bathrooms had to be constructed or some men’s bathrooms had to be retrofitted.
One foreman in South Portland had an all female crew. His attitude changed as he noticed how eager they were to learn while taking pride in their work. His “girls” did not take smoking breaks like the men.
In South Portland, ground was broken for the East Yard on Dec. 20, 1940. Their mission was to build Liberty ships under the Lend Lease agreement between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt. A Liberty ship could haul 10,856 tons of cargo at 13 miles per hour. Depending on the cargo; a Liberty could transport cargo from a freight train at least a mile long. South Portland Shipbuilding Corporation’s West Yard’s mission in 1941 was to increase America’s merchant ships. In 1942 East and West Yards merged to become the New England Shipbuilding Corporation.
During the War, American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty ships. The men and women at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation built and christened 264 “Liberties.” The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien was christened in South Portland on June 1943. FYI, Jeremiah O’Brien was the first American to capture an English naval vessel during the Revolutionary War.
The O’Brien made a total of seven World War II voyages to England, Northern Ireland, South American, India and Australia. Immediately after D-Day, she made 11 English Channel crossings carrying personnel and crucial supplies to establish the beachhead and push the Nazi forces inland.
After the War the O’Brien was “mothballed” in Suisun Bay, north of San Francisco. In 1979 a U.S. Maritime Administration official, a former Liberty sailor, rescued the O’Brien from the scrap yard. Hundreds of volunteers worked to restore the O’Brien to become the first ship to steam from the mothball fleet under her own power. Generous donations of money and time by individuals and corporations restored the O’Brien Sea to be certified seaworthy by the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 1994 the S.S. O’Brien steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge through the Panama Canal on her eighth voyage to England and France. Her crew was a collection of Liberty sailors in their seventies who were determined to be part of the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, D-Day. Select midshipmen from the California Maritime Academy gave some youthful energy to the crew. Of the 5,000 or more ships that formed the D-Day armada, the O’Brien was the only large ship to return in 1994.
The O’Brien was reviewed by the Queen of England from her royal yacht Britannia, visited by the President of the United States and honored on both sides of the English Channel. The first port on her return trip was her birthplace, South Portland, Maine. In six months she traveled 18,000 miles with no major repairs, a tribute to her volunteer crew, design and construction.
The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien is one of our neighbors, moored at Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Calif. Several bay cruises are scheduled each year. For more information, make a donation or become a member, call 415-942-8052, or visit http://www.ssjeremia hobrien.org/.
During World War II, women at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation were under immense pressure to get their job done right the first time while working seven days a week! If one of your female relatives made Liberties, you can stand tall and say, “Well done!”
Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.