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Liberty Ships

82 of these World War II vessels were constructed in Jacksonville

The circumstances were grim. The year was 1941. War raged only an ocean away. The country and the citizens rallied in an unparalleled effort. In a four-year span, at eighteen U.S. cities, 2,710 identical Liberty Ships were constructed in record setting time; Jacksonville, Florida, and the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company were an essential part of that effort.

Jacksonville’s first Liberty Ship,the Ponce de Leon.

Liberty Ships were crucial to the country’s challenge.  More than two-thirds of all cargo leaving the U.S. was carried by these ships; among other items, the ships hauled fuel, bullets, bandages, k-rations, and blankets to war theaters overseas.  In fact, the vessels were poetically called, the “cargo-carrying key to Allied Victory.” 

However, the lumbering and sparsely armed ships were vulnerable. A total of 200 Liberty Ships were lost to enemy action during WW II.  With 200,000 Merchant Seamen serving between 1941 and 1946, and the loss of life totaling 6,795, the seamen suffered a higher percentage of casualties than any of the services.  General Douglas McArthur once stated that he held “no branch in higher esteem than the merchant marine services.”

Today, only two of the Liberty Ships remain intact, the John W. Brown, docked at Baltimore, and the Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco. Both serve as floating living history museums with all volunteer crews. The Brown was also the first of more than 200 Liberty Ships fitted for troops; she also holds the distinction as the last surviving troop ship.

The first Liberty Ship, the Patrick Henry was built in 245 days.  The record was set with the Robert E. Peary, a ship completed in 4 days, 15 hours and 29 minutes.  However, the average time to build a Liberty Ship in 1943, when construction of these vessels was at a peak, was 30 days.  The average cost per vessel was $1.5 million.

LEFT: "By the middle of  1943 many new welding trainees at the Jacksonville yard were being trained by a lady who may well have been the best looking ‘Rosie’ in the country.  She was Wynona P. Ely, said to be pretty enough to be a G.I. pinup girl in spite of the fact that she, like all lady welders, was denied the use of make-up on the job and had to wear ungainly overalls and low-heeled shoes.”  (excerpted from the book, Liberty: The Ships that Won the War)  The photo above is from the Merrill family collection.  No one is certain of her identity, but it is possible she is Wynona Ely.  Can you help identify her?

James E. Merrill (far right) is master of ceremonies at the Jacksonville launching of the S.S. William Crane Gray, July 12, 1944.  From left to right is Ophelia Strum, Mrs. Louie Strum (who christened the ship), Bishop Arthur Lea, Mrs. J. Hilton Holmes, Mr. Raymond Knight (shipyard officer), Capt. Louis H. Strum, and Mr. James C. Merrill.

Names of Jacksonville’s 82 Liberty Ships Note History of Era and Remember Legends

The Jacksonville shipyard where Liberty Ships were built was one of 18 emergency shipyards nationwide.  Construction of the Jacksonville yard began in 1942 and was part of a partnership with a New York firm of contractors and the local Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock & Repair Company, known locally for shipbuilding and ship repair since the nineteenth century.

In all, the Jacksonville yard produced 82 of the country’s 2,700 Liberty Ships.  Only the Brown and the Jeremiah O’Brien survive as intact ships; however, three other hulls are still afloat, and among them is the S.S. Arthur M. Huddell, built in Jacksonville. 

Movie star Veronica Lake was in Jacksonville September 23, 1942 
for a war bond rally. She’s seen here with Merrill Company 
employee Luke Bramlitt. That’s young Haydon Burns, second from left.

Liberty Ships were traditionally named for individuals who were no longer living and who had made a significant contribution to American life.  Some of the later ships were named for merchant seamen who died during the war. The names of Jacksonville Liberty Ships reveal both area and national history and sentiment of the time. Many of the names will be of interest to history buffs.  Liberty Ships built in Jacksonville and the dates of completion are listed below: 

Ponce de Leon, Apr. ‘43; John Gorrie, May ’43; Francis Asbury, May ’43; John Crittenden, June ’43; Sidney Lanier, July ’43; Robert Y. Hayne, July ’43; Richard Montgomery, July ’43; John Philip Sousa, Aug.’43; Henry Watterson, Aug.’43; George Dewey, Aug.’43; William Byrd, Sept. ’43; Rufus C. Dawes, Sept. ’43; Thomas Sully, Sept. ’43; Dwight W. Morrow, Oct. ’43; John S. Mosby, Oct. ’43; Grant Wood, Oct. ’43, Edward M. House, Nov. ’43; Harvey Cushing, Nov. ’43; William G. Sumner, Nov.’43; Peter Stuyvesant, Nov.’43; James Screven, Dec. ’43; Napoleon B. Broward, Dec. ’43; Arthur M. Huddell, Dec. 43; Owen Wister, Dec. ’43; Elizabeth C. Bellamy, Dec. ’43; John White, Jan. ’43.

Royal S. Copeland, Jan. ’44; John Einig, Jan.’44; Edwin G. Weed, Feb. ’44; Andrew Turnbull, Feb. ’44; Henry S. Sanford, March ’44; James L. Akerson, Mar. ’44; Edward W. Bok, Mar. ’44; Thomas A. McGinley, Mar. ’44; Frederick Tresca, April ’44; Edward A. Filene, Apr. ’44; Richard K. Call, Apr. ’44; August Belmont, Apr. ’44; Arthur R. Lewis, May ’44; George E. Merrick, May ’44; James K. Paulding, May ’44; Thomas J. Lyons, June ’44; Raymond Clapper, June ’44; Hugh J. Kilpatrick, June ’44; Noah Brown, June ’44; Hendrik Willem Van Loon, June ’44; Stephen Beasley, July ’44; Jasper F. Cropsey, July ’44; William Crane Gray, July ’44; Ethelbert Nevin, July ’44; W.S. Jennings, Aug.’44; Filipp Mazzei, Aug ’44.

Henry Hadley, Aug. ’44; Alfred I. DuPont, Aug. ’44; Irvin S. Cobb, Aug. ’44; Negley D. Cochran, Sept. ’44; Anna Dickinson, Sept. ’44; John Ringling, Sept. ’44; Michael De Kovats, Sept. ’44; John H. McIntosh, Sept. ’44; Jerry S. Foley, Oct. ’44; Robert Mills, Oct. ’44; Morris C. Feinstone, Oct. ’44; David L. Yulee, Oct. ’44; George E. Waldo, Oct. ’44; Henry B. Plant, Nov. ’44; Frederic W. Galbraith, Nov. ’44; C.W. Post, Nov. ’44; Junius Smith, Nov. ’44; Isaac M. Singer, Nov. ’44; Telfair Stockton, Nov. ’44; Louis Bamberger, Dec. ’44; Isaac Mayer Wise, Dec. ’44; Henry B. Plant II, Dec. ’44; Walter M. Christiansen, Dec. ’44; Grover C. Hutcherson, Dec. ’44. Fred C. Stebbins, Jan. ’44; Harold A. Jordan, Jan. ’45; John Miller, Jan. ’45; James H. Courts, Jan ’45; Fred Herrling, Feb. ’45; and Thomas L. Haley, Feb. ’45.

“Speed —more speed,” says the sign.  This was the all-important mantra during World War II.  Jacksonville’s first Liberty Ship, the Ponce de Leon took 9 months to build.  The record for completion of a Jacksonville Liberty Ship was the S.S. Telfair Stockton, launched in 31 days!

Liberty Ship S.S. John W. Brown Visited Jacksonville June 4 -10, 2002

One of Two Remaining Liberty Ships

The John W. Brown, a sixty-year-old Liberty Ship, steamed into Jacksonville in early June, 2002. During World War II, more than 2,700 Liberty Ships were constructed throughout the nation;  Jacksonville produced 82 of the ships. The Brown was docked at the foot of Jacksonville’s Newnan Street for a six-day stay, and Jacksonville Historical Society members attended a June 6th reception at the Adam’s Mark Hotel, followed by a tour of the vessel.

From 1946 to 1982, the Brown served as a floating high school for the city of New York. Project Liberty Ship relocated the Brown to Baltimore in 1988; since that time, 9 million in cash and 8 million in in-kind services have been donated to the ship’s restoration.

The Brown is owned by Project Liberty Ship, a non-profit organization with 3,000 members. Her history includes nine voyages during WW II, participation in the D-Day Invasion in Southern France, and transport of German POW’s from North Africa to the U.S.  From 1946 to 1982, the Brown served as a floating high school for the city of New York. Project Liberty Ship relocated the Brown to Baltimore in 1988; since that time, 9 million in cash and 8 million in in-kind services have been donated to the ship’s restoration.

To learn more about Project Liberty Ship, click here.


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Jacksonville Historical Society
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Emily LisskaExecutive Director
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Jacksonville Historical Society  Archives at Old St. Luke’s
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