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Liberty Ships: The “Ugly Ducklings” that Transformed Greek Shipping

liberty ship greek shipping.
Liberty Ship USS George Eastman. The US’ Liberty Ships revolutionized Greek shipping. Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Liberty Ships, first built during World War II,  transformed the Greek shipping industry.

By Lia Mageira

“Your safety altogether depends upon the sea.”
Xenophon, 4th century BC, Greek historian and philosopher

During World War II, between 1941 and 1945, a total of 2,711 cargo ships with a capacity of about 10,000 tons each were built at 18 shipyards in the United States. These ships became known by the code name “Liberty,” with a code designation of Ec-2.

The construction of each ship — which was for the most part carried out by females, since young males were off to war — cost from $1,550,000 to $2,100,000, depending on the shipyard where the vessel was built.

The Liberty ships were 133 meters (436 feet) long and 17 meters (58) wide. They were equipped with a 3-cylinder steam engine, with 2,500 horsepower, and could develop a speed of 11 knots carrying a full load of over 10,000 tons. They had five load hulls, three at the front and two at the rear, with a raised bridge.

Construction of a Liberty Ship required 3,400 tons of hard steel for the frame
and baffles only; 2,750 tons of sheet metal; about 700 tons of molded materials and about 50,000 cast metal parts.

The application of electro-welding allowed the rapid construction of ships according to the
specifications developed by Henry Kaiser, an American industrialist who became known as
the father of modern American shipbuilding.

Liberty ships built at rapid speed

On no other occasion in world history have the concepts of “shipbuilding” and “production”
been the same. Their shipbuilder himself said: “I do not construct, nor manufacture, but I
produce ships!”

The Oregon Shipbuilding Co. completed the construction of the first ship in 253 days, of the
10th in 154 days, and the 19th in an incredible 86 days. The Richmond Shipyard in California completed one ship in an astounding 16 days! By 1944 the average time to build a Liberty ship was less than 42 days!

The initiative for their construction is due to the continuous loss of ships of Allied Forces that participated in the Atlantic convoys, transporting valuable supplies necessary for the
successful outcome of the War.

The need for rapid replacement of lost ships led to the adoption of shipbuilding by the method of electro welding. It was a method that was rarely used at that time where almost all ships were built in the traditional way, with bolts.

As a result, many were quick to label them as “disposable” ships, in other words, ships whose role was limited during World War II. However, the course of events turned out to be quite different.

Liberty ships dodged torpedoes and mines

These ships not only survived the War but went on to play an important role in global shipping for more than 25 years afterward. Liberty Ships carried all the weight of transport during the war.

The 10-knot, slow-moving ships carried millions of tons of ammunition, supplies, tanks, oil and coal, locomotives, military vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and all kinds of materials on all war fronts from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

They were the ships that defied mines, escaped deadly torpedoes, and traveled through war zones. With their limited military equipment, some of them even shot down German aircraft and sunk submarines.

A Liberty Ship was considered to have successfully completed her mission if she made even one full transatlantic voyage. Of the Liberty Ships lost during the war, 50 were lost on their
maiden voyage. They usually crossed the Atlantic in 15 days.

The first Liberty was launched on September 27, 1941, ten weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She was named the PATRICK HENRY in honor of an American citizen who became part of history for his declaration in 1775: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

During the War, a total of 182 Liberty Ships sailed under the British ensign, 38 under the Russian flag, and 15 under the Greek flag.

Theodore Roosevelt referred with no flattering words to their ungraceful lines, while Time Magazine characterized them as “ugly ducklings;” many others referred to them as “ships for one single voyage”.

The Liberty Ships, however, which played a key role in the outcome of the war, were to last a very long time indeed. After the end of World War II, the US Navy decided to keep some of them ready to serve the needs of the US in case of another war, and the rest would be sold to third countries for commercial purposes.

Liberty ships transformed Greek shipping

The Liberty Ships would now participate in peaceful missions. The “ugly ducklings”, now colorful and without their light weapons, transported cargo around the world during the first post-war decades. There are four surviving Liberty Ships to this day.

Two ships — still fully functional — are anchored in the USA (in Maryland and in San Francisco Harbor) and are floating museums, retaining their original colors. There is another one in Alaska that has been converted into a factory. The fourth is anchored in  Piraeus harbour in Greece.

Nowadays, the “Hellas Liberty,” (as it is renamed) is the largest floating museum in the
Mediterranean Sea.

It was December 2008 when the ship sailed under tow, from the USA. She arrived at Piraeus Harbor after a journey of 35 days, arriving to great fanfare at the port.

With the anchors set, restored, with the flag waving at the stern, without a trace of rust on her and with her bow facing the mouth of the port, she looks ready to set sail once again at the advanced age of 77.

It is no coincidence that scenes from international and Greek film productions have been
shot there.

The ship hosts events and classes, while two others host permanent exhibitions.

The ship’s accommodation is also fully accessible to visitors, as is her deck, her bronze instruments and her radio.

Of the approximately 2,350 remaining ships after the War, 450 were sold by the U.S. government to the Allies on favorable terms. The “blessed ships” bought by Greek shipowners formed the core of the renaissance of post-war shipping, which made the Greek merchant marine a major world power of the seas.

The Liberty Ships, once in Greek hands, worked non-stop for three decades, transporting every possible type of cargo. Those who worked on the Liberty Ships called them “blessed ships”.

Two-thirds of all Liberty Ships sailing in peacetime came under the control of Greek owners
at some time until the late 1960s. These were truly the “Blessed Ships”.

“Dominance at sea is a big thing.”
Thucydides, Greek historian, 5th century BC

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