Moving

It’s time for a bit TLC for San Francisco’s Liberty ship

Sometimes, amidst all the gloom and doom, people forget the spirit of doership that has characterized San Francisco since its gold rush days. It’s a volunteer spirit that has kept the city alive through good times and bad.

A good example is the old gray steamer Jeremiah O’Brien, which docked at Pier 35 on the San Francisco waterfront. The O’Brien is a Liberty ship, one of 2,710 nearly identical cargo ships built for emergency service during World War II. The O’Brien was built on June 19, 1943 at the New England Shipbuilding Corp. shipyard. launched in Portland, Maine. Construction took only 56 days. The ship was expected to last a few voyages, or maybe five years. Monday is the ship’s 80th birthday.

Although born in New England, the O’Brien has lived most of his life on the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only is the ship a respected veteran – it took part in the D-Day invasion – it’s also a survivor.

It’s also a story from San Francisco. After 33 years in a state of dormancy, the O’Brien was brought back to life in 1979 by volunteers with the support of San Francisco industry and unions and transformed into a living monument on the city’s waterfront. A few years later, another volunteer crew sailed the old ship from San Francisco to France to celebrate the 50th anniversary of D-Day, an 18,000 mile journey. The O’Brien was the only ship of this vast 1944 armada to return to Normandy.

“Only the people of the San Francisco shore could have done that,” said retired Admiral Thomas Patterson, an old Liberty sailor who spearheaded the ship’s rebirth and organized the voyage to Normandy.

I must admit that I am not an impartial observer when it comes to Jeremiah O’Brien. I signed on as a Chronicle reporter to cover the voyage to Normandy, loved the ship, and eventually returned to crew work. Maybe it was the sea air, maybe it was a few tricks at the wheel, steering the ship at sea, so I stayed on the ship myself as a volunteer.

It was interesting to be part deckhand, part steward, trying to keep an old ship running. Unlike most museum ships, the O’Brien still makes occasional trips around San Francisco Bay. The next will take place during Fleet Week in October. Before that, however, the ship must be in dry dock for necessary maintenance work.

It is an operation that takes place every five years. Also expensive. This will cost around 1.2 million US dollars, all privately raised. The National Liberty Ship Memorial, the non-profit organization that owns the ship, receives no public funding. The O’Brien has to make a living.

People work on the ship for different reasons. William Wood, the newest crew member, became a lecturer because he has an interest in history and enjoys volunteering. “I volunteer for events. “I even volunteered with tax preparation,” he said. He’s an East Coast transplant recipient who discovered the O’Brien while walking down the Embarcadero and seeing a piece of living history. He boarded, found the ship was looking for volunteers, and signed on last week.

Bill Grieg, the first mate, came on after a career at sea because ships like the O’Brien were part of his family heritage. Grieg is a master seaman who spent 27 years as a ship’s pilot on the San Francisco Bay, moving hundreds of ships. When the O’Brien needed a bay cruising pilot, Captain Grieg would often volunteer on his day off. When he retired, he was drawn back to the ship.

Grieg’s father Jack served in the British Royal Navy during World War II as a senior seaman aboard a small warship, escorting merchant convoys carrying vital supplies to the port of Murmansk in Russia’s far north. It was the most feared convoy operation of the war. The Germans had bases in Norway and sent submarines, planes and surface ships to wreak havoc among the slow-moving merchant ships. It was a desperate duty. Many ships were lost. “If you fell overboard in that freezing cold water, you would surely die,” Grieg recalled when told by his father. He remembers seeing another ship, this one flying the American flag, at the edge of a convoy. It was the Patrick Henry, the first of the 2,710 Liberty ships built during the war.

The Liberty ships and other cargo ships that followed brought with them the guns, tanks, troops, and sinew of war that were key to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. The British have never forgotten it.

“Years later, my family visited me in San Francisco. “My father discovered the O’Brien,” said Grieg. “‘If I lived here, I would be on this ship every day,’ my father told me. “So my family heritage drew me to the ship.”

Eddie and Josi Holleman, a married couple, had a different reason. They are both native San Franciscans and after giving up their careers in Florida, they returned to the city and joined the O’Brien crew. They both had military experience and liked the look of the gray ship. That was 10 years ago.

“We did everything on board,” she said, “He also worked in the engine room and I worked in the office.” We were also remoras. “Now we’re the stewards, we cook for the crew.” In the middle of the week, they prepared lunch for the engine crew: soup and a large sandwich. Last year it was said that the engine crew had a tough job in the ship’s boiler room. “We’ve been working on that, too,” she said. “They had to bring in outside contractors to help. “So we fed them too.”

Forrest Booth, a San Francisco shipping attorney and chairman of the board of directors of the National Liberty Ship Memorial, had just wrapped up a board meeting that discussed finance, dry dock issues, and other issues. He is optimistic about the ship’s future. “We are a living monument,” he said. “We’re also a steamboat, which is rare these days.”

I asked him if he operates a ship that is 80 years old. “I see no reason why the ship won’t still be there at 100,” he said. “They built these ships to be tough. “You built them well.”

O’Brien’s 80th birthday will be a low-key affair, nothing special. The ship is open to the public as usual from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in the Sunday edition of The Chronicle. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com

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