January 26, 2022

Plans afloat to ready ship for D-Day fest > SS O’Brien made 11 trips to Normandy

Plans are in the works for a South Portland-built cargo ship with a famous Maine name to be the centerpiece of a North Atlantic convoy that will take part in next year’s festivities marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day — the June 6, 1944, landing by the Allies in France that led to the end of World War II.

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien was launched from the west yard of New England Shipbuilding Corp. in South Portland on June 19, 1943 — 50 years ago Saturday.

If a bill in the Congress, H.R. 58, is passed, money will be set aside to make the Jeremiah O’Brien, the SS John Brown and the SS Victory Lane seaworthy for the trans-Atlantic crossing. The O’Brien, one of the last Liberty ships afloat, will steam from San Francisco to Europe to recall its mission — that of transporting munitions and supplies from the British Isles to the beachheads of Normandy.

The O’Brien made 11 trips from Southampton, England, and Belfast, Ireland, to the beaches in June 1944 as the war effort focused on driving the Germans out of France.

The vessel, which is now berthed at Fort Mason on San Francisco Bay, has been restored as a national Liberty ship memorial. It was named for a patroit who led a contingent of rebels against the British and captured their warship in Machias Bay at the onset of the American Revolutionary War in June 1775.

Ed Langlois of Portland, president of the Shipyard Society, a group interested in the history of the shipyards, has fond memories of the place along the South Portland waterfront where Maine people assembled some of the more than 2,500 Liberty ships designed to carry supplies to the fronts.

Langlois said Wednesday that shipbuilders welcomed the opportunity to build Liberty ships for the war effort. His group continues to hold annual meetings and plan for a shipyard museum at Spring Point in South Portland.

During World War II, President Roosevelt ordered the construction of cargo ships to enhance the war effort. He reportedly said upon viewing the new ships that they looked like “ugly ducklings.” The name stuck throughout the war as the vessels carried great loads in their holds, and in slings above decks and along their sides. High-octane gasoline, Jeeps, tanks, troops and dynamite were common cargoes.

The O’Brien was a “special ship” from the time it left South Portland, Langlois said. The vessel carried supplies on several dangerous trans-Atlantic crossings in areas patrolled by German U-boats before its duty in the D-Day landings.

In the summer of 1946, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien ended its last passage as a cargo ship when it steamed into San Francisco Bay with a load of wool from Freemantle, Australia. It was then that the ship went into the U.S. Maritime Administration’s mothball fleet in Suissun Bay, near Benecia, Calif.

The O’Brien laid at anchor for more than 30 years, the last years under the watchful eye of Superintendent John Pottinger. The ship was rediscovered in the late 1970s by preservationists in California and Maine, and in 1983, it’s engine was fired up again and the vessel was moved to Fort Mason for restoration.

Langlois said plans are being made for the Liberty ship to drop anchor near the site of the New England Shipbuilding Corp.’s west yard in Portland Harbor in September or October 1994, on its return from Europe, if Congress supports the participation of the three ships in the ceremonies off the coast of France.

The board of directors of the National Liberty Ship Memorial in San Francisco will mark the Jeremiah O’Brien’s launch date with a ceremony at 1:45 p.m. (Pacific time) Saturday, June 19, at Fort Mason. In Portland, at least for the present, old shipbuilders’ memories will have to suffice.

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