Monday, August 29, 2016

100 years ago: One Ship, 43 Dead, Three Medals of Honor, One Court Martial, and Few Answers

USS Tennessee, after the installation of a cage mast at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and before her renaming as USS Memphis. (Detroit Publishing Company Collection/ Library of Congress) 
By all accounts, the morning of Tuesday, August 29, 1916 was uneventful for the roughly 1,000 men assigned to the armored cruiser Memphis (CA-10) as they went about their normal duties while anchored in roughly 45 feet of water half a mile off Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. According to the deck log of the gunboat Castine (PG-6), anchored nearby, the day opened with blue skies, light winds, and barometer readings hovering around 30 inches.

That afternoon, however, swells began coming in from the south and Captain Edward Latimer Beach, commanding officer of the Memphis, ordered that preparations be made for leaving the harbor. Only two of her 16 boilers were lighted at the time the order was passed, so the expected time for getting underway would have been approximately 4:35 pm.  By 4:20, however, waves were breaking completely over the decks of the 502 foot-long vessel, water began pouring through her ventilators into the engineering spaces, and she began dragging her anchor as ever larger waves drove her inexorably closer to the rocky shore.  At 4:23, her keel began striking bottom in the troughs of waves that at their peak reached between 70 and 80 feet high.  

The gunboat Castine makes her escape.  From the album of Francis Sargent, courtesy of Cmdr. John Condon, 1986.  (Naval History and Heritage Command Image via Navsource)
As the largest of the waves swept over the cruiser, seawater began pouring directly down her four funnels, 70 feet above her waterline. The boilers that had been lit began exploding, filling the engineering spaces with deadly steam just as seawater rapidly poured in from the ventilation tubes above and welled up from the crumpled bottom of the ship below.  Chief Machinist’s Mate George W. Rudd died at his post in the cruiser’s port engine room, while Lieutenant (later rear admiral upper-half) Claud A. Jones and Machinist Charles Willey were also awarded the nation’s highest honor for their heroic actions that day.  During all this, a motor launch that had been dispatched from Memphis to the port to pick up crew members who had finished playing a baseball game ashore was also swept away.  All aboard were lost, among the 43 Sailors lost that day.  Over 200 were injured.  Despite suffering heavy damage, the gunboat Castine had managed to get underway just after 4 pm.

USS Memphis (CA-10) on the rocks at Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  She lost more than three-dozen crewmen as she was driven ashore by a succession of huge waves and was battered beyond reasonable prospect of repair.  Left where she lay, the wreck of USS Memphis was sold in 1922, but was not actually broken up until 1938. (Naval History and Heritage Command image via Flickr)
Then and now, many descriptions of the event still describe a tsunami as being what wrecked USS Memphis that day. This is in large part due to the efforts of Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr., the celebrated author of Run Silent, Run Deep, one of the best-selling memoirs of World War II.  His book about the loss of the Memphis, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the catastrophe in 1966, made it abundantly clear that his father could not have affected the outcome of the loss for which he was court martialed. Beach’s book and other articles he wrote about the event not only kept the memory of the ship’s loss and the sacrifices and heroics of her crew alive, but it kept that memory framed in a specific way.

In 1993, he wrote in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings:

On the afternoon of 29 August 1916 she was riding quietly at anchor in Santo Domingo Harbor in the Dominican Republic. Some of her crew were ashore playing baseball, and a motor launch had just been sent to the recreation field to return them to the ship. At that moment, somewhere on the floor of the Caribbean Sea, there occurred a far-distant earthquake. Without the slightest warning, a tsunami rose abruptly from the peaceful sea. Heavy rollers began heading shoreward.

Later in the same article, Beach added:

The loss of his ship and 43 members of his crew was intensely personal to Dad. He had simply been unable to get up enough steam to get out of Santo Domingo Harbor. A week earlier, when a tropical storm blew up, he had got extra boilers on the line, and the ship under way, in 45 minutes—excellent time from a standing start for a coal-burning warship. But on 29 August he did not have 45 minutes; nor was it a tropical storm.

Following this line of reasoning, the court of inquiry that convened in September 1916 should have arrived at the conclusion that Capt. Beach could have not foreseen this calamity and could not have ordered measures that could have saved the 14,000-ton vessel. Instead, he was convicted at a general court martial in December of, among other things, being “culpably inefficient in the performance of his duty,” and was sentenced to lose 20 places in the captains’ seniority list.  Despite this, the prevailing sense among the higher echelons of the Navy Department's leadership must have been that the loss of the Memphis and the deaths of 43 Sailors was something that could not have been prevented, because Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels overruled the sentence handed down by the tribunal, reducing Beach’s place in line for flag rank to only five places behind where he had been before the incident.

Then, as now, earthquakes were pretty common in the Caribbean, and assuming that one had caused the loss of the Memphis and heavy damage to the Castine would have been reasonable in the immediate wake of the incident.  Nevertheless, the court of inquiry considered this as only one in a range of possible sources for the devastating waves, including tropical storms.  A report on a devastating 1918 earthquake and tsunami in Puerto Rico given by the United States Earthquake Investigation Commission to the House of Representatives in 1919 divulged that monitors in Puerto Rico recorded earthquakes originating in the vicinity of Santo Domingo on April 24 and November 29, 1916, but none during August.  Moreover, seismic monitors in Puerto Rico recorded nothing across the Caribbean between August 11 and October 2 of that year.

Despite sources that continue to suggest that an earthquake caused the waves that destroyed the Memphis, the past is not set in stone, and researchers have come forward since that time to make a persuasive case that the confluence of two passing hurricanes created a series of rogue waves that battered the southern coastline of Hispaniola and doomed USS Memphis. House Resolution 306, passed on June 15, 2015 in preparation for the centennial of the ship's loss, listed its cause as "a highly unusual 75-foot wave event that threw the ship upon the shore of Santo Domingo, resulting in its total destruction…"

Aside from the tragedy itself, which most accounts cast as a 90-minute catastrophe emerging literally from out of the blue, why were the Memphis and Castine at Santo Domingo on that fateful afternoon to begin with? As it turns out, they were ordered to Santo Domingo on a mission deeply intertwined in a man-made political storm a decade in the making.  With a lead time stretching over months, if not years, the destructive waves of armed conflict breaking out across the Dominican Republic during the summer of 1916 were nearly as unanticipated as the massive waves that broke upon the country’s southern shore the afternoon of August 29.

The public jubilation over the short, successful Spanish-American War in 1898 had by 1902 muted considerably, particularly in the wake of the Philippine insurrection against American rule. As a result, an anti-imperialist coalition in Congress virtually ensured that President Theodore Roosevelt would never secure sufficient support for the establishment of more “protectorates” such as Cuba and Panama, which were bound by treaty obligations to be protected by the United States from internal and external threats. Nevertheless, European powers were threatening to mount punitive expeditions against other countries in close proximity to America that had defaulted on loans.

The Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-03, during which British and German warships blockaded the country, resulting in a showdown with the American fleet, prompted Roosevelt to establish his Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which dictated that the United States would act as an “international police power” in the event that European powers once again threatened military intervention to extract concessions over outstanding debt.  Seeking to preserve American hegemony over the hemisphere, Roosevelt undertook a novel approach that would accomplish his political objectives without running afoul of the Congress. The Dominican Republic became the Roosevelt Administration’s first big test case.

In her book Financial Missionaries to the World (2003), Emily S. Rosenberg wrote, “The Dominican model became the first major effort to forge the kind of partnership that would continue to be at the heart of dollar diplomacy: a triangular relationship among financial advisors wishing to practice their new profession of fiscal rehabilitation of foreign countries; investment bankers seeking higher interest rates in foreign markets; and activist governmental officials eager to assert international influence.”

From 1904 to 1907, diplomats worked with bankers and financial advisors, mainly bureaucrats with experience in colonial administration, to forge an agreement of administrative supervision over the Dominican economy, primarily through control over customs collection, in exchange for American loans. Although the rationale for such an arrangement was explicitly nonmilitary in nature, Commander Albert C. Dillingham (who as a rear admiral would take on the task of establishing Naval Station Norfolk in 1917) also served as a prominent liaison between Secretary of State John Hay and the Dominican government as an agreement began to take shape.

Despite objections from senators who chafed at President Roosevelt’s unilateral declaration of a “fiscal protectorate” in the Dominican Republic, the Roosevelt and Taft administrations declared victory and plunged headlong into establishing similar contractual arrangements with Nicaragua, Haiti, and Liberia.  American investment banks, with the support of the American government, were dealing with bankrupt nations the way they had once dealt with failing businesses.  The shortcomings of this approach, however, invariably committed the U.S. Military to stabilizing the situation, sooner or later.  

As the “receivership” in the Dominican Republic matured, the relationship between the American and Dominican governments began to resemble an older colonial model. “President Roosevelt entered the Dominican relationship with the idea that a receivership would prevent, not be a prelude to, military involvement there,” wrote Rosenberg. “If the receivership was threatened by debt or disorder, so much prestige was at stake that policymakers had little choice but to bite off more and more of the country’s sovereignty, intervening in ever broader ways to address the problems.”  This erosion of the Dominican government’s sovereignty to American advisors, investment bankers and government officials eroded the legitimacy of President Ramon Caceres’ administration in the minds of many Dominicans.  After his assassination in November 1911, years of political instability followed, and, as would also happen in Haiti and Nicaragua, U.S. Marines were brought in to reestablish order, and, ultimately, new governments, courtesy of vessels such as USS Memphis and Castine.

USS Memphis, sent to the Dominican Republic to help quell a political storm far away from the government officials and investment bankers who helped create it, and wrecked by waves generated by hurricanes far over the horizon, was not only one of the largest commissioned vessels our Navy ever lost to natural causes.  For decades, her forlorn, battered hull remained a fixture of Santo Domingo’s oceanfront, a dramatic symbol of the American intervention in the Dominican Republic, outlasting the era of the American foreign policy approach that sent her there.

A sunset view of Santo Domingo taken in 1924.  (Republica Dominicana via Flickr)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Portrait of a Lady

Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) Director Elizabeth A. Poulliot.  (Photograph by Diana Gordon)

By Joseph Judge 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Curator

Mrs. Elizabeth A. Poulliot – Becky – is closing a career in which she has faithfully served the United States Navy and the people of our region here at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Her oversight of this invaluable community institution has been a decades-long example of public service.

Becky with MGEN Dennis Murphy, former Executive Director of the Hampton Roads Naval Historical Foundation.  “General Murphy we are going to need a lot of money for this Nauticus move.  I’m serious as a heart attack.”
Becky was hired by the Commander of the Norfolk Naval Base in 1989. As a Naval Base staff officer gleefully told me, referring to her previous employment with another branch of the service, “We stole her from the Army!”

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum at that time was ten years old. It was located in an historic building on the Naval Station – the former Pennsylvania state pavilion, a replica of Independence Hall. Its mission, according to the Atlantic Fleet Commander, was to “to publicize and enhance the Navy’s image not only in Tidewater but, through tourism, nationwide.”
A young staff in front of the Pennsylvania House just prior to moving downtown.  The three civilians, Becky, the author and Ofelia Elbo, were joined by LTJG Rob Haas, assigned to the staff by Commander Naval Base.  LT Hass was one a large group of military personnel working under Becky in a variety of tasks over the years.

Becky arrived in Norfolk to find not an example of a big museum with a nationwide profile but instead a small museum with a permanent staff of three. She was immediately given two important charges: to professionalize the museum’s basic operations in accordance with American Association of Museum standards, and to prepare the museum for a possible move to the new maritime center called “Nauticus” that the City of Norfolk was planning for the downtown waterfront.

She also brought her own style to the museum, which I witnessed when I called her one day to ask about a job. “How are things going?” Answer: “Great! The staff ordered pizza for lunch!” Those were the years of self-catered Christmas parties in the PA House. One memorable year we left a tray of Christmas spinach hors d'oeuvres in the oven and found them in February. That was the same kitchen with a small table at which the staff would gather for lunch and discuss the burning issues of the day, and eat the spicy food of the day. It was there we learned to reply not “Yes ma’am” but rather “Yes miss” to the director. “I’m not old enough to be called ma’am and I don’t like to hear it.” Aye aye.

Meanwhile, the operative word for the museum’s relocation was “possible” as negotiations for the future kicked into high gear. Moving a museum – forging a new relationship with a brand-new and controversial civilian entity- were daunting tasks, especially with a small staff. However, as FDR said, a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. And Becky was a skilled sailor.

Becky immediately directed the staff to organize the museum’s collection for the new and expanded exhibits for Nauticus. She instituted the museum’s first automated collections management system and tackled the underwhelming storage facility (including rousting out sleeping naval personnel from that building), a former liquor store known in the alpha-numeric jargon of the base as G-29C. Great improvements were made in all important areas of museum management. She also fought pigeons in the clock tower and cleaned a chandelier.

In March, 1994, the Navy and the City of Norfolk reached a basic agreement on moving the Hampton Roads Naval Museum to Nauticus. This agreement was complex and Becky spent months representing the interests of the Navy and the taxpayers. She carried out this duty day after day through four years of serious negotiations. Memorably, she carried on while awaiting the birth of a daughter, while fighting a termite invasion, while moving, while enduring losses of loved ones, and while educating and re-educating new arrivals to the chain of command, as is the Navy way.
Things were different downtown, at first.  Some of the museum staff made a break for it one Harborfest.  Becky to the author: “Have you seen what’s going on out there?”  This was one of the many assignments/questions over the years, including the command to run after and stop US Senator John Warner.
The result was the first Department of Defense museum to relocate to a non-federal facility. This move was a model for the entire Department of Defense museum system and the terms of the agreement have saved taxpayers millions of dollars since 1994. The “new” Hampton Roads Naval Museum opened on June 1, 1994.

The move to Nauticus required a first-class museum education program to compliment the museum’s increases in size and importance. Becky recruited the first volunteer corps, the source of deep friendships and much joy in the years to come. The museum began offering professional programs and tours for children and adults. Over time the museum educators travelled to every school system in Hampton Roads. Additionally, the museum has welcomed important speakers on the history of the Navy. Some of the more important individuals who have spoken to the community under the museum’s banner include: John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy; James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy; Dr. Harold Langley, Curator Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution and Dr. James McPherson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. There were many others, including one who stood before the audience and intoned, “Now what do you want me to say?” As Becky told us all over the years, it’s good to laugh.

Becky worked for many different commands and leaders.  Here she is with her ideal model of a boss.  Admiral Jake Tobin, Admiral Tim Zeimer and CDR Jeremy Gillespie were close seconds.
The museum, now settled within the Nauticus building, also continued its series of successful temporary exhibits. Some of the more important included an exhibit on Lord Nelson, borrowed from the Royal Navy Museum; “Without Us They Don’t Fly: NADEP” (the Aircraft Maintenance Facility in Norfolk); “The Sailor’s Best Friend: Animals and the US Navy”; and “Cuba Libre: The Spanish American War.”

By 1998 Becky had successfully accomplished the two tasks that the Navy had asked of her in 1989. Before she could rest on her laurels, however, another assignment appeared. In November of that year the Commander of the Atlantic Fleet resolved to move the inactive battleship USS Wisconsin next door to Nauticus and to open it under Hampton Roads Naval Museum auspices as a tourist attraction. The museum was charged with managing the ship – in essence, its largest artifact.

Becky again directed her staff in a herculean task: the production of an interpretive plan for a battleship, including a tour route, volunteer assignments; exhibits; military ceremony policies and a host of other important and pressing issues. When the ship arrived in her new layberth on December 7, 2000, she was poised to be the most successful tourist attraction in the state of Virginia. Indeed in 2001 over 400,000 people walked the teak decks of the ship in only nine months. Her staff now required a military/civilian watchbill with over 22 names.

Her true happiness in work was in the people around her, like long-time volunteer and Board member Hunt Lewis.  “I can’t come to that meeting, I’m eating lunch with the volunteers today.”
Years of hard work were recognized in December, 2008, when HRNM was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the 4th Navy museum, and the second museum Southside to earn this accomplishment (the first being the Chrysler Museum of Art.) Accreditation is the gold standard for museum excellence in the United States.

In the midst of the accreditation process and managing a battleship, Becky shepherded the museum through a re-alignment in which all Navy museums were placed under the Naval Historical Center (later the Naval History and Heritage Command). She was thus in a position to assist the Navy’s national historical programs. Another change occurred in December 2009, when the Navy donated the Wisconsin to the City of Norfolk. HRNM continues to offer military ceremonies on the ship as a benefit to the region’s active duty Sailors.

It has been said by the writer David Brooks that life is a process of commitment making. And further said that character is defined by deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good. Becky made commitments to the Navy and the people of Hampton Roads. She built connections among many groups to the benefit of all. Museums are her calling, and while her retirement is a loss for HRNM, her legacy is on view every day at the museum. That is quite the journey from a young lady with a staff of three in 1989.

“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

CPO Heritage Days 2016

Over 750 new chief petty officer selectees from as far away as Pennsylvania converged on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk before dawn on August 15 to begin the 16th annual CPO Heritage Days. The three-day event, hosted at Nauticus and aboard the battleship Wisconsin (BB-64), gives prospective chiefs the opportunity to learn more about their history, their heritage, and what their new roles and responsibilities in fulfilling the Navy's mission will be. 

Led by a current chief petty officer (CPO), CPO selectees are led as a unit from their muster point at Town Point Park before dawn. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 

One of the chief petty officers leading the event gives instructions to the assembled selectees before moving from Town Point Park to the battleship Wisconsin. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 

Several hundred chief petty officer selectees as well as the current chief petty officers guiding them line up in front of the national maritime center Nauticus (also home to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum), waiting to board the museum ship USS Wisconsin (BB-64). (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 

In front of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, chief petty officer selectees for fiscal year 2017 await word to board USS Wisconsin (BB-64) to begin their training as the chief petty officer leading them looks on.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 

Led by chief petty officers from regional Navy commands, CPO selectees approach the museum ship USS Wisconsin (BB-64), where the instructional portion of their day is to begin. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)  

CPO selectees approach the museum ship USS Wisconsin (BB-64), where the instructional portion of their day is to begin. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)  
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Deputy Education Director Laura Orr discusses the significance of the 1942 Battle of Midway with chief petty officer selectees aboard USS Wisconsin (BB-64).  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Opening a classroom session for chief petty officer selectees aboard USS Wisconsin (BB-64), Hampton Roads Naval Museum Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes, who is also a retired senior chief boiler technician, describes the significance of winning the CPO Heritage Trophy.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

Wearing the type of uniform a chief petty officer would have worn in a battleship's engineering spaces during World War II, Hampton Roads Naval Museum Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes, who is also a retired senior chief boiler technician, shares the story of the selfless dedication shown by Chief Water Tender Peter Tomich during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, for which Tomich was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.  Although the classroom instruction took place in the battleship Wisconsin's CPO Mess, the high temperatures below decks added a visceral touch.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)     

In the battleship Wisconsin's wardroom, Duane R. Bushey, the seventh Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON), discusses the vast differences between the ways chief petty officer selectees were initiated two decades ago and the way the rite of passage is handled now, particularly the emphasis given towards learning the heritage and history of the chief petty officer rating.   (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)  
Retired Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Administrative) and Hampton Roads Naval Museum volunteer April Maletz shows Navy uniform items once mandated for wear by females, explaining that for decades, skirts were mandatory until the reality of sea duty forced the authorization of pants.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)  

Master Chief Operations Specialist John Lindsay, III, discusses his experiences as an operations specialist second class during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, from his post within USS Wisconsin's Combat Engagement Center, just feet from where he is standing.  He also told the CPO selectees some of the important lessons on leadership and communication he has learned in the quarter-century since.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)  

On the fantail of the museum ship USS Wisconsin (BB-64), Senior Chief Sonar Technician (Surface) Don Moore instructs chief petty officer selectees on the rest of the day's schedule before they transition from the classroom portion of the day's CPO Heritage Days events aboard the battleship, moving down the aft gangway to the adjoining museum Nauticus, where the competitions between commands would begin.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 

Bearing the guidon used by the chief petty officer selectees of his command, a selectee departs the museum ship Wisconsin (BB-64) after attending the classroom portion of the day's CPO Heritage Days events aboard the battleship. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 

A chief petty officer selectee "presents the colors" of the Norfolk-based cruiser Vella Gulf (CG-72) to a Hampton Roads Naval Museum panel composed of Deputy Education Director Laura Orr, Exhibits Specialist Don Darcy, museum volunteer (and retired senior chief) April Maletz, and Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 

Hampton Roads Naval Museum Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes asks a chief petty officer selectee a naval history question while her unit is being inspected during the competitive phase of CPO Heritage Days. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

On Monday, August 15, 2016, Hampton Roads Naval Museum Deputy Education Director Laura Orr helps a panel of judges from the museum evaluate the unit "colors" of a group of chief petty officer selectees as an audience of current chief petty officers observes the proceedings.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

At National Maritime Center Nauticus in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, CPO selectees from Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) join together as a unit to compete for the CPO Heritage Trophy, which is given by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes prepares to present the CPO Heritage Trophy to the day's winning unit as master of ceremonies Senior Chief Don Moore looks on. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

Hampton Roads Naval Museum Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes presents the CPO Heritage Trophy to the CPO selectees of Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads for the best chief selectee mess among the competitors on August 17, 2016.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

Chief petty officers and selectees of Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads pause after being awarded the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's CPO Heritage Trophy for the best chief selectee mess on August 17, 2016. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)  

Monday, August 8, 2016

Lighting Off a Liberty Ship

The aft 5-inch 38 caliber gun of the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown, one of only two in America that have been restored to operational condition, is seen in the foreground of this panorama taken in downtown Norfolk during her recent visit, which also includes USS Wisconsin (BB-64).  Among museum ships, battleships are far more plentiful and enjoy a vastly higher profile, yet the Liberty Ships, which were much cheaper to build than battleships and disposed of for pennies on the dollar after the Second World War, had a greater role in the allied victory. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)

Having made the transatlantic crossing, Liberty ships gather in Cherbourg harbor, France in July 1944.  An LCT (Landing Craft, Tank) and a DUKW (the amphibious Army cargo truck popularly known as the "duck") can be seen in the foreground. (National Museum of the U.S. Navy Photograph Curator via Flickr)
It's the time of year when our thoughts in the Tidewater turn to the heat.  That sultry haze that settles over Hampton Roads that one can see while stranded on either side of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, or the shimmering mirages over the roads of Norfolk or Newport News.  But if nothing else, history gives us a sense of how fortunate we are today with our air conditioning and moisture-wicking fabrics.  Imagine standing watch, scanning the horizon endlessly from the gun tub of a Liberty ship under the blazing sun off the coast of North Africa or transiting the South Pacific below decks amid the soot, clatter and drone in an engineering space so hot that a few minutes of it could bring on heat exhaustion.  

During the Second World War, on multiple voyages that frequently took her to and from Hampton Roads, SS John W. Brown delivered tanks and ammunition to Russia and American Soldiers sojourned aboard her on their way to the invasions of North Africa, Southern France and Italy.  Some of the axis prisoners they took returned on the ship to the United States for internment. All the while, members of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, many of whom underwent training at the Armed Guard School at Little Creek, Virginia, stood continual watches in the gun tubs distributed about her upper decks. During the landings in Southern France, they could claim the downing of an attacking German aircraft.  The end of the war did not end her wartime mission as the Brown continued transporting much needed coal and grain to Europe, and bringing back hundreds of Americans on her return journeys.
A portion of the James River Reserve Fleet, photographed in 1990 by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Martin Norman. This was the end of the line for hundreds of Liberty ships that were either sold off to foreign governments, private shipping companies, or ship breakers.  Many were also used as targets during live-fire exercises. (U.S. Navy Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
From 1946 to 1982, she escaped the fates that befell most of the over 2,700 Liberty ships produced during the war, serving as a floating vocational high school in New York City. For several years afterward her station was with the James River Reserve Fleet off Ft. Eustis, one of the thousands of vessels belonging to the National Defense Reserve Fleet.  But before John W. Brown could be consigned to the torch, become a practice target or serve as a new artificial reef, rescue arrived in the form of an organization called Project Liberty Ship, dedicated to preserving the hybrid troop transport as a part of its mission to preserve the memory of the ships, the hundreds of thousands of merchant mariners, and the nearly 145,000 Sailors of the Armed Guard who served, fought, and sometimes died aboard them.
SS John W. Brown, shown in 2012 at her home port of Baltimore, Maryland, opposite Ft. McHenry. (MKelly/ Wikimedia Commons)
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill authorizing the transfer of SS John W. Brown from the U.S. Government to Project Liberty Ship, and she was moved from the reserve fleet down to a Norfolk shipyard, where volunteers spent hundreds of hours restoring her to original condition, even reinstalling many of the same types of guns used by the armed guards. She now resides in Baltimore, where she was launched on Labor Day, September 7, 1942, from Fairfield Shipyard, a subsidiary of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, approximately 41 days after her keel was laid. Additional outfitting took approximately another month before she was ready to serve. At the time, Liberty ships typically cost $1.7 million to produce. 

Typical layout of a multi-purpose Liberty ship.  (National Museum of the U.S. Navy Photograph Curator via Flickr)
Originally designed for transporting cargo only, SS John W. Brown was one of the many Liberty ships converted to transport passengers; American troops as well as enemy prisoners of war. Many of the converted passenger liners dedicated to the task of transporting personnel were simply too large to deliver troops to where they were needed as the allied tide swept the Axis powers back throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean, so the US Army’s Chief of Transportation made the call to convert many of the Liberty Ships to "Limited Capacity Troopships."  Approximately 40% of the allied troops that embarked from Hampton Roads during the war, 202,247 from June 1943 to May 1944 alone, were transported on the modified Liberty Ships.  John W. Brown alone is believed to have carried 10,000 military personnel from both sides during the war.

The cylinder head of SS John W. Brown covers a 76 inch-wide piston the largest in its triple-expansion engine. (Photo by M.C. Farrington

Her engineering section amidships is dominated by two gigantic boilers providing steam at 200 pounds per-square-inch that is used for the steering gear, the cargo winches, and even the ship’s whistle. But what the steam is mostly used for is its engine. Its cylinder head towers nearly 25 feet over the engineering space main deck, giving the visitor the feeling of being shut up under the hood of a gigantic delivery truck sitting at idle.
Hal Raper, a retired Navy dental officer and engineering volunteer for the Brown, explains the operation of the triple-expanding engine on the upper deck of the engineering space.  The cylinder head can be seen behind him to the left. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)
In a standard internal combustion engine, a fuel-air mixture is delivered to individual cylinders that are equal in size and that co-equally drive the crankshaft they are connected to through coordinated, electronically-timed explosions, which push the pistons inside the cylinders and the rods that connect them with the crankshaft downward. What remains of the fuel-air mixture after combustion is quickly removed via exhaust valves, whereupon more fuel and air is drawn into the cylinders by the pistons and the whole process starts again.  By comparison, the massive pistons within the condensing, triple-expansion engine aboard John Brown, typical of those aboard liberty ships, aren’t directly propelled by combustion at all.

In a direct-acting, condensing engine, steam heated by the boilers enters the first 24-inch cylinder at 200 psi and pushes a piston within it downward, allowing the rapidly expanding and cooling steam through a valve into a second 36-inch cylinder, pushing the second piston downward and allowing the steam through another valve into a third, 76-inch cylinder.  At 76 RPM, it can produce 2,500 shaft horsepower and propel the ship at around 11 knots. 

Robert Mullarky prepares to light SS John W. Brown's port boiler. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)

Although they were designed with the latest mass-production techniques in mind, Liberty ships were not designed with modern means of propulsion.  Robert Mullarky, a professional marine engineer from Baltimore acting as John W. Brown's chief engineer during the visit to Norfolk, explained that the design of the propulsion system was antiquated,  even by 1940s standards.  "The basic design goes back to the 1880s-1890s,"explained Mullarky.  In 1942, the U.S. Maritime Commission chose an 1879 design based on a British "powered scow," that became the mass-produced British Ocean class and the American Liberty ships.  The design had a proven track record on the Atlantic Ocean, and the cargo vessels could be made economically, using a wide range of production methods and shipyards. 

Mullarky said that ambient temperatures in the engineering spaces are kept tolerable while underway by giant forced draft fans on the engine room floor, which draw in air through the ventilators sticking out above the main deck like giant horns.  The air is vital for maintaining combustion within the boilers, which while underway are hot enough inside to melt steel.  The inrush of air also helps regulate the engine room's ambient temperature, but the seawater temperature outside the skin of the ship is also an important factor, which at the time of their visit was in the low 60s Fahrenheit.  Setting aside the constant threat of a torpedo attack, the lower water temperatures of a wartime run to the North Atlantic would make the experience for the engineers fairly tolerable.  Ambient water temperatures in the South Pacific during the war, however, were known to get into the upper 80s.  Under those circumstances, Mullarky said, the temperature within the engineering spaces could reach 120 degrees.