My wife and I recently spent an enjoyable day aboard the SS John W. Brown, one of only two WWII Liberty Ships still afloat. The boat is berthed in Baltimore and, a few times each summer, runs a day-long “living history cruise” out into Chesapeake Bay. This was partly a research trip (I’m interested in how living history techniques might be applied to the CAF National Airbase) but it also happened to be my birthday present!
Although the SS John W. Brown is a maritime attraction, I felt some strong parallels with the mission and activities of CAF. Like our airplanes, the ship is presented not as a static display but as a real, live working artifact. The most memorable part of the day was the opportunity to go deep down into the bowels of the ship to see, hear and smell its triple-expansion steam engine at work. It's easy to imagine the physical and emotional stress of having to work in that incredible heat, under constant threat of being torpedoed by a U-Boat. You also realize how slim the chances of escape would be.
It was a good reminder that people have similar thoughts and feelings when they can get up close to CAF airplanes, especially when they have the chance to fly in them.
The SS John W. Brown operation is largely made up of volunteers. Chatting with several of them, it was very much like talking to members of a CAF unit. Some familiar issues arose (organizational politics, lack of funds, etc!!!) but most important of all, and it's the same with CAF, I felt a deep, endearing passion for keeping the ship afloat and sharing its story with future generations.
Crew members are dressed in historic clothing and we had entertainment from an Abbott & Costello act and another as the Andrews Sisters. There were various other interesting characters on board, including Gen. Omar Bradley, several German POWs and even Rosie the Riveter.
Halfway through the voyage the ship stopped in the water and we were treated to a mini-air show with warbirds provided by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum. Several of the onboard guns have been converted to fire propane blanks, and created a cacophony of noise when the boat was “attacked” by a Japanese Kate replica. I’ve attended many air shows, and this was certainly one of the most unique and exciting experiences! There were about 400 other passengers on board, and judging by their enthusiastic reaction, they seemed to agree. A little bit of storytelling and "showbiz" goes a long way.
Overall it was a most enjoyable day out and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone. I left with a deeper appreciation of the history of Liberty Ships, and found the "living history" approach to be useful. Good luck in the future to the volunteers and crew of the SS John W. Brown as they endeavor to "Keep 'em Sailing". If you're interested, they are currently booking living history cruises in May and June 2015 - click this link to find out more.
One final story. A 10,000 ton cargo ship in full working order is certainly an impressive artifact but perhaps the most emotional and evocative thing we saw all day was a small piece of paper. One of the volunteers we spoke with had crewed aboard a Liberty Ship in World War II. He showed us a "Dear John" letter that he received in 1943 from his sweetheart back in Baltimore. I'll attach a photograph so you can read it for yourself. Walter can laugh about it now but I'm sure this was a very hurtful letter to receive at the time!