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On the Waterfront 

S.S. John W. Brown to dock in Cleveland

Weekend sailors and history buffs can report to Pier 32 East to tour this liberty ship, July 28.
  • Weekend sailors and history buffs can report to Pier 32 East to tour this liberty ship, July 28.
We need to get one thing straight, right off the bat: There are no merchant marines. Captain Paul J. Esbensen of the S.S. John W. Brown -- a WWII "liberty ship" that will dock in Cleveland this weekend -- is very clear that there is a merchant marine, but no merchant marines.

"The United States Merchant Marine is [made up of] the civilian seafarers that operate ships under the U.S. flag," Esbensen explains. "I was a merchant mariner. Don't call them marines, because people think they're armed. We're civilians. Our jobs just happen to be floating, that's all."

But during WWII, that distinction became a little blurry. Sure, the liberty ships were merchant marine freighters that moved supplies from American ports to the various wartime theaters, but they also were built by the government specifically for the war effort, ferried troops to the front, and were armed to defend themselves against enemy fire.

"The armaments were manned by the U.S. Naval Armed Guards -- part of the Navy," Esbensen clarifies. "They were regular Navy people that sailed on these ships to shoot the guns and do the communications. But anybody that's on a ship when [the enemies] start shooting, you're going to do anything you can to shoot back at them."

And the statistics dictate that this happened more often than not. While around 75 percent of war materials reached destinations via liberty ships, the loss of life aboard these "civilian" vessels was second only to that of the Marine Corps. Out of the 2,700 liberty ships, 200 were sunk outright during the war. Many of the rest were damaged and, after the war, destroyed or recycled, leaving only two. Both have been fully restored: The Jeremiah O'Brien has a dock in San Francisco, and the John W. Brown offers tours and celebrity appearances from its home in Baltimore.

"Everything was rebuilt, from top to bottom," says Esbensen. "We're purists at heart. We wanted to rebuild the ship exactly the way it was. The only thing we don't have is a payroll, which makes me very happy."

The vessel -- under the auspices of Project Liberty Ship -- has been turned into a WWII Memorial Museum Ship. So it seemed fitting to Esbensen, who has been involved with the project since restoration began, that the crew be all-volunteer, since it was out of deference to history, not a paycheck, that the ship was restored.

"This ship is dedicated not only to the people that sailed it and defended it, but to the people that built it," Esbensen says. "In fact, we have a couple of volunteers on here that worked on the ship in the shipyards [during the war]. Damn thing wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those shipyard workers."

And it wouldn't be in Cleveland if it weren't for the volunteers.

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