One Veteran Salutes Another

September 19, 2013 · Collections ·

Richard Welling, best known for his distinctive ink drawings that documented Hartford’s changing skyline from the 1960s into the new century, had a special fondness and appreciation for vehicles, be they trains (noted in a previous blog), automobiles, aircraft or, in this instance, vessels of all shapes and sizes. While we are currently busy preparing for an exhibition focusing on his Hartford scenes, I had a chance to look through some of his maritime material and came across images of the SS John W. Brown.

Richard Welling photographed the John W. Brown while she served as a floating high school in New York City. CHS 2012.284.790

Richard Welling photographed the John W. Brown while she served as a floating high school in New York City. CHS 2012.284.790

The John S. Brown is one of more than 2,700 so-called “Liberty Ships” constructed by the U.S. in World War II. Built to a simple design, these 10,000-ton merchantmen could be completed quickly and pressed into service hauling supplies to Allied forces around the globe. Some 18 shipyards constructed Liberties during the war, including Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield yard where the Brown was built in 1942. Following wartime service in the Mediterranean the vessel was loaned to the City of New York where she became a floating high school, kind of a nautical magnet school if you will. From 1946 to 1982 the vessel trained thousands of students for careers in the Merchant Marine, Navy and Coast Guard.

As a combat veteran Welling undoubtedly saw the ubiquitous Liberty Ships during his voyages to and from Europe. He sought out the Brown during her tenure in New York, using both Polaroid and 35mm cameras to capture details of the vessel. Of particular interest to Welling was the engine room, a cavernous compartment housing the three-story-tall steam engine that propelled the ship. Not surprisingly, Welling’s photograph revealed a maze of oversize machinery and what looked like miles of piping. I guess “simple design” is a relative term…

You can almost smell the hot lube oil permeating the air in Richard Welling’s photo of the engine room of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown. CHS 2012.284.4718

You can almost smell the hot lube oil permeating the air in Richard Welling’s photo of the engine room of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown. CHS 2012.284.4718

Seeing his photo brought back memories of my own Liberty Ship experience when I was curator at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA. The museum owned a Liberty Ship engine but before it could be displayed there were missing parts that needed to be replaced. It so happened that the James River Reserve Fleet was located a few miles from the museum and we arranged with the U.S. Maritime Administration to visit one of two Liberties still in this mothball flotilla for the purpose of harvesting the necessary parts. After signing waivers for potential asbestos exposure (vessels of this age used large amounts of asbestos insulation!) we took a launch out to the ship (I think it was named Protector but don’t quote me), rafted with other floating WWII relics, and climbed aboard. Eerie! Next came the climb down into the engine compartment using a vertical steel ladder. Petrifying! Did I mention there was no power on the ship, and our only light was from the miner’s helmet we each wore? Disorienting! After the 30 foot descent in pitch darkness we oriented ourselves and proceeded to remove the parts, which we then had to winch back up to the main deck. Now THAT was a workout!

Years later I too had the chance to finally see what a Liberty Ship engine room looked like with the lights on, as Welling had done. The John W. Brown, now restored and sailing as a memorial to WW II Merchant Mariners, visited New London about 10 years ago. I took my family for a visit, regaling (boring?) my kids with my tales of daring-do aboard that other Liberty. Blah, blah, blah…

Richard Welling’s ink drawing of the engine room is directly based on his photograph and notes taken during his tour of the ship. CHS 2012.284.5696

Richard Welling’s ink drawing of the engine room is directly based on his photograph and notes taken during his tour of the ship. CHS 2012.284.5696

Richard Welling later produced an ink drawing of the Brown’s engine room based on his photograph, and he managed to capture the organized chaos that was part and parcel of such technology. I like to think of his drawing as a fond tip of the hat from one WWII vet to another!

 

Tags: , , ,