At sea on the Royal Viking Sun, May 24-June 4, 1994 – In 1991, a story in the San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye. It was about the historic WWII Liberty ship, SS Jeremiah O’Brien.
Following the landings on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the O’Brien made eleven round-trips between Southampton and the sands of Omaha Beach and Utah Beach carrying troops, vehicles, supplies, and explosives. After the war, she was mothballed in Suisun Bay in Northern California for 33 years. In the 1970s, an idea to preserve the Liberty Ship was gathering interest. Instead of being sold for scrap, an all-volunteer group called the National Liberty Ship Memorial (NLSM) acquired her in 1979 with the aim of fully restoring her. Incredibly, after 33 years of sitting idle, the antiquated steam plant was made operational by the volunteers, the ship’s boilers were lit, and she left the mothball fleet under her own power and steamed to a pier on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. (Photo: SS Jeremiah O’Brien steaming from Suisun Bay to San Francisco in 1979. Courtesy http://www.dday.center)
Now another ambitious project was in the works: get the O’Brien in shape to return to Normandy for the D-Day 50th Anniversary. The restoration project would need volunteers and ample contributions of money and supplies.
I was no stranger to Liberty ships. During WWII, I was a Gunner in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, the special branch of the Navy that protected merchant ships and their valuable cargos and crews from enemy attacks. I shipped out on three Liberties: SS Nathaniel Currier, SS David Belasco, and SS Thomas Nelson, each loaded with logistical supplies for various campaigns in the South Pacific.
The day after reading the O’Brien story, I drove to San Francisco from Napa Valley, where I was living at the time. I toured the ship, met some of the volunteers and, before I knew it, I was chipping and scraping paint alongside them.
Many of the volunteers on the O’Brien were too young to have served in WWII and asked me questions about the Naval Armed Guard, which was disbanded after the war. One volunteer suggested I request my Military Service Records from the National Archive’s National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The next day, I did just that. Another volunteer pointed out a posting on the bulletin board in the crew’s mess from Charles A. Lloyd, chairman of the U.S. Naval Armed Guard World War II Veterans. The next day, I called “C.A.” and joined the group.
I also met Captain Ernest L. Murdock, U.S. Coast Guard (Ret.) and a former Merchant Marine skipper. (More about Capt Murdock later.)
The hundreds of hours by volunteers, along with contributions from individuals and businesses, paid off. Of the 5,000-ship armada that stormed the beaches of Normandy in ’44, the O’Brien would be the only Ocean-class ship to return 50 years later. As I recounted in Post 1, I was invited to be part of the “old salts” crew that would take the O’Brien back to Normandy. However, somewhat reluctantly, I deferred to Sandra’s suggestion that we cross the Atlantic in comfort on the Royal Viking Sun. Apparently Capt Murdock’s lady friend had the same idea. During the afternoons at sea, Capt Murdock and I led discussion groups about the logistical role the Merchant Marine and U.S. Naval Armed Guard gun crews played in the war.
Looking back, I had no idea how the story in the San Francisco Chronicle would change the course of my life for the next 30 years – launching me on a new career as a WWII military historian.
Excerpted from the upcoming memoir Author, Publisher, Marketing Man, 1990-2015, by William and Sandra McGee. Next post June 5. All D-Day Posts