It’s almost a given these days that when we talk about ships in Savannah, we’re talking about the massive container ships that ply our river, dwarfing people and even buildings on their way to and from Garden City Terminal.
But long before container ships put Savannah on the maritime map, another kind of ship had a huge impact here — not only on our ports but on a country at war.
On Nov. 20, 1942, the SS James Oglethorpe “slid down the ways” at Southeastern Shipbuilding in Savannah, marking the launch of the first Liberty ship built in Savannah.
Liberty ships — the name given to quickly constructed wartime freighters designed to bring supplies and equipment overseas — are widely credited with turning the tide in the critical Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in World War II.
Most historians agree that, had the Allies lost the Battle of the Atlantic, the world might look very different today.
The Oglethorpe — the first of 88 identical freighters that would be constructed at the hastily organized shipyard on the Savannah River — would later set sail from New York Harbor in a supply-laden convoy bound for Liverpool, England. She was torpedoed in the North Atlantic by several German U-boats on March 16, 1943, and was lost the next day, along with 44 of her 74-man crew.
Thanks to a handful of determined people, Savannah is in the process of immortalizing the Oglethorpe — and the contribution our city’s “greatest generation” made to winning World War II.
In 2013, at the urging of retired master mariner Nick Farley and fellow Brit Robert Baugniet, the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia International and Maritime Trade Center dedicated a historical marker on the river to the SS James Oglethorpe and the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic.
This fall, that marker will be joined by a 13-foot model of the ship, painstakingly constructed to 1/34 scale in 1/8-inch carbon steel by students in the Industrial Technology division of Savannah Technical College.
A ‘monumental achievement’
Three senior welding students, under the direction of instructors Robert Waters and Clay Laird and with support from Bill Burns, head of the welding and joining technology department at Savannah Tech, have been working on the project for more than a year.
Using a small scale model, the team worked to create the much larger version for installation along the riverfront.
Most of the heavy lifting has been done, with only painting and rigging remaining, Burns said, adding that, while programing and much of the cutting was done by Laird and Waters, the welding was done exclusively by the three students — Jeremy Meyer, Ryan Thompson and Skylar Huggett.
“The work that Bill and his people have done is absolutely incredible,” Farley said.
“What we’re aiming for is an installation date in mid-September at the Trade Center, with a dedication ceremony on World Maritime Day, Sept. 29.
“Liberty ships were all identical in length, beam and engines,” he said. “They were 441 feet, 6 inches long, so on a scale of 1/34 that takes it down to 13 feet.
“That sounds easy to follow, but it’s far from it,” he said.
Burns agreed. “It’s not the main body of the ship that is so tough to put into scale, it’s all the other stuff that you have to scale down,” he said.
The work that was put into reducing everything to that scale was amazing in itself, Farley said, but doing it in metal is even tougher.
“They have truly done a terrific job.”
And learned a lot in the process, Meyer said.
“It was a very complicated project, but we were able to rely on Mr. Burns’ 20-plus years of experience in shipbuilding to help us learn the process from beginning to end,” he said. “It’s been a tough experience but great, especially knowing that we’ve been working on such a historically significant project.”
It’s also valuable experience, Burns said.
“We have a number of shipyards that recruit our graduates — from Thunderbolt Marine in Savannah to General Dynamics’ NASSCO division, the largest shipyard on the West Coast.”
A fitting commemoration
“Few people today are aware of the intensity and importance of the Battle of the Atlantic as the Allies struggled to keep vital supply routes open for food, equipment and men in one of the most serious engagements of the war,” Farley said.
At its height, the battle pitted German U-boats and aircraft against Allied merchant shipping. The German blockade eventually failed — thanks in no small part to the Liberty ships — but the six-year struggle exacted a huge toll.
Nearly 3,000 merchant ships were sunk, taking some 50,000 mariners to watery graves.
“With so many ships lost, we didn’t have the means of getting men and material anywhere,” Farley said. “That’s where the Liberty ships came in, a truly monumental achievement when you consider that, in just four years, 2,710 ships were built in some 18 shipyards around the country.”
In Savannah, Southeastern Shipbuilding Corp. was formed in 1941 for the single purpose of building Liberty ships exclusively for the U.S. Navy. The shipyard was built along the river in East Savannah, near what is now the intersection of Wahlstrom Road and President Street Extension.
Tens of thousands of workers flooded into town, many of them from rural counties and most with no shipbuilding experience. Housing sprung up around the shipyard, with parts of at least one planned community still evident in the Pine Gardens neighborhood across President Street from the site of the shipyard.
In the next four years, the shipyard would build 88 Liberty ships, employ nearly 47,000 workers and pay out $112 million in payroll, all of which was pumped back into Savannah’s still-fragile post-Depression economy.
Although the shipyard closed at the end of the war, the majority of those who had come to work there and put down roots in East Savannah stayed on to find other work. Many of them found jobs at Union Bag, the paper mill on the city’s Westside that is now International Paper.
Farley, who has spearheaded the project with Baugniet, Ted Moore, curator of the popular “Port of Savannah — Gateway to the World” project at the Trade Center, and the Maritime Bethel, said he hopes the project will help keep the memory of Savannah’s most significant contribution to the war effort alive.
“Without that ‘Atlantic Bridge’ that once again allowed us to move men and materials overseas, heaven only knows what would have happened.”