The Savannah International Trade & Convention Center has amassed quite an impressive collection of models in its “Port of Savannah – Gateway to the World” exhibit of ocean-going vessels from the 20th century and beyond.
Perhaps none has more significance to Savannah than the latest – and largest – addition to the collection.
A 13-foot model of the SS James Oglethorpe was installed Wednesday on the river side of the trade center.
In addition to representing maritime innovation, the models all have some sort of Savannah connection – from Crescent Towing’s tractor tug “Savannah” to Wallenius Wilhelmsen’s familiar massive orange vehicle carrier WWL Torrens, an award-winning ship that has earned a reputation for its innovative design and flexibility to carry a wide variety of roll-on/roll-off cargo.
The Oglethorpe “slid down the ways” at Southeastern Shipbuilding in Savannah on Nov. 20, 1942, marking the launch of the first Liberty ship built here.
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 first of 88 identical freighters that would be constructed at the hastily organized shipyard on the Savannah River, the Oglethorpe 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 – many of them Savannahians.
Now, thanks to a handful of determined people, the Oglethorpe – and the contribution our city’s “greatest generation” made to winning World War II – has been memorialized for generations to come.
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 Oglethorpe and the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. On Wednesday, the marker was joined by the 700-pound model, painstakingly constructed to 1/34 scale in 1/8-inch carbon steel by students in the Industrial Technology division of Savannah Technical College. 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, the three senior welding students — Jeremy Meyer, Ryan Thompson and Skylar Huggett – worked on the project for more than a year.
“Liberty ships were all identical in length, beam and engines,” said Farley, who began his maritime career 65 years ago aboard a British cadet ship.
“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 unforgiving metal was even tougher.
“They have done a great job.”