Monday, March 3, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part One

There is no logical reason for my fascination with things Nautical.  I live inland.  In fact I am about as far from salt water as you can get unless you are in a yurt hut somewhere in Central Asia.  But ships have always been special to mankind.  They are among the few inanimate objects that we name, often with words that express our hopes and aspirations.  Ulysses had his Argo, that could speak prophetically. And down through the centuries this ancient tradition has held steady.  Santa Maria. Dreadnought. Enterprise.

But there are some times when lists of ship names tell us more.  Not just the great ambitions and heroes of society, but the lesser lights.  This tends to happen during periods of conflict, when large numbers of ships are built quickly.....and all the swell names go early.  Naming a craft "HMS Victory XVII" just does not feel right, and one supposes would cause no end of problems for humble signals officers.

No, when ships are plentiful societies have to dig into obscure places to find names for them.  And there is no better example of this - and a fine archive of odd history to boot - in the naming of World War Two Liberty Ships.

It takes a lot of shipping to fight a global war, even without having to make up for ongoing losses. American shipyards rose mightily to the challenge and turned out no fewer than 2,710 "Liberty Ships". These were cargo ships of standardized design.  They were simplified wherever possible, as many of the men and women building them were more "Rosie the Riveter" than experienced ship builders.  Their engines were of an older, somewhat obsolete design that freed up the better power plants for combat ships.  In the movie Titanic the engine room scenes were filmed in a surviving Liberty Ship.

They were not great ships but they were certainly very good ones, and the Allied formula for success generally was that 10 good to very good ships or tanks or aircraft would almost always prevail over one or two superb ones.

So how does one come up with nearly 3,000 ship names?

In United States naval tradition most ship types have a set naming scheme.  Battleships are named after states.  Cruisers after cities. Destroyers after valiant sailors.  Only aircraft carriers for some reason do not have strict rules.

For Liberty Ships, in general, anyone could propose a name.  It should be of a person no longer living. Usually an American. Preferably someone who had made a significant contribution to American history or culture. You were supposed to sponsor a successful War Bond drive to get your name used, but I believe there were numerous exceptions.

When considering how best to assemble a gallery of oddly named Liberty ships I decided that there was little point trying to show pictures of each.  After all, they came off the assembly line all looking more or less alike.

Naval ships, although probably less often Merchant Marine vessels, often had formal or informal insignia such as this from the destroyer USS Black:

So I thought it would be fun to take a tour of the Liberty ships by proposing a bit of artwork for each....something that could perhaps be crafted into a ship's insignia.

Lets start out with the ship that clued me into this trove of odd history.

USS Don Marquis

Named after the newspaper columnist and satirist whose most enduring and endearing creations were Archie and Mehitabel.  Being respectively a cockroach and a cat they observed the foibles of society around them.  Archie then wrote Marquis' columns by throwing himself headfirst at the typewriter keys, one painful letter at a time.

The Don Marquis was built in Los Angeles, a city that the writer despised from a brief and unhappy attempt to "go Hollywood".  One at least hopes the ship was christened with a bottle of something suitably spirited, Don liked his drink.  I take intense personal comfort in his vision of a happy old age that he did not actually attain:

"Between the years of ninety-two and a hundred and two, however, we shall be the ribald, useless, drunken, outcast person we have always wished to be. We shall have a long white beard and long white hair; we shall not walk at all, but recline in a wheel chair and bellow for alcoholic beverages; in the winter we shall sit before the fire with our feet in a bucket of hot water, a decanter of corn whiskey near at hand, and write ribald songs against organized society; strapped to one arm of our chair will be a forty-five calibre revolver, and we shall shoot out the lights when we want to go to sleep, instead of turning them off; when we want air we shall throw a silver candlestick through the front window and be damned to it; we shall address public meetings (to which we have been invited because of our wisdom) in a vein of jocund malice. We shall … but we don’t wish to make any one envious of the good time that is coming to us … We look forward to a disreputable, vigorous, unhonoured, and disorderly old age"


JayNola said...
An interesting read about the current usn naming practices.

Tacitus2 said...

Thanks JayNola

Fascinating stuff.

I would be considered more of a Traditionalist in such matters but certainly can appreciate quirky exceptions. Evidently there will always be an Enterprise.
Kirk would be pleased!