Monday, October 3, 2016

SS Ross G. Marvin: World War II Liberty Ship

by Erin Doane, curator

On November 29, 1943 at 3:45pm, Mrs. Gertrude Colegrove Tum of Elmira stood in Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard. In her gloved hands she held a champagne bottle wrapped in red, white, and blue satin. At the signal, she released the bottle. It swung through the air on its attached rope and smashed into the newly-completed Liberty ship, the SS Ross G. Marvin. After the christening, Mrs. Tum and her party retired to the Belvedere Hotel for a luncheon.
Bottle used to christen the SS Ross G. Marvin, 1943
The SS Ross G. Marvin was one of over 2,700 Liberty ships built by the United States during World War II. Marvin, was an Elmira native and arctic explorer who died on the ice while seeking the North Pole with Robert Peary in 1909. (You can read about his tragic, mysterious end in one of my earlier posts – Death in the Arctic.) His niece, Mrs. Tum, sponsored the ship and was given the honor of christening it before its launch.

Oil painting of Ross Marvin by James Vinton Stowell
 Liberty ships were a class of cargo ships used as transports during the war. The quickly-built ships, based on the design of an 1879 British ship, were nicknamed “ugly ducklings” by President Franklin Roosevelt. A Liberty ship measured 441 feet long and 57 feet wide. A 3-cylinder, reciprocating steam engine fed by two oil-burning boilers produced 2,950 horsepower and could propel the ship across the waters at 11 knots. Over 9,000 tons of cargo could be stowed in five holds with watertight bulkheads. Each ship was also equipped with a distillation system to make sea water drinkable for the wartime crew of 40 merchant marines and 30 navy gunners.

Between 1941 and 1945, eighteen shipyards built over 2,700 ships at the cost of about $2 million each (equivalent to about $34 million today). Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Maryland was the largest of its kind in the United States. Each ship was made of 250,000 prefabricated parts from all over the country. The modular construction of the ships reduced the amount of man-hours required to build them so the shipyards were able to produce many ships very quickly. The first Liberty ship, the SS Patrick Henry, which launched September 27, 1941, took 244 days to build. By 1943, a ship could be built in as little as 16 days. The SS Robert E. Peary was built in world’s record time of 4 days, 15 ½ hours. It took 23 days to construct the SS Ross G. Marvin. Overall, the average construction time of a Liberty ship was about 40 days.

Completed Liberty ship ready to be launched at 
the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards, Baltimore, 
Maryland, April 1943
 Liberty ships were named after notable, deceased Americans including founding fathers, civil leaders, scientist, and authors. 114 ships were named after women and 18 after African Americans. The last 100 ships that were constructed bore the names of merchant seamen who had died in service during the course of the war. Ross Marvin was chosen because of his involvement in Admiral Peary’s arctic expeditions. It is also interesting to note, however, that John M. Carmody, Commissioner of the United States Maritime Commission in Washington, and chairman of the ship naming committee was also an Elmira native who had attended school with Marvin.

Construction of Liberty ships ended in 1945. About 200 of the ships were destroyed and sunk during the war. After the fighting ended, most of the ships were sold into private hands and converted for a variety of different uses. The SS Ross G. Marvin was sold privately then scrapped in 1947. Today, only two fulling-operational Liberty ships still exist as floating museums – the SS Jeramiah O’Brien in San Francisco, California and the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, Maryland.


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