TCS Daily

Where History Comes to Life

By Martin Morse Wooster - July 3, 2007 12:00 AM

BALTIMORE—It's a lovely early summer day in the Chesapeake Bay, and everyone with a boat knows it's time to grab the bathing suits and some crabs and head for the water. The Bay is jammed with sailboats, speedboats, and other pleasure craft.

But the fun-seekers crowding the waters are about to see something few Americans in this century have seen. Two deadly Japanese bombers, a Zero and an Aichi D3A, are coming in from the southeast.

The Zeroes approach menacingly, their lime-green fuselages glistening in the bright summer sun. They dive and swoop towards the water, coming closer, ever closer, getting ready to unleash their payload.

Luckily, the Americans have protection. One lone ship stands between the Zeroes and downtown Baltimore. It fires its 20-caliber machine guns towards the Zeroes, the weapons swooping clockwise as the Japanese planes head west. Finally, three American bombers show up: a P51D Mustang, a P-40E Warhawk, and a lumbering B-25J Mitchell bomber.

American firepower saves the day. The Japanese planes belch white smoke as they slink off to their eastern base.

Of course, this is all a show. The Japanese planes aren't even really Japanese. The Aichi is a replica made for the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! The Zero is a repainted Soviet Yak-52 trainer.

But the American planes are real ones. And the ship -- the SS John W. Brown -- actually did serve in World War II.

The John W. Brown is a "Liberty Ship," built to transport cargo and to protect convoys against German submarines. During the war, 2,710 of these ships were built. Two Liberty Ships—the John W. Brown and the San Francisco-based Jeremiah O'Brien—are preserved.

The Brown owes its survival to the New York City Board of Education. In 1946, the ship was handed over to the school board, which used it for vocational education classes. "The modern boy who wishes to run away to sea need go no further than 25th Street and the East River," noted a 1949 article in the New York Daily News, which added that "375 young sea dogs" were taking classes on the boat that school year.

By 1982, the Brown was obsolete as a classroom, and the New York City school board transferred control to Project Liberty Ship, which spent the next six years raising money and trying to find a permanent home for the ship. In 1988, the ship settled in Pier One in Baltimore, where it's been ever since. In 1991, the Brown was once again seaworthy.

Maintaining the Brown involves a great deal of volunteer effort; Project Liberty Ship, calculates that volunteers have donated over 1.5 million hours of labor to perform repairs and maintenance. Volunteer Gary Engl explains that every Wednesday and Saturday 50 retirees show up to perform chores. There's something for everyone to do, from swabbing the deck to maintaining the engines. He explained that the hard work is worth it. "Wouldn't you do it," he said, "to play on a ship like this?"

Four times a year, the Brown holds "living history cruises" as fundraisers. The tickets cost $125, and the organizers make sure that attendees get their money's worth. Actors pretending to be General Douglas MacArthur and President Franklin D. Roosevelt are on board. The actor playing FDR was hauled on the ship in a giant cage. There are also big bands and a woman's barbershop quartet singing songs of the era. There are even impersonators pretending to be comedians Lou Abbott and Bud Costello. (Surprisingly, the actors playing Abbott and Costello, Bill Riley and Joe Ziegler, looked like the great comedy duo and were funny.)

The impersonators were striving to stay in character. "What do you like about World War II?" I asked one woman, who wore a nurse officer's uniform.

"It's 1943," she said, "and I'm living in the moment."

Of course, an event like this was a honey pot for re-enactors. I talked to many of them, including one whose specialty was the French and Indian War and another who was so devoted to telegraphs that he knew the last commercial use of American Morse Code. (It was on a train in Washington state in 1982.)

Some collectors got to show off their stuff. David Poteet joined the Marines in 1947, and has been collecting Marine memorabilia ever since. He showed off his collection: knives, a Jeep, and even a box for the official Marine jockstrap. (I didn't want to know whether that box was empty or full.)

But Poteet's collection paled before the World War II re-enactors, who prided themselves on having a box of K rations that remained unopened after 65 years. The historic box was coated with grease spots. "Is that unusual?" I asked.

"Nah," said Rich, a man in his fifties who wouldn't give his last name. "I joined the Army in '74, and in '78 we switched to wash and wear uniforms. I still have my old uniform with the original starch in it."

Rich and his friends regaled me with tales of weekend re-enacting fun. At Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, they got to sleep in a genuine crumbling Quonset hut from the period. At Fort Du Pont in Delaware, they played in the ruins of a camp that housed German prisoners during the war.

After hearing many tales of weekends spent in the woods with your buddies getting orders from people you wouldn't have to work with on Monday morning, I then learned about World War I re-enactors. There was a ten-acre farm in Newville, Pennsylvania, I was told, whose owner had created an imitation Western Front, complete with trenches and barbed wire. The re-enactors could even have "mortars" fired at them, which were really soda bottles filled with flour. And while guns were banned in state parks and military bases, the farm was private property, so everyone could use their weapons.

"That doesn't sound like fun to me," I said, dimly remembering the battles of the Somme and the Marne.

"Ever tried it?" one re-enactor responded.

The living history cruise wasn't all play. At several points on the cruise, reminders were made of the courage and sacrifices made by the sailors who served on Liberty Ships. A memorial service was held to commemorate the men who died on the ships serving our country. At the service, Peter Kistar, who came from Montana for the event, donated a flag that flew on the Peter Skene Ogden, which sank in front of the Brown during a 1944 convoy. Kistar was on the ship when it sank and saved the flag. The flag, we were told, would occupy a place of honor in the Brown's museum.

Many sailors who served in the Merchant Marine and the U.S. Navy Armed Guard during the war were on board, and many were eager to share their stories. Carl Olson of Cincinnati, a Navy Armed Guard veteran, vividly remembers his tour of duty on the Champ Clark and the Lakehurst. He had a busy war. In 1944, he helped serve in the convoy that launched the D-Day invasion. A few months later, serving on another ship, he helped Gen. Douglas MacArthur liberate the Philippines.

Olson had many memories of the war, from the chores of doing shipboard laundry with a bucket to the grim majesty of being on a convoy in the pitch-black North Atlantic, as dozens of ships zigzagged across the ocean in precise 15-degreee "right oblique" turns to evade U-boats. But the grandest moment in Olson's career came at war's end in 1945, when he steamed into New York City and saw the Statue of Liberty and a great many barges, filled with women welcoming the returning troops with popular songs.

"It was the biggest thrill of my life," Olson said.

There were many patriotic moments on the Brown's cruise that day, but the most sublime one came at the beginning, when the ship sailed past Fort McHenry, and the Crabtowne Big Band played "The Star-Spangled Banner,"

I've heard our national anthem played many times, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes badly. But that day was the first time I have heard the song played at the spot where the events described in the anthem took place.

As I stood, hearing the song, I reflected on the brave band of Americans who protected Baltimore nearly two centuries ago. And I understood the sacrifices that were made by those men—and all of our soldiers, in all our wars--in order to keep us free.

Martin Morse Wooster is a former editor of The Wilson Quarterly and The American Enterprise.



"Understand the Sacrifices Made By Our Brave Soldiers" - What Brave Soldiers? The Ones Assaulting Ki
I am a Vietnam Veteran and I saw evidence of tens of thousands of U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam. The racist-indoctrinated criminal soldiers in Iraq show signs of being even more rapist and murdering than in Vietnam.

So which "brave soldiers" are we talking about?

ah yes, the fevered imagination of the far left kicks in again
first he imagines himself in Vietnam, then he imagines himself seeing what his ideology assures him must have happened, even though no one outside the lunatic fringe is able to find this evidence.

soldiers raping
So if the forces are racist indoctrinated, do you also mean that all those black soldiers are also raping? Or just white soldiers? Are the women soldiers also raping? If it's only white, male soldiers doing all the raping, why won't the black and the female whites be decrying it all over the place? Could they all be keeping quiet to proctect their comrades? Also in the Vietnam war, we didn't even hear the enemy talking about all that raping. Why wouldn't they have shouted it out loud and given evidence to disgrace the Ameicans. Maybe it's because it only happened in your fevered mind; if fact maybe you actually wanted to rape those cute asian babes. If you were even there at all, you should have just paid for it the way normal men do.

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