Ken Beaton: Saving a part of our heritage

Hazel Stamper Hohn smiles in her 1944 Women's Airforce Service Pilot blue uniform. She flew a few B-24 four-engine bombers from the factory to USAAF bases during the war. Hazel raised her two daughters in Carson City.

Hazel Stamper Hohn smiles in her 1944 Women's Airforce Service Pilot blue uniform. She flew a few B-24 four-engine bombers from the factory to USAAF bases during the war. Hazel raised her two daughters in Carson City.

Every American’s life changed on Dec. 7, 1941. Our country had two fronts: the war front with males ages 17 to 45 fighting the Axis nations. And the home front which required everyone to sacrifice and do their part to make America “The Arsenal for Democracy.” School children participated by collecting scrap iron, tires, bacon grease, an ingredient in the explosive glycerin, and growing victory gardens.

Eighteen million American women of all races and ages, who were single, married, divorced, or widowed, replaced men working on the home front.

What did those women have to endure? First, there were negative attitudes because women replaced men. Rosie the Riveter learned new skills. Second, there were no women’s work clothes. They purchased boy’s jeans unless they were a plus-size gal. Third, women had to arrange day-care for their child or children not attending school. Fourth, women’s bathrooms had to be constructed or some men’s bathrooms had to be retrofitted.

One foreman in South Portland’s shipyard had an all-female crew. His attitude changed as he noticed how eager they were to learn while taking pride in their work. His “girls” did not take smoking breaks like the men.

In South Portland, ground was broken for the East Yard on Dec. 20, 1940. Their mission was to build Liberty ships under the Lend Lease agreement between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt. A Liberty ship could haul 10,856 tons of cargo at 13 mph. A Liberty could transport the same amount of cargo as a mile-long freight train. South Portland Shipbuilding Corp.’s West Yard’s mission in 1941 was to increase America’s merchant ships. “Make ‘em faster than U-boats can sink ‘em.” In 1942 East and West Yards merged to become the New England Shipbuilding Corp.

During the war, American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty ships; some were built in four days! The men and women at the New England Shipbuilding Corp., built and christened 264 Liberties. The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien was christened in June 1943. FYI, Jeremiah O’Brien was the first captain in America’s Continental Navy to capture an English naval vessel during the Revolutionary War.

The O’Brien was one of 6,000 ships off the Normandy coast on D-Day. In June 1944 she made 11 crossings from England to Normandy carrying personnel and crucial supplies to establish the beachhead and move inland.

After the war, the O’Brien was “mothballed” in Suisun Bay, north of San Francisco. In 1979 a U.S. Maritime Administration official, a former Liberty sailor, rescued the O’ Brien destined to be scrapped. Hundreds of volunteers with generous donations restored the O’Brien to become the first ship to steam from the mothball fleet under her own power. The O’Brien was certified seaworthy by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 1994 the S.S. O’Brien steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge through the Panama Canal on her eighth voyage to England and France. Her crew was a collection of Liberty “old salts” in their 70s determined to be part of the 50th anniversary of Operation Overlord, D-Day. Select midshipmen from the California Maritime Academy gave some youthful energy to the crew. Of the 6,000 ships that formed the D-Day armada, the O’Brien was the only large ship to return for the 50th anniversary.

The O’Brien was reviewed by the queen of England from her royal yacht Britannia, visited by President Clinton and honored on both sides of the English Channel. The first port on her return trip was her birthplace, South Portland, Maine. In six months, she traveled 18,000 miles with no major repairs, a tribute to her volunteer crew, design, and construction.

The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien is one of our “neighbors,” moored at Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Several bay cruises are scheduled each year. For information, make a donation or become a member call 415-942-8052 or visit

At 4 a.m. Saturday, May 23, 2020, at San Francisco’s Pier 45 a fire erupted to destroy the warehouse at Fisherman’s Wharf and threatened the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien moored at the pier. San Francisco Chronicle reporters Steve Rubenstein and Ron Kroichick wrote, “Phillip O’Hara, senior ship keeper for the O’Brien, said ‘The ship was in great shape and just got singed a bit.’ O’Hara credited the city’s fire boat, the St. Francis, for saving the day.”

“Fire department Lt. Jonathan Baxter said, ‘If you’re looking for one positive, saving a historic World War II vessel at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend is something we should be proud of as a community.”

About 150 SF firefighters fought the fire. Only one was treated for a cut to her hand. “Well done SFFD!”


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