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San Francisco’s Maritime Moments: SS Jeremiah O’Brien

Every time a Hornblower vessels sails out into San Francisco Bay, they pass by a true bit of irreplaceable maritime history: the SS Jeremiah O’Brien docked at Fisherman’s Wharf. One of more than 2700 “Liberty Ships” built to transport valuable materials to the European and Pacific fronts during WWII, the O’Brien is the last fully operational such ship in her original condition. There are still a handful of similar survivors, including the Liberty ship SS John Brown in Baltimore and the Victory Ships Lane Victory at San Pedro and Red Oak Victory across the Bay in Richmond but the O’Brien is unique, and special.

I remember the first time I saw the O’Brien. It was my first week in San Francisco in 1986. Of course, as a bona fide “ship nut” I had already read about the storied survivor and knew where to track her down. Back then, she was moored at the City’s Fort Mason, itself a splendid example of wartime architecture and history. It almost wasn’t so. Relegated to the “Mothball Fleet” after the war, she was all but forgotten when Rear Admiral Thomas Patterson found her tied up with other maritime relics in Suisin Bay. After three decades cold, her boilers were re-lit and fired away. To date, she’s the only vessel “resurrected” from the “Ghost Fleet” that left under her own steam! After a few years at Fort Mason (and thousands of hours of restoration and preservation by a crew of volunteers), the O’Brien was declared an historic landmark and moved to Fisherman’s Wharf where she shares berthing space with another historic vessel, the WWII submarine Pampanito.

In June 1943 the Liberty Ship S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien slid down the ways at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation in South Portland, Maine. Shortly thereafter she entered service, operated by Grace Line for the War Shipping Administration. Named for the first American to capture a British naval vessel during the Revolutionary War, the O’Brien made seven World War II voyages, ranging from England and Northern Ireland to South America, to India, to Australia. She also made eleven crossings of the English Channel carrying personnel and supplies to the Normandy beaches in support of the D-Day invasion..

In 1994 the O’Brien, in what was to be an epic eighth voyage, steamed through the Golden Gate, down the west coast, through the Panama Canal, and across the Atlantic to England and France, where the O’Brien and her crew (a remarkable collection of old salts whose average age was 70 and a few cadets from the California Maritime Academy), participated in the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord — the Allied invasion at Normandy that turned the tide of World War II in Europe. Of the more than 5,000 ships that formed the original D-Day armada, the O’Brien was the only large ship to return 50 years later. A grateful France gifted the O’Brien with an artistic tableau of the D-Day invasions, with the O’Brien front and center, as she was on that epic day. The gift is now part of the O’Brien’s museum below her decks. I remember the Chronicle’s Carl Nolte (a member of that volunteer crew to Normandy) said that once the local French learned that the O’Brien was a Normandy survivor, not a member of her crew could pay for their own drink ashore.

Besides maritime history, the O’Brien has been a part of movie history as well. With the same type of reciprocating engines as those found aboard the ill-fated Titanic, the Jeremiah O’Brien’s working engine room “stunt doubled” as the late-great White Star liner in the James Cameron film “TITANIC” of 1997. Although smaller than Titanic’s engines, through the miracle of computer graphics, the O’Brien’s were made to look larger. A photo from Cameron’s crew marks the spot today below decks.

There truly is nothing like walking the decks of an historic vessel. The next time you’re in Fisherman’s Wharf – either before or after a trip on the Bay or to Alcatraz aboard a Hornblower vessel – step over a few piers and walk up the gangway and experience the living history of the Jeremiah O’Brien. Even better, during one of her regularly scheduled Bay cruises, head out to sea aboard her. Ahoy!

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