Lovers of the traditional merchant navy visiting Piraeus should not fail to view the museum steamer SS Hellas Liberty. The freighter is moored at Akti Vassiliadi, Gate E2, just below some conspicuous out-of-service grain elevators. It is open to the public; entrance fee: naught.
Old-timers may recall, with some nostalgia, this type of vessel which played an important role in World War II and could still be seen all over the world for years after. The freighters, averaging 7,176 gross tons, were a tough lot, due to their simple basic design. However, at an early stage of their deployment, some of them suddenly broke in two on the high seas, disappearing below the waves within seconds. This happened mainly with convoys on the Murmansk route, which led to the finding that the steel used in building became brittle at low temperatures, and quickly gave way then. After this had been rectified, no further losses occurred, except those caused by German U-boats, of course.
The Liberties, as they were called, came to be built with good reason. After increasing merchant vessels fell prey to the U-boats, cargo space in the UK became dangerously scarce. Therefore, in 1941, the United States initiated the so-called Emergency Shipbuilding Program, pledging to launch a “bathtub”, as they were nicknamed in naval lingo, at the rate of one a day. This pledge was greatly exceeded by using prefabricated components, which enabled the building of a vessel within 40 days. There was even a record of one being built in four and a half days. With 18 new shipyards participating, an incredible 2,710 units were deployed by the end of the war, compared to which the number of German submarines - some 250 - was simply ridiculous. It has been rightly calculated that this gigantic fleet essentially shortened the war, possibly by as much as one year, and probably even contributed to avert a possible invasion of the British Isles by German forces.
Each of those freighters could carry 2,840 jeeps or 440 light tanks, not to mention general cargo goods, for which they had originally been conceived. One of those legendary vessels was the SS Arthur M Huddle, launched in 1943. A year later, she was converted into a pipeline carrier to lay a fuel system across the Channel, which was promptly put in use after the allied landing. After the war, she was laid up for sometime, then assigned as a cable-layer for AT&T, and eventually incorporated in the US Reserve Fleet. A passive interlude followed, till 1988, as a supplier of spare parts for other vessels.
Then, in 2008, she was turned over to Greece, rechristened Hellas Liberty, and transformed into a museum ship. Substantial donations of shipowner Vassilis Constantakopoulos and other financiers, mainly merchant navy officers, changed the rusty veteran into a true jewel, looking ready to cast off and sail out of port at any time. Everything on board is spick and span, shipshape and functional, because the Hellas Liberty has national significance. She represents and commemorates the 98 Liberty ships which formed the foundation of the Greek merchant fleet in 1945, and which still plied the oceans of the world well into the eighties. Two other museum ships of this type can be found in the US, namely the John W Brown in Baltimore, and the Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco.