Liberty ships were cargo ships built in the US during World War II. They were inexpensive and quick to build, and used for deliveries of war materiel to Britain and to the Soviet Union.
Liberty ships were products of early prefabricated mass production, in large part an industrial response to wartime needs and a definite response to the threat of submarine attacks against merchant vessels.
Eighteen American shipyards built 2,751 Libertys between 1941 and 1945, easily the largest number of ships produced to a single design. (Ships had an original design life of five years.)
They were relatively simple in design and operation, reducing both construction time and time needed to train engineers. The Liberty ships and their crews of merchant seamen faced, and some falling victim to, surprise attacks from unseen enemy submarines.
The first Liberty ships required about 230 days to build, but the average eventually dropped to 42 days. The record was set by SS Robert E. Peary, which was launched 4 days and 15½ hours after the keel was laid.
The ships were made assembly-line style, from prefabricated sections. In 1943, three Liberty ships were completed daily. They were usually named after famous Americans, starting with the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.
The keel of the USS James Swan was laid June 23, 1944 and launched in Savannah, Georgia, August 12, 1944; she was built for the US Maritime Commission by the Southeastern Ship Building Corporation.
James Swan was a member of the Sons of Liberty and participated in the Boston Tea Party. Swan was twice wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill, he later became secretary of the Massachusetts Board of War and the legislature.
During the time he held that office, he helped fund the Continental Army. After the American Revolution, Swan privately assumed the entire United States French debts at a slightly higher interest rate (which he later sold.) The US no longer owed money to foreign governments, although it continued to owe money to private investors both at home and in Europe.
Following the war, the USS James Swan was sold to Standard Steamship Company of Wilmington Delaware and used to deliver freight. She was renamed the Quartette.
The Quartette was a three-masted single-screw triple-expansion steam engine vessel, 422-feet long, 57-feet in beam, and with a draft 35 feet deep. Her two water-tube boilers and triple expansion engine were capable of 2,500 horse power. She had three cargo holds forward and two aft.
In 1952, the Quartette was chartered by the Military Sea Transportation Service and en route from Galveston Texas to Pusan, South Korea (via an interim stop at Honolulu) with a load of 9,000-tons of milo yellow grain, consigned to the US Army.
Then, at 7:10 am on the morning of December 21, 1952, navigation fixes had placed the ship some nine to ten miles further away from any danger – it was wrong.
The lookout had reported a line of white breakers to the chief mate shortly after 7:00 AM, but allegedly no action to avoid the approaching obstacle was taken.
Then, heavy seas and 35-mph winds drove the 7,200-ton SS Quartette into the eastern reef crest of Pearl and Hermes Atoll, damaging two forward holds.
The ship was firmly aground, but in no immediate danger of sinking. Attempts to back the vessel off from the reef with the engines failed.
The Navy dispatched a Catalina flying boat and 170-foot patrol craft from Midway. Thirty-six crewmen were rescued on the following day, thirty-three of them being taken to Midway Island. The ship’s captain and two others (the chief engineer and radio operator) remained standing by on the patrol boat, waiting for the salvage tug.
The Ono arrived on December 25th; seas were expected to increase as a storm passed to the northwest, raising concerns that salvage efforts would be postponed.
In an effort to stabilize the vessel, anchors were dropped and a tow line attached. On January 3rd, the tug’s anchors parted at the shank, and the Quartette was blown broadside onto the reef.
She was deemed unsalvageable, a total loss.
Weeks later the ship broke her back (keel) and snapped in two, the bow portion forward of the superstructure was pushed into the shallow lagoon, and the stern and midsection (where engine was) remained in deeper water.
After three successive investigations (2007, 2008 & 2010,) teams of maritime archaeologists documented the shipwreck. Debris of the ship are scattered across the reef, including an impressive propeller, steering gear, triple-expansion steam engine and 4 massive anchors.
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