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Guest Viewpoints

Pilgrimage to Hellas Liberty – Honoring the Liberty Ships’ Place in Hellenic History

August 30, 2023
By Alexander Billinis

The Liberty Ship has largely passed out of history, having served an honorable and pivotal, if not always acknowledged, role as the cargo ship that won World War Two. It was, further, a key symbol of the genius of American industrialization, managerial skill, and patriotic effort that so many were produced so fast, and with so few problems. To the World War Two generation, Liberty Ships were symbolic of the ‘We Can Do It’ attitude of the American home front workers – often enough women and African Americans – who built the weapons and vessels to wage and win industrial age wars.

For Greeks, the relationship with the ‘Blessed Liberty Ships’ lasted rather longer, decades in fact, as the large surplus of ships postwar were sold at advantageous prices to American allies, and the Greeks predictably went all in, as their fleet had suffered horrific losses in the Battle of the Atlantic. The survivors of that charnel house, or, in my martyred grandfather’s case, his sons, were ready and willing to work, and Liberty Ships provided the opportunity.

The Liberty Ship, welded and utterly functional, was named affectionately ‘The Ugly Duckling’ by President Roosevelt, but to follow the fairy tale, the Swan, or perhaps more appropriately, the Phoenix of Greek Shipping rose from the Ashes of World War Two precisely due to these hardy ships in the hands of some of the world’s best sailors. A ship that had been built for one round trip often served a quarter century or more, resulting in several generations of Greeks having their Liberty Ship stories, including mariners much younger than my late father, as these ships continued to be part of Greek fleets until the late 1960s or beyond.

From my father and all of his relatives, and from countless friends and family on our island, Hydra, I grew up with stories of the Liberty Ships. Living in Greece as a banker with shipping clients as a key part of the portfolio, chats with shipping company personnel, often enough retired captains, were replete with affectionate references to “Ta Liberty.” That was almost two decades ago.

My reconnection with my nautical heritage, and with the Liberty Ships, came with my decision to take a master’s degree in history and to focus on the Greek merchant marine, my thesis subject. Almost immediately the stories, from many now departed, returned to my consciousness, backed by immeasurable research and reading about this remarkable ship, whose idea developed in a besieged Britain at the start of World War Two but came to life in vast, assembly line yards built from scratch on America’s Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts, worked on particularly by African Americans and women. Typical keel to Christening time for a Liberty Ship was just over a month, but the record was five days [!] and that record ship remained in service plying the waves until 1965!

Like the men and women who built them, and many of the first generation who sailed them, the vast majority of Liberty Ships have passed into history, recycled into new forms of steel, after perhaps, a purgatory in some river estuary. However, two Liberties have defied the years and odds, cared for by dedicated restoration teams. One, the SS John Brown, lies at dock in Baltimore, the other, Hellas Liberty is in Baltimore’s sister city of Piraeus, Greece, where my father grew up.

On my last trip to Greece, a trip so infused with nautical themes, I just had to make a pilgrimage to this Liberty Ship. In truth, I was also privy to its backstory, about how it was salvaged and rescued by a combination of Greek shipping and Greek Diaspora donors, salvagers, and other experts to bring the former SS Arthur Huddle to Piraeus, where restoration brought it to its present, pristine state. Years before, in New York, I was on a panel discussing the role of the Liberty Ships as part of a lecture series sponsored by East Mediterranean Business Cultural Alliance (EMBCA). After the New York conference, EMBCA President Ilias Katsos took the discussion ‘on the road’ to Piraeus, underwriting a panel discussion in the ship itself, which has a large part of the hold dedicated to exhibitions and conferences.

On an early May morning a day before my departure to the United States, I decided that my packed schedule in Greece had to include a ‘pilgrimage’ to Hellas Liberty. I ventured from my friend’s house in Neo Psychiko, a northern suburb of Athens, to the Piraeus station via the Metro, and I decided to walk through the maze of quays and piers of Piraeus port to the Hellas Liberty.

Thank God for GPS, because the ship was basically hidden behind a huge decaying warehouse, flanked by ferryboats bound for Crete and Rhodes, in a port with a great past (including Classical ruins among industrial detritus) and an uncertain future. Arriving at the poorly marked site, the ship was obscured by a dilapidated steel and concrete warehouse. I was early and found a trailer that housed a small café and bakery.

Fortified with an espresso and a tiropita (cheese pastry), I sat at a rickety table, and next to me were two grizzled fellows, at least twenty years my senior. Full on with cigarettes, one’s smartphone played a tune by the late, great Grigoris Bithikotsis, ‘Pio Pireotis petheneis’, roughly translated as, ‘you could not be more of a Pireotis [resident of Piraeus]’. I sat there recalling my own father, who grew up here, a son and grandson of a sailor, and a sailor himself, listening to the music of a sailor who became a musician. Both of the men I met that day had been pensioned off from the port authority, and their opinions as to the current state and ownership of the port were translatable, just not printable.

Walking up the gangway the moment it was opened, a young employee of the Hellas Liberty museum asked if he could be of any assistance or answer questions. I told him of my background and work on the Greek Merchant Marine, my Hydriot background and family naval heritage, as well as my being a director of EMBCA. He remembered: “Mr. Katsos’ panel, when the hold was full of Greek shipowners,” and basically left me to commune silently with the ship.

I walked its length, went into the holds, and the small dormitories, eyeing the ship’s welded seams, a controversial innovation to speed construction and lighten the ship, at a time when the norm was still costly rivets. I could not fail to marvel at, and, as an American, to be proud of, the incredible ingenuity of my fellow countrymen, and at the patriotic fervor of the workers, so many of them women and blacks, who contributed their all to the war effort in any way possible. The sparse bunkrooms recalled comments of my father, of banged heads and Spartan accommodations, but like all other Greeks who had served aboard these ships, there was a deep reverence in his tones.

The bridge also was a combination of sparseness and the obligatory icon of the guardian of the seas, St. Nicholas. Again, thoughts of my father, an apprentice captain, came to mind, and all the other captains past and present to have commanded on such a bridge, including my new colleagues at the ‘Lesxi Apofyton Sxolis Nautilias tis Ydras’ (Hydra Nautical Academy Alumni Association), which had just the week before inducted me as an honorary member for my nautical study activities, as well as those sailing in World War Two, who brought the supplies that won the war, facing off the vicious ‘Wolf Pack’ attacks of German U-Boats.

I spoke with the Museum Director, a retired captain, in his office, with books and brochures abounding, as well as the plaques from numerous associations who were affiliated with or had donated to the museum. I was delighted to see a plaque from the Hydra Nautical School Alumni Association, among others, yet another connection between me and this ship.

I checked my watch, or more accurately, given today’s era, my phone. I was expected for a meeting in Athens, with a fellow Hydriot and fellow member of the alumni association, for a coffee talk prior to my departure. Time is always a precious and limited commodity when I am in Greece, so my lingering was shorter than it might have been. I ran my hand along the steel walls, newly painted but with a functional roughness, joined by the tell-tale signs of the welder’s seam.

As I reached the gangplank, I felt, as I often do when in Greece at museums or places of historical or personal significance, an almost imperceptible presence behind me, guiding me out. Fewer moments have I felt prouder to be an American and a Greek, as if this sturdy ship, so much a part of both countries’ twentieth century history, was the perfect symbiosis of my joint identity.

With that, I got back on the road, to Athens, my meeting, and thereafter, like these ships in times past, across the ocean.

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