The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a Liberty ship build in South Portland and now a premier San Francisco attraction, survived a four-alarm fire that broke out at Pier 45 in San Francisco on Memorial Day weekend. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Fire Department

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien lives. Again.

With all the other calamities gripping the country these days, it might have been easy to miss the news that San Francisco’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf burned over the Memorial Day weekend.

Even more likely to have gone unnoticed was that amid the inferno, one ray of hope emerged: A crew of firefighters on a single fireboat managed to save the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a World War II Liberty ship built 77 years ago in South Portland.

Bear in mind, the O’Brien is not just any Liberty ship.

It’s the only one remaining of the 274 ships churned out in just 40 months in the early 1940s by thousands of Mainers at the New England Shipbuilding Corporation’s two yards on Portland Harbor.

Of the 2,751 Liberty ships produced nationwide to ferry cargo and troops to take on the Germans in Europe, it’s one of only four that still exist, one of two that still run and the only one still in its original configuration.

The O’Brien made three crossings of the North Atlantic, infested at the time with German U- boats, without ever being fired upon.

It traversed the English Channel 11 times during the D-Day invasion, again without a scratch.

Later, in its last military mission in the South Pacific, it sailed to Australia to transport war brides to their new lives in the United States.

It spent more than three decades in the “Mothball Fleet” of surplus naval ships in Suisun Bay near San Francisco, where it was saved from the scrap heap by Rear Adm. Thomas J. Patterson of the U.S Maritime Administration, himself a former Liberty ship sailor.

Its engine room, running at full steam, made a cameo appearance in James Cameron’s epic 1997 film “Titanic.”

In 1994, it sailed under its own power from San Francisco Bay down to the Panama Canal and then across to Normandy, France, for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion – the only large ship from the original armada of some 5,000 vessels present for the commemoration.

It was crewed for that voyage largely by old sailors – their average age was 70. It was reviewed by Queen Elizabeth II from the royal yacht Britannia and visited by then-President Bill Clinton.

Amid much fanfare, its first port of call on the return trip home was South Portland, where a plaque now commemorates the long-gone East and West shipyards that once helped save the world.

And now this: The four-alarm fire on May 23 destroyed much of San Francisco’s Pier 45, sending massive flames soaring over the O’Brien and threatening to do what World War II couldn’t. Yet, when the smoke finally cleared, the ship was still there, its bridge windows cracked and a few lines melted by the intense heat, but otherwise unscathed.

They don’t call it the “Lucky O’Brien” for nothing.

“I’m happy that it survived – and I’m excited to be able to talk about the survival,” said Matt Lasher, executive director of the National Liberty Ship Memorial, also known as the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, in an interview on Friday. “Here we are today and, again, it escapes.”

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Beyond its birthplace, the ship has a distinctly Maine heritage. It was named after Jeremiah O’Brien, who was born in 1744 in Kittery, grew up in Scarborough and went on to become a private ship captain in Machias.

It was there, two months after the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, that O’Brien oversaw the capture of the British schooner HMS Margaretta – Britain’s first maritime defeat in the war.

O’Brien, who went on to come a captain in the Massachusetts State Navy, is commonly regarded as the father of the U.S. Merchant Marine. One hundred and seventy years later, its sailors would man the ship that bears his name.

Somewhat clunky looking and protected by only by a 4-inch deck gun on the stern and maybe a smaller anti-aircraft gun or two, the Liberty ships lacked the glamor of the battleships and destroyers of Hollywood fame. But their role in winning the war cannot be overstated.

“When you read and talk about World War II, often that part of the war is missed,” Lasher said. “It’s the shipyards, it’s the yard workers, it’s the merchant mariners – these civilian-military people who really shouldered the logistics of the war.”

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien Photo courtesy of the National Liberty Ship Memorial/Jim Hafft, 2017

With a length of 441 feet and 57 feet at the beam, the O’Brien was designed to last five years – if that. As Kathy DiPhilippo, executive director and curator of the South Portland Historical Society, noted last week, many of the 200 or so Liberty ships sunk during the war never completed their maiden voyages.

“You wouldn’t have spent a lot of time on any one ship because there was kind of an assumption when they built it that this might be the ship that gets sunk,” DiPhilippo said. “So you would just hurry up and get them out of here and get on to the next one.”

To define “hurry up”: The keel of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien was laid on May 6, 1943. It was launched 45 days later, on June 19.

It survived its maiden ocean crossing, then another, then another. Over and over, it crisscrossed the English Channel throughout the Normandy invasion, carrying supplies and troops on their way to change history.

Then it was on to the South Pacific, where it helped reunite soldiers with their war brides before finally, like so many World War II ships, laying up in a sea of gray at the National Reserve Defense Fleet in Suisun Bay. There, while most Liberty ships were scrapped, Rear Adm. Patterson plucked out the O’Brien for posterity in 1977.

On May 21, 1980, fully restored and gleaming like the day it first left Casco Bay, the ship sailed into San Francisco Bay for its new life as a memorial to those who built and sailed it.

In the decades since, it’s become a go-to tourist attraction for those curious about how such vessels, once dubbed the “Ugly Ducklings” by Time magazine, could have played such a pivotal role in defeating Hitler.

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Lt. Jon Baxter of the San Francisco Fire Department arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf about 15 minutes after the first reports of the fire came in just after 4 a.m. on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

“The flame lengths, which I witnessed, were going over the highest point of the vessel,” Baxter said. “The flames were reaching and going over the boat – well over 100-foot flame lengths.”

The ship’s skeleton crew managed to evacuate without injury. Immediately, Baxter said, Deputy Chief of Operations Victor Wyrsch took it upon himself to direct the rescue of the O’Brien – a mission primarily carried out by a Fireboat 3, nicknamed “St. Francis,” and  a handful of firefighters who deluged the ship with water while their 150 or so comrades fought to control the spectacular blaze.

Concerned about whether the water was reaching the dock side of the ship, four firefighters on the fireboat eventually launched a small skiff and maneuvered around under the flames, literally entering a tunnel of fire.

“They were able to basically go under the pier, risking their lives, to ensure that we were placing the water where it needed to be placed,” Baxter said. “For the single operation of protecting that vessel, you had an extremely dedicated tactical group of 10 individuals who were maintaining the fireboat and maintaining a very efficient wall of water between the fire and the vessel.”

Phil O’Mara, the O’Brien’s shipkeeper, witnessed the fire department’s heroics. Considering the intense heat, he said, he’s amazed at how well the O’Brien came through it – the damage was limited to the synthetic rigging for the cargo gear, which melts at 545 degrees Fahrenheit, and a few cracked windows.

“It’s a miracle that things didn’t catch on fire,” O’Mara said. “Even the mooring lines didn’t burn.”

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The cause of the fire remains under investigation. On Tuesday, the O’Brien was moved by tugs – its engines already were down for maintenance before the fire – to nearby Pier 35. And therein lies another echo from the past.

“Interestingly enough, the ship had been there on July 7, 1944,” O’Mara said. “That’s the first pier it went to in San Francisco ever.”

Now comes the hard part.

According to Lasher, the memorial’s executive director, the COVID-19 pandemic has already shut down virtually all of the O’Brien’s tours and cruises for this year – the main source of the operation’s income.

But already, he said, the community has rallied. A local tugboat company moved the ship free of charge, a ship-supply company replaced the melted lines at no cost, and already donations are coming in from far and wide.

At the fire department, Baxter said, congratulations have poured in all the way from Europe.

“We’ve gotten emails and phone calls from the next generation of families that had their grandparents directly affected by the Liberty ships rescuing them … and freeing them from that era,” Baxter said. “It’s amazing.”

So, folks, now it’s our turn. To make a donation to the O’Brien, go here. There’s even a box at the bottom where you can dedicate your contribution to an individual or organization – the San Francisco Fire Department comes to mind.

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, after all, is beyond lucky. It’s blessed.

And while it now resides a continent away, as the South Portland Historical Society’s DiPhilippo noted, it could not be more deeply rooted in Maine’s heritage.

“It’s their baby,” she said. “But it’s our baby, too.”


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