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The ship seems almost frozen in time—and the staff of Project Liberty Ship does its best to keep that illusion alive

Looking around at many of my seven hundred fellow passengers making their way up the gangplank, I realize they faced decidedly different circumstances the first time they made this walk, some sixty-five years ago. The serene sky and calm Chesapeake Bay on this autumn day are a far cry from what these veterans routinely confronted on storm-tossed Atlantic crossings or resupply missions in the Mediterranean, where their eyes had to constantly dart skyward, wary that even the smallest speck could turn into an enemy bomber.

At its berth in Baltimore, the hulking gray SS John W. Brown looks out of place alongside the more brightly colored civilian container ships docked around us. One of only two Liberty ships still operational out of the original fleet of 2,710 that the United States produced for the war effort, the John W. Brown has been fully restored and is now operated by an all-volunteer nonprofit organization. Project Liberty Ship keeps the vessel shipshape, offers cruises out of Baltimore several times a year, and occasionally sails the ship to other ports on the east coast, all in the aim of keeping alive the memory of the men and women who built these emergency cargo ships and the merchant seamen and Naval Armed Guard who manned and defended them—often at extraordinary cost; the merchant marine had the highest casualty rate of any military service in World War II.

The ship seems almost frozen in time—and the staff of Project Liberty Ship does its best to keep that illusion alive. Volunteers dressed as period navy guards pace the parking lot, M1 rifles slung over their shoulders. They direct visitors to parking spots at the dock. Other volunteers dressed as crew check our tickets.

And isn’t that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, being piped aboard in proper style? Down below us, it appears that President and Mrs. Roosevelt have just arrived in a limousine. With the use of the ship’s deck crane, a lift is arranged to get the “president” aboard, and a spokesman cautions the press not to photograph him in his wheelchair. Naturally there are speeches, and I notice that not only does our Franklin D. Roosevelt have the accent down pat, but he also wears the same sort of leg braces the actual FDR wore after contracting polio. I can’t help but marvel at how uncomfortable they must be—and how dedicated these volunteers are to bringing history alive for the passengers.

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