America's Liberty Fleet

The Merchant Marine

The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 was passed by Congress during.

The depths of the Great Depression to rejuvenate the moribund US merchant marine.

It asserted an aggressive new policy to “foster and encourage development of a strong Merchant Marine for the national defense and development of foreign and domestic commerce. “

The Merchant Marine The US Maritime Commission was created to implement this policy.

As a first step, the new governmental bureaucracy instigated an American shipyard construction program,

which during 193 7-41 increased from 10 to 40 the number of yards capable of building large merchant ships.

From these shipyards, Maritime Commission-designed and -subsidized merchant vessels began to be launched in 1939.

Despite some claims to the contrary, the Liberty-ship design was adapted from that of a British tramp steamer ofl879.

The Merchant Marine She was 441′ 6″ long and could carry up to 10,000 tons of cargo.

Old-fashioned triple-expansion steam engines (easier to produce in wartime than the high-tech turbines used in warships) drove her at a rarely-achieved maximum of 11 knots.

A Liberty ship usually carried a 4- or 5-inch gun left over from World War I in the stern, plus a 3-inch antiaircraft gun forward and a variety oflighter weapons.

Only toward the end of the war were more modern guns provided. T he guns were manned by a Naval Armed Guard of 12-27 enlisted men led by an ensign or lieutenant (jg).

The Stephen Hopkins, Mari time Administration hull number 247, was an early Liberty ship compl eted in early 1942.

She carried only one obsolescent 4-i n ch gun , mounted aft, as her main armament.

This was eked out with a twin37mm (1.5”) gun forward, .50-caliber machine guns port and starboard near the bridge, and.

30-caliber machine guns on each side aft. H er first master was Captain Paul Buck.

He and his civilian crew were joined by an Armed Guard crew headed by Ensign Kenneth M. Willett, USNR.

On 27 September 1942, the Hopkins was steaming eight days out of Cape Town, South Africa, on only her second voyage, this one in ballast to Paramaribo in Durch Guiana.

The trip had been uneventful, and during early morning the sea was calm.

At about 0850, two unidentified vessels, seemingly merchant ships, suddenly appeared out of a bank of fog off the starboard bow.

An engagement unique in the annals of naval warfare was about to begin.

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