Jacksonville’s First Liberty Ship Launched 79 Years Ago

Jacksonville’s First Liberty Ship Launched 79 Years Ago

by | May 5, 2022

The first Liberty ship was launched in 1943 in Jacksonville by the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company, established by local shipbuilder and repairer Merrill-Stevens with $17 million invested by the United States Maritime Commission. Between 1942 and August 1945, the company produced 82 Liberty ships. It took nine months to build the first ship, Ponce de Leon; the record for completion of a Jacksonville Liberty ship was the S.S. Telfair Stockton, launched in 31 days in November 1944. A total of 2,710 Liberty ships were constructed in 18 U. S. cities.
Mrs. James C. Merrill, wife of the president of Merrill-Stevens, christened the Ponce de Leon March 14, 1943. Mrs. Merrill’s matron of honor of the christening ceremony was Mrs. Kenneth A. Merrill, wife of the vice president of Merrill-Stevens. The ceremony was opened with a musical selection by the 36-piece shipyard orchestra conducted by Frank Morris. Mr. Benjamin F. Crowley welcomed the assembled guests: Denis J. O’Mahoney, general manager; President Merrill; Congressman R. A. Green and U. S. Senator Claude Pepper. The principal address was made by Rear Admiral Howard L. Vickery, vice chairman of the U. S. Maritime Commission.
This new Liberty ship slid 667 feet down the launching ways to the St. Johns River, where it glided through the water for a distance of approximately three times its 440-foot length. Three tugs took hold of the hull, stripped off its cradle, and towed it to the dock where shipyard workers and new crew members readied it for service at sea. An estimated 10,000 employees, their families and special guests gathered to celebrate this event.
More than two-thirds of all cargo leaving the U.S. was carried by these ships and they hauled fuel, bullets, bandages, K-rations, and blankets to war overseas. They were vulnerable. A total of 200 Liberty ships were lost to enemy action during World War II. When they sailed, no name was painted on their bows, so the enemy had no hint as to their mission or cargo.
Liberty ships were named for individuals who were no longer living and who had made a significant contribution to American life. Some of the later ships were named for merchant seamen who died during the war. The names of the Jacksonville Liberty ships revealed both area and national history and sentiment of the time.
The shipbuilding/repair industry in Jacksonville by Merrill-Stevens contributed greatly to the war effort and to employment of so many of the individuals who lived and worked here in Jacksonville during that period.

Nancy Gandy
Merrill House Docent

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