The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is one of just two Liberty ships of its kind left in the world and sits proudly beside the USS Pampanito at pier 45 in San Francisco. It served during the Normandy landings in World War II and remains unaltered and historically accurate.
The most impressive element of this graceful old lady was her engine room. Those eagle-eyed among you may recognise elements of it from the film Titanic which used the Jeremiah O’Brien’s fully operational engines to replicate the ill-fated liner’s. We had just finished a fascinating tour of the Pampanito and excitedly skipped towards the Jeremiah O’Brien, ready for more World War II era history. We arrived just in time as her engines were actually running as we arrived and would be shut off around ten minutes later.
We got our tickets from the very friendly gentlemen at the ticket office and ran on board, straight to the engine room. It didn’t take long to find, or hear, or feel. The first thing that hits you is the heat, it’s intense! Then the sound of the pistons powering up and down fills your ears and if you’re into big engines then your ears will smile and hug you.
There’s something about industrial machines on a massive scale that’s just absolutely fascinating and the engine room on this vessel was no exception. Countless dials, switches, pipes and nozzles make for a somewhat dizzying experience. One can only imagine the intensity of the heat and noise when this ship was at full speed with all her boilers firing.
You could look right inside the white hot heart of the boilers through a special polarised filter. It was as if the sun had been captured and put inside this machine, the sheer intensity of the flames inside were something else. Then there were the pistons, massive, heaving chunks of steel rising up and down with each revolution of the propeller shaft. It was simply awe inspiring to see such a vast machine at work.
The rest of the vessel although interesting in itself, paled somewhat in spectacle when compared to the engine room. The guns up on deck were suitably huge and ominously pointing directly at downtown San Francisco.
Of course no modern day experience is going to give an exact feeling of being on board this ship at the Normandy landings, or during a armada trying to avoid submarines and air attacks, but this certainly came close. Like the experience we had on the USS Pampanito, the reality and terror of warfare is certainly there to see. Knowing the experiences that the crews of these vessels went through, gives you an added appreciation for their sacrifices, and for the massive construction mobilisation that took place during the war to create so many of these vessels. Although built for an awful job, they are part of history and I think it’s really important that they are preserved for future generations.