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Article: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

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    Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    10 Comments by Charles Webb Cooper Published on 24th September 2020 08:44 PM
    I paid off from the Athlone Castle on the 30th March 1945 and treated myself to a few weeks shore leave. With money running short I then signed on the Edward Bruce as 2nd Steward, and on the 7th May (the day after my 19th birthday) we pulled out of the Gladstone Dock and anchored in the Mersey, almost in sight of my home. The next day was to be V.E. day (Victory in Europe) and it was surmised that if the ship was still in port on V.E. day, the crew would be adrift for days celebrating!.
    The war was officially over and there were great celebrations ashore but we couldn’t do much except put all our lights on. That seemed very strange after so many years of total blackouts.
    The Edward Bruce was one of nearly 3,000 Liberty boats built in the USA. These vessels were welded in the shipyards from prefabricated sections and the average time from start to launch was about 42 days. They were single screw steamers with two oil fired boilers serving a three cylinder engine and capable of about 11 knots. Unfortunately, they had a tendency for the welds to crack open in rough weather. Three of them were known to have broken in half and were lost. I remember we once had to lash our deck housing down with steel cables because it was lifting a couple of inches as the ship rolled and the seawater was streaming in underneath. They weren't built to last but they served the purpose.
    The ship was named after a well known American artist and one of Edward Bruce's paintings had pride of place in the saloon, having been donated by his widow.. When the ship was transferred to British registry it was renamed "Samoine," but this rather upset Mrs. Bruce who objected vigorously and was obviously not without influence. To maintain good Anglo/American relations it was decided to revert the name to "Edward Bruce" and as far as I know it was the only Liberty boat on the British register that wasn't a "Sam...."
    The crew quarters were quite comfortable. Best of all, I had my own cabin, even though a big steam pipe ran through it to power the winches. I couldn’t sleep in it when the winches were being used in port, because the heat built up like an oven, but otherwise it was great, and a big improvement over the 10 berth glory hole I had shared on the Athlone Castle.
    We sailed across the North Atlantic, (no worries about U-boats this time), and up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. We had expected it to be just a short trip, across to Canada, and return, but instead the voyage lasted nine months and took us all round the globe.
    The crew was a motley lot with some very unsavoury characters among them.
    The two cooks were Liverpool dock rats of the lowest order and the galley boy was a scruffy, cheeky little sod. There were several hard case bucko’s in the deck crew, throwing their weight around to prove how tough they were, and each one wanting to be top dog. It was like living in an explosives factory with everyone being chain smokers!
    I had one close shave when the bosun waylaid me outside my cabin. He was very belligerent (for no reason I could think of) and was about to do me some grievous bodily harm when I was saved by two tough engine room greasers who were just coming off duty.
    They stepped into view just as the bosun was about to let fly at me with a punch. These two characters didn’t like the bosun and objected to him picking on someone who was no match for him. They told me to make myself scarce, (“P... off lad, we’ll look after this”) and then remonstrated with the bosun in a rather forceful manner! He never bothered me again!
    I later found out that the bosun was the galley boys uncle. As 2ndsteward, I was the working boss, under the Chief Steward, and I’d previously had to tell the galley boy off about his lack of hygiene and general manners. The boy had complained to his uncle and asked him to ‘sort me out’.
    The bosun signed off in Montreal (on faked compassionate grounds) when he found out that we weren’t returning straight to Liverpool. Instead we sailed to Dakar in French West Africa, which is a very unattractive place to go to for a holiday. lt was still in chaos after being liberated from Vichy France, but the 3d engineer and I walked into town to do some sightseeing and had a couple of beers. On the way back to the ship we came across a steam locomotive quietly hissing away on the tracks. lt had a nearly full head of steam up, but there was no sign of the engine driver. He was possibly attending to a call of nature in the jungle alongside. It was a very hot day and we were both tired after our long walk. The 3d had served his apprenticeship in a railway workshops and we climbed aboard to have a closer look, Then the threeo decided we had done enough walking, and drove the train to our ship about a mile further down the track, (with me as the fireman!) where we left it safely parked on the quayside!
    From Dakar we went to Gibraltar to refuel and then sailed on to Marseilles in France. It was quite crowded with G.l.s, tearing around madly in their jeeps, and we once heard some gunfire as the locals settled scores with collaborators or rival black marketers.
    Most goods were in short supply and anyone with items to sell could find a ready market. Ships linen fetched a good price!
    Both cooks jumped ship in Marseilles and we signed on a French cook, Rene Kraft, for the rest of the voyage. Rene was a good cook in the French style and the first meal he served up was a very tasty dish indeed. lt was one of my jobs to look after the food stores and the next morning Rene came down to the storeroom for supplies, and wanted cooking wine. lt seems that he had used his own bottle on the meat the previous day and thought that wine was an absolute necessity in any kitchen and freely available. He was sadly disillusioned but still managed to turn out very good meals.
    We didn't stray far from the ship in Marseilles and spent most of our shore leave in bars and bistros in an area called the Cannebiere. A lot of the bistros had tables set up on the pavement outside their premises and that was my first experience of open air dining.
    Our next port was Bone in Algeria. The locals weren't very friendly, and it wasn't wise to stray far away from the main streets, as several of the crew found out on their first night ashore, when they got set upon and beaten. After that we went ashore armed with whatever we could get. I had a very lethal cosh made of plaited leather over a lead centrepiece but I never had to use it. The captain posted an armed guard at the gangway and issued hand guns to several of the senior officers. One evening the Chief Mate was in his cabin, having a drink with a couple of the officers and was showing them his gun when it accidentally went off. The bullet went straight through the bulkhead, passing inches over the head of the Chief Engineer who was in his bunk in the next cabin. The Mate turned in his gun to the Captain immediately.
    From Bone we went on to Malta, where we lay at anchor and were rowed ashore in their distinctive gondola type craft. There I encountered the first full blown drag queen I'd ever seen. He/She owned a bar in an area known as the Gut, and held court to a throng of sailors, all on the lookout for free drinks. Being a seaman did have its dangers, even in peacetime!
    On we went to Volos in Greece, which had quite a nice harbour, where we lay at anchor because most of the wharves had been destroyed by the Germans before they left. There were a couple of sunken ships nearby with their topsides showing above water. With the wind blowing from them at low tide, the smell was very unpleasant. We were told that some of the crew had gone down with the ship and were still aboard! More likely, it was the cargo that was rotting. To get on shore we had to swim. We would put all our clothes into a waterproof bag and swim with it to the beach. Then we would get dressed and head off into town. The local drink was a spirit called retsina, a sort of wood alcohol, or else we drank Ouzo or Cherry Brandy. Swimming back to the ship was sometimes a problem!
    On the other side of the harbour, in a country area, there was a small wharf with a sunken vessel alongside. One afternoon I swam over and climbed onto the jetty. After a time spent sunbathing on the wooden decking, I heard a shout. Looking round I saw a woman striding down the hill about a hundred yards away and waving her arms at me. She was dressed in full guerrilla style costume, something like a Cossack, with twin bandoliers across her chest and a rifle over her shoulder. She really looked the part. Maybe she just wanted to chat but I wasn't taking any chances. I hurriedly dived back into the water and swam back to the ship.
    From Volos we went to Piraeus, the port of Athens, where I was able to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon and sample the exotic night life. We had money to spend, made by selling off cartons of cigarettes, most of our spare clothes, and some ships property, such as cork lifejackets. These were keenly sought after by a local shoemaker who used them to make wedge heeled shoes for the ladies.
    From Greece we went through Suez and the Red Sea, stopping for a couple of days at Port Sudan. That wasn't much of a holiday resort but I remember having one meal ashore there and it was very tasty. Grilled camel steak!
    In the Red Sea, the Chief Steward collapsed with a bad case of heat exhaustion. He was in a critical condition for several days and it was thought that he was going to die. The Captain asked me if I would be prepared to take over as Chief Steward if that happened. I said yes, but only if there was a complete inventory check of the stores and liquor. I knew that there would be big discrepancies, as a lot of stuff had been sold on the black market in the Med. and I didn’t want to be left holding the can! However, he regained his health and I lost my chance to become probably the youngest Chief Steward in the British Merchant Service.
    We sailed on down the African coast and across the Indian Ocean to Fremantle in Western Australia. That was a fun place for me. The ship was open to the public at weekends and we would show the visitors around. It was a good way to meet the girls!
    It was in Fremantle that one of the deck crew was stabbed to death by another A.B.
    They were both from Liverpool. It happened on board in the cabin next to mine, but I was ashore at the time. The police were called and the A.B. was arrested and taken away. Eventually, he went on trial, was found guilty, and sentenced to death but this was later commuted to life imprisonment. Several of the bad boys in the crew were kept in Fremantle by the police, to give evidence, so we sailed without them and life on board became a lot easier.
    We sailed round the coast to Port Pirie and then to Sydney, before sailing over to New Zealand, where we spent time at various ports, loading a variety of cargo, Auckland, Napier, Wellington, Lyttelton, Timaru, Port Chalmers and Bluff.
    I absolutely loved N.Z. I felt as though I belonged. There were no class barriers, and everyone treated me like an equal and a friend.
    We sailed back to Fremantle to pick up cargo and were there over the Christmas holiday before sailing back through Suez on the way home. That wasn't a very happy time either.
    There were still shortages of goods and, on leaving Fremantle, the authorities would only allow the Chief Steward to buy one carton of cigarettes per crew member. These were gone in no time and from then on we had to go cold turkey until we could get some more in Aden. You have no idea how bad tempered and scratchy a crew can get when they can't get a smoke! Actually, the Chief Steward, (with some rather nervous assistance from me) had made a very profitable deal in selling off most of the ship's stock in Piraeus, keeping just enough to last until we could get more in Australia. When we couldn't get more we were in deep trouble. If the crew had found out that we were responsible for their misery I think we would have been lynched! We finally paid off in Swansea in late Feb.1946. By then I'd had enough of tramp ships and I wasn't tempted to sign on again.

    Liberty ship.jpg




    Liberty ship identical to the Edward Bruce.

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    Informative and enjoyable read.

    Keith.
    "Our veterans did not forget about us .... Let's not forget about them." From Michael Levesque

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    Liberty ships were named after famous Americans which in this instance was JOHN J. McGRAW who was a Major League Baseball player and manager. He was manager of the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932.
    During construction, the vessel was allocated to Britain under Lend Lease and was renamed as the SAMARIZ. Mrs. Mc Graw who had been greatly honoured to have her husbands name allocated to a ship, when she was advised that there had been a change she objected strongly and so much political pressure was exerted that the ship was launched as the JOHN J. McGRAW in 1944 and continued with that name throughout the war. Lamport & Holt managed the ship on behalf of the Ministry of War Transport and was acquired by them in 1947 when she became the LASSELL.
    I served on the Lassell, call sign GFND as a direct employ Radio Officer and did two voyages on her in the early 60's to South America visiting many interesting ports in Brazil and Argentina .Unfortunately Lamport and Holt decided not to continue with direct employ Radio Officers, and outsourced this to Marconi . I could had stayed on the Lassell and L & H with Marconi, but decided instead to rejoin International Marine Radio and returned to Cunard.. The 50's and 60's were great days to be in the M.N. - alas it has all gone, but we have our memories

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    A book "Liberty's War"- an Engineers Memoir of the Merchant Marine 1942-45 by Herman E Melton, published in 2017 by Naval Institute Press
    Herman Melton saw action against German U-boats and bombers, as part of the 1943 Murmansk convoys, and thereafter he was shipped out to Pacific , surviving the sinking of his Liberty ship, the SS Antoine Saugrain . 230 pages of fascinating detail about life on board Liberty ships in WW2.

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    Hi Charles.
    I loved that story, took me back as I did a similar trip except for the US part, great memories. When we got to Freemantle my first time there I must have been there in another life, as, when I walked around the town I knew every street and building, it was uncanny.
    Cheers Des
    Lest We Forget

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    As ever a very interesting response Des.

    K.
    "Our veterans did not forget about us .... Let's not forget about them." From Michael Levesque

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    yes Charlie, i was on a liberty ship but canadian built it ws a Park boat Algonquin Park, the original name, we were (can you believe it ) taking rice from Spain to japan, and during a terrible storm in the Indian ocean , what with the waxsing and weaving , water was seeping through the bulk head into the rice, skipper says to us ' put your life belts on we are in danger', anyway during the night the winds dropped and the sea was as smooth as a duck pond, couldn't believe it, we got to japan okay and they put a big metal strap completely around the hull where the crack was , by the way the ship was named the John Star and owned by a London Greek company registered in London. i was on it the full 2 years initially it was for 6 weeks but the b.....d's lied.

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    Hello - Thank you for your very interesting story - something I always enjoy reading - a note picked up from your narrative was the mention of the Athlone Castle - I have these 3 images of her in war time and as you can see 2 are of her with what looks to be a white hull - I thought it might be of interest to you - kind regards athlone castle war time (1).jpgathlone castle war time (2).jpgathlone castle war time (3).jpg

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    Excelent article, everything doesn't go smoothly on a ship and we do tend to look at the past through rose tinted glasses!

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    Default Re: Liberty Ship. The Edward Bruce May1945-Feb1946

    Hi Guys, Thought you might be interested in these photos of a liberty ship which is still sailing , well I believe once a year they take it out. It is in Orlando and a few years ago I did a lifeboat course in Fort Lauderdale Florida and the practical life boat launching was done on this ship . I think the name was the John W. Brown but can't be sure or remember.P4051164.jpgP4061165.jpgP4061167.jpgP4051162.jpg
    Last edited by J Gowers; 11th November 2020 at 01:02 PM.

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