Friday, February 12, 2016

The Liberty Ship S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer

S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer
          On February 2, 1943, at 3:04 AM, the S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer was torpedoed by the German UBoat 456, in the North Atlantic.  The U-456 fired three torpedoes into the Van Rensselaer’s port side – an 8’x30’ hole was created; hatch covers were blown off , cargo was strewn overboard and several fires were started. In the crew’s haste to launch three lifeboats, two of the boats were capsized.  One can only imagine the sailors’ anxiety – the harsh Arctic winds of the North Atlantic in February – the frigid sea – the pitch black darkness.  “Eight men got away in a boat and others jumped overboard and swam to three rafts. . . 23 survivors (out of a crew of 71) and three bodies were picked up after five hours by a British rescue ship. . . the (Jeremiah Van Rensselaer)  was scuttled by gunfire at 1300 hours . .  One week later,  two more bodies were recovered from a raft.” (6)
Plan for a liberty ship similar to the Van Rensselaer

                The S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer was a Liberty ship.  Liberty ships were cargo ships that were designated as “ ‘emergency’ ships. . .intended primarily to meet the needs of the war emergency”. (7)   “Liberty ships formed the backbone of a supply line that enabled the Allies to wage total war against the Axis Powers during World War II” (4)

                These “emergency” cargo ships were designed and built to be seaworthy in the shortest amount of time possible, in the largest numbers at, the cheapest cost. “The program’s goal was simple and stark – build ships faster than the enemy could sink them.” (3)

Henry J. Kaiser


                “The person most associated with Liberty ships and revolutionizing American shipbuilding (is) industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. . . Kaiser adapted mass production techniques to shipbuilding, instituting modular construction and assembly techniques in which the ship sections were welded together instead of riveted. . .Instead of the industry average of 230 days, Kaiser shipyards initially reduced construction time to an average of 45 days and ultimately to less than three weeks. . .Between 1941 and 1945, American shipyards (on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts) turned out 2,751 Liberty ships, easily the largest class of ships ever built.”  (1)

Iona Murphy welding a liberty ship
Josie Lucille Owens welding a liberty ship
                The technique of welding the ship sections together instead of riveting them was new and it saved a lot of construction time.  However, the welding technique led to some very serious construction flaws. “The predominately welded (as opposed to riveted) hull construction. . . allowed cracks to run for large distances unimpeded (across the hulls and decks)”. (2)

Eastine Cowner at work on a liberty ship
                At first, the Liberty ships were described as “dreadful looking (and) given the nickname ‘ugly ducklings’. . .until (their) reliability and general utility won for (them) the more complimentary title of ‘Workhorse of the Fleet’. . .(the Liberty ships delivered ) 6,000 tons of cargo every hour throughout the war.” (7)

                In order to enhance the image of these new emergency vessels, the launching of the first Liberty ships was dubbed Liberty Fleet Day, September 27, 1941. The first ship launched was the Patrick Henry, built at the Baltimore shipyard. The Patrick Henry was launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  “In remarks at the launch ceremony, FDR cited Patrick Henry’s 1775 speech the finished with ‘Give me liberty or give me death’.  Roosevelt said that this new class of ships would bring liberty to Europe, which gave rise to the name Liberty ship.” (2)
FDR launches the first liberty ship S.S. Patrick Henry

                “Liberty ships were traditionally named for individuals who were no longer living and who had made a significant contribution to the American way of life”. (3) The S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer was named for a scion of the wealthy and powerful Van Rensselaer family of New York.  Jeremiah Van Rensselaer “was born on August 27, 1738 at "at the main home of his family's manor, "Rensselaerswyck", in what is now Watervliet, New York".(9) "He was the son of John and Engeltie Van Rensselae. Losing his mother before his tenth birthday, the boy grew up at Crailo and at his father's city house in the first ward of Albany." (5) He was an early supporter of the American colonies fight for liberty and served as an officer in the American Revolution.  Van Rensselaer was a member of Congress and served as lieutenant governor for the State of New York.
Portrait believed to be Jeremiah Van Rensselaer

                Max-Martin Teichert was the captain of the U-456, which torpedoed the S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer.  Teichert had served in the German Navy since 1934, when he was 19 years old.  By the time of his encounter with the S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, in February 1943, Teichert had become a veteran Uboat commander, the recipient of two Iron Crosses.
Max-Martin Teichart, Captian of U-456

                The handsome young officer would soon become a casualty of the war.  On May 12, 1943, the 28 year old Teichert died, along with his entire crew, in the North Atlantic after his Uboat was torpedoed by an RAF aircraft. He was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.  “The Knight’s Cross was the highest award made by Nazi Germany to recognize extreme battlefield bravery or outstanding military leadership during World War II”.  (8)

                Little is known about the S.S. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer’s ship master, Lucius Whitfield Webb.  He was lost at sea on that frigid February night in 1943.  He perished with the majority of his crew.  Brave young men who lost their lives in the cause of liberty.



Launching of U-456










1.            Henry J. Kaiser and the Liberty Ships;

2.            Liberty Ships Explained; everything

3.            The Liberty Ships of World War II;   Bill Lee – The Museum of the Waxhaw

4.   World War II Liberty Ships

5.            Princetonians  1748-1768, A Biographical Dictionary; James McLachlan, Princeton  1976

6.   Van Rensselaer, American Steam Merchant

7.            Workhorse of the Fleet; Gus Bournelf,Jr.;  American Bureau of Shipping  1990

8.            Max-Martin Teichert;  Wikepedia

9.            Jeremiah Van Rensselear, Wikipedia

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