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Last updateWed, 23 Apr 2014 10am

Texas Liberty Ships: 37 Years As Artificial Reefs

Photo courtesy of Mike Hughes
Photo courtesy of Mike Hughes

Twelve Liberty Ships were scuttled in the Texas Gulf between August 1975 and October 1976. The Plan was to make 4 artificial reef sites with 3 liberty ships at each site, but things don’t always go as planned when you’re dealing with mother nature. The fact that these ships made it through World War II was a feat in itself. 2,581 Liberty Ships were completed before the end of the war. They were built on an assembly line system based similar to what Henry Ford did for cars. The ships were identically and simultaneously built at several shipyards around the country. Like giant Lego blocks, they were put together quickly in set stages, then welded together instead of the slower process of bolting the pieces together. At the top of the nationwide production they were producing 57 liberty ships a week. Some welds would later crack open especially in cold north Atlantic waters in hind sight, but the goal of producing cargo ships faster than the enemy could sink them was an overwhelming success.

 

Each of the Liberty Ships was 441ft, 6 inches long and 57ft wide. Typically they were armed with two 3-inch guns and eight 20-mm antiaircraft guns, plus torpedo nets that could be lowered over the sides of the ship. This way potential incoming torpedoes could be detonated before they impacted against the sides of the ship. The theory didn’t work so well for the SS Jose Navarro when it was hit by a torpedo just forward of the anti torpedo net by U-178 in the Indian Ocean. Each liberty ship had two crews. One crew consisted of merchant marines who were engineers, stewards who cooked, served, and purchased ship stores, and dock men. The other crew was navy service men, radio crewmen, gunmen and deck hands who were in charge of protecting the ship. The two groups of crewmen didn’t always see things eye to eye and sometimes the Captain would have the final decision over whether to pay the merchant marines overtime to set up the torpedo nets, or side with the navy and keep up the readiness state at all cost. There were some ships where both crews managed to run extremely well together, and that had to have helped both sides of the combined crew with surviving the war.

Each Liberty Ship had five giant cargo compartments and when they were full the ship sailed smoothly. But when the holds were empty and ballast was light, Liberty Ships were known to bob in the water like a cork in a whirlpool. Eventually extreme buoyancy would cause injuries among the crew and increased the likely hood of the metal hull plates cracking. The rides could sometimes get very rough, but it was all about getting massive amounts of military supplies from point A to point B. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz summed it up as: whichever side supplied the most oil, bullets, and beans, would win the war.

To supply the troops, the Liberty Ships went through a gauntlet of enemy assaults. From the sea, submarine torpedoes attacked them and mine fields lay in wait. From the air, fighter planes and bombers that carried machineguns, bombs, and torpedos attacked them. At Port they could encounter canon fire, V1 buzz bomb, and V2 rocket attacks. they could shoot at V1 buzz bombs and canon shells made noise as they spiraled downward, giving the men at least time to duck their heads, but V2 ballistic missiles were so silent and swift that one second the ship tied to the dock in front was having its cargo off loaded and the next second the ship was destroyed and the cargo crew considered lucky if they were only wounded. Even smoking onboard the ship was dangerous, as it could cause an exhausted seaman to carelessly catch a bunk bed on fire, and when a fire breaks out it is not a good time to try and remember if your cargo for the day was High test aviation fuel, 500lb bombs, or garden variety troop ammunition, grenades, and cans of kerosene. Sometimes the men got lucky and the ship’s cargo was something less destructive such as lumber, sugar, or civilians. But no matter the cargo, just docking at ports such as in Tewfik, Egypt could expose the men to Bubonic Plague; so setting foot onshore at some destinations was forbidden. Fortunately, within a few years after implementing the liberty ship project, the war ended. Most of the ships that survived the war were sent home or used to re-supply the peacekeeping forces remaining around the world; especially in Germany and Japan. Later, these ships were put into reserve or brought out again to use during the Korean War.

When the Texas Department of Parks And Wildlife got on board the artificial reef program, there were many things that had to occur. The ships were cleaned and stripped down to a mere 27ft in height and large holes were cut in the sides of the ships to help them sink upright. In addition, the ships were to be sunk at a depth of just over 100ft to keep 50ft of depth cleared for passing ships, which put the artificial reefs far from shore: especially from Galveston. The George Vancouver was the last ship to be sunk, but it sank on its own during a storm and those in power let the ship remain sunk at 60ft at a reef of its own name. At the Freeport Liberty Ships Reef the 553ft long T-2 tanker V.A.Fogg, and remnants from several oilrigs joined the William F. Allen and the B.F. Shaw. At the Matagorda Island Liberty Ship Reef rests the Dwight L. Moody, the Jim Bridger, and the George Dewey. At Mustang Island Liberty Ship Reef rests the Conrad Weiser, the Rachel Jackson, and the Charles A. Dana. All the way down at the Port Mansfield Liberty Ship Reef rests the George L. Farley, the Edward W. Scripps, and the Joshua Thomas, plus other rigs to reef artifacts.

Because these ships do not have their superstructures in tact, other ships like the 473ft long USTS Texas Clipper, the 447ft long tanker SS John Worthington or the thousands of working oil rigs in general, are the preferred sites divers like to visit. But just like studies proved with fishermen, the Liberty Ship artificial reefs are great places to go for fish. These reefs have given fishermen places to fish when other sites have been exhausted or when fish have migrated. These sites have also proven to extend the overall fishing season. Whether you visit these artificial reefs because you want to do a little spear fishing, check out the over all coral growth, take some pictures of the local creatures, or for some reason just can’t make it to your primary dive site, it’s just good to know a little about the Texas Liberty Ship Artificial Reef Program, and a little bit about the historical background that led to where these ships currently rest today. Great Dives.    

made with love from Fuerteventura
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