Sunday, 31 May 2009

D-Day 6 June 1944 - The SS Jeremiah O'Brien Story

The SS Jeremiah O'Brien berthed at Fort Mason, San Francisco Bay, the demarcation point for tens of thousands of service men and women to the Pacific Theatre during WW II.

© Joe ÓNéill 2009
I first published this article in the San Francisco Irish Herald, in October 1996. With the recent press coverage of the visit of General Dwight Eisenhower to Enniskillen, (See Archive, 'Memorial Day') in preperation for the D-Day landings, I thought it would make a good companion article in view of the Belfast connection of the SS Jeremiah O'Brien on this week of 6 June.

Fleet Week in San Francisco, which takes place every October, will find the Jeremiah O’Brien proudly joining battleships, carriers, destroyers, submarines, and other ships of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, as they pass under the Golden Gate Bridge to be hosted by the citizens of San Francisco.

In 1960, the idea of preserving a Liberty ship for posterity was broached but it was not until 1978, that the National Liberty Ship Memorial, Inc., a California non -profit corporation was formed to restore, preserve, maintain and present to the public, an original unaltered Liberty ship, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien.

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, built by the New England Shipbuilding Corporation, of South Portland Maine, had her keel laid on May 6, 1943, and 45 days later, on June 19, Mrs. Ida Starling, wife of the head of the White House Secret Service, broke the champagne on the prow of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. She was delivered for service on June 30, 1943.

Over the period July 1943, until October 1944, the Jerimiah O’Brien made four voyages between the United States and Britain. During her fourth voyage and only four days after D-Day, she began shuttling supplies between Britain and the Omaha and Utah beachheads, established by the Allied forces in Normandy. During her shuttles between the beachheads on Normandy and Britain she also sailed to Belfast, in Ireland, to pick up supplies for General Patton’s forces.

The ship earned six decorations for service during the war: the Merchant Marine Combat Bar, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean / Middle East War Zone Bars, the Philippine Liberation Medal and the Victory Medal. The veterans of the United States Merchant Marine, which had a greater percentage of killed - in - action than the Army or the Navy, hold the SS Jeremiah O’Brien in the highest regard. Hundreds of veteran merchant seamen and women have already donated over 500,000 hours of volunteer labour in the task of restoring her.

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is named after a hero of the Revolutionary War between United States and Britain. Jeremiah was one of five sons of Maurice O’Brien from Co. Cork who settled in Machias in Maine around 1765.

On May 11, 1775, a force of local patriots under the leadership of O’Brien and his brothers commandeered a sloop, the Unity, in Machias harbour and made to board the Margaretta, a British naval ship berthed in the bay. The Margaretta hoisted sail in an attempt to escape but was overhauled and boarded by the Unity. In the fierce battle that followed over twenty men on each side were killed but the American forces prevailed. O’Brien entered the annals of American naval history as the leader of the first naval fight of the Revolution in what became known as “The Lexington of the Seas”. Two other British naval vessels the Diligence and the Tapnaguish, were dispatched to destroy Machias but were also captured by O’Brien.

The ships and prisoners from these engagements were taken by O’Brien to Watertown Massachusetts where the Provincial Congress was in session. The session voted a resolution of thanks to the young hero and a captain’s commission.

Three of the O’Brien brothers served in the naval service of the United States during the war Jeremiah, John and William. Jeremiah was appointed to serve on the The Liberty on which his brother William also served as lieutenant. John O’Brien was also commissioned as a Captain and served his country with honour in many naval engagements aboard the schooner Hibernia.

While serving as Captain on the Hannibal, O’Brien and his brother William were captured by two British frigates. Jeremiah was confined to the Jersey prison - ship which was known as the “Hell,” at the Wallabout, where the Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands. Six months later O’Brien was transferred to Mill Prison, in England, and a year after his transfer he escaped from custody. After the capture of the Hannibal no trace was ever found of William O’Brien and it is believed that he was amongst the estimated 11,000 victims who died during imprisonment at the Wallabout.

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