SS Jeremiah O’Brien: San Francisco’s Liberty Ship from the D-Day Armada

Have you seen the Jeremiah O’Brien docked at the Embarcadero’s Pier 35? Maybe you’re lucky enough to have gone on one of its cruises around the bay. Let’s look into the many movements of this fascinating ship, and one of San Francisco’s largest octogenarians. 

The Ship’s History

The last surviving Liberty ship that operates in its original condition, SS Jeremiah O’Brien sits on the San Francisco Bay as a relic of another time. Liberty ships were cargo ships that the U.S. rapidly produced during World War 2. At the peak of production, the country was finishing an average of three Liberty ships every two days. 

Black and white photo of construction of SS Jeremiah O'Brien
Photo courtesy of National Liberty Ship Memorial Foundation.

Some 15 Liberty ships were made in Sausalito’s Marinship shipyard, along with a number of fleet oilers and dozens of tankers, but the O’Brien was a product of South Portland, Maine. It’s a rare survivor from the armada that contributed to the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. Though she was not there on the initial storming of the beaches, the O’Brien would make eleven trips across the English channel in its subsequent days, carrying key supplies to bolster the armed forces’ efforts. During the war, the cargo ship made five Atlantic convoys before passing through the Panama Canal to bring supplies to the Pacific. 

After the war, the need for the 2,710 wartime Liberty ships evaporated, and technological progress quickly outpaced the cargo ships’ abilities. O’Brien was sent to the Navy reserve fleet, along with many other wartime vessels, moored in the Suisun Bay near Benicia as part of the “mothball fleet.” But interest grew in preserving a war-era Liberty ship, and Rear Admiral Thomas Patterson singled out the O’Brien as a prime candidate — in part because the ship had relatively few miles on its figurative odometer. 

SS Jeremiah O'Brien sailing in 1994
Jeremiah O’Brien approaching England in 1994. Photo courtesy of National Liberty Ship Memorial Foundation.

So in 1979, four months of restoration work and a $1 purchase by the National Liberty Ship Memorial Foundation sent O’Brien steaming ahead to San Francisco, becoming the only ship to sail out of the reserve fleet on its own power. From that point on, the vessel began its second life as a museum ship. But O’Brien wasn’t ready to retire yet. 

One More Voyage

Jeremiah O’Brien crossed the Panama Canal once again for a transAtlantic journey, returning to Normandy in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. A crew of volunteers fired up the boilers and the old, gray cargo ship hit the seas once again — this time, without having to dodge U-Boat attacks. By that point, the ship was used to being the only one of its kind, as it was again that year in Normandy: the only ship from the D-Day armada to attend the event. 

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from SS Jeremiah O'Brien in 1994
Photo courtesy of National Liberty Ship Memorial Foundation.

Now the ship lives on the Embarcadero’s Pier 35, and it stands as a living memorial to the merchant marines and servicemen who operated it during the war. The original triple-expansion steam piston engine still runs; it even made a cameo in the 1997 film Titanic. On June 1, O’Brien and its volunteers will hold a day of festivities to honor the 80th anniversary of D-Day. From 1–3 p.m., visitors can expect a 1940s-style band, a Rosie the Riveter lookalike contest and a series of speakers to talk about the ship and its history. O’Brien is also open to the public seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sailor looks through binoculars during World War 2 on the Jeremiah O'Brien
Sailor stands next to canon on SS Jeremiah O'Brien during World War 2
Crew members stand in hold of SS Jeremiah O'Brien before departure
Modern-day SS Jeremiah O'Brien seen from above
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Photos courtesy of National Liberty Ship Memorial Foundation.