BALTIMORE (WHTM) — In 1941, World War II was in its third year. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the United States would join the fight. Already, the country was shipping vast amounts of supplies to Britain under the “Lend-Lease” program.

But out in the Atlantic, German U-boats were sinking Allied cargo ships at an alarming rate. The Allied forces had to ramp up their anti-submarine warfare capacities and find ways to build new freighters faster than the U-boats could sink them.

To fill the need for merchant ships, the Maritime Commission settled on a standardized design based on a pre-war British merchant vessel that could be built in already existing shipyards. Emphasis was on building fast, then faster, and then even faster. Welds replaced rivets wherever possible; sections were prefabricated for assembly; for power, they settled on an obsolete but very reliable steam engine design, which could be built in multiple factories. (They wanted to save the more advanced steam turbine propulsion for the warships.) The ships quickly earned the nickname “ugly ducklings” because, well, they were kind of ugly.

S.S. Patrick Henry after launch. (Library of Congress)

On Sept. 27, 1941, “Liberty Fleet Day,” the first 14 of these ships were launched at shipyards around the country. President Franklin Roosevelt attended the launch of one of the ships, S.S. Patrick Henry, at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland. In his speech, he referred to them as “Liberty ships” and quoted Patrick Henry’s famous statement, “Give me liberty or give me death.” And Liberty ships they were from then on.

By the war’s end, American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945, which works out to three ships every two days. About 2,400 survived the war, a loss of about 11%.

(You can’t talk about the Liberty ships — or any ship that braved the U-boat gauntlet — without considering those who sailed them. The Merchant Marine, a Military auxiliary during the war, numbered nearly a quarter million sailors. Of them, over 9,000 died, a fatality rate of 3.9%. They had the dubious honor of suffering the greatest percentage of fatalities of any branch of the armed forces. )

Today there are only two operational Liberty Ships left: the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, berthed at San Francisco, and the S.S. John W. Brown, located in Baltimore. The Brown conducts cruises in and around Baltimore, and in 2011 Chuck Rhodes and I rode on her during one of their Living History Cruises, which we featured on Chuck’s “Out and About” series. It’s still one of my all-time favorite assignments, and in honor of the first launching of the Liberty Ships, I decided to add it to this story.