The S.S. Ezra Cornell is pictured alongside two other Liberty ships ready to launch on March 7, 1943, from the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation in South Portland, Maine

Anchors Aweigh: Big Red Names Graced WWII-Era Hulls

By Joe Wilensky

In January 1943, two ships were launched nearly simultaneously. The Liberty-class S.S. Andrew D. White, named after the University’s first president, entered the Pacific from a Sausalito, California, shipyard on January 28. That same day—more than 2,400 miles away in Sparrows Point, Maryland—the S.S.Cornell, a 16,000-ton Navy tanker, was launched into the Atlantic.

The S.S. Cornell Victory, a cargo ship, was launched in 1945. Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
The S.S. Cornell Victory, a cargo ship, was launched in 1945. (Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

These were not the only 1940s-era ships bearing names that would make Big Red alumni proud. Just over a month later, the S.S. Ezra Cornell, a Liberty ship named after the University’s founder, entered the Atlantic from South Portland, Maine. And the S.S. Cornell Victory, a Victory-class cargo ship, was launched in 1945. They were among thousands of vessels mass-produced around that time; a national shipbuilding program, initiated through the 1936 U.S. Merchant Marine Act, was intended to replenish the country’s merchant fleet—which, following World War I, had been aging and declining in number as many ships became obsolete. With the advent of World War II, those efforts ramped up significantly, eventually producing 5,500 vessels in several classes.

The procedure for naming Navy ships is complex and has evolved over time. The Navy History and Heritage Command (known as the Naval Historical Center prior to 2008) currently compiles candidates from its research as well as suggestions submitted by service members, veterans, and the public; it then sends them to the Chief of Naval Operations, who forwards approved recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy. 

Photo shows personnel gathered around and on the Liberty-class S.S. Andrew Dickson White as it is readied for launch in 1943
In 1943, the Liberty-class S.S. Andrew Dickson White launched into the Pacific from a Sausalito, California shipyard. (Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The S.S. Cornell was part of a group of 26 tankers named for leading colleges and universities. The Andrew D. White and the Ezra Cornell were two of nearly 3,000 Liberty-class cargo ships—about 440 feet long by 57 feet wide and powered by a 2,500-horsepower steam engine—produced between 1941 and 1945 to transport troops and war materials. Hundreds of Victory-class ships—larger and faster, powered by a steam turbine—were also constructed, and the sheer number of new vessels presented a naming challenge. According to the National Park Service, they “were named for people from all walks of life,” from Declaration of Independence signers, patriots, and Revolutionary War heroes to politicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and explorers. Additionally, any group that raised at least $2 million in war bonds could propose a Liberty ship name.

Big Red connections may have helped ensure that Cornell-related names appeared on wartime hulls: Edward Panton 1914 was construction manager of the Marinship Corp., which built shipyards that set new production records; then-Trustee Maxwell Upson 1899 was president of the Raymond Concrete Pile Co., which was affiliated with Marinship. Other Liberty ship namesakes include Carl Ladd 1912, PhD 1915, a former extension director and dean of the colleges of agriculture and home economics; Ross Marvin 1905, an Arctic explorer who died mysteriously during Robert Peary’s 1909 North Pole expedition; and Hendrik Van Loon 1905, author of the classic children’s book The Story of Mankind

After the war, many ships were scrapped or placed in reserve—although quite a few Liberty ships, built to last just five years, continued service and supported efforts in the Korean War. Only a few (and none named for Cornellians) survive today. Some are still seaworthy and are used for public cruises, while others are permanently docked and open for tours.

Top image: The S.S. Ezra Cornell, center, along with two other Liberty ships, are pictured ready to launch on March 7, 1943, from the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation in South Portland, Maine. (Photo courtesy of the South Portland Historical Society)

Published October 5, 2021

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