The emergency construction of over 2,700 Liberty ships and some 534 Victory ships during World War II required more than 3,200 names for these vessels. Launched over the course of four years, that averaged around 800 ships per year, or 66 per month. The U.S. Maritime Commission appointed a Ship Naming Committee for the task.
The Commission decided to name the Libertys – the first ships to be built – after dead people who had made outstanding contributions to the history and culture of the United States – the first being Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame.
The Victory ships bore the names of places: first allied countries, then U.S. cities and towns, and then U.S. colleges and universities. A series built for and named by the Navy carried the names of U.S. counties.
“Selecting a name for a ship was only a small part of a ceremony whose traditions are as old as antiquity,” writes John Gorley Bunker in Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of World War II. “The ship was christened at the launching ceremony, when she slid down the ways into saltwater for the first time.”
With tight production schedules at the shipyards and nature’s running of the tides, these festive ceremonies for the Liberty and Victory ships took place at all hours of the day and night. They attracted a crowd of dignitaries and shipyard workers alike. As time and budget allowed, they included band music, colorful bunting, speeches, and always the christening. By tradition, a female sponsor was chosen to break the ceremonial bottle of champagne across the bow of the ship with the words “I christen thee . . . .”, thus bringing good luck and protection to the ship and those who sailed on her.
Bunker notes that selection of a ship’s sponsor could be fraught with political and social difficulties. With the Liberty ships, however, there were so many of them that he says, “Even the wives of grimy shipyard workers christened ships their husbands helped build.”
The Victory ships posed a different problem, as noted in Erhard Koehler’s paper “Victory Ship Nomenclature.” The Ship Naming Committee decided on a series of names of smaller cities and towns representing “Main Street” America to heighten the interest of the average citizen in the Merchant Marine. The Maritime Commission sent letters to the Mayors inviting them to participate in such ways as “having a fitting plaque inscribed and placed in the ship; providing a library of 100 or 200 books; providing recreational equipment of any kind; or presenting the ship with phonograph equipment with a selection of records.” They were also invited to select a sponsor from their community to be present at the ceremony.
This last idea “eventually led to the suspension of naming Victory ships after towns and cities,” Koehler says. “Given the frenetic pace of ship construction under wartime conditions and with travel restrictions in place, it was difficult at best to coordinate a launching ceremony that involved people outside of the local area.” When reality set in, launching ceremonies were scaled down. Shipyards took on the oversight of sponsor selection, and the new category of naming Victory ships for colleges and universities began. Rather than sending representatives from their institutions to travel across the country, the college or university most often invited alumni living in the area of the shipyard to the launching ceremony.
Such was the case for Calvin College (now University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The college’s namesake Calvin Victory was one of UNRRA’s livestock ships. The University’s archivist found this post of materials about the launch that had been turned over to Tom the Book Guy back in 2014. How I wish they had come my way!
If you’d like a front seat view of what the Liberty and Victory ship launchings were like, check out this short video.