WWII Boatpunk: Aboard the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, with Todd Lappin

BBtv guest correspondent and blog pal Todd Lappin of Telstar Logistics takes us inside a steam-powered World War II "Liberty Ship," the SS Jeremiah O'Brien.

We marvel (!) at the cool old retro-technology that kept this behemoth boat running to and from the beaches of Normandy, and we meet the volunteer caretakers -- obsessive nerds just like us, only with white hair! -- who keep her ship-shape today. Did you know that shipyards in the San Francisco Bay Area once churned out Liberty Ships like this in 4 days or less, during the heat of the war? Watch and learn, li'l skippers.

Todd has a rockin' photoset of images from the ship, too.

Shot for BBtv by Eddie Codel, during the Long Now Foundation's Mechanicrawl.

Previously: Multi-millenial Mechanical clocks - Long Now "Mechanicrawl" pt. 1

About Xeni Jardin

Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: xeni@boingboing.net.
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22 Responses to WWII Boatpunk: Aboard the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, with Todd Lappin

  1. Justin Ried says:

    Amazing! What a neat visit. And Peter the Fireman-Watertender has the coolest accent ever.

  2. Susan Oliver says:

    Point of interest – these Liberty ships were all staffed and crewed by Merchant Marines, ie, civilians. No medals, very little recognition, even though they were traveling thru the same enemy waters as the Navy. Amazing men.

  3. Flying Squid says:

    Boatpunk? Ugh. Talk about a misuse of a neologism. I am all up for various ‘-punk’ genres, but it’s always been about the general technological level, not the specific use of the technology. We talk about steampunk, not locomotivepunk or zeppelinpunk. WWII-era technology would be, at least to continue with the naming tradition, tubepunk or maybe valvepunk. This would be valvepunk on a boat, not boatpunk.

  4. noen says:

    I imagine that in future generations when everything is run on hydrogen fuel cells or whatever, that there will be nostalgia for “gasoline punk”.

  5. travispulley says:

    Fun fact: the liberty ships were nicknamed “Kaiser Coffins” because they’d have a nasty issue where the whole boat would crack in half when the brittle steel was exposed to the cold waters, and the ships would sink VERY fast. Pretty quickly, they had a fix where they’d put a big plate of steel along each side of the boat to prevent this.

    And yes, it was truly amazing how quickly these boats were being made once the builders had gotten a little experience with the first ones. Hitler’s boats were impressive, but couldn’t stand up to the Zerg rush of the liberty ships.

  6. Xeni Jardin says:

    @#1 Travis Ried, so glad you liked this episode. I know, I too was wondering where that fellow’s accent came from! Todd or Eddie, do you know?

    @#2 Susan Oliver, I did not know this. amazing.

    @#3 Flying Squid — WHOAH THERE MISTER CRANKYPANTS. We is having fun with TALKINGS. I believe your gaskets may be wound too tight! Try more lube.

    @#4 Noen, brilliant. I think we may need to develop a miniseries on BBtv around gaspunk.

    @#5 Travispulley, wow again. When the guys in this episode were talking about how fast the ships were built, I couldn’t help but wonder about safety issues — I am no expert in this realm, but what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. How awful.

  7. dbarak says:

    You should do one at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. Lots of good stuff there. I can hook you up (I’m a volunteer there).

  8. GammaBlog says:

    Here’s a few photos I took on the, so far, non-functioning steamship Lilac docked in the Hudson, off the West Village in Manhattan.
    The photo of the old canvas bunks deep below the water line is the most revealing to me. The devotion of the Lilac’s crew to restoration is similar to that of the Jeremiah O’Brien’s.

  9. zikzak says:

    Actually, I think the proper aesthetic classification for this would be boatcrunk, seeing as it hearkens to a time when boats were pimped out with bling, hos, and cash money, and the world ran on vodka and Red Bull.

    Er, maybe I’m thinking of this.

  10. dbarak says:

    @ #5 posted by travispulley , August 7, 2008 9:59 AM

    Another fact — the Kaiser Health System was started to provide easy-access health care for shipyard workers.

    Another fact — the Liberty and Victory ships were manned in part by Navy crews who handled defense and communications.

  11. Telstar Logistics says:

    @#4 Noen I had a very similar thought recently while visiting a modern tractor tugboat. Only, I wondered if in the future, the kids will look back on us and create a new retro-fashion called “dieselpunk.”

    @#7 Dbarack, The USS Midway is excellent. I managed to sneak aboard her when she was in Oakland for painting a few years ago.

    Likewise, here in the Bay Area, the USS Hornet at Alameda is very fun to explore. What’s more fun than an aircraft carrier? Not much.

  12. Flying Squid says:

    Sorry, Xeni. It is, I admit, a minor pet peeve of mine, but I am always annoyed when people use “-punk” incorrectly.

    • Antinous says:

      How is it possible to use a word incorrectly? If the meaning is clear, then it is a successful use of the word. How many pedants busted Shakespeare’s ass for his crazy use of language? And who remembers any of their names?

  13. dbarak says:

    #11 posted by Telstar Logistics , August 7, 2008 11:03 AM

    Telstar Logistics (or anyone else),

    If you ever find yourself in San Diego and want to visit the Midway, let me know and I’ll take you on for free (if it’s a weekend and I’m available). I’m a docent there and I help out in the exhibits department. You’ll be amazed at how much has been restored, etc.

  14. Eddie Codel says:

    @#1 Justin Ried, Yes, very unique accent. Though we didn’t ask, my guess would be Polish. Googling ‘oliborg’ reveals results from Poland and Russia.

    @#7 Dbarack, I concur, the Midway is also quite amazing. I was thinking of it as we shot this.

    @#11 Telstar Logistics, I believe the USS Hornet can be rented out for parties, bat mitzvahs, weddings, etc. I recall going to rave there back in 1998 or 99. Crazy!

  15. dbarak says:

    @ #14 posted by Eddie Codel

    The Midway can be rented out too, and there’s a place for fairly small parties, too. Still a bit pricey, but a fun place for an unusual event.

  16. Scuba SM says:

    @#11 Telstar Logistics:

    There is something called Dieselpunk already. It’s focused more on the machinery/engines from the 20’s through the 30s.


    I’m a fan.

  17. Telstar Logistics says:

    Thanks Scuba! There really are no new ideas under the sun.

  18. travispulley says:

    Thanks for the comment Xeni! I feel so special to have a reply from you because I appreciate you being out in the world to experience the things I’d love to see up close but don’t always get the chance to go see.

    The rapid production wasn’t so much the safety issue as was the design and limitation of steel alloys of the time. They weren’t cutting corners, rather displaying awesome efficiency with genuine communal motivation toward the war effort. I certainly wasn’t there, but I know a crazy amount of ww2 history for my age.

    @#10 dbarak – I know a good bit about kaiser permanente and its origins, and even commuted by bike past their center in portland multiple times daily for a good few years. I’m sure that a lot of their problems are tied into the national healthcare mess, but they are awful! I brought my roomate in once because I thought he was dying, and they were all “card please”, and I’m all like, “is he going to die if I spend an extra 15 minutes taking him to the VA?” at which point they became even less helpful. Also not long ago they blew a huge amount of money on a failed IT system that was practically worthless upon “completion”. That, and they sent phony bills to another friend who successfully disputed them, making me wonder how many people pay their faulty bills just to make the problem go away.

    @flyingssquid – My style is postpunk-punk.

  19. travelina says:

    @#15 dbarack: renting out the Midway! Now that WOULD be cool:

  20. seafever says:

    Great video! Thanks for sharing some of America’s rich maritime history. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien volunteers are amazing, I just hope that there are some younger ones in the wings to keep her alive and well for future generations to experience.
    Thanks again and keep up the great work!

  21. Susan Oliver says:

    @19 Travispulley – off topic, but I find it intriguing that Kaiser in the SF Bay Area is so universally loathed (I was a member, I can testify), while up here in PDX it’s beloved. Friends and family who are lucky enough to be members up here rave about the quality of the service and its ease of use.

    According to Wikipedia there were 7 Kaiser shipyards – 4 in the Bay Area, and 3 in the Portland area. I guess it follows that the local Kaiser health system was also set up to serve the shipbuilders. Then why the difference in the current product? Just another one of those things that make you go hmmmm.

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