History 1: Building the James Eagan Layne
The wreck of the WWII Liberty ship James Eagan Layne is one of the most popular dive sites in the UK. The ship had a short life afloat but a much longer life underwater as a foundation of recreational diving in the UK and as an artificial reef. This is the story of the type EC2-S-C1 Liberty Dry Cargo Ship James Eagan Layne.
On 21st October 1944 the Liberty ship John W Draper was launched from Way #6 at the Delta Shipbuilding Company’s yard in New Orleans, and just two days later the keel of hull #157 the James Eagan Layne was laid on the same slipway. Hull #157 was one of the last of the 2710 Liberty cargo ships built for the US War Shipping Administration in 18 shipyards across the United States between 1941 and the end of World War II in 1945. Originally Liberty ships were ordered by Britain to replace the huge number of merchant vessels sunk by U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. The design of these ships was based on a British ship called the SS Dorington Court, a tramp steamer of 10,800 tons built in 1938 for the Court Line of London. The modified design of Liberty ships was 7176 tons gross and 4380 tons net, they were 422ft 8in (128.9m) long with a beam of 57ft (17.37m), had a raked stem, a cruiser stern, a single screw and a balanced rudder. The ship was powered by an oil fired triple expansion engine from Joshua Hendy Iron Works in California and fed by two boilers the James Eagan Layne could achieve 11 knots at full speed.
More about the Liberty ship vertical triple expansion marine steam engine
The Dry Cargo ship type had five cargo holds, three forward and two aft, with abundant additional cargo space on deck. She was armed with one 5in gun at the stern, one 3in gun at the bow as well as eight 20mm anti-aircraft guns. The ships were built on the slipways from prefabricated sections and in the case of the James Eagan Layne were fabricated entirely by welding. Built from standard designs and on the principles of a production line, each ship comprised over 250,000 individual items and 43 miles of welding.
The James Eagan Layne was named after the second engineer of the Esso Baton Rouge, who was one of two seamen killed when the 7989 ton tanker was sunk by U-123 on 8 April 1942 off St. Simons Island, Georgia. She was the first Liberty ship to be named after a merchant seaman who gave his life in WWII.
After only 40 days on the slip the ship was launched by the widow of James Eagan Layne, watched by their daughter Beverly while their 10 year old son Wally remained at home. The James Eagan Layne was launched sideways into a creek off the Mississippi river as the creek was too narrow for a conventional launch, but Way #6 did not stay quiet for long as the keel for the next Liberty ship Hull 165 Frank E Spencer was laid two days later. Fitting out the James Eagan Layne took a further 16 days so the ship was delivered on 18 December 1944 taking only 56 days in total to construct.
At the beginning of March 1945, Master William Albert Sleek crossed the Atlantic in the James Eagan Layne heading for the Solent with a cargo of munitions. After a trip to the Seine Estuary the ship made her way to Barry in South Wales to pick up a cargo of 4,500 tons of US Army Engineers equipment for Patton’s third army. The cargo included tank parts, jeeps, lorries, railway rolling stock, Bailey bridge sections as well as motorboats and lumber as deck cargo. On 20th March she joined the eastbound convoy BTC-103 heading up the English Channel from Milford Haven to Southend, with her final destination Ghent in Belgium. The convoy sailed in two lanes with the James Eagan Layne steaming in station #21 as the lead ship in the starboard column. The Vice Commodore of the convoy was on board along with eight officers, 34 crewmen and 27 armed guards.
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