Vera And The Internet
William Wayne Weems
© 2004 by William Wayne Weems
Vera Saunders was my Mother's cousin and one of the co-founders of the "Effeness Club", a social club which celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2003. Vera might even be considered that Club's Mother, since it was actually Vera who first suggested setting up a club when both she and my Mother moved to Nashville, Tennessee and found themselves without a circle of friends.
Yet twelve years after the Effeness Club's founding Vera found herself in a dither; she had married Bob Douglas but between them they could not find jobs that paid a living wage in Nashville. The Great Depression was not yet over.
Bob Douglas finally found a job in Jacksonville, Florida, with Eastern Air Lines. He and his wife moved down there, but Vera still desperately missed her "Effeness Girls". At the time club rules provided that any lady who let her membership lapse could not rejoin, so for several years Vera mailed her monthly dues to Nashville until the "girls" took pity on her and amended their rules so that anyone forced to relocate because of job or marriage requirements would be placed on "inactive" status and given a chance to regain full membership if they ever returned to Nashville. That, by the way, is exactly what Vera did when she returned to Nashville after her husband's death...57 years later.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked Bob Douglas was laid off by Eastern Airlines for the duration of the resulting conflict. The military had effectively taken over civil aviation, but war work soon became available. Vera and other night time beach visitors could watch the orange glow of fire in the distance as German U-boats sank American ships almost as quickly as they left harbor. In response a shipyard was constructed at Jacksonville to turn out "Liberty Ships".
"Liberty Ships" were prefabricated cargo vessels patterned on a proven British design and set up for mass production by unskilled labor. To speed construction most were welded instead of riveted together. The idea behind their production was brutally simple; build them faster than the Germans could sink them. Bob Douglas was promptly hired by the new Jacksonville shipyard.
In 1943 Bob Douglas mailed my Mother and Father a program for the launching of his shipyard's first vessel, the SS. Ponce De Leon (In case you have forgotten, Ponce de Leon was the Spaniard who wandered about the Jacksonville area looking for the mythical "fountain of youth" in the early 1500's). Bob scribbled under the ship's name on the launch schedule in the center of the booklet "And a beautiful ship she is. First ship I ever built, and it didn't sink!" Sixty-one years later I found the program at the bottom of my Mother's cedar chest after her passing in March 2004. Vera had died only a few weeks before.
In early 1945 a sailor found himself in a North Atlantic convoy with the only ship visible nearby being the veteran SS Ponce de Leon. He snapped four pictures, which later made their way onto his web page. Click here to visit the page.
I contacted the Florida State Archives, and they indicated they would be pleased to accept my donation of this program for their permanent collection. Then I began to wonder: "Liberty Ships" had been turned out by the hundreds during the war....could the Internet tell me anything about this particular Liberty Ship? Turns out it could, indeed.
The first thing I discovered was the SS. Ponce de Leon was no ordinary Liberty Ship. It had been fitted out to serve as troop transport with a capacity of 500 troops. I found such ships were licensed to the Army Transport Service and the SS. Ponce de Leon had indeed carried troops across the Atlantic and throughout the Mediterranean Sea. A fascinating account of an Army Air Force B-24 bomber crew that rode on this ship is to be found at by clicking here.
I was especially amused to read how the sailors of the SS Ponce de Leon responded when their aircrew passengers were told to transfer to a filthy French boat where the only food was a soup seasoned with fish heads. The Ship's crew gave their departing airmen C-Rations that night and a did complete GI job on the French Boat's kitchen by the next day.
By the end of the war more capable vessels had taken over troop ferrying duties and Liberty Ship transports were converted to cargo hauling.
The war weary SS Ponce de Leon survived World War II but was too battered to interest those few who converted old Liberty Ships for other purposes in the years following. Internet records reveal she was scrapped in Mobile, Alabama in 1962.
I think the Florida State Archivists were amazed I could obtain hull records, first person accounts and even photographs of one single Liberty Ship out of the hundreds constructed simply by poking about on the Internet. I know I was.
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