The return of an ‘old loved one’ to Greece

A number of elderly sailors were waiting impatiently at the harbor in Piraeus last month for the return of an «old loved one.» The arrival in Greece of the last Liberty cargo ship, the Arthur M. Huddell, from the United States, for the purpose of being transformed into a floating museum, touched both the world of shipowners and veteran seamen. «This is a seafaring school. Generations and generations of Greek sailors were transformed into men on such ships,» explained Dimitris Karapiperis, president of the Retired Masters and Mates Union. «I first boarded such a ship at 17.» After World War II, Greece’s merchant fleet had been annihilated – 75 percent of its ships had been sunk. So, through a special financial agreement, the USA gave 100 Liberties to Greece, which constituted the first injection for the rebirth of the country’s merchant marine. These ships were simply assembled and were fairly big, since their purpose was to transport as much cargo as possible. They also offered the crew comforts that were unheard of at the time. «With the Liberties, our lives were much improved,» 90-year-old retired captain Giorgos told us. «We had hot water and private, sealed cabins which were at the center of the ship, so that we could move about more easily and do our chores without being forced to go up on deck,» added 76-year-old master Nikolas Daniolos. Unfortunately, the one-time cargo ship lacked ballast and was unsteady in the water, so, as a result, everyone on board suffered every time the sea was rough. «Once, in 1967, we stayed rudderless in the Atlantic for seven days. We were in the midst of a storm, so we shut down the engines in order to save fuel, since, in any case, the boat was not going anywhere,» remembered 74-year-old Stavros Karapiperis. «We waited patiently for the weather to change and survived on dry food, as not even the cooking pot could stay still long enough to prepare anything.» Cat overboard Memories are sometimes sweet, other times bitter. «Once we had a cat on board,» recalled 82-year-old Nikolas Papakyriakis. «The captain was very fond of animals, but his first mate despised them, so he secretly ordered us to catch the cat and then he threw it overboard before we reached England, where inspections were very strict.» «When the captain realized what had happened, he sat heartbroken on the bridge. I was young and did not understand. So, he explained to me that it is considered bad luck to throw an animal overboard, as it is to come across a sea turtle. As we were preparing to dock when we reached Britain, the anchor broke. The captain fired the first mate, as he considered him responsible for the bad luck that had befallen us.» «Another time a dog became a legend on one of the Liberties. He kept growling all night long and was trying to draw us all to the ship’s bow,» claimed Daniolos. «At first, we didn’t pay much attention, but he was so persistent that in the end we turned on the searchlights and spotted one of our own men who had fallen overboard. For this deed of valor, the dog received a medal.» There were other cases of rescued castaways, as well, which made the newspapers at the time. «Early one morning in 1955 in the English Channel, while I was at the helm, I suddenly noticed something moving. I changed course in order to get closer and I saw two figures. One man was in a canoe, yelling, but I couldn’t hear him because we were too high up above him. His partner was in the water. I had to use a rope ladder to get closer to them. I hoisted them on board one at a time. To revive them, I gave them tea laced with brandy. They were two Englishmen who wanted to travel around the world in a canoe. I was interviewed by both The Daily Telegraph and The Mirror,» he added. One remaining obstacle Greek-American Senator Leo-nidas Raptakis, is the man who for the past few years has worked passionately in order for the last remaining Liberty to come to Greece. This venture has been close to his heart, since he comes from a family of seafarers. «In 1940, my father was working on board the passenger ship Nea Hellas and had just reached New York when the Nazis attacked Greece. So, almost by luck, my family emigrated from Andros to America,» he said. On the island of Andros in 2003, shipowner Spyros Polemis approached the senator to express his desire to find a Liberty. However, the venture that Raptakis undertook in 2005 proved to be quite complicated. «The obstacles were many – finding the ship, persuading the US administration to give her up, having Congress vote on the corresponding law, cleaning up the ship so that she would be free of chemical substances and, above all, finding the money,» explained Raptakis. «All this cost almost $50 million, which was mostly provided by Greek shipowners, and especially by Vassilis Constantopoulos,» he added. The hassle for the completion of the operation was great; the ship, built in 1943, was hauled out to sea for 40 days. It departed from the USA on December 6, the same day that Aghios Nikolaos, the protector of sailors, is celebrated. On the same day, back in 1943, a ceremony was held celebrating the delivery of the first Liberty. Now the cycle of these ships is completed. «Now that my mission has come to an end, I pass the torch to the Greek government for the completion of the project,» emphasized the Greek-American senator. Unfortunately, though, no authority or ministry has pledged to undertake the financing that will be needed to create the museum. «I envision an interactive museum, suitable for children and teenagers. The younger generations must learn about the maritime tradition of our country and learn what the Liberties signify in its history: The rebirth of the merchant marine that gradually helped our economy bounce back. «Many people found a job on board the Liberties and sent hard currency back to their families in Greece,» concluded Raptakis.