Bob Brown contributed significantly to the construction of the first Liberty Ship completed at the Brunswick River shipyards.
He later took part in building the USS aircraft carriers Antietam and Valley Forge up in Philadelphia. From there, Bob spent the remainder of World War II in the Pacific Theater, serving with a crack Navy outfit that repaired American landing craft quicker than Japanese firepower could damage them.
But there was this one vessel in particular that the 97-year-old’s memory kept drifting back to during our visit Wednesday afternoon at his St. Simons Island home. Fondly. Actually, it was just a rowboat. But at the same time, it was so much more.
The boat had sleek, smooth lines that were comprised from “64 linear cuts” of Georgia pine. He had no power tools to aid him in its construction. The hull consisted of a “wood-to-wood” fit, no resin or sealant needed to keep it watertight. Bob was just barely a teenager back then. He and his older brother used it to escape into the waterways of the marsh while growing up in the historic old Dart House that once stood at 4 Glynn Ave. in Brunswick.
“I started building rowboats when I was probably 13 or 14 years old,” Bob recalled. “The first one was just for Bill and I to have a means of going anywhere we wanted on the water.”
That older brother he mentions is the gab-gifted Bill Brown, who just recently turned 100 and somewhat less recently retired from a storied real estate career in the Golden Isles. Like their three younger sisters, Bob and Bill were born in the Dart House, the sons of Simon Hadley and Ethel Dart Brown. The Dart family’s roots in these parts date to the Revolutionary War, and their ties to our waters run nearly as deep, Bob noted.
Grandfather Robert William Dart and his brothers were boat builders and pilots, constructing some of the best steam-powered tugs on the East Coast in the post-Civil War 19th century. “My mother’s family were known as some of the best boat builders south of Philadelphia,” said Bob, born Oct. 11, 1921. “Evidently, I inherited some of the genes from the Darts, who were all water people and boat builders.”
Bob took to boat-building like a duck to ... well, you get it. Word got around after that first boat project, and Bob found himself hired to build boats for neighbors and cousins and such. He graduated from Glynn Academy in 1939, the same year he sold a sleek handmade sailboat to help pay his freshman year at Georgia Tech.
But after that freshman year, Bob returned home and went to work building tugs for Brunswick Marine Construction. Shortly after WWII broke out in December of 1941, the local company found itself with a multimillion dollar government contract to build Liberty Ships for the war effort.
After building up the marshy Brunswick River shoreline to construct the six slipway ship launches that are still visible today from the Sidney Lanier Bridge, Brunswick Marine Construction had its big government contract pulled out from under it.
“While we’re working our rear ends off, we woke up one morning to discover that the powers that be had decided we didn’t know what we were doing and that we should give the contract to J.A. Jones,” Bob said, shaking his head as if the bad news had been delivered just that day.
But Bob’s love of shipbuilding outweighed any animosity toward J.A. Jones, who became his new employer. With the expertise learned from his forebears and that year at Tech under his belt, Bob had no trouble keeping up with the Joneses. He started out as a supervisor of tank welders and worked his way up to a lead role at the yard’s No. 5 slipway. “The No. 5 slipway’s ship was the first one ready to be launched, but they wouldn’t let it go until the No. 4 slipway was done,” Bob said.
But by that time, Bob longed to be of service closer to the action. Bob was selected as part of the Navy’s watercraft repair crew, labeled with attendant lengthy military acronym. At 22, he was the youngest construction-minded member of his boot camp class in Maryland. (Most of his fellow supervisors at J.A. Jones were twice his age as well.)
Afterward, he took part in the early construction of the carriers Antietam and Valley Forge up in Philly. Working in close confines with a pneumatic gun and no ear plugs created hearing problems Bob carries to this day. “It was unmercifully loud,” he said. “But I never gave it a thought at the time.”
From there it was off to the Pacific, 1944. The harried pace of war in the Pacific precluded the customary precaution of sailing in convoy under escort. “The captain opened our orders after we were under way. ‘You will proceed alone, at once, to Finschhafen, New Guinea.’ Thirty-four days later, we hit our target.”
With Allied advances moving across the Pacific at rapid pace, Bob and shipmates spent the next two years in near constant motion between New Guinea and the Philippines — Manus, the Admiralty Islands, Port Hollandia, Leyte Gulf, among them. With a crew of 1,100, the repair ship typically worked on more than a dozen damaged LSVP and LST landing ships simultaneously.
“We had a load of steel on board and all the machinery to fabricate the repairs,” Bob said. “It was done aboard ship and transported over, and other crews assembled the repairs. Sometimes we had 15 to 18 (damaged craft) tied up on each side at one time.”
There were close calls. The ship lost a boilermaker en route to Manus Island, causing a delay of one day. That day was Nov. 10, 1944, when the USS Mount Hood munitions ship exploded, killing everyone on board. Bob’s ship was due to dock beside the Mount Hood. “I never ever minded being late for something after that,” he quipped.
He once rode out a horrific typhoon in a 42-foot launch boat that was tossed about “like a ping-pong ball.” Another time later in the war, he looked up from the deck to see Japanese planes buzzing low overhead en route to a failed, desperate kamikaze mission. “They were flying tree-top level — I can still see those bomb bay doors like it was yesterday.”
At war’s end, Bob graduated in Georgia Tech’s first industrial engineering class. He went home to work at Brunswick Marine Construction, which he helped transition into a leader in “cutting edge automation” that produced lightweight concrete construction material. He is twice widowed, and raised five children.
Bob’s face was beaming again near the conclusion of our visit. Probably because our talk had returned once more to that finely-crafted row boat.
“I inherited a love of boats,” he said. “I went from that to building ships in Brunswick to the putting them back together in the Pacific.”