The Little Known Story
of the
S.S. Rachel Jackson U.S.M.S.

By Herman Melton

Liberty Ship SS Carlos Carrillo

2742 of the 10,000 ton Liberty Ships were launched 1941-45. Similar to the S.S. Rachel Jackson, this is the S.S. Carlos Carrillo (Photo # NH 98700, Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy).

The Battle of the Atlantic was in a crucial stage for the U.S. and its allies when it reached its peak in March of 1943. This title was attached to the struggle between Adolph Hitler's submarines (U-boats) and vital Allied shipping. At that critical juncture in World War II, the advantage was still in the hands of Nazi Germany and Japan, its Pacific ally. Skilled U-boat skippers, in squadrons known as “Wolf Packs,” were sinking from one to four freighters per day. In the month of June in 1942, for example, fifty-six Allied freighters were sent to the grave. This tragic turn of events threatened the very life blood of the British whose homeland constituted the Allies only threshold across which they could wrest the European continent from the grip of the Nazis. Moreover, during the previous November, American troops under General Dwight Eisenhower landed in North Africa, and were by now desperately in need of war supplies which could only be furnished by ships carrying cargo from factories, farms, plants and warehouses in the U.S. Added to this was the frightening reality that Japan had overrun and still controlled most of the vast Pacific while continuing to pose a serious threat to Australia and perhaps even Alaska. As the demand on shipping increased in the Atlantic, so did a like demand occur in the Pacific due to the needs of the far flung forces of General Douglas McArthur.

To ensure a reliable flow of that vital war material to both theaters, it was necessary to build an enormous number of freighters in U.S. shipyards to replace those lost to Axis submarines and planes. In perhaps the most remarkable record of production in history, eighteen U.S. shipyards on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts, turned out an astounding 2742 of the 10,000 ton vessels called “Liberty Ships” from 1941 through May of 1945.

Most of these ships were named in honor of American statesmen, warriors, industrialists, educators, writers, clergymen, philosophers, suffragettes, mariners, etc. The days of women's liberation was yet to come, but scores of “Liberties” were named in honor of famous women. Most Pittsylvania County citizens know that Rachel Donelson was born here on the left bank of the Banister; that she was destined to be the wife of President Andrew Jackson and that she was a distinguished First Lady. However, it is doubtful that more than a handful know that the name Rachel Jackson graced the bow of one of these “Liberties” when a bottle of champagne started her slipping down the ways of the Terminal Island yards of the California Shipbuilding Corporation at the Port of Los Angeles in March of 1943. When one considers the crisis, described earlier, that faced the nation at her launching, she was a welcome addition to the convoys carrying vital supplies to the Pacific war.

Whereas no research has been published on the wartime exploits of this interesting “Liberty,” it is almost certain that she spent the most of the remainder of the war in the Pacific. The logic for this assumption is that she was built on the West Coast as one of 336 “Liberties” launched at Calships. It is a good guess that she hauled essential supplies to places such as Port Moresby, Guadalcanal and the Philipines. However, it is known that she finished her last days in the Gulf of Mexico. As in the case of all “Liberties,” Rachel did her job. Thankfully, she was not one of the 300 or more of her sisters that were sunk by German and Japanese forces.

With victory came a dilemma for the U.S. Maritime Commission. It had 2,000 Liberty Ships on its hands and no need for them. The U.S. Government resolved to never be caught short on cargo ships again. In consequence thereof, it “mothballed” 1579 of the surplus (not including the Rachel) and kept them for decades. Sadly, all but two of them were sold for scrap by 1979. The simple fact was that modern ship design rendered them not cost efficient in maritime commerce. Fortunately for posterity, the Rachel Jackson had a more fitting and deserving burial. On April 25, 1976, she was gently and quietly scuttled to become part of an artificial fish reef. As of this moment, her remains lie off Port Mansfield, Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. She is serving humanity as a habitat for marine life and as a shelter for fish, lobsters, shrimp, etc. Resting just south of her is another sister from Calships, the SS Edward Scripps, which was launched only two months after Rachel. The Scripps is performing the same service. Another famous siter from Calships was the George Gershwin which is perpetuating marine life just off the coast of Mississippi. Of interest to East Coast residents is the presence of another of Rachel's sisters, the Zane Grey which is quietly attracting fish in fifty feet of water near the mouth of Oregon Inlet south of Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She too came down the ways just after the Rachel Jackson.

Any Pittsylvanian who happens to visit the gap in the central part of Padres Island, a popular tourist spot off the coast of southern Texas, is henceforth reminded that he or she is very near the remains of the namesake of Pittsylvania County's most famous person: Rachel Jackson. Please pause for a moment of silence in her presence.


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.