LOOKING back, it looked so ordinary, yet it was probably one of the oddest ships to ever enter Newcastle Harbour. And that's saying something when you consider past visitors. That would include the resurrected James Craig, the last windjammer of the 19th century sailing ship era, and the battered raft of the historic Las Balsas expedition salvaged at sea in 1973. Another contender for most unusual craft in port would have to be the replica William the IV paddle wheeler, now saved by volunteers and permanently moored at Honeysuckle. In fact, "Willy" is probably berthed today in the same spot where my mystery, rather shabby, steel vessel was tied up decades ago, at what was originally part of the now gone No.1 Lee Wharf. Not that my vessel looked any different from other cargo freighters in port. It was the ship's forgotten past that soon made it fascinating, despite appearances. It was about 1968, and I was about to climb the gangplank of what looked like an ageing, rather weather-worn old tramp steamer, maybe almost 30 years old by then. For convenience, I'll call the ship the SS John X. At first glance, it appeared no different to the ships tramping around the world chasing cargoes wherever they could. World War II had ended in 1945, and such ships were rapidly becoming obsolete. Within a few years, most would be broken up for scrap metal. A few years later, a new breed of giant Japanese colliers would dominate the port's shipping arrivals list instead of the older, smaller rivals loading cargo ranging from wheat, wool bales and even cattle for export. I was a young newspaper cadet thrust into the hurly-burly of shipping rounds on the old Newcastle Sun, our Steel City's then popular afternoon tabloid. "Find a story somewhere. There are plenty of ships in port," my editor gruffly urged me. And so it was that I gingerly climbed onto the deck of this old tub, which looked like it had a bit of character but didn't seem to obviously promise a story. Despite the bad odds, 'cold calling' on the master and crews of old ships had yielded some past human interest stories; like the time I found a bored Japanese captain practising his golf swing by slicing balls into the Harbour Basin from atop one of his hatch covers on his moored ship. But this SS John X didn't reveal much at first, until I noticed old rust stains and traces of running repairs. The crew of this soon-to-be-replaced vessel pointed out scars from past voyaging, including urgent past hull reinforcing. It turned out my run-of-the-mill ageing freighter was one of the lucky survivors of an earlier breed of seagoing craft - the Liberty ships hastily built in the 1940s. Later called "the ships that won the war" and manned by civilians, these supply ships were really expendable, their steel hulls often totally welded - not riveted - and had an expected life span of only five years. Small and slow with frequent weaknesses in their metal hulls, they rapidly poured out of 18 shipyards in the US in the 1940s when Nazi U-boats were prowling the oceans intent on sinking any merchant ships before they could supply a besieged Britain. The average time taken to construct each crucial Liberty ship was only 42 days, although a later astounding report from the Newcastle Sun early in World War II (November 13, 1942) revealed more. The headline proudly declared the latest Liberty ship from the US had been built in four days. Well, four days and 15 1/2 hours actually from laying the keel to launching it at a shipyard in Richmond, California. This merchant marine ship was the freighter Robert E. Peary (of 10,600 tons). Its record construction time had been cut by more than half. The report said that America was building hundreds of these prefabricated Liberty ships annually. A total of 2751 'Liberties' were made between 1941 and 1945 "making them the largest class of ship built world-wide". They became America's lifeline in WWII, hauling fuel, food, ammunition and men overseas in five ship holds. They were being built at a higher rate than could be sunk by enemy submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Because of their squat shape and size, US president Franklin D.Roosevelt called them "Ugly Ducklings". But in the armed services, they had another more sinister tag of the "ships that broke". The sheer scale of rapid ship production meant a few catastrophic structural failures. Three of the 2710 built early in WWII literally broke in half. Another 1500 had brittle fractures, soon remedied by hull and deck bracing. Suspicion fell on welders and faulty welding techniques, but inferior grades of steel and poor design were also blamed. Now let's go back to the SS John X, briefly moored in Newcastle Harbour more than 50 years ago. The ship's past had mainly been disguised by age and repairs, but she was still afloat. My next biggest surprise was to see old wall-mounted photos of when the ship had also served as an aircraft carrier, sort of. A single-engine seaplane had once been mounted on a catapult on board. The aircraft would be flung far out into the air to reconnoitre for any nearby enemy presence. On return, the seaplane would land in the hopefully calm sea and be winched aboard by crane. After the SS John X left Newcastle Harbour I never saw or heard about it again. I doubt though if the ship survived long. Today there are only a handful of reported Liberty ships around the world, mainly in the US. Only two are still operational. Because of the limitations of the Liberty ships, so-called Victory class ships were also built from 1943 onwards as a bigger, better, faster emergency cargo vessel. Of the almost 3000 Liberty ships built in WWII though, 200 were lost in enemy action, weather or in accidents. Some ships even went on to serve in the 1950s Korean War. Almost 250,00 volunteer US merchant mariners served in WWII and more than 9000 died. Each Liberty carried a crew of between 38 and 60 civilian merchant mariners along with up to 40 naval personnel to man defensive guns plus radio and radar. Standard building designs usually meant vessels were 441ft (126m) long and 56ft (17m) wide. The vessel Patrick Henry was the first Liberty ship built. It finally went to the shipbreakers in October 1958. In February 1946, to honour the wartime role of the US Merchant Marine, a stamp was even issued (pictured) which depicted a Liberty ship unloading cargo.