Chester's citizens in the Great War: The Captain

Joseph Fairbanks Johnson, inspector of Liberty Ships, made a vital contribution on the homefront

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  • Joseph Fairbanks Johnson

  • A. Joseph Burns, grandson of "the Captain"

By Aaron Lefkowitz

— Joseph Fairbanks Johnson had a long-history with ships including many famous vessels going back several decades as his grandson, A. Joseph Burns, tells it.

Burns himself is an active member of the Mayflower Society, made up of the descendants of that legendary ship. When only 15 years old, Johnson was a merchant sailor on a ship off the coast of Cuba, when he saw a massive explosion light the night sky on Feb. 15, 1898. This explosion was the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, which would propel the U.S. into the Spanish-American War. Johnson would have plenty of other adventures across the world as sailor, including the Orient. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Johnson was a Merchant Marine officer and was tasked with capturing the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, the newest, fastest, and by far largest cruise ship of the Germans, lying in New York Harbor. Though the Germans had sabotaged the ship before surrendering it, they had left well-marked spare parts, resulting in repairs going relatively smoothly. After learning that it would cost nearly $3,000 — $60,000 in today's money — a month to keep the ship in port, which would be Johnson’s responsibility, it was turned over to the U.S. Navy, which would use it as a troop transport under the name USS Agamemnon. The Agamemnon would complete several round-trips, ferrying tens of thousands of troops to France before it was deemed obsolete and scrapped in 1940, just as the Second World War was taking shape. Johnson would spend World War I sailing seized German vessels as well as supplies to various ports including Philadelphia, Swansea, Wales, and even to France, where the war was raging. He would also temporarily captain the German freighter, the SS Ockenfels, which would be recommissioned as the USS Pequot, seeing service up until the early 1930s, when she too was scrapped.

During World War II, Johnson would see service again on the homefront. He would serve as chief inspector of Liberty Ship construction in the ports of Baltimore and Savannah. Liberty Ships were easy mass-production cargo ships, necessary for supplying the American forces. He was particularly known for his belief in the riveting method of constructing ships over the West Coast method of welding, which would be remembered for decades by those involved in the Liberty Ship program.

Johnson was very effective at his work. The Baltimore shipyard was capable of constructing an entire ship from scratch in 24 days, resulting in a personal thanks being issued by the Head of the Maritime Commission. Under his supervision, countless Liberty Ships were built and sent to support the war effort. Two of these ships, the SS Thomas Ruffin and Samhorn, were christened by his wife, Mrs. Josephine B. Johnson. As a memento of the christenings, Johnson had kept the bottles wrapped in bunting, one of which was donated to the SS John W. Brown, an operational Museum Liberty Ship, which visits several East Coast cities annually. The other and its presentation casket are in the possession of the Chester Historical Society. Both were given by Mr. Burns in recognition of his grandfather’s role.

A patriot rememberedJohnson would die on Nov. 27, 1968, only a little more than two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the Armistice. During the arrangements for his funerals, handled by Burns, a secret was revealed. Though Johnson was a captain in the Merchant Marines, certified to captain a ship and sail the seven seas, the highest military rank he held was only lieutenant. He was never officially a military captain. For this reason, his headstone in the Chester Cemetery has listed as a lieutenant, but his family and friends,still call him "the Captain."

While “Captain” Johnson indeed had a remarkable life and career, he simply thought of himself as a patriot, doing as much as he could for this nation. He is still a figure highly regarded by his descendants and viewed with great pride — so much so, even holiday cards from him are still saved as precious mementoes. The homefront is just as vital as the battlefield, and Johnson contributed to it any and every way possible.

Without the brave American sailors during both World Wars, battling challenges like dangerous seas and the constant threat of U-boats, the American military would not have been able to effectively stop the spread of tyranny, and the United Kingdom would have been starved into submission.

A special thank you to Mr. A. Joseph Burns and his daughter, Joanne, for all their help and their artifact donation to the Chester Historical Society. This article would not have been possible without them and their family archives.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series of articles that Aaron Lefkowitz is writing about Chester residents who served in World War I, in observance of the coming 100th anniversary of Armistice Day on Nov. 11.

Related storiesSee these related stories at

"Chester's citizens in the Great War: The engineer"

"Chester's citizens in the Great War: The millionaire"

"Chester's citizens in the Great War: The batman"

"Chester's citizens in the Great War: The fighter"

"Chester's citizens in the Great War: The Yeomanette"

"Chester's citizens in the Great War: The Roughneck"

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