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October Artifact of the Month – USS Dionysus Engine

Hello faithful readers and welcome back to the artifact of the month! This month, we will be looking at a 271,000 pound engine from a Liberty ship built in World War II, USS Dionysus. Last week, while working on my blog, I got to take a little field trip out to the back of the museum where all of the macro artifacts are stored. While exploring, my supervisor showed myself and another intern the engine which is housed in a shed to protect it from the elements. The shed itself is a little creepy from the outside, but the engine inside is magnificent. It is massive, and just looms over you, with parts and pieces that are about the same size as me.

USS Dionysus, Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum.

USS Dionysus was originally built for the Royal Navy as HMS Faithful as part of the lend-lease program, but instead was kept by the US Navy. It was commissioned in 1945 as a repair ship for the Navy, and was sent into the Pacific war zone at the end of World War II. Following the end of the war, Dionysus was put in the United States Naval Reserve Fleet until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1952, when it was added to the Atlantic Fleet. Following the end of the Korean War, Dionysus was again put on reserve until it was scrapped. Dionysus was a Liberty ship, which was a type of ship produced by the United States Maritime Commission in World War II and was constructed from standardized parts that were made across the country. They, liberty ships, were made for under $2,000,000 and held 27 officers and 497 enlisted sailors, in addition to 2,840 Jeeps, 440 tanks or 230 million rounds of rifle ammunition. During the war about 200 of the ships were lost due to a variety of reasons, but two different ships, SS Jeremiah O’Brian and SS John Brown survived, and are both open to the public. The engine was removed in 1978 and donated to The Mariners’ Museum and put on display. The engine itself is approximately 271,000 pounds with all of its components assembled, and is the main triple expansion steam engine of Dionysus. Later that same year, Dionysus’ hull was sunk off the coast of North Carolina to become part of the artificial reefs along the coastline. It was the fourth Liberty ship to be sunk there since 1974, and is located about five miles south of Oregon Inlet.

Removing the engine from the USS Dionysus, courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum.

Interestingly enough, the naval ship was named for a god from Greek mythology, with a background full of romance and jealousy. Dionysus was born to Zeus and a mortal mother and was the god of wine-making and fertility. It is said that he was born from Zeus’ thigh after his mother Semele was killed as a result of Hera’s jealousy. In one tale, Hera found out that Semele was carrying Zeus’ child, she went to see Semele disguised as an old woman. She convinced Semele to confide in her who the father of her child was, and then forced her to question if Zeus was really the father. When Zeus next appeared to Semele, she asked to see his true form, and despite hesitations he revealed himself to her. His true form and the fire of his lightning bolts burnt her to a crisp, and he was only able to save the baby Dionysus by stitching his fetus into his thigh and having him develop there until he was ready to be born.

When researching Dionysus, I found no information about why the ship may have been given this name in replacement of HMS Faithful. I thought it was a fascinating choice for a World War II repair ship. After looking at the size and capacity of the engine however, I don’t think that the ship related much to the idea of wine-making and fertility. Perhaps the name Hermes, after the messenger god, would have been more suited to a repair ship that would have had to travel from one point to another providing aid. Even Mars, after the god of war, despite the fact that it was not a battle ship, would have been more fitting. Or at least that’s what came to mind when I was standing next to an engine that is literally 270,865 pound heavier than me.

The engine of Dionysus (look at how BIG that thing is!), Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum
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