BALTIMORE -- More than a decade after his retirement from a Bethlehem Steel shipyard here, Charlie Rice is once again fine-tuning a ship's electrical system. Only this time, Rice is cleaning rusty switches and reconnecting aging wires aboard the S.S. John W. Brown, one of two surviving World War II Liberty Ships.

After an active wartime career carrying troops and supplies and even transporting war brides across the Atlantic after the war, the John Brown spent nearly 40 years as a floating maritime high school in New York City. Now, the John Brown is home in Baltimore and by fall, volunteers hope, will be restored and ready to sail again.

The 12-year restoration project has involved legions of volunteers and private and public donations totaling almost $1 million. The goal: restoring the historic ship to its original working condition, relaunching it in September and opening it permanently as a memorial to the people who built and sailed the ships and as a WW II-era maritime museum.

"There are lots of early American warships, submarines and historic sailing crafts preserved in this country, but no merchant ships of the 20th century," said Brian Hope, a Columbia resident and the John Brown's captain. "And the best part is that there are still lots of people around who remember these ships, who worked on them or watched them be launched."

The vessels were originally referred to as "emergency ships," but the sobriquet that stuck was coined in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who told the country that these ships would bring liberty to embattled Europe. One of their most popular nicknames, however, was "The Ugly Ducklings," which stemmed from the ships' utilitarian appearance.

Hope described the Liberty Ships as "the workhorses" of the war. "They carried two-thirds of all U.S. cargo overseas, everything from bacon to bullets," he said. "Many, like the Brown, were converted to haul troops, then after the war carried supplies to war-torn countries."

"The Brown is important as a rare example of mass production shipbuilding," Hope said. "As soon as one ship was launched from dry dock, work began on the next ship. It also symbolized a coming together of the unions, private industry and government. It was the kind of cooperation that you'd only see in war."

The John W. Brown, named for a leader of a shipbuilders union of the early 20th century, was built at Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield yard in Baltimore. The emergency facility cranked the ship out in 41 days in 1942. The John Brown sailed through areas of heavy combat during the war, but it suffered only minor damage and successfully ferried troops to the campaign in the Mediterranean Theater and the invasion of Salerno and southern France. The only fatality ever recorded aboard the John Brown occurred when two sailors were playing with a loaded pistol on the deck, according to Hope.

Hope said the restoration effort, called Project Liberty Ship, has attracted about 1,500 members worldwide, whose support includes donations and in-kind contributions. But it's the small corps of people such as Rice who provide invaluable expertise and spend countless hours each week plugging away at 441 feet of deteriorated steel and rusting mechanical systems.

"These volunteers know the insides of this ship like no one else," Hope said. Many of them were members of the teams that built the Liberty Ships between 1941 and 1945. Rice worked on the electrical gang at Fairfield, part of a nationwide effort that mobilized thousands of men and, for the first time, women in industrial production on the home front. Rice said the Fairfield shipyard employed 47,000 Baltimore residents during the war and produced 374 of the 2,700 Liberty Ships built -- more than any other yard. On average, it cranked out a new ship at an unprecedented pace of one every five weeks.

Most of the Liberty Ships were scrapped at the yards where they were built, some were reactivated for use in the Vietnam War, others were given permanent homes at the bottom of the ocean as offshore reefs, Rice said. The only other known surviving Liberty Ship, Hope said, is the Jermiah O'Brien, now restored and in operation as a museum in Oakland, Calif.

"We lost a lot of ships in the '50s and '60s," said Hope, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and a 20-year veteran Chesapeake Bay pilot. "There was no interest until they were almost all gone."

Over the years, the John Brown has lost many important fixtures, Hope said. "The ship's wheel and whistle were taken as souvenirs. So we've had to search the world for spare Liberty Ship parts. But people came out of the woodwork with donations and we were able to salvage parts from two Liberty Ships that are being scrapped in Virginia."

Sill bearing the signs of 40 years as a floating high school, the John Brown's lower decks have been temporarily converted into a mini-repair facility. Amid graffiti-covered banks of school lockers, electrical and carpentry shops are humming, while down in the steamy boiler room, retired mechanics are repairing the ship's engine for its "matron" voyage next spring. Although the engine was active during the John Brown's time as a training vessel, the ship hasn't moved under its own power in 45 years, Hope said.

Though the ship's spaces were divided for classrooms in 1946, most of its original layout and features remain; the early 20th century navigation and radio equipment, red oak paneled officers' quarters, crew's bunks, gun turrets and enormous cargo hold are intact.

Because of its status as a National Register landmark, the John Brown's restoration must be completed with sensitivity to its historic integrity, which means that it won't be outfitted with modern systems, and materials will match those used when it was built, Hope said.

Bringing the ship back to its 1942 appearance won't be too difficult because all of the Liberty Ships were built to the same specifications. There are design plans to work from, and volunteers know the original color schemes, Hope said.

Project organizers hope to secure a permanent berth this fall at Fells Point in Baltimore, where the public will be able to tour the ship. Next spring, they hope to provide sailing tours of the Inner Harbor.

Hope sees the ship's future role as an educational facility with exhibits to teach children about world geography and naval engineering, as well as about the role of merchant marine ships in the war and the contributions of workers who built the ships and those who sailed them.

"People don't get a chance to go on active ships or get a feel for the importance of the port," Hope said. "We'd also like to devote exhibit space to {the John Brown's} 36-year career as the country's only nautical training facility for high school students."

"Nostalgia for these ships flows like honey around here; there is a constant stream of mail from people all over the world who are interested in the return of a Liberty Ship," Hope said. "A vast majority of World War II veterans are coming to the end of their lives and they want to see symbols of their experience preserved. We still might not think if it as history yet, but it will be soon."