Onboard the S.S. United States
By Steven B. Ujifusa
The rusting but still magnificent ocean liner moored near the South Philadelphia IKEA might be on the move after more than a decade of sitting idle. Unless something is done quickly, the S.S. United States - once a floating symbol of American might - could be yanked from her pier, towed to Asia, and run aground on a foul, oil-smeared beach. There, she will be wrenched and sliced into piles of unrecognizable scrap metal.
As of Feb. 10, 2009, Norwegian Cruise Lines/Star Cruises, the S.S. United States' Hong Kong-based owner, are preparing to sell America's national flagship to the highest bidder. Judging by the current economic climate, it appears that the most likely purchasers will be Chinese or Indian ship breakers. Right now, it appears that the ship has been transferred from NCL to a holding company.
In 2003, NCL purchased the ship with the intention of restoring her as a world-class cruise liner. But these promises have come to naught.
Today, many observers are terrified that the ship- which captured world headlines in July 1952 with its record-breaking maiden voyage from New York to Southampton - will make its final voyage. If she is towed to the breakers, there will be no streamers, cheering well-wishers, or Navy planes soaring overhead to give her a final send off.
Despite the announcement that NCL is listing the 990-foot long liner for sale, advocacy groups such as the S.S. United States Conservancy have not given up hope.
“The word is out that it is for sale,” said Joseph Rota, a board member of the S.S. United States Conservancy and former member of the crew. “We are continuing the battle to save her.” He added, “If the company has hoped to make purchasing the ship legally confusing by transferring her to a holding company, they have accomplished their goal."
The Conservancy’s webpage has an ominous warning: “The S.S. United States is once again in danger. Her owners, NCL/Star Cruises, intend to list her for sale. We must work together NOW to prevent our nation’s flagship from going to the breakers.”
The group also urges citizens to contact their elected officials and urge them to spare the ship from destruction. They also hope that the ship can be successfully transferred to a 501(c) 3 non-profit, which would take over management of the ship and start raising funds to refurbish her as a static attraction, hopefully in her home port of New York. The privately-run non-profit would be eligible for matching funds from the National Maritime Heritage Act of 1994.
In May 2008, the Conservancy released a PBS documentary entitled S.S. United States: Lady in Waiting. Produced by Robert Radler and Mark Perry, the documentary details the career of the ship through interviews, historical documents, and rare archival footage.
In the documentary, the Conservancy’s president Susan Gibbs (granddaughter of the ship’s designer William Francis Gibbs) makes a passionate case for the ship’s preservation. “She is one of the very few vintage, classic ocean liners still with us,” she stated. “I think people would love the chance to sail on her. She’s like a lady in waiting."
Charles Anderson, a Conservancy board member (and son of Commodore John Anderson, the ship’s longest-serving master) feels Philadelphia boasts possibly the greatest maritime treasures in the nation: the U.S.S. New Jersey, the cruiser U.S.S. Olympia, and the tall ship Moshulu. The great ocean liner, he feels, is the most historically significant of them all.
With such rich resources, Anderson is surprised that Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum has not been designated by Congress as one of America’s National Maritime Museums. This distinction is held only by the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia and the South Street Seaport in New York, the criteria being that “they house a collection of maritime artifacts clearly representing the Nation’s maritime heritage” and “provide outreach programs to educate the public about the Nation’s maritime heritage."
“Here is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Anderson wrote in an email, “for the City to save an even greater national treasure lying in its own backyard, the S.S. United States, which also catapulted our nation as a superpower of engineering technology and peaceful international commerce after the Second World War, and to earn its rightful place as ‘America’s National Maritime Museum.’”
Annie Marie Mathews, Director of Public Relations for Norwegian Cruise Lines, released the following statement on the morning of Feb. 11:
"As part of the recent completion of the final transaction related to the Apollo Management/Star Cruises investment in NCL Corporation, Norwegian Sky, formerly Pride of Aloha, has been successfully deployed long-term in NCL's fleet.
"Further to that transaction, interest in the S.S. United States was retained by NCL's long-term shareholder. While all options for the ship are being evaluated, the S.S. United States Conservancy has been offered the opportunity to explore possibilities for the ship with the option of purchasing the vessel.
Later that day, the S.S. United States Conservancy issued a response to NCL’s statement.
Dan McSweeney, the Conservancy’s media director wrote that his group was “contacted by Norwegian Cruise Line in January. At that time, we were told that the S.S. United States was going to be listed for sale and that we were being offered the right of first refusal for purchasing the ship and the opportunity to find a separate purchaser. We were not told that ‘all options for the ship are being evaluated,’ as a recent media statement from the company conveys.”
As for Conservancy’s plan of action, McSweeney wrote that the Board “quickly realized that in the current economic climate, identifying a single investor able to raise the capital necessary to fully finance the ship's conversion was extremely unlikely, so an outreach plan was devised to help leverage existing contacts in the media, preservation, legislative, investment, and legal arenas with the intent of helping to devise a plan to ensure the preservation of the ship's physical structure.”
The ultimate goal is to form a public-private partnership comprised of “interested government officials, preservationists, and investors” who can take over ownership of the liner. In the weeks to come, the Conservancy will “establish the most viable plan for accomplishing this mission and we invite anyone interested in joining in this effort to participate.”
“Though we are not sure it is being considered,” McSweeney insisted, “selling the ship to scrappers is simply not in anyone’s interest. We look forward to helping determine exactly how this great symbol of America is preserved for future generations while establishing a successful model of revenue generation and self-sufficiency.”
[To see the entire text of the S.S. United States Conservancy statement, please click here]
* * * *
The story of the S.S. United States began in Philadelphia in 1886, with the birth of William Francis Gibbs. The son of one of Peter Widener’s business partners, William Francis Gibbs knew a very early age what his life’s mission was: to design the fastest, safest, and most beautiful ocean liner in the world. He was reading technical publications from a very early age. Reared in a Rittenhouse Square mansion, Gibbs’s childhood was one of private schools, cricket clubs, and a ticket to the Ivy League. But when it came to what he wanted to do with his life, he rejected the career path his financier father chose for him: the law. The young man’s heart was set not on the civility of Rittenhouse Square, but on the bustling Delaware River and the great Atlantic Ocean beyond.
A few years after his family’s financial ruin in 1907, Gibbs took charge of his own destiny. He transformed himself from lackluster (and miserable) Harvard-educated lawyer to America’s finest and most prolific naval architect and construction manager. Through a combination of drive and skillful use of connections, the young man and his brother Frederic got themselves hired at the International Mercantile Marine, a shipping trust formed by J.P. Morgan and Clement Griscom in 1902. He also enjoyed the support and tutelage of Admiral David W. Taylor, the Chief Constructor of the Navy and one of the few professionally-trained naval architects in the country.
Started in 1923, his firm of Gibbs & Cox designed passenger liners, cargo vessels, fire boats, destroyers, cruisers, and the Liberty ship.
During World War II, his firm designed 70% of all wartime vessels - nearly 5,000 ships in all. Only after the war was the financing and government support available to build his dream ship.
Largely self-trained, the gaunt, shabbily-dressed William Francis Gibbs was famous for his brilliance, passion of culture and the arts, and deep love of the sea. He was an engineer with the soul of an artist. As one contemporary journalist observed, “hearing Bach’s music, according to Gibbs, is like looking through glass at magnificent ship machinery in action.” To him, designing ships was not just a way to make a living. It was pure joy.
Those who got to know the elusive, publicity-shy Gibbs realized that he was truly a remarkable individual. The maritime historian Frank O. Braynard wrote of his friend: “Mix in a liberal order of dry humor, an enchanting dour expression, acid wit, genuine sympathy, old-world courtesy, penetrating brilliance, perfectly unbelievable drive and make some allowances for some delightfully quaint foibles, and you have one of the most extraordinary Americans of all time.”
* * * *
The America that gave birth to the S.S. United States was a country that had been known during World War II as the “arsenal of democracy.” Its great factories churned out bombers, tanks, Jeeps, and ships by the thousands. Immediately after the war, General John M. Franklin, president of the United States Lines, approached William Francis Gibbs and asked him to design the finest ship American industry, ingenuity, and skill could build. She had to be fast and functional, yet also luxurious and beautiful. In order to get a crucial government subsidy for the proposed $70 million vessel, she also had to be a military asset should another world conflict arise.
By 1949, Gibbs and his design team had produced final plans for a transatlantic luxury liner that could double as a high-speed troop transport. Within a week, she could be transformed from a passenger vessel carrying 2,000 people in three classes (first, cabin, and tourist) to 14,000 troops, and could steam non-stop at 33 knots for 10,000 miles without refueling. Her engines, hull, and propeller configuration, as well as her top speed, remained classified military secrets. She was fireproofed from top to bottom, with almost no wood being used in her construction. To compensate for her narrow underwater hull shape, her entire upper works were built of light-weight aluminum, a metal whose use had been perfected during the war. This design breakthrough provided both great stability and enormous efficiency when moving through the water. And Gibbs gave her the most powerful engines ever installed on a ship: four high pressure, high temperature Westinghouse steam turbines that pumped out over 240,000 horsepower. Her propulsion technology was the same used in America’s most advanced war ships.
Construction started in early 1950 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, and the ship was ready to receive passengers in July 1952. When complete, she grossed 53,000 tons and stretched 990 feet in length. Her beam of 101.5 feet made her just narrow enough to squeeze through the Panama Canal.
As America’s “First Lady of the Seas,” the ship became an instant sensation with the American public, much as Seabiscuit the horse had twenty years earlier. Models, toys, advertisements, and posters proliferated throughout the nation. As the United States Lines prepared the ship for her maiden voyage, thousands of people waited in a queue that stretched down the West Side Highway, desperately hoping to get a tour of the new wonder ship. For national security reasons, the bridge and engine rooms were off-limits to visitors.
On July 7 1952, the S.S. United States captured the Atlantic speed record from Britain’s Queen Mary, traveling the 3,000 miles between New York and England in a mere 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes, averaging just under 36 knots. During the trip, Commodore Harry Manning used only two-thirds power of her engine power to break the Queen Mary’s best time by ten hours. The longer, heavier but less powerful British ship, built in 1936, managed a top speed of 31.65 knots going the same direction.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the S.S. United States was a favorite means of transatlantic travel for the rich, famous, and powerful from two continents. During her seventeen year career, she carried well over a million passengers without a single major mechanical breakdown.
Until Gibbs's death in 1967, she was her designer's pride and joy. He affectionately referred to her as “The Big Ship.” Every time the ship arrived in New York, Gibbs was there to meet her, first on a lonely point on the Brooklyn shoreline at the break of dawn, then at her Hudson River pier.
Finally, in 1969, the S.S. United States succumbed to airline competition, labor strife, and the withdrawal of government operating subsidies. During her lay-up in Newport News, Virginia, the government declassified the ship’s design, and revealed that her top sustained speed was 38.32 knots, the equivalent of about 45 land miles per hour. Only today’s nuclear-power super carriers can match the S.S. United States in the way she combined great size and high speed.
After four decades of neglect, mutilation, and failed revitalization schemes, this largely-forgotten icon of American technology and power now languishes on Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia. Her finned red, white, and blue funnels are fading and peeling. The letters spelling out “United States” on her bow and stern are barely visible. Her fireproof interiors have been stripped to bare metal. The modern artworks and furniture that graced her public rooms and staterooms have been auctioned off long ago by a previous owner. The promenades once walked by presidents, movie stars, and royalty are now cracked and strewn with broken glass and dead pigeons.
* * * *
There are some glimmers of hope for the S.S. United States. In 1994, Congress passed the National Maritime Heritage Act of 1994, which declared that “it shall be the policy of the Federal Government, in partnership with state and local governments and private organizations and individuals, to support and encourage Federal, State, and local governmental and private conservation of historic maritime resources.”
The bill, signed into law by President Clinton, provided for matching grants to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and State Historic Preservation Offices. These two entities would then give sub-grants to state and local governments as well as private non-profits. The bill also saved two historic vessels from the scrap heap. One was conveyed to a municipality “for the promotion of economic development and tourism.” Another, a World War II Victory ship, was conveyed by the Secretary of the Interior to the Battle of the Atlantic Society for possible use as a war memorial.
“This bill is almost tailor made for S.S. United States,” said Charles Anderson, “but the co-sponsors probably never contemplated something of this magnitude.”
There is hope that the government will miraculously intervene before it is too late. The Conservancy feels strongly that the rebuilding of the United States, most likely as a static moored attraction, would both save an irreplaceable national treasure and help stimulate the economy.
“We believe,” the organization states, “that a project to restore and revitalize the S.S. United States could create thousands of jobs and help stimulate the economy in these challenging times as well as preserve one of the world’s finest engineering achievements.”
In today’s frightening economic climate, the ship represents a by-gone age of optimism, of pride in craftsmanship, and of national expansiveness. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, American industry produced the best goods in the world. As the safest, strongest, and fastest ship in the world, the S.S. United States was a pinnacle of this era of American achievement. She is also one of the surviving links to the vanished world of the transatlantic liner, a world of luxury, romance, pride, and adventure that disappeared with the advent of the jet in the 1960s.
Former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was one of countless travelers who fell in love with the United States back in her glory days. “To look at her, just could fill you with pride and wonder,” he remembered fondly in the Lady in Waiting documentary. “She was just a magnificent looking boat.”
* * * *
Few people are as devoted to the S.S. United States as Joseph Rota, who started working aboard the great ship as a teenager in 1955.
For Rota, it was more than just a ship: it was his home, high school, university, and career all rolled into one. In the cramped crew quarters, Rota butted heads with tough union reps, slept on laundry bags when winter storms tossed him out of his bunk, learned how to throw darts British sailors poached from the Queen Mary, and wolfed down left-over filet mignon from the first class kitchen. Most importantly, Rota made friendships that have lasted for over half a century.
During his tenure, Rota made one hundred round trips between Europe and America, and advanced from bellboy to ship’s photographer. He also interacted with the many celebrities that traveled aboard “The States” or “The Big U” as the crew affectionately called their ship. He saw babies being born, couples getting married, and immigrants in tourist class hoping for a new and better life in America. It also strengthened his faith in the promise of the United States as a nation.
“It was amazing to meet people like Harry and Bess Truman, Prince Ranier, Judy Garland, and Kim Novak, and actually speak with them!” Rota said in an interview last year. “The experience helped round me off as an individual, and also showed me how far you could go as an American professional.”
When Joe was 29, he left the ship for good, married, and started a successful career ashore. “It was a wonderful tour of duty,” he recalled. “When looking back on all the good memories I’ve had in my life, many of my most intense and nostalgic are my ones at sea.”
When asked in an interview today about why he felt the ship is so significant, Rota responded emotionally, “Future generations need to see her. It would be a sin to disregard this ship. As an engineering achievement, she was absolutely extraordinary. The ship represents a standard of excellence that we as a nation need to hold onto. She should not be relegated to razor blades."
Rota and his friend Mike Alexander created a webpage that shares many of the photographs he took while working as ship’s photographers. The response has been terrific. Over the years, he has received thousands of emails and letters from people all over the nation. Some have traveled aboard her, or worked as members of the crew. But many others knew the ship only from a distance: in posters, movies (Disney’s 1962 movie Bon Voyage) or staring at her on the dockside or the West Side Highway.
One person even fell in love with the ship through the periscope of the Navy submarine Scorpion. The crewmember told Rota that his submarine circled the great liner for over an hour during training exercises in mid-Atlantic. “I saw her, and you couldn’t even describe her as a ship!” the old Navy sailor recalled. “She was a monument. I fell in love with her that day and have remained so ever since.”
In 1991, Rota met then-congressman Chuck Schumer of New York at a conference. Schumer told Rota that as a young boy, he would travel to the Hudson River with his father to watch the great liners come and go. Most beautiful sight of all was majestic United States, her hull and funnels splashed with sunlight, arriving from her five day trip from Europe. He felt an indescribable pride and awe when looking at this ship, not only because she was beautiful, but also because she was American.
If he and his father watched from Pier 86, the future New York senator might have spotted a mysterious, gaunt old man, clad in an overcoat and floppy brown fedora hat, waiting patiently at the dockside. William Francis Gibbs would board the ship as soon as the gangways were lowered. He would ask the captain and crew about the vessel’s performance and, most importantly, whether or not the passengers were happy.
Despite recent news, Rota believes that there are tens of thousands of people, from all walks of life, who have passionate feelings for the ship, who felt touched by the special aura she radiated in her prime. With a little luck and a lot of work, he feels, they might be able to mobilize and save the S.S. United States, America’s flagship, from the sad fate that has befallen many a fine vessel before her.
It might be argued that even though ship needs a lot of work, so does our nation at this critical juncture in its history.
S.S. United States Conservancy “Take Action” website:
Full text of the National Maritime Heritage Act of 1994:
According to the Library of Congress, the National Maritime Heritage Act of 1994 was co-sponsored by the following representatives:
Anthony C. Beilenson [CA-24] - 11/4/1993
Peter I. Blute [MA-3] - 1/25/1994
Dave Camp [MI-4] - 10/5/1994
Rosa L. DeLauro [CT-3] - 10/5/1994
Ronald V. Dellums [CA-9] - 11/4/1993
Thomas M. Foglietta [PA-1] - 10/13/1993
Tillie Fowler [FL-4] - 11/4/1993
Barney Frank [MA-4] - 11/4/1993
Martin Frost [TX-24] - 11/22/1993
Sam Gejdenson [CT-2] - 11/4/1993
Gene Green [TX-29] - 1/25/1994
Maurice Hinchey [NY-26] - 11/4/1993
George J. Hochbrueckner [NY-1] - 11/4/1993
Peter Hoekstra [MI-2] - 10/13/1993
William J. Hughes [NJ-2] - 11/22/1993
John J. LaFalce [NY-29] - 1/25/1994
Tom Lantos [CA-12] - 8/10/1994
Ronald K. Machtley [RI-1] - 10/13/1993
Thomas J. Manton [NY-7] - 10/5/1994
Jerrold Nadler[NY-8] - 11/22/1993
James L. Oberstar [MN-8] - 9/14/1993
Thomas E. Petri [WI-6] - 10/13/1993
Bernard Sanders [VT-98] - 11/4/1993
Olympia Snowe [ME-2] - 9/14/1993
James T. Walsh [NY-25] - 10/13/1993
Joseph Rota’s Photo Gallery of Images aboard the S.S. United States
Trailer to the PBS documentary Lady in Waiting
The Legend of the S.S. United States: The Story of Our Nation's Flagship, the SS United States, as Told with Images and Music.