S.S. AMERICA, S.S. UNITED STATES sailing on the 'All American' team to Europe

The SS United States, The Last Queen of the U.S. Merchant Marine


The SS United States, The Last Queen of the U.S. Merchant Marine: Part one:

From a three part series by Larry  Driscoll

 PowerShips: Summer 2011


Launched in the early 1950’s the S.S. United States quickly challenged the famed Cunard Liner Queen Mary for the “Blue Riband”, the mythical prize for speed across the North Atlantic. Elegant, sleek, modern, and fast she set a new speed on her maiden voyage in 1952 – the first American-flagged ship to do so in over 100 years. As America’s passenger flagship, she served as a global symbol of US engineering and design excellence. Loved by passengers and crew she also achieved public admiration on both sides of the Atlantic as an icon of of modern transportation.. Today she is still with us, moored on the Delaware in Philadelphia and coming perilously close to a sailing for the scrapyard. This is the story of a great American ship, the people who built and sailed her continuing struggle survive..  HISTORY

THE NEED FOR SPEED. 1946-1952 Since 1838 steam driven ships had been racing across the Atlantic in cut throat competition for passengers and national honor. The American flagged Collins liner Baltic won the race for the “Blue Riband” in 1854; since then the country had produced also ran’s in a race dominated by British and Europeans ships. That is until 1946, when United States Lines President John Franklin, his sense of patriotism offended by his country’s inability to produce a winning ship and loosing business to his long time rival, the Cunard Line, decided to shake things up. He would challenge the current record holder, the Cunard Liner Queen Mary for the “Blue Riband”. His new ship would be nothing less than the “greatest ship in the world,” a ship the American traveling public could “get behind – like a cup defender – the mythical flagship of our fleet.” All he needed was a partner with deep pockets and a brilliant naval architect who could deliver one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.
His flag ship’s estimated cost came in at $50 million, a budget busting price tag that would kill the project as a commercial venture. Searching for a partner with deep pockets he turned to the U.S. Government. The timing was perfect. The Secretary of Defense needed a fast troop ship. The U.S. Navy agreed to pick up 60 % of the cost; however the ship would be built to Navy specifications as a fast troop ship and not as a luxury liner. United States lines could operate the ship commercially until required by the Navy. Franklin was left with the problem of turning a troop ship into a luxury liner. THE DESIGN. To design the “greatest ocean liner in the world,” John Franklin put his dream ship in the hands of a man who described himself as a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. William Francis Gibbs lacked any formal education, degree, or certification as a naval architect or marine engineer. His father had insisted he study law. Never one to give up on a dream Gibbs studied engineering at nigh out of books and built his company from a two-person operation into the largest ship-design firm in the world with 3,200 employees. His work included design or working plans (or both) for more than 6,450 ships, from garbage barges to luxury yachts and passenger liners. In World War II, the firm turned out designs for sixty-

W.F. Gibbs at work. The sign on his desk says, "The buck stops here." Although he seldom smiled, he had a dry sense of humor and a boyish enthusiasm for baseball, the circus and fire engines. Photo The Mariners Museum.
W.F. Gibbs at work. The sign on his desk says, “The buck stops here.” Although he seldom smiled, he had a dry sense of humor and a boyish enthusiasm for baseball, the circus and fire engines. Photo The Mariners Museum.

eight percent of the Navy’s wartime fleet including Liberty Ships and high-speed destroyers. Gibbs quickly went to work assembling a solid team. They faced the unique challenge of creating a combination troopship/luxury liner capable of carrying 14,000 troops or 2,000 passengers at a speed exceeding that of any Navy or commercial ship afloat. To meet high speed requirements the new ship’s design principles had much in common with the sleek clipper sailing ships. In simple terms, the fast clippers combined maximum driving power with a light displacement and long fine, clean lines. These principles ran counter to conventional ship design. The Queen Mary needed a gross displacement of 81,237 tons to transport 2,000 passengers (15,000 troops) at cruising speed of 28.5 + knots. Gibbs proposed building a faster ship with the same passenger capacity for less than 55,000 tons. The very idea drew laughter in traditional marine engineering circles. He packed more power in the engine room by installing the most advanced steam propulsion plant of available. It delivered super-hot high pressure steam to high speed geared turbines using less space and weight than traditional power plants. The smaller more powerful engines delivered 240,000 shaft horsepower as compared to 158,000 shp for the Queen Mary and Elizabeth. To obtain the lightest displacement he cut down on the baronial high ceiling in public spaces providing more compact arrangements without sacrificing comfort. He built into the hull extensive compartments for safety, lightness and long clean lines for speed, strength and rigidity to charge through the North Atlantic’s stormy seas. In furtherance of light displacement he used aluminum for the superstructure, something that was never done because it’s not cost effective. From the promenade deck up to the top of the two 55 foot funnels, inside and out it was everywhere – in lifeboats (including the oars), railings, rivets, panels, decorations, art, and furniture framing. Cost was of little concern. He insisted on aluminum baby high chairs at $250 each. They would have cost $20 in wood. Speaking of wood Gibbs, would allow none on board, (except for the butcher block and piano) even the orchestra leader had to direct with an aluminum baton. He packed into the ship every technological advance the Navy could afford and experienced little interference from the Defense Department. “The reason we managed to construct that ship was that the government left us to ourselves,” Gibbs later explained, “So we designed the ideal ship.” The price tag on the “ideal ship” increased from $50 million to $70 million and would eventually hit $78 million. CONSTRUCTION.

At its peak 3,100 shipyard workers worked on the ship. American Merchant Marine Museum
At its peak 3,100 shipyard workers worked on the ship. American Merchant Marine Museum

On May 3, 1949 the US Maritime Commission executed a contract with the Newport News Shipyard for delivery of the ship by June 20, 1952. Obsessed with secrecy, Gibbs had the ship built in a dry dock thirty-five feet below sea level, so as to keep his hull design away from the overly curious. Considered to be every shipbuilder’s bad dream, William Francis Gibbs moved in, set up an office, and proceeded to stalk the place looking for imperfections and short cuts. “The shipyards would put you out of business if you didn’t fight,” claimed Gibbs “Controversy – we eat it up.” His spare appearance and haunting presence earned him the nickname of “Undertaker.” As construction supervisor extraordinaire, his well-earned relentless attention to detail, demand for perfection, and a reputation for being able to talk for five minutes using only four-letter words, earned him shipyard enemies. “That’s why they employ this bastard [referring to himself]… to get high quality and performance.” On the evening of June 10, 1952, the S.S. United States sailed up the broad waters of Hampton Roads with an outsized broom riding high on her mast. (Insert picture 4.5 the clean sweep)The big broom is the traditional sailors’ sign that she had swept the seas of the competition. When asked about speed, Captain Hicks of the Maritime Administration would only say that she had “considerably exceeded thirty-four knots”. The lack of clarity had a purpose; to safeguard the ship’s other career as a troopship. Hicks told reporters, “Such information would be of inestimable value to an enemy should the United States become embroiled in war and the United States exposed to enemy action.” Everyone was happy including the shipyard; they made a small profit on a very demanding job. The new American speed queen had passed her trials proving that she was a real thoroughbred. The race for the Blue Riband was less than three weeks away.

THE RUN FOR THE BLUE RIBAND:  JULY,  1952 United State Lines president John Franklin and naval architect William Francis Gibbs knew they had very fast ship. On its maiden voyage the United States had the horsepower to not only outrun the Queen Mary for the ‘Blue Riband’ but win by a considerable margin.  In their racing instructions to Captain Manning both urged caution. “Under no circumstances should you beat the record by very much,” Gibbs told Manning. “Hold back until they (Cunard) have a faster ship, then beat her.” Gibbs also worried about breakdowns from pushing a green crew and new machinery to hard. Franklin remembered the Titanic’s disastrous maiden voyage. As the general manager of the White Star line in New York his father bore the brunt of the disaster’s aftermath.  “I want to make one thing perfectly clear,” Franklin instructed Manning. “The complete safety of the passengers and the ship is our number one priority. You will shut her down if you encounter heavy weather or fog.” Captain Manning regarded the instructions as merely advice. He had his own plans and they did not involve restraint. READ MORE. 

Click on picture for full size vue

Click on picture for full size

In the 1970’s the cruise market took off along with hope that the United States would sail again as a cruise ship. At least that was the plan of real estate developer Richard Hadley. A weekend sailor with no experience in shipping, Hadley purchased the liner in 1978 on easy terms, $500 thousand down on a purchase price of $5 million.   

Hadley ordered the sale of the ship’s content to help fund renovations. Everything that could be removed went up for sale: bars, bells, beds, blankets, bridge instruments, dinnerware, art and furniture. In one short week the ship was stripped bare losing a part of her character and historical value. While Hadley searched for financing the United States went into a slow heartbreaking decline.  The dehumidifying system installed to prevent interior rot was removed. Slipshod salvage crews smashed hundreds of toilets and sinks to obtain the nickel-plated traps under the drains. Inside, tours were by flashlight, exposing litter and a giant humpbacked rat painted on one of the stairwell walls. Leaking hydraulic fluid pooled on the engine room floor. Outside, pigeon droppings and mounds of flaked paint covered the weathered decks and weeds grew out of the superstructure. Inside the homeless slept in staterooms formerly occupied by Duke and Duchess of Windsor. “We are not giving up,” claimed Hadley, who predicted in March of 1989 that he would be funded and that the ship would be ready for her first cruise in the first quarter of 1991. In reality he could never come to terms on a financing package, always insisting on better terms than lenders were willing to provide. Eleven years after the purchase, Hadley had failed to make any renovations or stay current on the rent; the United States faced eviction for non-payment of docking fees. His rigid ideas on everything from financing to staffing never matched the real world of running a shipping company. With creditors closing in, Hadley’s United States Cruises, Inc. filed for bankruptcy in February, 1992. In April of 1992, 125 spectators and seven registered bidders (including three scrap dealers) stood on the Newport News courthouse steps for a court ordered auction. Fred Mayer, a Yugoslav-born New York businessman representing a Turkish partnership outbid a Japanese scrap yard paying $2.6 million. “We’re going to fix her up,” said Mayer, with plans to have the ship carry 2,200 passengers on cruises, even possibly returning to Atlantic service. Plans included moving to a Turkish shipyard for a three-year $140 million refurbishment