We saw the looming hulk on a Long Beach pier long before the cabbie dropped us off across the parking lot from a recreated English village. The scene, we decided, is meant to recall the waterfront in England when Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary plied the world’s seas. The hour was early, and the village was quiet, and there were few visitors.
A last-minute decision about how best to occupy a slice of time between disembarking from a short cruise and our flight home brought us to the pier to explore this iconic ocean liner now permanently berthed in Southern California. She had a long run on the waters of the North Atlantic, from 1935 through 1967.
But the ship’s renown extends far beyond that of a luxury liner.
From luxury liner to war service
Converted to serve as a troop carrier during World War II, the ship known as “the grey ghost” transported Allied forces for the duration of the war, along with her sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Launched in 1936, and “drafted” for the war effort in February 1944, the Queen Mary received her makeover to Navy Grey in Australia. The Queen Elizabeth first wore the grey coat, and was not repainted with the distinctive Cunard black and red livery until after the war.
My father, as a member of the 364th Fighter Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force, arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, in February 1944, aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The seven-day unescorted journey from New York Harbor was a perilous one, but the ship arrived safely. My father always spoke of her affectionately as “the Lizzie.” After approximately 18 months of service, he returned to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, expecting to be reassigned to the Far East. Thankfully, the war was over before his new orders arrived, and he returned to his home in Montana for the winter of 1945.
The Queen Mary, however, proceeded on to the Pacific and was reported, mistakenly, to be sunk by Japanese forces on three separate occasions. Following the Japanese surrender, the ship continued to ferry servicemen and war brides for nearly a year after the cessation of battle. She was returned to passenger service in July 1947, following an extensive retrofit that included numerous upgrades. The two Cunard Queens dominated Transatlantic sea crossings for the next 20 years, joined between 1952 and 1969 by the SS United States, of United States Lines.
The age of sea voyages
Other great passenger liners of the time included the France, a French line vessel that sailed the route from 1962 through 1974; Holland America Lines Rotterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Statendam; Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian Line ship, carrying passengers on the northern route between 1954 and 1973 when she was reassigned to a more southerly route, and several others that beckoned the adventurous prior to the days of regular intercontinental flights.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and accepted as a “historic hotel” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Queen Mary’s existence as a tourist attraction has been in jeopardy several times.
The ship currently is, once again, in need of some serious repairs and restoration. Today, her interior looks slightly shabby, not nearly as glamorous as a modern cruise ship. But there is an aura of elegance and grit about her that draws crowds.
The Queen Elizabeth, sadly, caught fire and sank in Hong Kong harbor in 1972, after a brief and unsuccessful stint as a hotel and tourist attraction in Florida.
The SS United States is moored at a pier in Philadelphia, awaiting her ultimate fate. Efforts continue to refurbish the ship and preserve it as a combination living history museum and learning center. It would be a fitting testament to the engineering prowess and the vision of naval architect William Francis Gibbs. Built through collaborative effort between private enterprise and the U.S. Navy, the “Big U” also had the ability to serve as troop carrier if the need every arose. It was not necessary.
The great liners of the past no longer sail the world’s oceans, replaced instead by massive cruising “destination resorts” and fast airliners. Another Cunard ship, the QE2, was launched as a combination liner and cruise ship in 1967; it is now a floating hotel in Dubai, opened just over a year ago in 2018, a decade after being pulled off active service.
Echoes of long ago
It was both exciting and nostalgic to stand at the pier next to this historic liner. As we boarded, I could almost hear the sounds of laughter that drifted from her decks during her heyday as an ocean-going vessel. I also sensed how confining her below-deck bunks must have been for the thousands of troops she carried to and from war.
The visit was all too short, but it was memorable. The Queen dwarfed the Russian submarine Scorpion, berthed alongside. She lacks the imposing massive girth of today’s cruise “cities,” with their rows of balconied staterooms, upper-deck pools and entertainment regalia. Instead, the vessel appears sleek, elegant and purposeful, designed to plow through the waves with grace.
The interior seems a little dark and somber, but modern shops beckon visitors with ship memorabilia. Polished metal elevator doors are slightly incongruous in tandem with gleaming paneling and muted floral carpet. Numerous wall sconces provide bright spots of light for the subdued interiors. Public spaces are comfortable, but far from dramatic.
The ship has been altered somewhat to serve as a hotel, but many original salons and lounges are intact, along with an iconic writing room that boasts multiple desks. I can clearly envision travelers writing postcards to friends back home!
Wood-floored decks prompt visions of well-dressed passengers enjoying the ultimate “good life on long promenades,” taking advantage of the opportunity to see and be seen while crossing the Atlantic.
Running on raw power
It was standing in the belly of the ship, in the cavernous original engine room, however, that the massive ship became real. It captured our attention, our imagination, and our hearts.
Today’s cruise ships generate more power, to be sure, but they move no faster and do not require the same kind of focused teamwork, the constant human energy that carried the Queen on her journeys. Old steamships are something to behold, even when at rest.
I have no idea how many crew members labored in the multi-story depths of the ship. I do know that the staircases and catwalks, the controls and gauges, the gleaming equipment, the bells and whistles (yes, really) were enough to confound us. It must also have been deafening down below, requiring hot, tedious and exacting work.
The ship was originally fitted with four turbines in two separate engine rooms, and 24 boilers in four boiler rooms, all designed to turn four propellers. During sea trials in 1936, the ship recorded a speed of 32.84 knots, or nearly 37.8 mph.
The ship captured the Blue Riband speed trophy for Atlantic crossings in August of 1936 from the French ship Normandie, but briefly lost it the following year, only to regain it once again in 1938 with an eastbound speed of 30.99 knots, and a time of 3 days, 21 hours, 48 minutes.
That record held for 14 years, until the SS United States broke the record with a time of 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, at a speed of 35.59 knots eastbound, and 34.51 knots on the westbound leg. The return trip, which also set a record, took only about 2 1/2 hours longer, due to prevailing currents.
That record-breaking event began, incidentally, on July 3, 1952, when the ship left New York Harbor on her maiden voyage.
Past glories live on . . .
Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to take the guided tour, nor could we see the full video presentation that was offered. We did not have time for lunch aboard ship, and we did not make the trip up to the bridge. But our brief visit to the Queen Mary was well worth the itinerary detour. It was educational and emotional, reminiscent of bygone times that now are recounted only in the history books.
We spent more time in the model room than we had intended, comparing features of many of the well-known liners, including the ill-fated Titanic, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria. We were entranced by the detail.
Today we cross the Atlantic in modern aircraft in mere hours. We cross it in floating entertainment palaces with more amenities, attractions and activities than many land-based resorts. We have options. But the refined elegance of travel on these iconic ocean liners, when options were limited and it was all about the journey, has been forever lost.
It’s good to step into the past, if only for the brief reminder of what once was.