Meeting a Queen

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.

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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.

All those ships; and all those seas

Note: At about 6:30 a.m., British time, on July 7, 66 years ago, a brand new ocean liner set a speed record by steaming across the North Atlantic in just three days, 10 hours and about 40 minutes. It was the maiden voyage of the SS United States. The return voyage to New York Harbor set another record. It was a feat never to be duplicated. 

My love affair with ships and with the sea began a long time ago. It continues. 100_9713 (2)

Ships old and new, large and small; sailing ships and historic steamers; lobster boats and shrimp trawlers; pirate ships and submarines, military ships and cruise ships; private yachts and fast powerboats all find treasured places in my mind and memory. And, by extension, so do airships and spaceships, classic automobiles, muscle cars, locomotives, freight trains, and the Orient Express.

If you note the recurring theme in this blog, it’s not by chance.

On May 8, my husband and I had a unique and wonderful experience. We joined a group of ship enthusiasts on a cruise to Bermuda. This group, however, was not just any old band of ship-lovers. Termed the SS United States Legacy Cruise, it was conceived and planned by the SS United States Conservancy in cooperation with the Pollin Group (travel planners) of Chevy Chase, MD. The 70 or so individuals who participated all have a connection — in one way or another — to the last of America’s flagships, the former ocean liner that now sits forlornly at a Philadelphia pier awaiting an unknown fate.

The ship that set the Atlantic speed record sailed the seas for only 17 years. The record-setting Atlantic crossing commenced in New York City on July 3, 1952. The SS United States arrived in England only three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes later, breaking the Eastbound speed record formerly held by Cunard’s Queen Mary and capturing the Blue Riband Trophy. It was an achievement never thought possible by a ship of that size, and it is still unsurpassed today.

Read about that crossing, and watch a video about that historic voyage.

What became her last Atlantic crossing, in November 1969, was an unexpected event.  Indeed, a 16-day cruise of more than 8,000 miles was on the schedule for the 1969-70 holiday season. Passengers would have enjoyed an exotic itinerary including Madeira, Tenerife and Dakar, as well as a New Year’s visit to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands on the Atlantic round trip.  Since then, a series of owners has alternately explored plans to put the ship back in service or threatened the scrap heap.

The Conservancy, led by Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, is the current owner, with a mission to see her restored and rejuvenated — not to carry passengers — but rather to assure that succeeding  generations of ship-lovers will be able to explore her cavernous interior and learn her unique story.

It is quite a story

For six days on board the Celebrity Summit, a modern cruise ship, our group heard stories of the SS United States. The ship was built in Norfolk, Va., as a luxury liner in the heady days of mid-Century Modern style. She was aluminum, fast, sleek and lightweight, powered by state-of-the-art propulsion, and said to be unsinkable.

She was, however, a heavyweight in terms of performance, function and appearance. The ship was fully capable of serving as a troop carrier, built during the height of the Cold War era. The illustrious British-flagged “Queens,” Cunard’s luxury ocean liners, ferried troops admirably during World War II. Had the need arisen, the vessel could also have been converted to a hospital ship.

The SS United States was built in Newport News, Va., funded by both the U.S. Navy and the privately-owned United States Lines. She sailed under the American flag and performed exceedingly well as a passenger ship, carrying presidents and dignitaries, film stars and “common folk.” She brought immigrants to the United States and also  carried her share of military families, along with their household goods and vehicles, to and from European duty stations. She had speed and agility, numerous luxury features, a fully-equipped operating room and a modern pet kennel with a resident veterinarian.

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Today she sits with peeling paint at a pier in Philadelphia, her interiors stripped and her props missing, awaiting her fate. One of her caretakers, Mike Wolfe, who says he is familiar with “every inch” of the old ship, notes that she still has a grandeur and mystique about her. He is protective of her because, as he says, she is still beautiful. “This ship has a soul,” he insists.

Heading to Bermuda

We watched the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline recede from view as we made our way out of Port Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., finding it impossible not to think of those long-ago embarkations and arrivals. It is said that William Francis Gibbs never missed the chance to see the SS United States as she departed and returned to pier, watching silently from shore. With two massive stacks and a distinctive color scheme, she must have dominated the view.

The ship was in many ways the designer’s obsession, although he only sailed on her once, on that record-setting maiden voyage. It had been Gibbs’ long-standing dream to design a ship that was 1,000 feet long. The SS United States measured 990 feet in length; from keel to the top of the forward funnel, she rose to a height of 175 feet.

By the end of the week, those of us on this first Legacy cruise had become “old friends.” Steeped in the lore of the ship, we shared our individual reasons for wanting to save her, and those who had sailed on the ship enthralled us all with their memories. Among our group were former passengers and crew members, friends and family, movie-makers and ship designers, scuba divers and armchair travelers, young and old.

In addition to the formal presentations that kept us all busy, we dined together and met informally, bound by joint commitment to this iconic ship. We spoke as well of other ships and other seas, and found we shared other common interests. Once we arrived in Bermuda, our group enjoyed a special tour of the National Museum of Bermuda and its park-like grounds. We enjoyed a lunch at the well-known Frog and Onion Pub at Royal Naval Dockyard. We had ample time for private exploration and time to enjoy welcome sun and warmth after rainy days at sea. Bermuda’s beaches are stunningly beautiful, its island ambience delightful, and its people welcoming!

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Serious Efforts to Save a Ship

Current work to assure a bright future for the SS United States continues in earnest. According to Susan Gibbs, it is bearing fruit. Even though she declined to discuss specifics, she noted that solid opportunities exist.

One of the highlights of this Legacy cruise was the presentation of a sizable check to the Conservancy. Dockage at the current pier in Philadelphia is expensive and there are ongoing preservation efforts. If you’re interested in learning more about the SS United States, or about ways to help assure the ship’s preservation and redevelopment, visit the Conservancy website or follow SSUSC on Facebook and get involved.

There are many ways to help: I would love to hear from anyone who has any sort of personal connection or recollection to share. In future posts, I’ll write more about the  people I met during this cruise to Bermuda and tell more stories about the SS United States, interspersed with more stories about the faraway places that the ships, planes, trains and automobiles that so spark my imagination can tell us all.

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to New York between now and August 3, don’t miss the exhibit currently at the National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island.

 

The dream dies hard, but the memories live on

It looms large on the horizon, the hulk of the S.S. United States, as she lies in port in Philadelphia. Her stacks rise above the neighboring dock buildings, and it’s possible to use them as landmarks rather than following GPS directions as you chart a course to see the once grand ship in her current forlorn and decrepit state.

This ship — and the search for a traditional Philly cheesesteak — took us to the city of brotherly love this summer.

We found our ship with ease, and we lingered there. Remembering our first encounter with this vessel, my husband and I didn’t speak. We just gazed through the chain links at this once gleaming passenger liner with a history that is irrevocably intertwined with ours.

We met the S.S. United States, and one another, on the same day in August 50 years ago at the port in Le Havre, France. The ship was just a teenager at the time. We were young as  well, and impressionable.

She was a looker, massive and shiny and silent, but aswarm with crew going about their duties. We were impressed by her presence and by her glamor; she took our breath away. We had some other experiences with her, but her days at sea came to an end barely three years later.

Our story continues.

This summer, as we mapped our road trip north, it became a priority for us to see the grand old ship. Philadelphia was miles out of the way, but we took the detour. Our hearts were in our throats as we first spied those distinctive smokestacks. We were buoyed by the hope that this old lady might actually sail the seas once again.

Unfortunately, early this month, we learned that the plan to refurbish her as a cruise ship is not feasible. The S.S. United States has been out of service for 47 years; she has languished at the dock in Philadelphia for more than 20 years now, longer than she sailed! And, though she is deemed still structurally sound, the dream that she might again carry passengers has died.

There is still some hope that the S.S. United States will be saved from the scrap heap and turned into a floating “history book.” She is, after all, an engineering marvel; this last American flagship set a world speed record on her maiden voyage. It has never been broken. Is it so hard to believe that others could be inspired by looking up at her towering stacks, standing at her railing, or exploring her labyrinthian interior. Not for us.

The experience certainly stayed with me and my husband throughout our years!

As we again gazed at her with awe, she sat behind locked gates, no longer shiny and glamorous, but impressive nonetheless!

We left the docks finally, and found a Philly cheesesteak at a tiny Tony Luke’s on Oregon Ave., almost in the shadow of Interstate 95 South. There were only seven or eight tables inside, but the line snaked through the building and extended into the parking lot beyond. It took some time to reach the order window, but not long at all for our traditional beef and melted cheese sandwiches to be ready. Miraculously, there were two seats at a table. The wait was worth it; Philadelphia’s signature food treat was the second delight of the day!

We had come to Philly for the memories. And we left well satisfied.

SOS — Saving a Grand Old Ship

By Frederic Logghe [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A long-ago time, and in faraway places, the S.S. United States was a bright and shining example of American ingenuity, achievement and spirit. She is still grand and imposing, but her shine has given way to age; her paint is peeling, her interiors are empty; she has suffered greatly from years of sitting still.

There are those of us who would dearly love to see her live on, to enjoy another incarnation so that present and future generations could be awed by the sight, the size and the story of her.

But, I fear that is not to be.

Three news networks this week have told her story. Those who are desperately trying to save her say that the deadline is near – maybe less than two weeks away – when they will be forced to give up the fight. Rent alone at her dock costs $60,000 a month, and before Christmas this year, the money will have run out.

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy that is seeking a benefactor, says the end of October marks the deadline. After that, she notes, negotiations with a “responsible recycler” will begin. This is not a new development, but it is no less disturbing. The ship has faced the wrecking ball before. But she has, in the past, been granted a “stay.”

For Ms. Gibbs, it’s personal. She is the granddaughter of the ship’s designer, naval architect William Francis Gibbs.

It’s personal for me too.

In a very real sense, the U.S. United States was a matchmaker; she was the reason I met my future husband almost 50 years ago.

At that time, she had been called into service to help move American servicemen and their families out of Europe, and specifically to move them home from France. She was still carrying paying passengers as well, but in some cases, American military families made a five-day passage to New York aboard this swift liner. They ate in the elegant dining rooms, were served by impeccably uniformed staff, and experienced a lifestyle that only a few tourists of the time shared. Luxury ocean liner travel then was the domain, for the most part, of the rich and famous.

But when General DeGaulle of France decreed on March 10, 1966, that foreign military in his country must withdraw or submit to French control, a massive logistical effort began almost immediately to relocate military families. The one-year deadline loomed large; time was of the essence. Even though air travel could accommodate the humans, shipment of household goods and automobiles had to be by sea. At the time, utilizing available staterooms and the cavernous below-deck holds of this great ship made a lot of sense.

So it was that the paths of one young U.S. Army lieutenant and one young working journalist converged one day on a dock in Le Havre, France. He was newly-assigned to help meet the deadline, charged with the responsibility of scheduling military travel and moving belongings. I had a story to write about the huge effort.

No, it wasn’t romantic; we were not her passengers. But she loomed large on the docks in Le Havre as we looked along her more than three-football-fields length and up at her 12-stories above-the-water countenance.

Just a little more than one year later, when there were no military personnel left in France, it was largely due to the S.S. United States and the numbers of people and tons of belongings that she transported back to American shores.

Yes, she was impressive then.

She is still impressive now. Her peeling paint and her empty decks do not detract from her presence and her lines. She still looms larger than life, even though she has sat silent far longer than she ever plied the seas. She was in service only from 1952 through 1969, silenced when she was only 17.

My personal story continues with her. In another tale of endings, my parents considered themselves fortunate to be among her passengers on a scheduled North Atlantic crossing in November 1969. They enjoyed the experience immensely, and they disembarked in New York. The ship was bound for Newport News and a refurbishing “furlough,” but she never returned to service. My father thought it ironic, in his later years, that he had sailed on one of the last troop-carrying voyages of Cunard’s Queen Mary, as it ferried American servicemen home after World War II, as well as on the final crossing of the S.S. United States.

S.S. United States, Philadelphia, 2005

The rebirth of cruising vacations came too late.

Today, the irony is that more people than ever before take to the sea for vacations. Cruising ships have grown larger, accommodations more deluxe, and onboard amenities overwhelming. The S.S. United States was the last American-flagged passenger vessel afloat. She was also the largest ship ever to be built in the United States. She is substantial even by today’s standards, although her passenger load was not quite 2,000 in 692 staterooms, with a crew of just over 1,000. But, she had a distinctive look about her, with two stacks towering almost 65 feet above her decks. And she was fast. She remains the Blue Riband-Hales Trophy winner. She set the speed record for crossing the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage in 1952, snatching it away from the Queen Mary. It has not since been broken!

Both Cunard’s Queen Mary and the S.S. United States were known for elegance and speed. Both were designed for passenger comfort, but built to carry troops in case of need. Both served well. Both today are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

View a slideshow of the S.S. United States.

There the similarities, unfortunately, end. The Queen Mary is now a popular hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach, Calif. The S.S. United States rots at the dock in Philadelphia.

Surely she too has value as a destination resort, a museum, an office building, a shopping center, or a funky condominium development. Or, am I just out of touch with reality?

As Susan Gibbs and others have stated in recent news interviews, “We have never been so close to saving her; and we have never been so close to losing her.” Save Our Ship (SOS) efforts are ongoing. But, hopes are beginning to fade.

I will continue to hope. Yes, it’s very personal.