S.S. United States may get chance to relive glory days
The ship was a beautiful beast in its day, bursting with spectacle and charm. It was laden with opulent trappings that could make you forget that brute force boiled beneath that seductive facade.
Its glitz and glamour was enough to convince 2,000 people they were on a journey across the blue heavens. Yet – almost on a moment’s notice – it was capable of escorting 15,000 men to the gates of hell.
Fifty years ago, the S.S. United States was considered one of the world’s greatest ocean-going liners, bigger than the Titanic, as graceful as any of the “queens” sailing from Great Britain.
The ship set an unbroken transatlantic speed – three days, 10 hours and 42 minutes – on its maiden voyage, beginning in New York and arriving in France on July 7, 1952.
Give it 24 hours notice, and it could undergo a radical transformation into a troop-ferrying vessel, hauling soldiers on a sullen journey none of them would dare call a vacation voyage.
That was 51 years ago, when the $79 million red-white-and-blue ship, named for the Uncle Sam who wanted it built, first floated in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, as in the past seven years, it’s bobbing lifelessly off the shoreline of a Philadelphia pier, stripped of all its sequins, ignored, purposeless, out-of-shape.
But there’s a new hope that the ship is going to again be treated like the regal cruise liner of its glory days.
Its fans – and they can be found from the Eastern seaboard to the shores of Hawaii – have worked tirelessly for years, praying for a life preserver. One has finally been thrown.
Last April, Norwegian Cruise Lines announced it had purchased the S.S. United States to be a showpiece for its United States Flag operation.
“I can’t wait,” says Joe Rota, 70, a councilman in Dresden, N.Y., who first stepped on the ship known affectionately as the “Big U” as a 19-year-old to operate the elevator to the ship’s four swimming pools. “I’ve e-mailed NCL and told them I will be on that ship when she’s ready to go, whether I am a passenger in first-class or scrubbing dishes in the galley.”
Susan Robison, director of public relations for Norwegian Cruise Lines, said planning continues for the massive “outfitting” the ship requires.
“We knew it was for sale; we knew we had an opportunity to save it, and we’ve learned since that there is incredible fan support out there,” she says. “The excitement is very high.”
Norwegian Cruise Lines estimates that the relaunch of the ship will add as many as 1,000 maritime jobs and 17,000 shoreside jobs to its Project America initiative to offer a “homeland” cruise line based in Hawaii.
Creatively designed by Philadelphia native William Francis Gibbs, the S.S, United States is the longest (990.5-foot) passenger vessel ever built in this country (at Newport News, Va.) and was considered an engineering marvel at the time.
The federal government was part-owner of the ship because it helped finance its construction. Impressed by the British use of its superliners to transport troops in World War II, the military wanted this ship also to have that capability.
When it first set sail, the ship was a zestful bouncing baby produced by a marriage of style and substance, a harmonious match created through the genius of Gibbs.
It soon became more than just the biggest, fastest and most technologically advanced ship of its type.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful representations of the country for which she was named, and one of the greatest and most beautiful man-made objects to ever come out of the 1950s,” says Dr. Sarah E. Forbes, a Newport News physician who owns the Windmill Point Restaurant at Milepost 16.5 in Nags Head, N.C., on the Outer Banks.
Her restaurant’s United States Lounge features the kidney-shaped, first-class bar, as well as other furnishings and accoutrements from the ship. It is the largest private collection of ship memorabilia.
In years past, former commodores would visit the restaurant and regale employees and customers with tales of the famous folks who once dined at the captain’s table or sat at the bar.
“There was an auction about 19 years ago, and my main goal was to buy the ship’s bell for my hometown,” Forbes explains, “but I got to the auction late, and the bell had already been purchased.
“But later during the auction, a friend of the ship’s owner sought me out and told me he had a ‘catastrophe’ on his hands because the woman who had purchased the bell was inexperienced at auction and didn’t understand bidding and thought she was paying $25 for the bell when she had committed to $25,000. It all worked out for me.
“All of the furniture was in excellent shape, too,” Forbes added. “I didn’t have to do any work on any of the furnishings. In fact, at the time of the auction, she was in such great shape you could have just backed her out and put her to sea.”
The auction completed a circle for Forbes.
The father of one of her childhood friends was a shipbuilding executive, and Forbes was afforded an insider perspective of the S.S. United States as it was being built.
“Newport News was a great place to grow up,” she says. “Relaxing on the waterways like the James River was something I learned early on. Watching them build the United States – you could just tell she was magic, and everybody in town felt that magic. The workers just fell in love with her more and more each day.”
Count Rota in that company, even though he was just a gangly teen hanging around the union hall along the docks looking for a job in 1952.
“It was a miracle,” he says of his “luck” in landing a job on the Big U. “There were a lot of unemployed seamen at the time, but the union had this deal where, if you were willing to pay $25, you could get either a No. 1 card or a No. 2 card.
“Of course, only those with a No. 1 card ever got a job. I had a No. 2 card. After 90 days, you had to pay another $25 to renew your card. I just happened to be in the union hall on a Saturday when the call went out, and the union guy said, ‘Sure, go ahead. They won’t hire you anyway.’ I talked my way onto the ship, and they did hire me.
“The union didn’t like it much, and I knew that, so I didn’t even get off the ship anywhere the first couple of trips because it was a steady job, and no way was I going to give that up to anybody.”
Born in Bergen, N.J., Rota made 100 trips over four years on the Big U. He remains awe-struck by the ship’s operating capabilities.
“I remember one time we were outrunning a hurricane,” he says. “For 27 hours that storm chased us but never caught us and ,when it finally broke, we headed for our original destination and still got there on time. Can you imagine a 12-story building moving at 50 mph?”
“I was almost fired my first day because I couldn’t find the elevator that served the swimming pools, and that was where my job was,” he recalls. “There were 17 passenger elevators all told on the ship, and I wasn’t at mine when I was supposed to be.
“I finally found it, and on my first day, the door opened and Burt Lancaster was standing there with his two young sons, and I just blurted out, ‘Hi Burt!’
“I must have frightened him because I saw him using the steps later that day instead of my elevator, and I tried to tell him it was my first day and my first trip to sea and that I was sorry.
“He was real good about it. One day there were about 50 bellboys waiting to assist passengers, and he saw me and said, ‘Hey, Joe, take my briefcase.’
“I ran that elevator from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. I almost got fired another time because, well, my daily routine included taking the ship’s commodore down to the pool for his daily massage. That would take an hour. I would take my dinner break during that time and then return to return him.
“I was still eating when the assistant bell captain came flying in and said, ‘I think you’re really going to get fired this time, Joe, because the commodore is running your elevator.’
“I guess the masseuse was sick that day, and when the commodore was returning topside, every time the elevator opened, there would be passengers waiting to either go down or back up from the pools. The commodore was a very friendly man, and all dressed up in his uniform, and for a while he just worked the elevator until he finally got word to send for me.
“I remember another time when we took on a merchant marine to perform an emergency appendectomy. The ship’s doctor announced the procedure and invited any surgeons on board who wanted to assist to attend.
“Turns out there were 50 of them, and they lined up 10-deep and each received a certificate saying they had helped perform an emergency operation at sea.”
Rota was invited to tour Big U last spring with Robert Westover, chairman of the S.S. United States Foundation based in Washington, D.C.
“It was, wow, hard to describe walking on her,” he recalls. “I was shocked and saddened; she looked so shabby from the outside. but on the inside, although there’s nothing at all left because she’s been stripped of everything to the bulkheads, she didn’t look so bad.
“I had a flashlight, so that helped me find the swimming pool. I can just imagine what she’ll be like when she’s refurbished.”
Jeff Henry’s imagining that, too.
He’s a 27-year-old firefighter in Glenside, about 10 miles northwest of Philadelphia. “I’m the youngest member of the foundation,” he says, “and the one who lives the closest to the ship. I go to see her almost every week. I take my 6-year-old daughter Aviana. When she was 3, she couldn’t grasp the concept of ‘Big U’ so she called it ‘Big Me.’ She still does.”
Henry is inspired not only by the ship’s significance in American history and as a maritime legend, but also by his own family roots as left behind in a clue from his grandfather, Charles.
“He had served in the merchant marine, and I always thought that was cool,” Henry says. “He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and one day he sort of just started talking about all these fabulous ships and said he had been on the S.S. United States.
“Nobody in the family could remember that being a fact, so we really didn’t believe it. Then, after he died and the family was going through his possessions, they came across a picture of him on the ship in New York.
“Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed to see her saved. I’ve never been to sea, but I want to sail on that ship. I will be on her next voyage.
“When she first came to Philadelphia, she had to be weighted down before she would fit under the Walt Whitman Bridge, so there was about a month-long period of time when there was this monumental smokestack sticking up alongside the bridge. You couldn’t miss it.
“The first time I saw it, I just had to get down to the water just to see it all. It was a spectacular sight.”
The foundation’s annual meeting in Philadelphia last summer came months after the sale announcement and drew 300 members to the city.
“I don’t know how to explain this to people,” Henry says, “but when you get a chance to get aboard, even as empty as she is, when you are walking down the halls, you can just hear people talking, you can see the famous people lounging. You just do.”
But saving the ship isn’t about famous people. In fact, it’s not at all about famous people, supporters point out.
On one level, it’s about the people who designed and lovingly crafted it. On another, it’s a microcosm of all that motivates Americans, and it represents the ideals of a nation that fosters freedom, encourages the dreamers of grand dreams and inspires one and all to make them come true.
“I remember building a model of her when I was a kid,” says Westover from his office in Hawaii. “It was just a waterline model because the hull was classified top secret. I was a third-generation Marine but had never served on a ship.
“The United States was a ship financed largely by the federal government, named for the country, and I became involved directly with saving her as a result of my participation in the National Endowment of the Arts project to identify and preserve national treasures.”
Westover eventually initiated the nonprofit foundation initiative and sought to get the ship listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which it was in 1999. The hope was that it would become a static museum, and maybe even eventually put to sea again. Still, in the ensuing years, the fate of the ship languished.
“We hoped to convince the city of Philadelphia to envision her as a tourist attraction but that just never came through, either” Westover says.
Last year, foundation members kicked into overdrive after the ship’s owner, Edward Cantor, died, and his family, so the rumors flew, was not interested in keeping her. Talk had it, it would be sold for scrap.
“Then NCL announced the purchase,” Westover says. “We remain cautiously optimistic about the future. We are very glad to see her in NCL’s hands, and we’ve got our fingers crossed that she will indeed be saved and once again sail.”
Forget the duke and duchess who walked its decks, and the all-American duke (John Wayne) who sipped at her bar. Forget about Hopalong Cassidy, Merle Oberon and Walt Disney dining at the captain’s table.
“This ship is the epitome of our nation,” Westover says. “There was no prototype. This ship is America at her absolute best.”