SS UNITED STATES: THE SOUL OF A NATION, PT. 1

By: Peter Paul, Guest Writer

View of the SS United States wake from her fan tail. Photo courtesy Henry Brunjes.

View of the SS United States wake from her fan tail. Photo courtesy Henry Brunjes.

More than a half-century ago, a very young boy of not more than five years of age, stood on the bottom rung of the guardrail (which ran around the huge ship’s fantail), his chin resting on the topmost pipe, held firmly in place by his mom. The weather was awful, it was cold, yet he took no note of the inhospitable conditions:  he was stunned by the scene in front of him – the enormity of the ocean behind the ship, the cauldron of white foam that was the ship’s wake. The sheer wildness of it all stretched, to his young eyes, from horizon to horizon. He couldn’t yet grasp the impossibly violent, yet beautiful panorama, a sight he would remember to this very day.

He had been “rescued” by a sailor, a young Navy guy who had just married his mom, the three of them having been plucked from the unspeakable carnage that was Hamburg, Germany, a city that had been bombed to dust just a few years earlier. Now, they were on their way to a new and better life: a life in the States. That youngster was, of course, me and the ship I stood on that winter day was the SS United States.

We were westbound, headed to New York City, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and dreams, carrying very precious cargo. In order to appreciate this ship, we need to warp ourselves back in time and try to imagine a country that today, only vaguely resembles what it once was. Cars were slower, the interstates not completed, trains belched smoke, and a giant of an industrial powerhouse of a nation was just beginning to come out of war mode. We could do anything, and that included showing the world how to build an ocean liner with more speed, safety features and sheer class than anything yet built.  The fact that she became, arguably, the most graceful ship afloat – well, I’ll leave that for you to judge.

The “Big U” was the brainchild of noted naval architect William Francis Gibbs, who designed the ship from a very unique vantage point: he was the chief naval architect for the US Navy in World War II. The liner was actually a joint commission, with shared sponsorship undertaken by the United States Lines and the Navy, which saw the need for additional troop transport capacity – this was before mass airlift capability. Gibbs decided that this ship, the culmination of a brilliant career, would be like no ship ever built, and when he finished, his prophetic dream came to pass.

Some 990 feet long, 101 feet wide and standing some twelve stories tall, the SS United States was powered by four steam turbine engines which produced a stunning 261,000 horsepower, a surfeit of power that would assure her first place in the Trans-Atlantic Crossing record books.  Her sea trials in 1952 enabled her to reach a jaw dropping 38 knots, although exact numbers are elusive. It was well known that she was never pushed to the maximum, thought by some to be over 50 miles per hour, a speed capability unheard of today. She crossed the Atlantic in three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, winning the “Blue Riband”  (yes, blue ribbon!), a record still unbroken today.

But Gibbs’ legacy showed itself in more than statistics and speed records. A less known fact was that Navy specifications for wartime were used in the hull and safety features, plus the capacity to ferry an entire Army division to Europe and turn around without refueling – a ten thousand mile range. Simply amazing! The ship was a sea-going tank and experienced not a single mishap, breakdown or significant incident during its service years. They say they don’t build things like they used to: in this case, it’s really true.

Check back soon for the next installment of “SS United States: Soul of a Nation” by guest writer, Peter Paul.