The Legacy Project: F. Samuel Bauer
The Legacy Project is an on-going initiative aimed at collecting, preserving, and archiving photographs, visual materials, and the stories related to passengers and crew who traveled in, helped build, and/or served aboard our nation’s flagship, the SS United States. For more information, visit our website. Want to share your story? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I arrived in Tidewater, Virginia, at just about the same time the SS United States was laid-up in Norfolk. On trips to Norfolk and Virginia Beach from Williamsburg over the next decade, I could see the twin funnels at her berth at Norfolk International Terminals from the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. Later, local newspapers carried a story of her sale in 1981 to Seattle developer Richard Hadley. In the fall of 1984, public tours and an auction of the ship’s contents were announced.
Anxious to see inside the SS United States, we took the self-guided walking tour through the ship offered by C.I. Travel, finding most of the staterooms intact with furniture and fixtures. Starting at “Times Square” on B Deck, we ascended to view the first class cabins on U Deck, including the famous Duck Suite. We then toured the galley, finding toast crumbs still under the armada of toasters and trays stacked as if another meal would soon be served. The tables in the dining rooms seemed ready for service, lacking only tablecloths and silver. On the bridge we walked out onto the wings and saw the engine telegraphs, navigation, and safety equipment, and then proceeded through the radio room. We saw the Commodore’s cabin on the Sun Deck, and went up the staircase in the forward foyer to the Promenade Deck, where we bought soft drinks served from the bar in the grand ballroom and listened to live music from the grand piano on the dance floor while surrounded by Charles Gilbert’s glass panels depicting creatures of the sea. We saw the first class smoking room, the enclosed promenade, and the forward theatre before purchasing souvenirs in the restaurant on the Promenade Deck. All the engineering spaces were still sealed, due to the stipulations of the government’s involvement in the construction of the ship, its power plant, and the agreement that, in an emergency, she could be converted into a troop carrier.
The auctions were held in October of that year to clear out all of the furnishings prior to a 125 million dollar refurbishing, which the owner announced. The Newport News Daily Press even carried an article stating that a contract with a German shipyard for the refurbishing had been signed. But nothing happened! The ship remained at her berth at Norfolk International Terminals, and little was heard or written about her. During this time, however, some interior “salvage” of metals was ongoing.
One evening, in 1987 or 1988, I’m not exactly sure which, I got a call from a friend who had been involved with the ship as an employee of the owner. He told me the ship would be towed from Norfolk to the old C&O (now CSX) coal piers in Newport News. Shortly thereafter, I began a period of visiting the ship almost weekly as a guest of my friend. I found quite a different scene at Pier 15 than in 1984. The Big U was a ransacked city – something from a Crichton postapocalyptic novel – stripped of her furnishings and fittings, her finery, and her dignity. Scrappers had simply broken the porcelain sinks and commodes to remove the copper piping, and the cabin doors above the waterline areas had been removed and sent off to New Jersey. Offices were littered with files and papers that had been dumped from file cabinets onto the floors. I discovered that, at one point while the ship was still in Norfolk, individuals had been given access to her for $10 and were allowed to remove anything they could carry.
My experiences over the next couple of years generally occurred on Saturdays. They were exciting, but cold in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. While the ship had shore power, lighting was limited so we used headlamps in most spaces. Having the “run” of the ship I explored almost every area, including the cavernous engineering spaces which were now unlocked. I became a relatively proficient guide and, to help my friend, who had constant maintenance duties, escorted VIPs for short tours of the ship. On one occasion, a local Congressman asked to tour the ship and the duty fell on me to guide him. During that tour, on one cold and rainy Saturday morning, he stooped to pick up one of the thousands of forms designating complimentary items such as liquor, canapes, deck chairs and the like, which had been dumped on the floor of the Purser’s office. The form was for “comps” to former President and Mrs. Eisenhower.
The ship could be entered by way of a short gangway leading to a starboard port on B Deck that was probably intended for boarding harbor pilots. Just inside, the guard inhabited a blocked off area that was heated in the winter. After signing in, we could proceed aft to the two large transverse corridors in the crew area known as “Times Square” and “Piccadilly.” Large ports at either end of these corridors were the primary loading ports for foodstuffs. The crew mess, “slop chest,” crew lounges, and quarters were located nearby. Access to the passenger decks was by “hidden staircases,” usually spiral, scattered around the crew areas.
There was little of value left on the ship. I decided to try and collect as much “paper” as I could as I felt that it would be, at some time in the future, important to documenting the history of the ship. Besides the tons of forms dumped on the floors of offices, some of the ship’s documents had been placed in one of the aft mail holds. Knowing that all of these records were to be removed and destroyed, I “saved” many boxes of documents and forms.
The plethora of manual typewriters found in every office on the ship hinted as to how business was conducted. I found virtually hundreds of preprinted forms, some SS United States and many United States Lines forms, each used to document almost every activity on the ship from hourly readings in engineering and the bridge to who from the front office requested a bottle of champagne to be delivered to a given passenger. Clearly, many members of the huge crew were there simply to keep the records.
Each day spent on board provided increasing appreciation for both the design by Mr. Gibbs and the construction work of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. I haunted spaces such as the sternpost room, with its giant hydraulic rams that turned the rudderpost, and its racks of metal boxes containing carefully inventoried and documented spare parts for almost everything in the ship. In each of the engine rooms there were shops with huge lathes and drill presses which were used to maintain and repair the complex machinery including the engine shafts. I could imagine the din and smell when the rows of boilers were fired, and the steam turbines turned those great shafts that led outboard to the propellers. I climbed the metal stair from the forward boiler room clear up into the forward stack, up the ladder into the radar mast, and crawled through the shaft alleys.
I explored the bilges and the clever cargo shafts with huge metal doors that could be lowered at each deck level into the shaft for the storage of automobiles. On B Deck near the bank of dumbwaiters that brought supplies from the storage areas on lower decks to the galley were two huge microwave ovens produced by Westinghouse, with serial numbers 0001 and 0002. In the laundry, I found unwashed and stained linens, somehow passed over for the auctions, and in the print shop there were still fragments of line-o-type lead print used for the Daily Program. The various shops used for maintenance were scattered around the ship, and looked as they had on the day the ship was laid-up with tools hung carefully and bins of spare parts and supplies.
One could sit down in either theatre and expect the movie to start at any time. On one occasion, several of my friends joined me for a drink in the forward (Cabin Class) lounge, which was dark but mainly intact. We walked the top deck amid the lines and windlasses, to the pointed bow and to the stern, waving at river traffic on the James, and found the passageways leading down into the ship. We polished the builder’s plate below the bridge indicating the design of Gibbs and Cox and the NNSB&DD Hull number 488.
The galley occupied the middle of A Deck, with areas for each of the main food preparation divisions: bakers, grill, saucier, etc., huge dishwashers, and even silver polishing devices that tumbled the silver flatware with abrasive and small steel balls. Below the kitchens were the food storage areas going clear down to D Deck. There were places for the tons of supplies loaded on the ship for every trip, which included: butcher areas for both kosher and nonkosher meats, separate storage lockers for kosher foods, large freezers and refrigerated spaces, and a maze of small storage rooms.
At the very bottom was a room full of pallets containing cases of soft drinks, including Coca-Cola, various mineral waters, both European and American, and many other brands. There was a pall in the air in this hold and I could stay in it for only a few minutes. We finally figured out that the phosphoric acid in the sodas had slowly eaten the bottle caps and was being released into the air. If I had been a Coca-Cola bottle collector, this would have been a treasure trove with bottles from all over the world, but it would have taken breathing gear to collect it.
All good things come to an end. During this period at the CSX dock, it seems that the ship owner was not paying the railroad its rent. Clearly the previously-announced plans for the ship’s renovation were going nowhere fast. In 1991, CSX “evicted” the SS United States from the dock, which led to a bankruptcy hearing and eventually the seizure of the ship, still at the coal pier, by the U.S. Marshalls. My friend was still in charge, this time in the employ of the Marshalls. The legal drama continued. As the deadline for scrapping the ship neared, a group of investors bought the ship at auction, intending to move the ship to Turkey for refurbishing. So, in summer of 1992, with much fanfare, the SS United States left Newport News in tow. A group of us watched her leave from the shore of Old Point Comfort in Hampton, her paint dull and rusted, her graceful lines in full display, and the American Flag still flown from her stern.
F. Samuel Bauer 2015
All photographs courtesy of F. Samuel Bauer