The Service Years
The SS United States service career began with a short voyage up from the Virginia shipyard where she was built to her home port of New York. Upon reaching New York, America's flagship was given a tremendous reception with fireboats sending streams of water skyward and numerous small craft accompanying her up the Hudson River. She docked at Pier 86 where the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is today. Over the course of the next 17 years, the ship would make some 400 voyages and carry over one million passengers.
Public expectations were high for the United States' maiden voyage. It was to be a transatlantic crossing from New York to Southampton, England beginning on July 3, 1952. Almost since the advent of ocean-going steam ships, ocean liners had vied to break the transatlantic speed record and capture the fabled Blue Ribband. This was not just a matter of interest to travelers and ship enthusiasts but a matter of national pride. While the honor had been passed back and forth many times between Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy, the United States had not held the record for over a century. With all of the publicity about this purportedly extraordinary new ship, people on both sides of the Atlantic were eager to see if the SS United States could bring the honor home.
The weather was not cooperative. Fog was encountered the first day out of New York. Gale forced winds and heavy seas followed. Nonetheless, the ship managed to achieve 36 knots. In the early morning hours of July 7, the SS United States passed Bishop's Rock, which marks the eastern end of a transatlantic crossing. The United States had done the crossing in 3 days, 10 hours and 42 minutes, shaving 10 hours off of the Queen Mary's record setting 1938 crossing. On the return voyage to New York, the ship broke the speed record for a westbound crossing, accomplishing it in 3 days, 12 hours and 12 minutes.
It was now established that the United States was indeed the technological marvel that the advanced publicity had claimed. No ocean liner or cruise ship has come near to breaking these records. (A catamaran ferry, Hoverspeed Great Britain, did mange to break the eastbound record in 1990).
During her first decade in service, the United States was quite popular, maintaining a 90 percent occupancy rate. Her passenger lists included royalty such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and Princess Grace of Monaco; former U.S. President Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower; future Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton; as well as numerous celebrities including John Wayne, Bob Hope, Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Salvatore Dali. She even carried the Mona Lisa in one of her staterooms when the Louvre sent the renowned painting on a tour of the U.S.
The United States had a reputation as being more down to earth than Britain's Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The interiors, designed by Dorothy Marckwald, were not as grand as the Queens or as stylish as the later SS France. In part this was due to the desire to avoid combustible materials but also it reflected American tastes of the period.
A less desirable reputation was that she rolled in heavy seas. A relatively narrow ship built without stabilizers, she could roll as much as 20 degrees.
Although never called upon to be used as a troopship, the United States remained ready to do so during her service career. As such, she performed the deterrent role that the planners had in mind when she was conceived.
However, as aircraft became larger and faster, rapid deployment of troops by air became more and more practical. Consequently, the SS United States value as a military asset correspondingly decreased. As we shall see, the same advances in technology also affected her civilian role.
Historic ship article - SS United States - The SS United States Story - page two