The SS United States transcends just being a great ship. Yes, she was a technological marvel of her time and remains the fastest ocean liner ever built more than a half century after her construction. She was the height of American shipbuilding and maritime prowess and as such is part of the American heritage. Moreover, she is a symbol of the nation whose name she bears. Powerful, determined and confident, she embodies the spirit of the United States in the post war era.
Her story can be divided into two parts. First, there is the 17 years that she was in service during which she set records, hosted top celebrities and played a role in the defense of the free world. Second, there has been the long years since her retirement. What is particularly remarkable about this period is all of the grand schemes to return her to service. Like the story of Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to perpetually roll a large boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down just as it reached the crest, these schemes began with high hopes and just when it looked like they might succeed came crashing down.
There is also a very human element to the story. To begin, there is the devotion of its designer William Francis Gibbs who turned his vision of a super-liner into a reality. Then during her retirement years, there has been a succession of people who have devoted their time and fortunes to this ship.
Concept, Design and Construction
If it had not been for World War II, the United States would probably have been just another ocean liner. In the late 1930s, the United States Lines built the SS America, a respectable but not superlative ocean liner, much smaller than Cunard's Queen Mary or the French Line's Normandie, which were the superliners of that period. If the war had not intervened, the United States Line would probably have built a ship similar to the America to act as her running mate.
However, during the war Cunard's Queen Mary and the just completed Queen Elizabeth were used as troop ships. They were able to carry an entire division of soldiers at high speed across the ocean. This was a great strategic advantage because it allowed the Allies to build up forces quickly in key places. Winston Churchill estimated that without the two Cunard Queens the war may have continued a year longer than it did. Considering the missiles and jet fighters Germany was just beginning to deploy at the end of the war, another year of war might have resulted in a different outcome. Certainly, the death toll would have been much higher.
Impressed by the work of the two Cunarders, American post war defense planners decided that the United States needed a superliner that could be turned into a high speed troop ship in times of crisis. As Cold War tensions grew, it was clear that another land war in Europe was a real possibility. Even though both sides had atomic weapons, the fact that both sides maintained large conventional forces reveals that there was doubt about whether and under what circumstances atomic weapons would be used.
Western defense planners realized that from its bases in Eastern Europe, the powerful Red Army could probably roll across Western Europe, defeating the American and NATO troops stationed there. However, if the Soviets knew that large numbers of American troops could be rapidly deployed to Europe, they might not be tempted to try such a gambit. The aircraft of that era were not capable of performing this mission, only a ship could do it.
Therefore, the United States government decided that it would sponsor the construction of a super-liner. The ship would be built to exacting Navy specifications with more compartmentalization than merchant ships and using only the best quality materials. It would also be fast, very fast. The United States Line would operate the ship as an ocean liner going between New York and Europe. However, the Navy would be able to quickly requisition the ship should the need arise. In the end, the government paid $45 million of the $79 million it cost to build the ship. The government would also pay a yearly operating subsidy.
The man they turned to design the ship was William Francis Gibbs, a Harvard-educated lawyer who had given up the bar to become a self-taught naval architect. Gibbs was no amateur. Among his accomplishments were the conversion of the German liner Vaterland into the United States Lines' Leviathan at the end of World War I. He had designed the America. During the war, he and his firm Gibbs and Cox, develop the design for the Liberty ships - - cargo ships that could be mass produced quickly - - as well as numerous other surface combatants and auxiliaries.
Designing a superliner had long been in Gibbs' thoughts. One story relates how in the 1930s he went on a tour of the Normandie when she was in New York, departed from the tour and went into the crew areas to study the workings of the ship. Afterward, he spent hours recording what he had seen for future reference. In fact, Gibbs & Cox had been working on the design for a super-liner since 1943. He now set about putting everything he knew about ships into designing America's super-liner.
Speed was a top priority. Gibbs lightened the ship by over 30,000 tons over what it would have been if it were all steel by using aluminum in the superstructure. He also gave the ship an engine plant similar to that used in a Forrestal-class aircraft carrier. Inasmuch as the ship would be much lighter than an aircraft carrier, this powerful engine plant would enable the ship to obtain remarkable speeds.
Also contributing to the ship's speed was the design of the hull. The long slender bow comes to a knife edge allowing the ship to cut through the water. In addition, the hull plates were welded rather than riveted together giving the ship a smooth hydrodynamic surface for the water to flow past. For many years, the government classified the ship's hull design as a national defense secret.
The four engines were housed in dual engine rooms so that no single bomb or torpedo could halt the ship. Throughout the ship there was extensive compartmentalization so that the ship could remain afloat even after extensive damage.
The ship was designed so that it could be converted from a luxury liner into a troopship that could carry 15,000 soldiers in less than 48 hours. Also, to allow her to do transpacific troopship duties, she was given extensive fuel storage capacity thereby enabling her to go great distances without refueling.
One of Gibbs' goals was to make the ship as fireproof as possible. Fire is a great hazard at sea. Indeed, the Normandie was destroyed by a careless fire and the attempts to extinguish it. (See article). Therefore, the ship would be made of metal and other non-combustible materials. Artwork would be made of glass or spun fabrics, no oil paintings. The only wood on the ship were the butcher's blocks and the grand pianos. The pianos were only allowed after Steinway demonstrated that the type of wood it planned to use would not burn even if ignited gasoline was poured over it.
Gibbs would stay closely involved with the ship until his death in 1967. Not only did he oversee its construction but he would call the ship every day after it entered service to check on things such as fuel consumption.
Construction of the ship began on February 8, 1950 at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock yard in Virginia. On June 23, 1951, the ship was launched, not by the traditional method of sliding down a slipway but rather by flooding the drydock where she was being constructed. This was a first for a passenger ship and has become the way almost all passenger ships are launched today.
At this ceremony, the ship was also officially named “SS United States.”
Sea trails were held in May and June 1952. During those tests the United States was able to do a top speed of over 38 knots (44 mph). She was also able to do 20 knots in reverse, which is better than some cruise ships can do going forward.
On June 22, 1952, the SS United States was handed over to the United States Lines.
Historic ship article - SS United States - The SS United States Story - page one