How to Save the SS United States (ocean liner)
first published in the Summer 2009 edition of Sea History 127:10
United States, the last remaining US-flag transAtlantic superliner, which has been languishing at a Philadelphia pier since 1996, has been put up for sale. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) assumed ownership of the 990-foot ship in 2003 and announced its intention of refurbishing the vessel and returning her to service. Restoring the ship is, for anyone, an ambitious goal, but one deemed both worthy and feasible. That idea was floated before 2008, well before our current economic crisis. Recently, however, Star Cruises (NCL’s parent company) determined that this sort of undertaking was beyond what they could budget for and they decided to sell the ship.
Although NCL has reported that the terms of sale contain conditions that would prohibit the ship’s immediate sale to foreign buyers for scrap, such contractual conditions are clearly not sufficient to prevent the ship from ultimately meeting the same disastrous fate as SS Norway, SS Independence, and many other classic ocean liners that have come to their end at scrap yards in Alang (India) and elsewhere. In 1950, the federal government partnered with United States Lines to build SS United States as a passenger liner built to Navy specifications so that she could be easily converted for use as a troop ship, if necessary. Of her $78 million construction bill, the federal government underwrote $50 million. Today, the SS United States Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to the ship’s restoration, recognizes that saving the ship will take more resources than most individual citizens or non-profits can generate, and is thus aggressively working to establish a government-industry partnership, just as had been done when the ship was originally conceived, to develop a business plan for the ship’s future use. NMHS members can play a vital role in this partnership by urging their congressional representatives to support plans for SS United States’s protection and restoration.
On her maiden voyage in 1952, the United States shattered all transAtlantic speed records and, to this day, is still the fastest passenger ship ever built. The ship was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 because of her “compelling national significance.” Passenger lists included Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, and Leonard Bernstein. Even Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, traveled first class in 1962 in a specially designed ontainer on her way home after an exhibition in America.
A product of the Cold War, she was designed for dual use: a luxury passenger liner, but also a troop ship able to transit the Panama Canal and transport 15,000 troops more than 10,000 miles without refueling. She embodied the triumphant spirit of postwar “can-do” America and was the subject of seemingly endless press coverage in her day. In the 1950s and 60s, the United States was our “ship of state” and became a beautiful and compelling national symbol.
Without question, the United States ranks as one of the greatest ships in history. Aptly named, she belongs to all Americans. Her architects (Gibbs & Cox) and her owners (United States Lines) were both American companies and world leaders in the maritime industry. All three of her masters-Commodores Harry Manning (1952), John W. Anderson (1952-64), and Leroy Alexanderson (1964-69)-were graduates of the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, and she was manned with outstanding success by American citizenmariners until her retirement in 1969. While transporting many thousands of immigrants to a new life in America, and large numbers of US servicemen and women to Europe during the Cold War, the ship traveled 2,770,884 nautical miles, never once delayed because of a casualty or mechanical failure.
This ship, whose image conjures up scenes from a bygone era, has survived, despite decades of neglect and repeated transfer of ownership, because of the high-quality materials and craftsmanship that went into her original construction. Recent tests have revealed that the ship’s hull strength is-remarkably-92% of its original condition. She is not too far gone to be saved and resume her status as an inspirational national symbol for the current and future generations.
The United States can serve us honorably as a vibrant example of the success of the country’s new economic stimulus plans. Planned and executed correctly, the restoration can help generate many jobs and much needed tax revenue. The ship is the perfect candidate for a public-private restoration project, either as a stationary floating attraction and museum in a major American port city, or fully restored as a seagoing ambassador ship.
Our National Maritime Heritage Act recognizes that “historic resources significant to the Nation’s maritime heritage are being lost,” and declares that “the preservation of this irreplaceable maritime heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, and economic benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”
Without a doubt, few other vessels in our country are of greater importance to our maritime heritage, or have such a vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, and economic benefits than SS United States. As advocates of our maritime heritage, we, the members and trustees of the National Maritime Historical Society and the public at large, must take immediate measures to insure that the present owners of SS United States and our representatives in Congress act consistently with our nation’s policy to preserve this irreplaceable national treasure. We urge NMHS members to visit the SS United States Conservancy’s web site at www.ssunitedstatesconservancy.org and to write or e-mail their congressional representatives to introduce legislation to protect, preserve, and restore SS United States as our nation’s flagship.
National Maritime Historical Society Trustee Charles B. Anderson is a maritime lawyer in New York and a member of the Board of the SSUnited States Conservancy. His father, Commodore John W. Anderson,was master of SS United States from 1952 to 1964.