Saturday, October 22, 2011

The United States

In the early 1950s, war planners in the US Navy realized something: the Second World War had been won, in part, by ocean liners. Hundreds of thousands of American troops had been transported to the European Theater on ocean liners converted to troop transports, including the famous Queen Mary. In partnership with a private company, United States Lines, the Navy built the largest ocean liner ever, one that could be easily converted to a troop transport should the need arise. That vessel, the SS United States, was the largest, fastest, and safest ocean liner ever built.

Over the two years  (1950-1952) she was being built in Newport News, Virginia, the United States’s construction incorporated many safety features learned from the previous half-century of ship losses, both in the passenger industry and during wartime.  The ship is heavily compartmentalized – a precaution that includes separate engine rooms for each steam turbine main engine – and incorporates almost no wood, the grand saloon piano and galley butchers block being notable exceptions. The entire superstructure, as well and many furnishings and fittings, are aluminum; the United States was, at the time, the largest aluminum construction project ever. The 990-ft hull itself was steel.

The project was not without its critics. Many, in government and out, balked at the $78 million price tag, two-thirds of which was paid for by the navy. President Harry Truman ordered an investigation, but the construction went on.

The finished 53,000-ton United States could carry 15,000 troops, nearly 2,000 passengers, or function as a hospital ship. She was also fast.  A deliberate disinformation campaign put the ship’s speed at 45 knots, although the fastest official speed she ever recorded was 38 knots. She broke a transatlantic speed record on her maiden voyage: just over 85 hours from New York Harbor to Cornwall, UK. She would soon break the westbound speed record as well. Nearly sixty years later, United States still holds the records for westbound and passenger service voyages.

With more travelers using air travel, demand for ocean liners decreased. In 1969, the United States was retired from passenger service. In the following four decades, many plans for her have come and gone, including a plan by the Navy to convert her to a full-time naval vessel. A 2007 study by Norwegian Cruise Lines – into whose hands the ship had passed by then – found the vessel still sound, but various plans by NCL to put her back in service have not panned out. NCL started collecting bids to scrap the vessel, but eventually sold it for $3 million – less than the scrap value – to a group called the SS United States Conservancy, which has been trying to find a new home for her, possibly as a museum on the New York waterfront (she currently sits in Philadelphia).

For more see the SS United States Conservancy site here.

For a Pittsburg Press editorial on the funding controversy, click Google news here.

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