When the great Frank Braynard and I visited the super liner United States, then laid up for a full decade at Norfolk, the otherwise busy port along Virginia’s Atlantic coast, the ship was in transition. It was June 1979 and the great liner was about to be sold to Seattle-based businessman Richard Hadley for use as a unique condominium-style cruise ship. Although quite dark, very quiet and kept virtually airtight by a de-humidification system, she was still very much that Atlantic ocean liner that we both remembered. The legendary Frank had a far greater and longer association, having been on the delivery trip up from her birthplace at Newport News, very near to Norfolk, and northward for her first arrival at New York, and also made a crossing to Europe. Myself, I could speak and refer only to many visits to the ship, berthed along Manhattan’s famed "Luxury Liner Row". On that day, the furniture aboard the United States, as an example, was mostly still in place, the crockery stocked in the cupboards and pantries and, except for the stripped, overturned mattresses, the cabins were in tact. In ways, it might have been ten days rather than ten years since she had been decommissioned. Passenger notices, such as one for a late afternoon bingo game, were still posted if slightly faded. Copies of the New York Times from November 1969 were lying about. Travel brochures along with train and airline schedules were stacked in the excursions office. Thick telephon e directories stood on shelves in the telephone office. Vacuum cleaners, some 400 of them, were grouped in order, like soldiers at attention that were awaiting a call to duty. It was all like a stage in one of the Hollywood studios, but after hours, perhaps during the quiet weekend gap. You could almost "hear" the silence onboard that once busy, people-filled ship. Only the caretakers, a few rather inconspicuous guards, were about. Later, several of Mr Hadley’s representatives --- a designer, some planners and the inevitable sales & marketing man, came aboard for a meeting in a specially restored former first class cabin. It had been freshly painted and carpeted, and looked more late 1970s than early ‘50s. Nick Bachko, a former senior vice president at United States Lines and who’s knowledge of the ship was probably second only to William Francis Gibbs, the ship’s designer, was also aboard that day. He was assisting the small Hadley team.
I peered down the long corridors, into the dining rooms and lounges, and into semi-darkened cabins, and thought back to happier, brighter, certainly busier days. Then there were the midday sailings, the festive bon voyage parties, spirited deck games and films in the theater, cargo being stowed in the holds and sometimes ferocious Atlantic storms to be faced, on-going maintenance and those annual overhauls down at Newport News, and the legions of passengers, crew and visitors that came and went. I thought also of the small army of celebrities that had sailed the "Big U," as she was fondly dubbed by so many. There were the luggage-laden Duke & Duchess of Windsor and the Queen of Greece, former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Yugoslavia’s Marshall Tito, musical titans such as Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein, and of course long lists of Hollywood’s golden names: John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Mae West, Bob Hope and Rita Hayworth.
The 53,300-ton, 990-foot long United States, the third largest liner afloat when she was first commissioned back in 1952, represented the zenith of post-Second World War American design, engineering, mechanics and construction. She was, quite simply, an ocean-going masterpiece. She was the most technologically advanced ocean liner ever built, certainly the fastest and assuredly the safest, and --- while not especially notable for her decoration --- she was unquestionably one of the cleanest, most spotless, best maintained ships ever to put to sea. She was constantly in newspapers and magazines, in newsreels and even feature films, on calendars and candy tins, and was even recreated in toy form and in assemble-yourself miniature models. She was immensely successful, sailing in her years at well over 90% of her capacity, rarely missing a sailing or even late upon arrival or sailing, and was said to be the most popular sin gle ocean liner of her time. She was the highly coveted Blue Ribbon champion, the fastest merchant ship afloat. Just about everyone wanted to sail in her or, like myself, at least visit her. In her day, she was said to draw more pre-sailing crowds than any other ship along New York’s "Luxury Luxury Row".
Now, in the summer of 2009, as I write this tribute to America’s greatest liner she is, of course, much older, much sadder, in fact a pathetic shell of her once impeccable self. There is much less of her now than during our visit on that warm June day in 1979. Now, she sits silently at a Philadelphia pier --- still mentioned in brief sparks, those slightest of rumors, that she might be rebuilt, redecorated and restored as a contemporary cruise ship. But time --- and pure economics --- have been an enemy. A whole new generation of efficient, purpose-built cruise ships now sail the seas --- some as large as 220,000 tons and transporting over 6,000 passengers that are looked after by as many as 1,800 staff & crew. It would hardly be practical, at least from my cushioned chair perch and otherwise limited calculations, to put her through an expensive and extensive conversion only to compete with the current age of towering, all-white, open-air verandah-lined, lido deck-topped "floating resorts". I believe that her future, if there is one at all, is in a non-operational role: a museum ship, even a smartly painted, brilliantly lighted-by-night moored "paper weight," or perhaps --- with, say, a "rich uncle" of sorts in the background --- as a floating hotel or convention center. But many actually think, including those devoted and still fascinated by the great SS United States, that she’ll end up at the scrappers, that there is really no alternative purpose for her. They suggest, often in a whispered voice, that her final voyage might be out to the ever-hungry scrappers along the beaches of Alang in distant India.
Her final fate is yet to be decided. But no matter, the United States remains the greatest American passenger liner of all time. There will never, ever be a ship like her again!
Many of you reading this will be unaware that in the last years of her career I had the good fortune of serving aboard the S/S Norway as Official Ship's Historian. During that time I founded and operated the S/S Norway Preservation Foundation and worked from within & without to promote the ship and ensure she was simply too profitable for her new owners to abandon. In that, my efforts - with the help of countless fans of the "Big Blue Canoe" - were successful.
While we won the battle, we eventually lost the war and this most magnificent ship was dismantled on a beach in India, forever lost to history.
One might easily conclude that my decision to become involved in the effort to save the SS United States was based on my love of ocean liners. While certainly a factor, this was far from my primary motivation. The Norway was unquestionably an incredible example of living history; she represented the Golden Age of Liners and a pinnacle of maritime achievement. The same can be said of the SS United States, however, with one important distinction: she is uniquely American.
All of remarkable maritime history aside, the SS United States is an important piece of our nation's heritage. She is an excellent example of how a positive, can-do attitude, pride, determination and ingenuity can bring about wondrous results; and that it's not a bad thing to be proud of the accomplishment.
I'm sad to say that trying to promote the ship on her iconic nature as a symbol of national pride is a hard sell. Americans today have collectively lost their pride in their country. We've allowed those not busy being productive to fill our every waking hour with negative, alarmist rhetoric, and the notion that Americans should not be proud their country, rather feel guilty that we enjoy a better standard of living than others elsewhere in the world. We are told that competition is hurtful (to be a winner, someone has to be a loser and that's not "fair"), the desire to create ever more wondrous things is tantamount to greed, and that most of our Country's good fortune comes on the backs of the oppressed and impoverished. Guilt is a tremendous motivator used by those who would ask your money so that they may correct the woes of the world.
The SS United States is a reminder of a time when the positive outlook of the nation was just as strong - if not stronger -of an influence in the daily lives of Americans. Losing a competition was an opportunity to learn so as to make an improved effort the next time around, an attitude that resulted in constant improvement wherever applied. Being proud of one's accomplishments was something earned, deserved and honored and respected by others. A time when being an American was a source of pride, and brought with it the responsibility to preserve the world's respect.
If this ship which so empowered the nation all those years ago can in any way impart upon someone even a moment's realization of this feeling she is worth preserving. If her story and presence can rekindle the Patriotic spark of American pride she can continue to serve the country for which she is named in a profound way.
It is for this purpose, foremost, I am asking my fellow Americans to, both figuratively and literally, "Save the United States".
Devon M. Scott