Monday, July 23, 2012

The sad story of the USS United States....From queen to derelict.

The USS United States was a special ship no one doubts. She was the fastest, the safest, the most modern speed queen on the north Atlantic. She was designed by Francis Gibbs who had been planning her for many years. She was to be quite unique.

She was to be over powered, just in case of a national emergency. She could be transformed into a troop transport and carry 10.000 soldiers at a hefty 35 knots.She could go faster if need be and she even was able to do 20 knots in reverse! This was a very powerful ship.  She was designed to capture once and for all the Blue Ribbon for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. This she did with ease. Gibbs was terrified of fire on a ship and she was designed with no wood on the vessel. In fact the butchers block in the kitchen was one one of the few pieces and Gibbs when ever on board carried a little piece of wood in his pocket.

Gibbs had a great deal of experience in shipping. He was involved in the restoration of the USS Leviathan during WWI and it conversion to a peacetime liner after the war. In WW2 he was designing a lot of destroyers and military boats. I interviewed years ago one of his assistants, Warren Boin.   I remember Boin would be in charge of taking each new ship out for a test drive so to speak for Gibbs. So Gibbs was able to learn, invent and improve the abilities of ships during this time.

When it was time to build the United States it was special project that was shared by several, including the US Government.  When she sailed on her maiden voyage in 1952 Margaret Truman was on board to help sound the ships horn when the record had been broken for the trans-Atlantic crossing.

She had defeated the old speed queen  of the Atlantic, the Queen Mary. The Mary was sixteen years old by then, but what was more that her design was from the mid 1920's and she was not much more up to date than the Mauritania or the Majestic that she replaced in 1936.

The United States was a whole new breed and behaved as such.

She was a ship born in the cold war and designed to survive it. However , what the world did not see right away was something else that would in time render all of these ocean going ships to become as antiquated as typewriters. This was the commercial airliner.  By 1957 as many people who took ships to Europe was equaled by people who took airliners. It just went down hill from there and quickly.  The late Victorian early Edwardian age is when the super liner first made its appearance. What is considered the first modern speed queen was the Lusitania. It was the Lusitania that would be the first to cross the Atlantic in less that 5 days. All the ships that followed were her descendants, including the United States.

By the 1960's a nearly 5 day trip to Europe was being matched by a 6 hour flight. The answer of who would do what was obvious. In the 1960's the ocean ferries were being withdrawn and in many cases scraped as they had become white elephants in a modern age.  By 1967 there were just a few ocean liners going to Europe. In 1967 the Queen Mary was removed from service as she was losing too much money and the staff was out numbering the paying passengers. It was the same for the Queen Elizabeth in 1968. The United States was running at a severe deficit and was just to expensive to run. In 1969 she was with drawn from service. She had been sailing only 17 years. She sat and rusted in Virginia for a long while and then was taken to areas near Turkey where she rusted some more. Finally in the late 1980's she came back to the USA under tow. She was stripped of all of her furnishings that were left. That Warren Boin I mentioned earlier had a number of items from the ship that he got in auction.

She finally came to Philadelphia where she has been rusting away at her pier for the last two decades. I was involved in cleaning up the battleship USS New Jersey in Camden, New Jersey. As we worked on the ship you could see the hulk of the United States sitting there.

Now she is in terrible condition and if she is to be saved it had better be soon as she cannot afford to wait much longer.

What will be the future of the USS United States? I cannot say, but things are stating to look dark for its future. The great queen of the seas has become a begging derelict in a supplied port. In an age of budget crisis and economic woes, the preservation of a ship may cause some eyebrows to be raised. For the country she represents is in some ways equality in need of repair.