Ocean Liner History: SS NORMANDIE and RMS QUEEN MARY during World War 2
Video of the SS Normandie
The war found the French Line’s elegant trans-Atlantic ocean liner SS Normandie in New York. Soon Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary, later refitted as a troop ship, docked nearby. Then the RMS Queen Elizabeth joined the Queen Mary. For two weeks the three largest liners in the world floated side by side.
(Left to Right: SS Normandie, RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth)
In 1940, after the Fall of France, the United States seized the Normandie under the right of angary. By 1941, the U.S. Navy decided to convert Normandie into a troopship, and renamed her USS Lafayette (AP-53), in honor both of Marquis de la Fayette the French general who fought on the Colonies’ behalf in the American Revolution and the alliance with France that made American independence possible.
The SS Normandie and RMS Queen Elizabeth in New York – Beginning of WW 2
Earlier proposals included turning the vessel into an aircraft carrier, but this was dropped in favor of immediate troop transport. The ocean liner was moored at Manhattan’s Pier 88 for the conversion. On 9 February 1942 sparks from a welding torch ignited a stack of thousands of life vests filled with kapok, a highly flammable material, that had been stored in the first-class lounge. The woodwork had not yet been removed, and the fire spread rapidly. The ship had a very efficient fire protection system but it had been disconnected during the conversion and its internal pumping system was deactivated. The New York City fire department’s hoses also did not fit the ship’s French inlets. All on board fled the vessel.
As firefighters on shore and in fire boats poured water on the blaze, the ship developed a dangerous list to port due to water pumped into the seaward side by fireboats. About 2:45am on February 10, Lafayette capsized, nearly crushing a fire boat.
(Left: Normandie’s crew read news of WW 2) The ship’s designer Vladimir Yourkevitch arrived at the scene and offered expertise, but he was barred by harbor police. His suggestion was to enter the vessel and open the sea-cocks. This would flood the lower decks and make her settle the few feet to the bottom. With the ship stabilized, water could be pumped into burning areas without the risk of capsize. However, the suggestion was denied by port director Admiral Adolphus Andrews.
Enemy sabotage was widely suspected, but a federal investigation in the wake of the sinking concluded that the fire was completely accidental. It has later been alleged that it was indeed sabotage, organized by mobster Anthony Anastasio, who was a power in the local longshoreman’s union. The alleged purpose was to provide a pretext for the release from prison of mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano’s end of the bargain would be that he would ensure that there would be no further “enemy” sabotage in the ports where the mob had strong influence with the unions.
Normandie, renamed USS Lafayette, lies capsized in the frozen mud of her New York Pier the winter of 1942.
The ship was stripped of superstructure and righted in 1943 in the world’s most expensive salvage operation. The cost of restoring her was subsequently determined to be too great. After neither the US Navy nor French Line offered, Yourkevitch proposed to cut the ship down and restore her as a mid-sized liner. This failed to draw backing and the hulk was sold for $161,680 to Lipsett Inc., an American salvage company. She was scrapped in October 1946.
Designer Marin-Marie gave an innovative line to Normandie, a silhouette which influenced ocean liners over the decades, including the Queen Mary 2. The design of Normandie and her chief rival, the Queen Mary, was the main inspiration for Disney Cruise Line’s matching vessels, the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder.
The Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico
The SS Normandie also inspired the architecture and design of the Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Items from Normandie were sold at a series of auctions after her demise, and many pieces are considered valuable Art Deco treasures today.
The rescued items include the ten large dining room door medallions and fittings, and some of the individual Jean Dupas glass panels that formed the large murals mounted at the four corners of her Grand Salon.
Also surviving are some examples of the 24,000 pieces of crystal, some from the massive Lalique torchères, that adorned her Dining Salon. Also some of the room’s table silverware, chairs, and gold-plated bronze table bases. Custom-designed suite and cabin furniture as well as original artwork and statues that decorated the ship, or were built for use by the French Line aboard Normandie, also survive today.
Pieces from the Normandie occasionally appear on the BBC TV series Antiques Roadshow.
A public lounge and promenade was created from some of the panels and furniture from the SS Normandie in the Hilton Chicago.