The United States is not exactly known for solid and successful maritime policy – there’s a reason the most comprehensive history of the topic is called The Abandoned Ocean – but American government policy has produced some fairly spectacular. Close to the top of the list has to be the story of the SS United States, the postwar mega-liner that blasted the record for transatlantic speed and continues to capture hearts around the world (you can see the website of the SS United States Conservancy here).
It’s a story that’s been told several times, but most recently by maritime historian and Conservancy ally Steven Ujifasa in A Man and His Ship. Ujifasa’s book is a biography of William Francis Gibbs, successful naval architect and – as Ujifasa tells it – superliner fanatic who had been angling to building an American superliner ever since he was a young man. He finally achieved his dream after the Second World War, but just in time to see the industry he idolized fall apart.
As the founder of the fim Gibbs and Cox, Gibbs had a very successful career as a ship designer working on a wide range of civilian and military projects. After designing various smaller liners between the wars, including the SS America, and renovating the German Vaterland into the American SS Leviathan, during World War Two Gibbs worked on a wide range of navy warships and helped prepare the plans for the Liberty ships (another American maritime story that’s a lot more complex than it first appears). In 1942, TIME magazine called Gibbs a “Technological Revolutionist” and put him on the cover.
After the war was over, Gibbs turned his mind back to his liner project. The current rulers of the Atlantic were the British Cunard Lines’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, both of which could do thirty-plus knots, so Gibbs proposed a massive superliner that would have Queen-beating speed. His plans called for high-pressure steam (like that used in US destroyers he had designed), advanced US turbines, a light aluminum superstructure, and very fine lines. The resulting ship would be much lighter than the Queen Mary (50,000 tons vs. 80,000 tons) but with more power.
Unsurprisingly, the story of the SS United States is a military as well as a maritime story. In 1936, President Roosevelt created the US Maritime Commission to support the American merchant marine and ensure that the US would have the merchant ships it needed in any subsequent conflict. The Commission ordered ships with an eye to both commercial use and suitability for wartime conversion. Gibbs’ SS America was the first ship it commissioned. During the Second World War it expanded dramatically, taking on not just the building of merchant ships but also of purpose-built naval auxiliaries in even some warships, as well as vast numbers of Liberty and Victory ships. While it disposed of many of these ships after the war was over, it also committed to building a new generation of ships necessary for any potential future war.
In both the First and Second World Wars, large liners had been pressed into service as fast troopships. Before Gibbs renovated it, the Leviathan had been used to carry soldiers to France during the First World War. Both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had done yeoman service in this sort of duty during the Second World War.
The Commission was vital to Gibbs’s plans because the ship’s potential operators, the United States Line, was unwilling to pay nearly the full cost of the ship. To make his dream buildable, Gibbs had to sell the idea of his ship to the Commission, and to do that he had to make it seem militarily worthwhile: convertible to a troopship in only 48 hours and with a capacity of 14,000 troops. During the war, Gibbs’s intransigence made him an enemy of Admiral Land, the head of the Commission, so it was lucky that his postwar plans only reached the Commission after Land retired. Ujifasa waxes eloquent about the ship’s many impressive features, not just its opulent luxury, but they would all cost money – the SS United States would require an unprecedented level of government subsidy.
It took a long time to hash out the deal, but in 1947 the Commission agreed that the United States Lines would pay $26.7 million of the $44.4 million needed to build a “basic” version of the ship, and $1.3 million of the $26.6 million needed for “national defense” features like reinforced decking, Navy-grade wiring, and more speed. The total cost would be $71 million (it rose to $79.4 during construction). Built in the exact same slip where the ill-fated supercarrier USS United States had been laid down, the SS United States had its keel laid down on February 8, 1950 and was launched on June 22, 1951.
The “national defense” features of the new ship were genuinely impressive. The ship featured enormous engines and four special five-bladed propellers. Its underwater lines and propulsion system were classified secret, as was its top speed on trials: 38.32 knots, achieved on 241,785 shaft horsepower of the ship’s 247,785. She easily took the Blue Riband on her maiden voyage with an average speed of 35.59 knots.
The ship did well until the late 1950s, but improvements in air travel chipped away at its profits. In 1960, the US government stopped sending troops to Europe aboard the ship. The United States was laid up after its 400th voyage in November 1969, two months after Gibbs died. The ship’s classified features were presented in a paper to the Society of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineers in 1977, a year after the Maritime Administration rejected a Norwegian bid to buy the ship because those features were still secret. In 1980, the ship was surplussed and sold for $5 million. A proposal to convert it into a hospital ship was abandoned (two surplus supertankers became the USS Comfort and Mercy), and today it is owned by the Conservancy that is trying to restore it.
This, on its own, would be a remarkable story (I’ve only sketched here what Ujifasa covers in great detail). The SS United States was a technical marvel that came into service only as the heyday of the liner was coming to a close, and an embarrassing coda to what had been a sterling wartime career for the Maritime Commission itself. (By the time the United States was launched, the Commission had become the Maritime Administration. It continued to build ships, including the nuclear-powered Savannah.) But the story only gets more remarkable once you include the fact that the US government was also behind the changes that put its own $45-million investment out of business.