Sinking of The S.S. Normandie
On February 9, 1942, one of the most beautiful and amazing things ever created by human beings–an astonishing work of art, a powerful engineering marvel and the tangible consciousness of a nation–was destroyed in an act of shocking and heartbreaking carelessness. The victim was an ocean liner, the S.S. Normandie, and on that bitterly cold day she caught fire at Pier 88 on the west side of Manhattan. The fire was totally preventable and needless, but the bungled attempts to combat it, which was really what destroyed the ship, were so boneheaded and inept that people could scarcely believe it was an accident. Indeed, for years shadowy rumours and conspiracy theories have held that the Normandie was deliberately sabotaged by enemy agents or subversive Americans.
Built in France during the early years of the Depression, the French government bankrolled most of her staggering construction costs, mainly for two reasons. The first was that a ship so big (1,029 feet, 80,000 tons) and fast (32.2 knots) could, if needed, become an important military asset in hauling troops or equipment in wartime.
The second, more immediate, was that she would be the oceangoing pride of France, built with not only the most advanced engineering marvels known at the time but also the most beautiful interiors, fixtures and accommodations that the nation of France could devise. World-class French food would be served aboard her and her cellars stocked with the best French wines. If you could reduce everything glamorous and positive about France in the 1930s to a single object, Normandie was that object. And she was stunningly beautiful: the whole ship was a work of art.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was in the middle of a radio speech, assuring New Yorkers that the nickel subway fare would not be raised, when word of the burning Normandie reached him. The mayor cut short his speech and raced to the pier. By now hundreds of New Yorkers, following the smoke and the sounds of sirens, had arrived to watch as streams of water from a line of fireboats tried in vain to quell the blaze. Bellevue Hospital sounded its dreaded seven bells—the signal for a citywide catastrophe—and at nearby Pier 92, where the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had their berths, a makeshift hospital was set up for the workers who were being carried off the stricken ship.
Crowds of people had gathered for blocks along the waterfront. As the fire raged, more fireboats arrived. For hours their fountains of water flooded the ship’s cabins. Soon there was more water than fire. Then, at 3:40 p.m., just as the mayor and Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews, commander of the U.S. Navy’s 3rd Naval District, were attempting to board the wounded vessel, it suddenly lurched several feet to port. It was the beginning of the end.
The deathwatch took on a carnival atmosphere as skyscraper windows all over the city were thrown open so New Yorkers could watch the awful spectacle. The pier was alive with firemen and ambulance crews, with hawkers and food vendors, all watching as the great ship began to drown in the water that was meant to save it.
It took 12 hours for the Normandie to die. At precisely 2:35 the following morning, with the acrid smell of burning metal still hanging over Times Square, the elegant creature rolled over on its port side and gave up the fight. The following day, thousands of New Yorkers showed up at the pier to gape at the destroyed ship. Five-year-old Miki Rosen saw it from the inside of the family car: “My father wanted us to see it because it was an historical event. I was terribly frightened by this enormous thing that I knew was supposed to be upright and bobbing up and down. It didn’t even look like a ship. It was a mass of iron floating in the water.”
Talk of sabotage was in the air. Had someone slit the fire hoses? Were German spies working on the ship? Was it perhaps gasoline that spurted from the sprinkler system? What the hapless Clement Derrick knew to be an accident was a troubling mystery to New Yorkers—one that would spur them to extraordinary measures to feel safe again.
For New Yorkers, and for the entire country, the possibility that the once-glorious ship had been brought down by Germany or the Vichy government was very real. In a Brooklyn courtroom just a month earlier, 33 German agents had been sentenced to serve a total of more than 300 years in prison. They had been led there by counterespionage agent William Sebold, a 42-year-old German American. Operating under the name Harry Sawyer, Sebold was set up in an office on 42nd Street, where the FBI observed his meetings with New York–based spies through a two-way mirror. A year before, the FBI had set up a shortwave radio station on Long Island so they could listen in on conversations between German spies in New York City and the men in Germany from whom they took orders.
German spies had been operating in the United States with very little censure since the 1930s, taking jobs in factories and bars along the Manhattan, New Jersey, and Brooklyn waterfronts. As bartenders, they could easily pick up vital information from seamen. Some had worked on American ships during peacetime, placing them above suspicion. In The American Home Front: 1941–1942, Alistair Cooke tells the story of an American seaman whose tanker was torpedoed by a U-boat. His leg was badly mangled in the attack, and after bringing him aboard the German submarine to patch up his wounds, the U-boat commander asked if any of the crew were from Brooklyn. “Maybe I worked with some o’ you guys,” the German boasted in perfect Brooklynese. “I was twelve years in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”
The Normandie commenced the return leg her 138th Atlantic voyage on the 16th August, 1939, sailing for Le Havre from New York and arriving back there on the 28th. Four days later war was declared.
By a strange quirk the Normandie‘s fate would be sealed by her awesome splendor. The liner had only ever averaged an occupancy rate of 48.68% during her career. The sheer magnificence of her interiors was just a bit too intimidating for the average trans-Atlantic passenger, who preferred the cozy Cotswold cottage atmosphere of the Queen Mary or the functional minimalism of the even more popular Bremen. Normandie‘s return voyage had been cancelled as there were too few passengers and she remained at New York’s Pier 88. She was later joined by the Queen Mary and the new Queen Elizabeth and for a few months, the three largest liners in the world remained idle at their New York terminals. The British liners sailed for troop-carrying duties whilst the Normandie remained at her berth.
France surrendered in June, 1940, and the Normandie was seized by the United States Government in December, 1941, to convert her into a troopship. Her equipment and fittings were removed and sold and stripped of her glory, she was renamed Lafayette, painted Grey and prepared for sea.
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.
Earlier proposals included turning the vessel into an aircraft carrier, but this was dropped in favour of immediate troop transport. The ocean liner was moored at Manhattan’s Pier 88 for the conversion.
The conversion of Normandie to a troop transport was an enormous effort, and somewhat destructive. All of the expensive carpets, panelling and decorations intended for the comfort of rich ocean travellers had to be torn out, and instead iron cots for soldiers crammed into every possible space. The ship also had to be made ready to operate in war zones. President Roosevelt was promised Normandie would be ready by the end of January 1942. Men worked around the clock right there at Pier 88 to convert the ship, which was now named the USS Lafayette. Because of the haste of the work, a lot of corners were cut and careless procedures were used. This proved to be the doom of the once beautiful ship.
What the Americans did not seem to realise however, was that the Normandie was not adaptable for war like the British liners. Sailing day neared and life jackets filled with an inflammable substance were piled high in the former First Class lounge; but there was a problem. It was Monday, 9th February, 1942, the time approximately 2.30 pm. The four stanchions built in to correct vibration had to be removed, One by one they were felled by oxy-acetylene cutter. After three had fallen the fourth was tackled with added zest and it was during this process that the life jackets caught fire. This would have been of little consequence as the liner was virtually fire-proof and had extensive fire fighting facilities. However, she was devoid of all essential electrical power. The fire raged on and the ship was evacuated, there being some casualties.
Zealous firemen swamped the Normandie with water from tugs alongside. This then froze as New York was experiencing Arctic conditions. It was all too much for her, the fire was extinguished but the ship turned on her side, settled on mud and half sank. Then a new fire started. Salvage was planned but, only after the top three decks were removed and millions spent, was she righted in September, 1943. Once salvaged, plans to convert her into an aircraft carrier were considered but these were dropped due to the excessive costs involved.
Work began on the ship (not yet named “Normandie”) in January 1931, soon after the terrifying stock market crash of 1929. While the French continued construction, the competing White Star Line’s ship (intended as “Oceanic”) – started before the crash – had to be cancelled and the Cunard ship was put on hold, both because their financing, organized before the crash, ran into trouble. Soon, the French builders also ran into difficulty, and had to ask their government for money to continue construction, a subsidy that was questioned in the press. Still, the building was followed heavily by newspapers and national interest was deep. Though she was designed to represent France in the nation-state contest of the great liners, and though she was built in a French shipyard and, using French-built major parts including the 29 boilers, the turbines, generators and even the 4 massive engines, a few secondary parts of her came from other European countries – e.g., the ship’s great rudder was built by Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia, while the steering mechanism, including the teak wheel, came from Edinburgh.
On October 29, 1932 – three years to the day after the stock market crash – “Normandie” was launched in front of 200,000 spectators. The 27,567 ton hull that slid into the Loire River was the largest ever launched and it caused a large wave that crashed into a few hundred people, but with no injury. “Normandie” was outfitted until early 1935, meaning all her interior, funnels, engines, etc. were put in to make her into a working vessel. Finally, in April 1935, “Normandie” was ready for her trials, which were watched by reporters. The superiority of Vladimir Yourkevitch’s hull design was immediately visible: hardly a wave was created. The ship demonstrated impressive performance during these trials, reaching a top speed of convert|32.2|kn|km/h and performing an emergency stop from that speed in only 1,700 meters.
One of the most famous posters of “Normandie” was made by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre who was a Russian emigrant to France, like Yourkevitch himself.
The interior was quite dazzling but perhaps the most dazzling was the first class dining room.
Three hundred and five feet long, convert|46|ft|m wide and convert|28|ft|m high, this was by far the largest room afloat. Passengers entered the dining room through convert|20|ft|m|sing=on tall doors adorned with bronze medallions by the artist Raymond Subes. The ten medallions featured French castles, cathedrals, and the French ocean liner SS “Ile de France”. The medallions and dining room door elements survive today as part of the Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church. in Brooklyn Heights, at the corner of Remsen and Henry, having been sold at auction in 1945.
This first class dining room could seat 700 diners at a time with 150 tables, serving them with some of the best meals in the world. This ship was a floating promotion of the most sophisticated French cuisine of the period. However due to the design of the ship, no natural lighting could get in. The designers illuminated the room with twelve tall pillars of Lalique glass and along the walls stood 38 columns equally bright. In addition, two chandeliers hung at each end of the room. From this gorgeous display of lights came the nickname “Ship of Light.”
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.
Designer Vladimir Yourkevitch arrived at the scene and offered expertise, but he was barred by harbour 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.
The French Line’s Normandie is one of the relatively few legitimate contenders for the title “Greatest Liner Ever”. She was a ship of superlatives: the largest ship in the world for five years, more than 20,000 tons larger than White Star’s Majestic; the first liner to exceed 1000 feet in length; the first liner to exceed 60,000 tons (and 70,000 and 80,000, for that matter); the largest turbo-electric powered liner; and the first to make a 30 knot eastbound Atlantic crossing. All told, Normandie earned the Blue Riband for five record-breaking crossings; twice westbound and three times eastbound, including both legs of her maiden voyage. And yet, all these technical qualities are only part of Normandie’s greatness; her design and decor were equally innovative, distinctive and luxurious. All of these factors contributed to her being described as “the ultimate ocean liner—definitely of the 1930s and possibly of the century”. (Braynard and Miller’s Fifty Famous Liners.) And, in the end, her demise was as ignominious as she herself was glorious.
Built by Chantiers et Ateliers de St. Nazaire and launched in 1932, Normandie made her maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York on 29 May 1935, setting speed records both westbound and eastbound. She was overhauled during the winter of 1935-36 to correct significant vibration problems which were evident from the time of her maiden voyage. (In the process, her gross tonnage was increased from 79,280 to 83,423. This permitted her to remain the largest liner even after Cunard White Star’s Queen Mary, 81,235 tons, entered service in May 1936.)
Despite the daunting economic situation of the ’30s, Normandie had a storied career as a passenger ship, serving on the North Atlantic from her maiden voyage in May 1935 to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. On the day war broke out she was docked at Pier 88 preparing to sail. The French Line canceled the planned voyage to Le Havre only as passengers were arriving at the terminal with their luggage. Although no one knew it yet, Normandie would never sail again. Rather than risk such an expensive asset (with military potential) being sunk by a German U-boat on the way across, the French government decided to leave the ship in New York for the time being.
But then France was conquered by Germany in June 1940, and the United States did not recognize the puppet state (Vichy) that the Nazis set up in its place. Normandie was an orphan. Then the United States joined the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Now at war with Vichy France–an ally of Nazi Germany–Normandie could legally be seized by the American government. That’s what they did, and the Navy decided to turn the grand luxury liner into the biggest troop transport in the world.
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 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.
Items from “Normandie” were sold at a series of auctions after her demise, and many pieces are considered valuable Art Deco treasures today. Among the rescued items include the 10 large dining room door medallions and fittings, and some of the 2 X 4 foot individual Jean Dupas glass panels that formed the 50 x 20 foot murals mounted at each of the 4 corners of the walls of her Grand Salon. Also surviving to this day are some examples of the 24,000 pieces of crystal – some from the massive Lalique torcheres – that adorned her Dining Salon as well as some of the table silverware, chairs, and pink gold plated bronze table bases – all part of the furniture and fixtures that accommodated 700 passengers at one seating. Custom designed suite and cabin furniture as well as original art-work and statues that decorated the ship, or were built for use by the French Line aboard “Normandie”, also survive today.
The greatest tribute to the SS Normandie is John “Crash” Miottel’s fabulous museum located in Berkeley, California.