- Historic Sites
“When Does This Place Get to New York?”
The Queen Mary in Peace and War
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
Commanded by Captain Sir Edgar Britten, commodore of the Cunard White Star Line, the Mary then set out across the Atlantic. When she passed over the spot where the Titanic had sunk in 1912, a wreath was dropped overboard. On June 1 she received a huge welcome from the fireboats in the Hudson. But, slowed by eleven hours of fog, she failed by forty-two minutes to take the Blue Riband. (This she did on the August crossing and received a telegram of congratulations from Edward VIII, who was cruising the Mediterranean in the yacht Nahlin with an American divorcee, Mrs. Wallis Simpson.)
For three years the Mary carried the beautiful, the rich, and the famous to and fro across the ocean, sent off with brass bands and proper streamers. Most were suitably impressed; Beatrice Lillie, boarding her for the first time, was staggered by the Mary’s size. “Say,” she asked, “when does this place get to New York?” Yet the voyage itself was quite a casual affair. The first-night dinner of the maiden voyage makes disappointing reading to expectant contemporary eyes. No caviar or pâté de foie gras or even oysters are mentioned. The menu lists honeydew melon, turbot, chicken, and desserts, with fancy French titles. Two out of three of the first-class passengers were American, on the average, because the United States had so many rich people. They lived aboard much as they lived on any holiday they might take at Palm Beach or Deauville. There was no evening dress de rigueur . Those who put on black tie and evening dress for dinner at home did so on the ship. Others did not.
The refinements that do sound exotic today were the product of a human history of cheap labor and of people used to servants who ironed the fold out of the morning newspapers before presenting it to Master. Every day of the voyage, apprentices turned all fifty thousand eggs to keep the yolks centered. Daily they turned every leaf of lettuce to prevent wilting.
The classes in the Mary were strictly segregated, the interconnecting doors locked, and only first class enjoyed true luxury. Tourist class westbound was occupied mostly by immigrants, eastbound by ex-immigrants visiting the old country. The cabins had no bathrooms, and baths were reserved in advance with the bathroom steward. Both tourist and cabin classes had upper and lower berths.
On September 1, 1939, the Mary made one of her most dramatic voyages, bringing to New York 2,332 Americans and Europeans from a war now inevitable and imminent. The war began, and the Mary, too valuable a property to risk, was ordered to remain at her pier. On the Clyde her newly completed sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, was intensely vulnerable to German attack. By several subterfuges, she slipped away to sea and joined the Mary in New York in March, 1940. The British government did not know what to do with them. Luxury liners were not built for a world at war.
But the Queens soon began a new career as the world’s most magnificent tramp steamers, taking troops wherever they were ordered. Reinforcements were needed desperately to keep the Suez Canal in British hands. The Mary, painted gray, sailed to Sydney, Australia, and in fourteen days was converted into a troopship equipped to carry five thousand men. All her furnishings, woodwork, ornate doors, mirrors, beds, and art were removed and stored. The two-deck swimming pool was drained and given an intermediate deck, the upper for a dining room, the lower for sleeping quarters.
These were ugly days for the Mary. The blistering sun of the Red Sea resulted in heavy beer-drinking and fighting. Fire hoses frequently were needed to break up the brawling Aussies. There was trouble below decks. Rival Liverpool gangs were represented in the crew and claimed their own turfs in the ship. On one occasion, Royal Marines with fixed bayonets were summoned from the cruiser Cornwall to take off troublemakers.
By chance, both Queens were in America at the time of Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, and another career began for them as the ferries of American troops to Europe. The four-day voyage made it possible to ship far more troops than could be carried on a twenty-day Pacific journey. Troop accommodation was doubled and then tripled, until fifteen thousand could be held. “Standees” were installed in every available space, in staterooms, restaurants, corridors, even on deck. These were canvas cots that could be stacked so that the GIs could lie in layers of up to six, with only a few inches for body maneuver and a couple of feet between rows. Two men were assigned to each sleeping space, one sleeping by day, the other by night.