The Ship That Died Of Carelessness

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Whatever anyone said, there she was, lying on her side in 46 feet of water at Pier 88, on permanent display despite the plywood fence the Navy built in an attempt to conceal her. Something had to be done with her, but what? Actually there was no choice. For reasons of public relations and morale, for reasons of national defense, and simply to clear the slip, she had to be raised.

And so began the largest, most difficult salvage operation in history.

The Normandie had suffered an unusual catastrophe but not a unique one. In fact, in 1939 the event’s mirror image had befallen another Transat liner, the Paris, which still lay gutted in Le Havre Harbor. And similar events had even occurred in New York. The 5,000-ton White Star liner Germanic had toppled over in New York Harbor in winter, 1899, because of the weight of ice on her superstructure, and the 10,230-ton St. Paul had capsized at a North River pier in 1918, also while being converted into a troopship. Because of their size, both the Germanic and the St. Paul had been raised without too much trouble, the latter by the salvage firm of Merritt-Chapman & Scott. Now that firm was chosen to help raise the Normandie.

Stirred by the ship’s plight, more than 5,000 citizens came forth with salvage suggestions, ranging from the fairly rational to the totally demented, among them air bags, Ping-Pong balls, cables suspended from blimps—and simple prayer. Comdr. William Sullivan, the chief salvage supervisor, kept a “nut file” of all suggestions. His favorite came from a woman who said first to freeze all the water in Pier 88, then tow this ice block with the ship imprisoned in it to the George Washington Bridge. Then, at high tide, attach cables between bridge and ship. When the tide went out and the ice melted, voilà!

The salvage team came up with a more mundane approach. It decided to remove the Normandie’s superstructure, clear out the debris, subdivide the hull into small, watertight compartments, pump them dry, then let the ship’s natural buoyancy take over. The plan sounded easy enough, but in reality it presented unprecedented difficulties. With the ship on her beam ends, ladders and stairways were useless, and companionways averaging 3.5 to 4.5 feet wide were now exactly that high—so workmen had to crouch wherever they went. Elevator shafts, now horizontal, became companionways.

 
 
 

And the work to be done was formidable. Some 16 cargo ports on the submerged side had to be closed, along with 356 portholes. The 10,000 cubic yards of mud that had seeped through them had to be removed, as did 8,000 pounds of shattered glass. A quarter of a million board feet of lumber had to be installed as shoring. Some 98 one-ton pumps had to be positioned precisely.

All of this had to be accomplished under horrendous conditions. Divers worked inside the topsy-turvy labyrinth of decks and cabins in total darkness, submerged in a colloidal mixture of freezing water, industrial wastes, clotted oil, mud, and raw sewage entering the slip directly via two city mains.

Actual salvage work began in May. As many as 75 divers worked simultaneously, around the clock. They were trained on the spot, in two separate Pier 88 schools. In the freezing darkness they felt their way around the hull, pushing folded wooden patches through the portholes with numbed hands, forcing pumps into place, coating engine parts with a preservative to prevent rusting.

In the summer of 1943 the Navy built a grandstand on Pier 88 so the VIP spectators could witness the resurrection. It was like watching water boil; the pumping began on August 4, but not until September 13 was she afloat.

Ironically the salvage process itself hurt the Normandie more than anything else. She’d been resting partly in the mud at the bottom of her slip and partly on a jagged ledge of rock. As she was pumped out, she pivoted on that rock, ripping her hull plates. It took more than 800 tons of concrete and hundreds of mattresses and bales of rags to patch her up.

On October 27, 1943—Navy Day, as it happened—the salvagers turned the Normandie, now floating on an even keel, back to the government. Except for the oily stripes on her bow and port side, she looked much as she had when she was launched. A week later 20 tugs gingerly towed what was left of her to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

On January 11, 1944, she was moved again, this time to Todd Shipyard. There she sat. And while she sat, she made her only contribution to the war effort—an indirect contribution but a very real one. The hundreds of Navy frogmen who’d learned their trade during her salvage began preparing for Allied landings at Normandy. Their help in clearing obstructions from coastlines and ports proved crucial.