- Historic Sites
The Ship That Died Of Carelessness
The Normandie has been gone since World War II, but many people still remember her as the most beautiful passenger liner ever built. It is the saddest of ironies that she fled her native France to seek safety in New York Harbor.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
In the 1920s Pierre de Malglaive, a director of Transat (Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, or the French Line) convinced his company that it could dominate Atlantic passenger trade if it built a vessel larger, faster, and more elegant than any other. Malglaive took his idea to Transat’s favorite shipyard, Penhoët, at Saint Nazaire. There he met a man with vision equal to his own: a junior engineer named Vladimir Yourkevitch, a Russian émigré who had once designed warships for the czar.
Entirely on his own Yourkevitch had drawn up plans for a radically different passenger liner. Instead of the straight, razor-sharp stem favored by the era, it had a flaring, hollowed-out prow; instead of a boxlike hull, its sides were rounded. Yourkevitch insisted that his design was the most efficient ever conceived, that it could be propelled through the water faster and with less power than any other. Transat and Penhoët were dubious, but Yourkevitch managed to persuade them to test his concept. When they ran a 28-foot model through the experimental tanks, they were amazed: the Russian’s design was everything he said it would be. But building a giant new liner was an enormous risk, even without compounding it by gambling on a revolutionary hull. Nevertheless, Transat gave the go-ahead in 1928, and Penhoët immediately started building an immense new berth and an equally imposing dry dock. It also started dredging the Loire estuary and the port of Le Havre to make room for the new ship.
In New York workmen began cutting away several hundred feet of Manhattan to make way for three immense new piers. Three, because the two great British lines, Cunard and White Star, were planning their own superliners.
Then came 1929 and the Depression. The flow of American tourists bound for Europe began to dry up. So did ship-construction money. White Star had to cancel its new vessel, the Oceanic. But Cunard plowed ahead, laying down the first keel plate of Hull 534 (one day it would be the Queen Mary) on December 1, 1930. And seven weeks later, on January 26, 1931, the first keel plate of the new Transat liner—known then only as job T6BIS—was put in place.
Work had hardly begun before the world’s deepening economic crisis threatened both ships. Things got so bad that Transat told Cunard it would cancel T6BIS if the British line scrapped Hull 534. Cunard politely refused. In the end both ships were built only with the help of their governments.
As T6BIS’s launching date approached, everyone began suggesting names for the remarkable new vessel— Jeanne d’Arc, La Belle France, Maurice Chevalier, Aristide Briand, Pax Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, General Pershing—even Lindbergh. Not until ten days before launching did Transat finally announce its choice. Its beautiful new vessel would be named after a French province—oddly enough the very one represented by the minister of the merchant marine.
By noon on October 29,1935, the ship stood waiting to be launched, her black hull rising like a cliff over the crowd of 200,000 people who had gathered on the banks of the Loire to watch. At 3:00 P.M., to the strains of the Marseillaise, Mme. Albert Lebrun, wife of the French president, smashed a bottle of champagne against the ship’s steel plates and christened her Normandie. A workman pulled a lever, and the 30,500-ton hull slid down the ways, on an oak cradle greased with 43 tons of suet. Hurtling into the river at 17 knots, the Normandie was afloat within seven seconds—so fast that more than a hundred spectators were pulled screaming into the river by her backwash. After the launch the Normandie was towed to a nearby dry dock built to house her during fitting out, a process expected to take more than two years.
When she finally began her career, the Normandie’s beauty and originality would be obvious to all—to those who sailed aboard her, those who inspected her engine rooms, even those who simply stood on the pier and gazed.
To begin with, her 1,029-foot-long, 118-foot-wide hull was unique. The soaring clipper bow was hollowed out as it plunged toward the waterline to neutralize flanking turbulence; while amidships, at the waterline and below it, she had—there is no other word for it—thighs, a pear-shaped fullness that greatly increased her capacity. The three enormous oval funnels, each large enough to accommodate the Holland Tunnel, diminished in height from front to rear to emphasize the impression of speed and were raked 10 degrees. (The third funnel was a dummy visually balancing the other two and housing the dog kennel and the children’s playroom.) Not for twenty-seven years, not until the new France made her maiden voyage in 1962, would the world see a major ship with lines as spectacularly modern.
Inside, the Normandie was Art Deco fantasy—public rooms rich with murals, tapestry-covered chairs, gilded basreliefs, hammered-glass panels, bronze statues, lacquered metalwork, embroidered silk curtains, rare wood paneling, crystal lighting towers, and marble stairways. The main dining room, the largest room afloat, was 305 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 25 feet high—longer, noted Transat complacently, than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Its incredible length was made possible by the fact that the Normandie’s funnel uptakes, instead of running up through the center of the ship, as was usual, had been divided and routed up her sides. The coffered ceiling of the colossal room was gilded, the walls tiled in molded glass; a dozen crystal fountains, lit from within, provided illumination.
The other public rooms were equally sumptuous: the walls of the Grand Salon were etched-glass murals depicting the history of navigation; a winter garden teemed with tropical plants and exotic caged birds; the boat-deck grill had walls covered in varnished pigskin; and the 380-seat cinema/theater was the first of its kind on any ship.
The Normandie’s 11 decks were served by 23 elevators, each with two operators—one to work the car, one to guide passengers to their destinations. In fact, the ship had a surplus of crew members—1,345 to serve no more than 1,972 passengers (the Queen Mary, by way of comparison, carried as many as 400 more passengers, who were served by 75 fewer crewmen). In the kitchen 76 chefs and more than 100 assistants prepared as many as 4,100 meals every day. At lunch the passengers could enjoy one choice—or several—from 30 hot or cold repasts, ranging from loin of veal to foie gras àla gelée au porto .
Over the years a number of Transat ships had burned. Determined to save the Normandie from such a fate, the owners surrounded everything with asbestos insulation or fireproofed it, installed fire detectors and smoke alarms throughout, and saw that fire patrols were conducted day and night.
The Normandie was Art Deco fantasy—rich with gilded bas-reliefs.
If the Normandie had only been the most modern and most elegant liner afloat, her success would have been assured. But Transat had also seen fit to make her the world’s largest and fastest passenger vessel.
How big was she? Since there are so many ways to measure a ship—and it’s the rare shipping line that’s totally honest—one can always get an argument on this question, especially from Cunard enthusiasts. But by the most common method, the Normandie was measured at 83,423 gross tons, including all refits—although on at least one occasion, Transat claimed that she actually measured 86,496. (Gross tons are a measure of capacity, not weight. One gross ton equals 100 cubic feet of enclosed space.) If you accept the first figure (most authorities do), the Normandie was 2,186 tons larger than the 81,237-ton Queen Mary, but 250 tons smaller than the 83,673-ton Queen Elizabeth. If you accept the second figure, the Normandie was the largest passenger ship ever built, period. (Today’s QE2 , by the way, is 65,873 gross tons, and the France was about 1,000 gross tons larger.) The Normandie’s engines were turbo-electric rather than the conventional geared turbine, and they could drive the vessel at 32 knots. Imagine the Chrysler Building slashing across the Atlantic at nearly 40 miles per hour; the image gives some idea of the Normandie’s size and power.
On May 29, 1935, at 6:30 P.M., the Normandie steamed out of Le Havre, bound for New York on her maiden voyage. Among the passengers were Colette, Pierre Cartier, Jean Lanvin, Mrs. Frank Gould, Mrs. Morgan Belmont—and Vladimir Yourkevitch. A one-way ticket cost $266 first class, $141 tourist, or $91 third.
From the start, company officials had denied that their ship would try to win the Blue Riband, that mythical symbol of transatlantic speed supremacy. But when the Normandie passed the Ambrose Light, near New York Harbor, she had made the fastest westbound trip in history: 4 days, 3 hours, 14 minutes, with an average speed of 29.94 knots. Whatever his employers may have said, this was what Capt. René Pugnet had in mind all along. In fact, he had a 30-meter blue pennant furled on the Normandie’s main trunk. When the moment came—at 11:02 A.M., June 3—he had it run up for all to see.
On her passage up the bay the magnificent new liner was greeted by everything that could float. Fireboats shot fountains of water into the sky, and Hudson River ferries detoured to get a closer look. New York gave the Normandie the welcome she deserved, with ceremonies that outdid even those at Le Havre. That afternoon thousands of visitors to Pier 88 paid fifty cents each to tour the new ship. Babe Ruth came down from Boston to join the festivities, in defiance of his orders. He was released from the Braves as a result.
In December 1937, Transat’s Pierre de Malglaive, delighted with the continuing success of his great vessel, announced one still greater. She was to be the Bretagne, 1,350 feet long (as long as New York’s World Trade Center towers are tall), with a top speed of 37 knots, a sliding glass roof over the entire upper deck, telescoping concealed funnels, and movable wings on the bridge. She was a ship out of the future.
Unfortunately that future never came. On August 23, 1939, the Normandie sailed from Le Havre on what would prove to be her last ocean passage. In slightly more than four years of service, she had carried 133,170 passengers with unparalleled speed and luxury. She seemed still at the beginning of a long and successful career.
But this, her 139th crossing, was like no other. On the second day out, crew members sighted another larger liner, also westbound. She was the North German Lloyd Bremen, a ship almost as fast as the Normandie herself. She was an unwelcome escort. War was only days away. Perhaps in response to her, the Normandie’s captain ordered radio silence and a partial blackout. The next morning the Bremen had vanished. Many of the Normandie ’s passengers, feeling an unexpected drop in temperature, believed that their ship had slipped away from the Bremen by sailing much farther north than usual. At any rate the Normandie finally arrived in New York on Monday, August 28. It had been a long voyage.
She was due to sail for home two days later, but her voyage was canceled on orders from France—not because only 250 people had booked passage, as New York newspapers speculated, but because Transat wanted its flagship in New York, where no harm could befall her whatever happened in Europe.
The Queen Mary steamed into New York Harbor the next day, after a fast, blacked-out trip from England. She tied up at Pier 90, less than 50 feet from the Normandie. On March 7, 1940, these giants were joined by the half-finished Queen Elizabeth, which had sailed secretly from her Scottish berth a few days earlier. For the only time in history, the three largest passenger liners ever built were together, side by side. The unique convocation was shortlived. Toward the end of the month the Queen Mary, already painted battleship gray, departed for Sydney, Australia, to be converted into a troopship (see “When Does This Place Get to New York?” June/July 1979). On May 12, 1940, German troops overran the French border. Five weeks later France collapsed.
Imagine the Chrysler Building slashing across the Atlantic at 40 mph.
All but 115 of the Normandie’s crew, including her captain, Etienne Payen de la Garanderie, departed for Montreal via special train, many to join de Gaulle’s Free French. But Transat’s New York office continued to pay the Normandie’s $1,000 daily dock rental, and her skeleton crew continued to maintain the ship, stand fire watches, and raise and lower the Tricolor daily. The only evidence of American interest in the vessel was a monthly visit from a Coast Guardsman, who inspected the seal on the Normandie’s radio to make sure the U.S. order to maintain radio silence hadn’t been disobeyed.
On November 13 the Queen Elizabeth cast off, slipped out of New York Harbor, and made for Sydney, to join her sister as a troop carrier. Now the Normandie was alone, still wearing her festive civilian colors. As it became more and more obvious that America was headed for war, U.S. authorities began to realize the ship was an asset worth protecting. The next spring a U.S. Coast Guard captain, John Baylis, boarded her with a detail of 110 men. His orders: Protect the ship from sabotage. Her French crew was allowed to remain.
Nine days after Pearl Harbor the U.S. Maritime Commission took formal possession of the ship. The Tricolor was lowered for the last time, and her crew was delivered to Ellis Island. The U.S. government said France would be appropriately compensated, someday.
On December 24, 1941, it was decided that the world’s most beautiful passenger ship would be transformed into the world’s most beautiful troop transport. And she would be renamed the U.S.S. Lafayette, not a bad choice if a new name was truly needed, but one which will not be used again here, since Normandie was the name by which the ship will always be remembered.
The conversion contract was won by Robins Dry Dock & Repair Company of Brooklyn. They were given just five weeks to do the job. The ship had to be finished and ready to sail by February 1, 1942. The deadline would be extended, but only by two weeks.
On Christmas night hundreds of workmen swarmed aboard. They rolled up carpeting, rolled out linoleum, removed some $2 million worth of furniture, silverware, statues, paintings, and installed 10,000 canvas berths. Storerooms were loaded with cargo, refrigerated holds with food. Naval dishes and utensils replaced the Normandie’s elegant dining service. Guns were installed on the decks.
On Sunday, February 8, Captain Coman, the ship’s new commander, walked through the Grand Salon, noticed its four large lighting stanchions, and ordered them cut down the next morning.
February 9 dawned bright and cold, with a strong northwest wind. About 2,500 civilian employees were at work aboard the ship along with 34 Navy officers and 424 enlisted men, plus 281 Coast Guardsmen. While barges delivered stores through cargo hatches on the port side, welders covered port-holes with steel blanks. French firehose connections were being changed to American ones. Some 14,000 kapok life preservers, 10 to a bale, wrapped in burlap, were dumped into the Grand Salon to await distribution.
At 2:00 that afternoon, Clement Derrick, a welder, turned his acetylene torch on the third of the four lighting stanchions. He’d cut down the other two that morning. When the third one fell, it crushed his spark shield. He picked up a nearby piece of tin to use in its place. Derrick was burning through the third and final leg of the fourth stanchion, his back pressed against the bales of life preservers, when someone yelled, “Fire!” It was 2:37 P.M. Sparks from Derrick’s torch had ignited the lint surface of the burlap covering a bale of life preservers. The flames spread across the bales like a grass fire. Derrick and his co-workers desperately tried to beat out the fire but only succeeded in spreading it. A fire hose belched forth a gallon or so of water, then went dry.
At 2:49 someone on shore gave the alarm. Two minutes later the first city firemen arrived. Soon after, smoke forced the ship’s engineers to abandon the boiler rooms. They turned everything off. The Normandie was without light and power. “Get off the ship!” a battery-operated public address system blared out, again and again. The approximately 3,000 men aboard scrambled to obey. Rushing down the gangways, they ran headlong into groups of city firemen hurrying aboard with hoses. The mass confusion was compounded by a cacophony of sirens, tug whistles, and ambulance claxons.
By now three city fireboats and several private ones had come alongside the Normandie and begun deluging her with water from her port side. Fire engines lining up on Twelfth Avenue and on the pier inundated the ship from starboard.
Half an hour after the first alarm, the Normandie began to list to port. Some of the giant hawsers holding her to the pier snapped, with reports like cannon fire; others yanked enormous iron bollards out of the concrete dock. At 6:15 P.M. the New York City fire commissioner, Patrick J. Walsh, announced that the fire was under control. But the man responsible for the Normandie, Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews, was worried that the ship might capsize. As the fire company poured 100,000 tons of water into the Normandie, her list increased inexorably. Andrews ordered tugs to push on her port side.
Ashore, Yourkevitch finally got through the fire lines. He begged authorities to open her sea cocks and scuttle her on an even keel. The bottom of the slip was only a few feet below her hull. If she were scuttled, she might be raised with relative ease.
Andrews gave the order. But the fire department said it wasn’t necessary; the fire was out and they were calling a halt to pumping operations. Shutting down the fireboats, however, proved nearly impossible. The three city boats continued to drench the stricken ship until Mayor La Guardia himself got on the radiotelephone and ordered them to stop. It took still longer for the private fireboats to get the message.
At 7:00 P.M. Andrews decided to scuttle the Normandie after all. He ordered men into the ship to open the sea cocks or pull the condenser plates, but the dense smoke stopped them. He ordered the ship’s starboard side flooded, to correct the list, but the absence of longitudinal bulkheads made that impossible. And with the water already in her mostly frozen, it was also impossible to pump her dry.
By 9:00 the Normandie ’s list had increased to 20 degrees, putting her open cargo hatches and portholes under water. There was no helping her now. By 11:00 she was listing 40 degrees. At 12:30 A.M. Andrews ordered the straining tugs to back off.
The Normandie’s hour-long death rattle began—a horrible clanging, banging, and clattering, as everything within the ship tumbled to port or rolled off the deck into the water. Exactly twelve hours after the fire had begun, all photographers barred from the scene, the internal noises finally at end, the Normandie gently rolled over, scarcely disturbing the ice in her slip.
When New York City awoke on February 10, there was still a hint of smoke in the air. And the beautiful Normandie, which had been girding for war, was now a lifeless hulk, tumbled over in her slip, visible from every skyscraper in town. In human terms, the tragedy had been quite modest. There had been 285 minor injuries, but only one man had been killed. Yet something brave and lovely had died, and The New York Times wrote, “The sight of her hurts the human eye and heart.” Hardly a newspaper in the country failed to complain about the “plain, inexcusable dumbness,” as the Daily News put it, that had caused the disaster.
The ship was now a lifeless hulk, visible from every skyscraper in town.
Almost from the start, however, many believed that the fire had been caused not by “dumbness” but by sabotage. But the New York district attorney, Frank S. Hogan, said: “There is no evidence of sabotage. Carelessness has served the enemy with equal effectiveness.” For its part the Navy was inclined to blame the disaster on the Normandie herself. It harped on the ship’s “well-known instability and tenderness,” implying that the Normandie’s design flaws caused her to capsize, not the 100,000 tons of water that had been pumped into her.
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.
Just thirteen days after D-day, the U.S. Navy dropped whatever plans it might have had for rebuilding the Normandie. It seemed unlikely that a huge transport would be needed again soon. On September 3, 1945, the war over, President Truman announced that the United States had settled with France concerning the Normandie. France would get $13 million outright, along with Germany’s single remaining superliner, the Europa. That ship eventually became the Liberté
Two weeks later the Normandie’s battered hull was declared surplus.
Early in the morning of Thanksgiving Day, 1946, the Normandie began her final voyage, a five-hour trip to Port Newark. Twelve tugs towed her. The name Lipsett was painted on the sides of her hull in several places. Demolition began the next day. By October 1947 the last fragments of her had been shipped to Pennsylvania steel mills.
Not all of the Normandie was gone. After all, many of her furnishings and fittings had been removed during the conversion process.
Most of these items had been sold at auction during 1942—her 18,000 bottles of wine had brought $20,000, four wooden hobbyhorses from her playroom $30 each, six pianos $80 to $700 apiece, her 8,534 life preservers $310.
Some pieces of the Normandie have found their way to public places: the huge bronze doors that had once led to her dining room are now in a Brooklyn church; one of her propellers is at the Gare Maritime at Le Havre; part of the Grand Salon’s glass murals are in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
The war that ended the Normandie’s life also ended the ocean-liner era—for it was during World War II that transatlantic air travel was perfected. Liners continued to reign on the North Atlantic for another decade or so, but it was a lame-duck rule. And when the Queen Mary, that most durable of ships, and her sister, the Queen Elizabeth, finally retired, it was over.
“In the album of vanished Atlantic liners, the Normandie figures as the ship without peer,” wrote the steamship historian John Malcolm Brinnin. “Probably the greatest ship ever built anywhere, she was a lively and beloved legend while she lived; and when, after four brief years on the ocean, she died, she became a shameful reminder of the way in which blind, brutal carelessness allows men to kill the things they love.”