Sunday, February 14, 2010


The distinctive “clipper” bow and three broad stacks mark the image of France’s proud luxury liner “Normandie” at sea. It could make an Atlantic crossing in 4 days.

Seafaring folk are generally a superstitious lot who honor the counsel of tradition and folk law. One of the most cherished and time-honored of such is the unwritten commandment that decrees: “thou shalt not change the name of a vessel” ( from that with which it was christened and launched). I do not consider myself a superstitious person, but I have read enough salt-stained literature, and been around coastal sailors enough to say that if I were ever lucky enough to see fulfillment of a long-time dream of owning and converting an old Beal’s Island lobster boat, I would think twice about renaming it. To do so –according to the salty wisdom of some of my “Down East” friends- would be to court the worst kind of bad luck. More about that in a few paragraphs.
At the height of the “roaring 20s”, the popularity of transatlantic travel approached its zenith, fueled by the mood of a more affluent society on both sides of the pond, and the thirst of alcohol-deprived Americans weary of an unpopular Prohibition at home. Competition between the shipyards of England and France led to the laying of keels for some of the greatest luxury liners of all time – an era that saw the French eager to take the “Blue Riband” for speed, and admiration for beauty of design last earned by Italy’s Rex.
And so it was against this background that France launched Normandie on the 29th of October, 1932, three years to the day after Wall Street’s big “crash”, and at a time when England’s superliner - later christened Queen Mary- languished in the builders’ yard for want of funding.
On her maiden Atlantic crossing in May, 1935, Normandie set a new speed record of close to 32 knots, thanks to four turbo-electric engines of more than 160,000 hp – still today the most powerful ever to see ocean service. In its final version, those shafts would turn four 4-bladed propellers weighing 24 tons each! Thanks to a uniquely-shaped “clipper” bow, and a bulbous, but invisible, underwater forefoot, the 80,000 ton, 1,029-foot long superliner literally sliced its way through even a rough sea with hardly a bow wave to mark its passage.
Hidden inside her artificial third funnel was much of the operational infrastructure which otherwise would have used up deck space now designed for passenger pleasure. With two swimming pools, interior ballrooms with vaulted ceilings, apartments with baby grand pianos, and statuary and wall art found in great museums, Normandie’s 2000 passengers traveled in the kind of luxury never before found at sea. Their needs were further assured by a working crew of more than 1300.
As a young boy, I sometimes got to accompany an aunt and uncle to a “Bon Voyage Party” for friends departing New York on one or another of the big liners. We would spend a short time on board before returning to the pier, and watching as a band played and Port of New York fire boats rendered their unique salute to the debarking vessel. On one such visit to pier 88, I was privileged to admire the high decks of the adjacent Normandie, a balsa-wood model of which lay half-finished on my brothers’ work bench at home.
Normandie, (and you’ll notice that in the French tradition, we do not precede the ship’s name with a “the”, as we might for an English language nomination), made 139 transatlantic crossings westbound before the arrival of World War II in Europe. The fall of France in June, 1940 found Normandie docked in New York harbor. Even though a neutral country, the United States government was loathe to allow the great liner to fall into the hands of the German navy. Under the provisions of a set of international rules of war known as the “vagary” law, it is legal for a neutral country to seize assets belonging to one of the belligerent powers under certain circumstances. Thus, Normandie was kept from making the 139th eastbound voyage to a France which was now divided between the German-occupied north and a so-called “Free” sector, watched over by a “puppet” French care-taker at Vichey.
The U.S. Navy took possession of Normandie, renaming it The U.S.S. Lafayette. At first they planned to convert it into an aircraft carrier, for which its design made it a good candidate. Ultimately though, the need for troop ships outweighed other options and the massive overhaul was underway.
I don’t ordinarily keep a mental record of such mundane milestones as hair- cuts, but I remember one as if it was last week. It was February 9th, 1942, and I was waiting for my turn in DeNicio’s barber shop in my home town on the New Jersey palisades when a passer-by came storming in with word that something really bad was happening: “Maybe” he wondered,” the Germans have bombed New York City”. We all followed him out to the sidewalk to stare at the huge column of black smoke filling the sky to the east of us. Beneath that pall of smoke, we learned, lay the former Normandie, now the USS Lafayette; victim of a welder’s torch.
The Russian-born engineer who had designed the ship told the fire supervisor to open the vessel’s seacocks, admitting the sea water, thus allowing the ship to settle to the shallow bottom in place. It would then have been possible for the fire boats to concentrate water directly on the fire. Ignoring his advice, the Admiral in charge and his men watched helplessly as the entire ship became involved in fire, finally turning turtle the next day from the fire-boats’ fruitless bombardment of tons of water.
Several days later, my Dad took me to a viewing site from which we could look down on the overturned wreckage of the once- proud luxury liner. I was nine years of age. My country had been at war for two months. And I wondered what lay ahead.

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