In 1943 Frederic Gibbs suggested to his brother William that the time might be right to rekindle their 1,000-foot superliner concept. This time there would be no world war to put their plans on hold. Soon they were hard at work designing what would ultimately become the greatest superliner the world would ever see. For the first few years, design work was conducted exclusively from within Gibbs & Cox. Reminiscent of earlier years, the Gibbs brothers initially took on the responsibility of planning, conceptualizing, and designing the ship themselves. Working alone gave them the freedom to establish a breakthrough design. They drew upon their many years of experience working with the private maritime industry, the United States government, and the shipyards.
From the start, the Gibbs brothers knew the best way to gain government funding would be to design a ship that was capable of carrying out national defense initiatives. The United States Government was well aware of how valuable Great Brittain's Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were to the war effort as troopships. The Gibbs brothers' novel plan called for a ship that would be designed primarily as a naval troopship and symbol of maritime supremacy that could be adapted to commercial passenger service during peacetime. One distinguishing feature of the SS United States was it could be converted from a luxury liner into a troopship capable of carrying 15,000 men in under 48 hours.
There were five primarily design principles that went into the SS United States. Deviation from these principles was not tolerated by the Gibbs brothers. First, the ship had to be fireproof. There was a saying that the only wood to be found onboard was in the galley chopping block and in the ship's pianos. During construction, if William Francis Gibbs saw wood incorporated anywhere onboard the ship, he would personally remove it and substitute it with an aluminum part. In fact, Gibbs tried unsuccessfully to persuade Theodore Steinway to build an aluminum piano to be used onboard the ship. Aluminum could be found extensively in the superstructure, which was the single largest object at that time constructed entirely of aluminum alloys. In addition to the superstructure, aluminum was found everywhere onboard the ship, including the lifeboats, davits, launching equipment, oars, railings, interior decor, furniture, deck chairs, and even in passenger keychains.
Second, the ship was to be compartmentalized to the extent that it could sustain significant damage to the hull without sinking. The Gibbs brothers knew from personal experience onboard the Mololo how important compartmentalization can be. On her sea trials in 1927, had the Mololo not been compartmentalized, she would surely have sunk after being struck by a freighter that resulted in a 15-foot gash in her hull. Despite taking on over 7,000 tons of water, Mololo retained her buoyancy thanks to compartmentalization.
The third principle was to create a powerplant arranged in such a manner that if the ship was struck by a single bomb or torpedo, it would still have the ability to move through the water to escape harm's way. Dual engine rooms were incorporated into the design of the ship to achieve this purpose. There were four independent engine units, each driving one propeller shaft. Each unit had its own set of boilers, steam turbines, backup turbines, and condensers. The powerplants utilized on the SS United States were identical to those on the Forrestal class of aircraft carriers. On the Big U, the powerplant was slightly derated because boiler superheat temp was lowered from 1,000 degrees to about 925 in the interests of reliability/maintenance. The Carriers actually generated 5,000 to 10,000 SHP per shaft more than the Big U.
Fourth, the new ship needed to be able to steam long distances at high speeds without the need to refuel. This would make feasible transpacific troop voyages. The SS United States could steam for 10,000 miles on Bunker C fuel without the need to stop to take on fuel or supplies. As a side note, the Gibbs brothers were aware of the possibility of Pacific service, so the SS United States, at 101 feet wide, was designed to navigate the Panama Canal with only inches to spare.
Finally, the was to be capable of operating at a high rate of speed to transport thousands of troops thousands of miles in the minimum amount of time possible. In addition to being fireproof, the aluminum used in the construction of the SS United States was lighter than steel, which increased the power-to-weight ratio and contributed to the ship's extraordinary speed. In the words William Francis Gibbs her creator, the five principles can be summed up in the following quote: "You can't set her on fire, you can't sink her, and you can't catch her."
The planning of the Gibbs brothers paid off in 1946 when General John M. Franklin, president of United States Lines, gave the stamp of approval for Gibbs & Cox to undertake the design of the SS United States. Throughout the design period, which took place between 1943 and 1948, the Gibbs brothers consulted with specialists and naval experts both internal and external to Gibbs & Cox. Over half of all maritime engineering brains in the country were tapped in the effort to design the SS United States. No phase of planning was overlooked, and if needed technologies and materials did not yet exist, extensive research was conducted. Areas researched included propulsion, vibrations, turbines, steel, aluminum alloys, and fireproofing. A 20-foot scale model was completed in 1948 and was used to study plating. Plans were completed in 1948 and submitted to the Maritime Administration for approval. Also in 1948, the press was invited to the offices of Gibbs & Cox to view a model of the proposed superliner. This represented the first public look at America's great superliner. In 1948, United States Lines named their superliner SS United States.
The SS United States is unveiled at the Manhattan offices of Gibbs & Cox (left). Designers including William Francis Gibbs study a scale model of the SS United States (right).
Bids were then placed with the nation's leading shipyards. Three shipyards competed for the contract: Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company of Newport News Virginia, Bethlehem Steel Company of Quincy Massachusetts, and New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden New Jersey. New York Shipbuilding Corporation eventually dropped out, and Newport News bid $67.3 million and a 1,128 day timetable to completion, which was the faster and more cost-effective bid. Newport News won the contract in 1949 and would become the builder of America's greatest superliner.
Construction Supervisor William Francis Gibbs spent a great deal of time at Newport News and he met personally with hundreds of people at the shipyard to help instill the determination to build America's finest merchant ship. The SS United States was constructed in a large graving dock at Newport News. William Francis Gibbs was very secretive about his designs and the graving dock helped to conceal what lied below the waterline of the SS United States. Gibb's policy of secrecy, under the veil of national security, served mainly to prevent his competitors from learning the secrets of his design.
Hull number 488 rises in the background. William Francis Gibbs was the Construction Supervisor and is shown here on the project site.
Construction of America's superliner took only two years and four months. Keel number 488 was laid in slipway number 10 at Newport News in February of 1950 and the ship was delivered to United States Lines in June of 1952. Over 2,200 prefabricated subassemblies, 2,000 tons of aluminum, and 1,500 miles of welding were installed on the ship. Over 800 industrial companies were contracted with to supply materials. Materials were shipped to Newport News from every state in the country ultimately filling 1,500 railroad freight cars. Gibbs incorporated the finest materials available, there were no compromises. Over 1,200,000 blueprints were referred to during construction. At times, over 3,500 welders, electricians, pipefitters, and other craftsmen were working on the SS United States simultaneously. Work progressed rapidly in day and night shifts.
The SS United States taking shape in the Newport News graving dock.
In a surprise decision, on September 15, 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the SS United States to be completed as a troopship due to the escalating crisis in Korea. At this time, the SS United States was approximately 33% completed. Since the SS United States was designed to operate as a troopship, most changes would be interior modifications. On November 1, the Defense department announced that the ship could be completed as a luxury liner, and the "seizure order" was dropped. This was very good news for the American merchant marine and United States Lines, as the SS United States would be completed as the glorious luxury liner originally intended.
The ship continued to rise up in the Newport News graving dock. The SS United States was beginning to assume the look of the most distinctive and powerful American liner ever built. The bow appeared sleek and raked forward hinting at the speed of the vessel. Aft was a perfectly contoured "spoon stern" which was typical of many Gibbs & Cox vessels. The long, low aluminum superstructure appeared streamlined and balanced. An ultra-modern radar mast was installed on top of the bridge area in front of the forward funnel. On top of the superstructure painted in red white and blue appeared two very distinctive 55-foot aluminum funnels. Because wood was prohibited onboard the SS United States, several layers of neotex was used for the decking material. At 990 feet long and 53,300 gross tons, the SS United States would become the largest passenger liner ever built in the United States. Not only was she the largest, but she would also become the fastest, safest, and most technologically sophisticated passenger liner of her day.
The graving dock at Newport News hid much of what lied below the waterline (left). The cars underneath the funnel of the Big U demonstrate scale (right).
The SS United States was approximately 70% completed on launch day. The launching process would require over 50 hours of preparation prior to the christening ceremony. On June 22, 1951 the graving dock was gradually flooded with water to float the ship. The SS United States was fully afloat at roughly 5:00am on June 23, 1951, christening day. First Lady Bess Truman was asked to do the honors but politely declined. In her place, Mrs. Tom Connaly, wife of the prominent Texas senator performed the christening. The ceremony went smoothly, the ship was officially named, and was towed out to the north side of Newport News' pier 10 for final outfitting. As an innovation, the SS United States was the first passenger liner to be launched by floatation. The floatation method greatly reduced the stress exerted on the hull by a traditional launching.
June 23, 1951 was launch day for the SS United States. Mrs. Tom Connaly performed the christening.
William Francis Gibbs thought over 75% of all passenger liner tickets sold were through the recommendation of women. So Gibbs & Cox contracted the design firm Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald to design the interiors of the SS United States. Dorothy Marckwald, a prominent mid-20th century maritime interior designer created the interiors of the SS United States. It was her responsibility to work out details for 26 public rooms, 674 passenger cabins, and 20 luxury suites. Flame-retardant paint was used extensively onboard the SS United States. In addition, most fabrics were treated with a material called dynel, a fireproof fiber treated with a pyroset finish. These materials were tested for flamability by constructing full-sized stateroom models and setting them on fire. The central piece of artwork in the First Class Dining Room was called "Expressions of Freedom" and was molded in "foam glass," a very light type of fiberglass by sculptor Gwen Lux. To make possible the dual role of troopship and luxury liner, the SS United States was fitted with simple staterooms. Strategically located baths were installed, and private showers and baths were not part of the interior layout.
Sculptor Gwen Lux is shown here creating her "Expressions of Freedom" in the Dining Saloon.
To further increase the safety of America's premier superliner, all public rooms were equipped with fire-detecting devices. A damage control station was installed adjacent to the bridge. It had lighted panels displaying the positions of all watertight doors and there were warning lights for the ship's fire detectors. The watertight doors could be opened or closed from the damage control station, and air conditioning could be controlled from this centralized location to smother a fire. In addition, the ship was fitted with the latest in radar and radio equipment. The ship's powerful radar sent uninterrupted short and long-range radar images directly to the bridge. In addition, the ship was equipped with an echo depth sounder capable of indicating water depth and charting the sea bed. The ship's powerful radio covered all transmitting and receiving frequencies. Each stateroom was equipped with a telephone capable of making ship-to-shore calls. The SS United States was fitted with a gyro compass capable of indicating true north, and repeaters located throughout the ship indicated the ship's course. Air conditioning was installed in every public room onboard the SS United States.
When all was said and done, the SS United States cost roughly $79 million to construct, making it one of the most expensive merchant ships ever built. America now had its superliner. With the SS United States nearly complete, sea trials could now commence.