Scrapping the SS United States

Mar 04, 2010, 10:15AM EST
A bit of history that deserves a better ending.

Rumor has it that NCL is looking to scrap the SS United States. A more dignified end for her might be sinking her as a reef as she has been stripped of all asbestos. Doing this would make an interesting dive site and a great haven for all sorts of marine life. A shame to see such a technically advanced ship of her time scrapped. The original buyer (Hadley) would have been better off to crank her up and market her for what she was with some detuning of the plant. MarAd maintained her for years in a great state of readiness and the gov't had many pipe dream projects for her, school ship, troop ship, hospital ship, etc. Let her go with dignity rather than send her up on the breakers beach. As for a restoration, money spent on the restoration could well fund a modern, no frills school ship for use by the state maritime academies. Better yet, how about a marine fuels and emmissions training and research center dedicated to the engineers who "kept the lights burning" on the Big U.

I had a few friends that sailed on her including one true seaman, Capt. Bill Kolbe who went on to be Marine Superintendent for US Lines. I looked after her for awhile during my days at MarAd including her pre-sale dry docking. When we docked her the steel work was in excellent condition, the boilers and machinery in great shape thanks to dehumidification. The buyer had grandiose ideas of redecorating but hadn't a clue with regards to SOLAS and other criteria. At that time we could have flashed her up and got underway with few problems. During the dry docking one of the last Chiefs and US Line's Commodore, Messrs. Dixon and Alexanderson were present.  At the last minute as we prepared to get underway and tugs were standing by, the salvage surveyor abruptly tried to stop the shift due to the absence of welded shaft locks on the shaft coupling flanges.  He was worried about the possibility of the shafts turning and damage to the gears. Not knowing the ship was fitted with  unique turning gears one could understand his concern however, the clock was ticking for the pilots and tugs and the dock was waiting. The Chief reassured him with a remarkable fact "I had one engine on the jack and we were doing 30 knots at the time, I don't think they'll roll under tow to the dock".  With that said and a call to his office we were off. During the dry docking Nick Bachko was also present. He was one of the supervisors of the ships initial construction.  It was impressive to see him dart off to take yard personnel to the many tank top covers, etc just like it was yesterday. Was easy to get lost on her as I did one day while taking a couple of Navy Admirals  around the ship.

Had to laugh as we were heading down to NorShipCo as we all stood on the bridge when I remarked about the spartan interior of the wheelhouse which resembled a bridge on a Navy ship. Commodore Alexanderson remarked abruptly "I had all I need here to do my job". One couldn't have said it better. When I think back to those days It makes me realize how much I miss the company of true seamen. Brings to mind a saying of an old mentor who will remain unnamed. "Many go to sea however, few are true seamen".

One last thought, have to credit the builders NNS&DD, the workmanship in her could not be duplicated today, especially the aluminum of the superstructure. Reminds me of the bridge wings falling of Navy ships in the 70's and problems with transition bonding of the aluminum/steel structures.  Wonder how those old timers had it figued out in the 50's.
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Daryl Wilkes

what a fantastic post. It was a joy to read.
I can see that you feel very passionatly for the "old lady" Its funny how some ships get under our skins isnt it?

Many thanks once again for an enjoyable read.

Yours Aye,

3/5/2010 9:54:54 AM
Ron Oyer
Thanks Daryl! Some real seamen sailed in that ship and perhaps the one I have the utmost repsect for was the late Capt. Bill Kolbe. I remember a case where a "regulatory body" to remain unnamed, failed to find and deal with some serious lifeboat issues and the usual whining about money to do the repairs came up. His remark to the wheels? "I don't need the bloody ---------to tell me whether my ship is safe. That's my repsonsibility. The work must be done". Today that would be repsonded to with "we'll have your relief at the next port". In addition to being a good seaman he was always a gentlemen in business dealings. A real tribute to his alma mater the Throgs Neck Tech aka Fort Schuyler. You don't find many like him these days. As for the ship, she was state of the art for her time with impeccable workmanship and design. While the details of the plant were always reported to be cloaked in mystery I always thought they resembled the plants of the next generation of attack carrier of the 60's. Unfortunately the influence of the Navy kept diesel propulsion out of the mainstream here in the US while 70% of the worlds fleet was motor and as one can see, our merchant fleet dwindled away to nothing. As US Lines sailed off into the sunset followed by many other old names, States Marine (first operator of the Savannah), Prudential, Grace, Delta Lines, Marine Transport, Moore-Maoormack and the oil companies the last innovative operator with inhouse finesse was Sea-Land with the SL7's and the D-6 and D-9 ships of the 70's. The strangle hold of the Jones Act kept other US operators from remaining competitive. GD had a brief heyday with the LNG's, another ship which could not be built here today. If you're pic reflects what I think, Thanks for your service!
3/5/2010 11:06:54 AM
Gregory Trauthwein
Great post Ron. I, too, just became aware of the plight of this ship this week, and you've done a good service by bringing to this forum some thoughtful content and insight. In this industry for nearly 20 years with Maritime Reporter & Engineering News, I can safely say that there is no ship that I've ever run across that sparks as much interest, outcry, love and support as the SS United States.
3/5/2010 11:21:38 AM
Henk Keers
Her e in The Netherlands we had the similar situation with the steam passenger ship "Rotterdam".
This ship has now been nearly completely restored, is moored in the centre of Rotterdam and serves as a hotel cum conferendce vessel with restaurants etc and with guided tours around the ship. For a budget of Euro 300million including replacing all asbestos by new insulation but maintaining all original decoration the previous flagship of the Holland America Line became a superb place to be. Go to and have a look.
Thesame new future good be given to the "United States", that ship deserves a similar future instead of being scrapped or cenverted to e coral reef ......
Henk Keers, M.Sc. N.A. The Netherlands
3/5/2010 11:29:34 AM
Henk Keers
It would be a pity to send the SS "United States" to the sea-bottom to serve as a choral reef! In The Netherlands we have had a similar situation concerning the previous flagship of the Holland America Line : SS "Rotterdam". For an about Euro 300million budget, this ship has been perfectly restored in its 'maiden voyage' status, whereby all asbestos was replaced by modern insulation, the works are nearly completed. It now serves in the centre of Rotterdam as a hotel cum conference ship with restaurants etc, including (guided) tours through the ship and many other special events. Have a look at !!
The "United States" deserves a similar future instead of being sent down to the bottom of the seas!!! There must be Americans who have the guts and funds to give their flagship a bright future!
Henk Keers M.Sc. N.A.
The Netherlands
3/5/2010 1:01:03 PM
Ron Oyer
Hello Henk

Would have been nice about 20 years ago before she was gutted by the former owner during an auction and left without preservation. There is a bit more maritime oriented attitude in Europe which you don't see here. If you saw the state of her now I think you'd agree that just like the wishes of a seaman she deserves to be buried at sea with dignity rather than end up at Alang. As with the Rotterdam, Queen mary in Long Beach and Queen Elizabeth in Dubai a lot of forethought went into their final resting places. Hope to visit the Rotterdam if and when I get back to Rotterdam. I have fond memories of my days there at Van der Giessen in Krimpen back in the late 70's.
3/5/2010 1:02:12 PM
Henk Keers
Hello Ron,
Amazing that you refer to Van der Giessen end 70-ies!
Till 1977 I was head design department there. Where did our lines cross?
When you are going to visit Rotterdam, please send me an e-mail at so we could arrange to meet. At the "Rotterdam" for instance!
Henk Keers
3/5/2010 2:07:41 PM
Sally Rundquist
The last time I was in the Philadephia area I made a point to find the SS United States and was saddened to see its condition.

In 1959 I sailed from Southampton to new York on this amazing ship. My father was an Air Force colonel and we lived in London for 3 years. I was 15 at the time and it was an experience of a lifetime to come home on the SS United States. We even sat at the Captain's table for dinner one evening. Before my adventure on the S.S.United States I only liked spaghetti, hamburgers and fried chicken. I learned to eat really good gourmet food on the ship - much to my father's chagrin who said he couldn't afford to feed me with my new found love of gourmet food.

I really hope that a positive use is found for this magnificent piece of history. To turn the S.S. United States into scrap would be a travesty.
3/5/2010 2:39:00 PM
Clark Dodge
Aloha Ron from Hawaii. I must agree with your comments about the SS United States. She is a beautiful ship. I looked at the plans that NCL was thinking about. If she was to have things done to her that should be done and converted to a modern cruise ship she could sail the world without worrying about the broken windows and problems with modern cruise ships. Anyone who has seen them on Dry-dock will know what I mean. The power plan of the SS United States could be converted to Diesel Electric and one Engine Room and Boiler Room kept as a museum for people to tour and see what our history is all about. She could then sail as a real cruise ship, no world class liner, as there is a big difference. Modern noise reduction and safety updates are not that hard. Too many of today designers don't know how to deal with reverberations, they just draw it and let the shipyard deal with making it happen. She should not be scrapped and I would bet a lot of us Chief Engineers and those who have sailed great ships would be there to help.
3/5/2010 3:30:13 PM
Ron Oyer
Hello again Henk I was at Van der Giessen Fall of 76 to Spring of 77 standing by during the construction of the Sanko Trust along with Peter Kay. I had hoped to go to SMM this year and also visit R'dam but right now it doesn't look like that will happen. Don't know if you remember Anthony Thompson from B&W however, our paths crossed again in Houston while I was with DNV.

Here's alink to the Rotterdam's opening.
3/5/2010 4:59:38 PM
Ron Oyer
Thanks to everyone for the comments and hope to see more. I was about to give up on the site as some other items I posted didn't generate any discussion. It would be nice if the Big U could be saved however, I don't think there is enouogh of a maritime base in the US to support it. MarAd has dumped a lot of money into the Savannah however, don't know the status of that. As for the recent freak wave incident I remember as a kid the Leonardo D'Vinci pulling into NY with the front of it's house peeled back like a sardine can and the windlasses broke loose from the deck. She had hit a freak wave on the crossing. They are a rarity however, still a danger to ships that aren't aware. Let's hope these postings help the Big U in one way or another and as before I dedicate my ramblings to those who built, sailed in her and the old timers at US Lines.
3/5/2010 5:07:48 PM
Michael Novak
It saddens me to hear that they want to scrap the "Big U". I know a chief Engineer that was a Steward Utility on there with his father back in the 60's. I wish they could do something other than scrap it. I agree with maybe making a reef or try to make a museum of her. I hope they don't scrap her.
3/5/2010 7:47:32 PM
Gary Tober
During the summer of 1961 my roommate and I did our summer project for our last year at SUNY Maritime (on Throgg's neck- poor Throggmorton keeps losing letters)with U.S. Lines. We got a pretty thorough tour of the Big U. from the staff.
The H.P. on the turbines had been filed off. She's certainly a great ship! Later I clocked her by radar from a twin-stack transport at 42 kts. I'm sure that she could surpass that. Some years later, I found that tha U.S.S. America, an aircraft carrier had the same hull and engines as the S.S. United States. The S.S. France (later the Norway) ran at 42 kts as well. Ah,the old days: we youngsters used to talk by flashing light then.
As yearbook photo editor, I prevailed upon the U.S. Lines execs for pictures of the Big U. They really came across, and the 1962 yearbook has a theme of the construction of the vessel from keel up.
3/5/2010 10:33:40 PM
Gary Tober
I forgot to mention: they showed us how they isolated the aluminum from the steel with non-conducting grommets on the Big U., though I can't say how they fastened the house to the hull.
3/5/2010 10:42:07 PM
john kreamer
In 1967 my father, family dog and car traveled from Europe to New York on the SS United States. I wish that I could have been on that voyage with him and on such a marvelous ship. I know that he, a US Navy Captain and WWII war hero, fully enjoyed his transatlantic voyage. Now, whenever I returned to NJ from Philadelphia via the Ben Franklin I always slowly drive as close to the side as I can so to enjoy the view of the SS United States and its iconic appearance - a reminder of a time when an ocean liner was that, not a floating casino with a lot of glitter and no guts. We have old Ironsides and other ships from other eras, we should keep this grand old lady as a reminder of the days of her glory. Long may she wave!
3/6/2010 6:22:03 AM
James McGowan
I first learned about the SS United States while I was a Mass Maritime Cadet aboard the T/S Patriot State. We were on our annual sea term and there was a news story posted about SSUS being sold again, the possibility of her going to Turkey for abestos removal. That would have been in January or February of 1992.

It's sad to see that none of the plans for here ever succeeded over the years. I would have loved to have seen her in here glory days. Those giant red, white and blue stacks must have been a sight.

I'd like to plan a weekend road trip to Philadelphia to see here for myself before its too late.
3/11/2010 10:18:25 AM
Ron Oyer
Looks like another reprive may be on the horizon.
7/2/2010 9:22:30 AM

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