An open letter to all fellow admirers of the SS AMERICA…everywhere!
Please permit me to introduce myself. My name is Bill Lee. I was born in Newport News, VA within sight of AMERICA’s building ways. At the tender age of three, I attended her launching ceremonies. I really don’t remember that day, but it was the social event of 1939, so I’m told. And I have been following her adventures ever since.
Sometime in my early childhood, I started collecting AMERICA memorabilia. Much of this initial part of my collection is in the form of glossy news and pr photos, provided by my father. For decades, he was managing editor of the local newspaper and had access to what are now rare and treasured items. Many of these pictures were published in the Newport News Daily Press, and several have notations on the back in my deceased father’s handwriting that materially adds to their value for me.
My earliest memory of this fine ship is going down to the port area to see her arrive from Europe loaded with returning troops in late 1945. This was a common occurrence in those immediate post-war days. Although she was dressed in drab gray, and sailed under the name USS WEST POINT; there was no mistaking her deeply toned, whistled arrival ‘announcement’. A small boy at the time, I (and other children present) were allowed to venture onto the roped-off pier area immediately adjacent to her towering, all-riveted hull after she was safely berthed. We retrieved dozens of coins – mostly Italian – and military script that the returning soldiers had tossed in jubilation. I still have them all…
Following her re-conversion, and before AMERICA left Newport News in 1946 to enter transatlantic service, the local shipyard hosted a public spaces’ tour one weekend. I was there both days (thanks to neighbors/shipbuilders who shared my affection). This was the first occasion that I had to actually go aboard. Thousands of people attended, and the lines were extremely long that day. Many of those attending were rank-and file shipbuilders, who came on their days off to proudly show their families and friends some particular item they had installed or refurbished. This practice I saw repeated again and again, and, years later it was something I did myself. But that’s another story…
Those same neighbors/shipbuilders, knowing of my interest in AMERICA, often brought me small items (such as now-rare WEST POINT era booklets that were just tossed in the trash during the re-conversion). The United States Lines also produced many pr photos of her renewed public spaces (as well as some comparison views taken during her war years). Of course, my father dutifully brought them home to me to add to my collection.
When AMERICA left to resume her civilian career, hundreds of people watched from the elevated advantage point of a bluff just east of the shipyard property as she was backed away from her pier and turned downstream in the James River. As she passed us, decorated from stem to stern with colorful signal flags, her great twin steam whistles blasted again and again, answered by the toots of attendant tugs and the higher pitched voices of numerous vessels anchored in the harbor and berthed at commercial cargo piers. In subsequent years, watching her leave following annual voyage repair visits to Newport News Shipbuilding (usually in November) became a pilgrimage of sorts for those of us who followed her career. Her departures were always well publicized locally, thanks, naturally, to my father! During the fifties, especially, I was amongst those on the bluff almost every time she departed. One of my favorite pictures of her was taken on one of occasions. Entitled "The Queen Salutes", this award-winning photo shows her underway with steam billowing from both whistles. She never looked (or sounded) better to me!
In 1951, when the SS UNITED STATES when nearing completion, my father arranged a visit for me with Commodore Harry Manning at a local hotel. He had been advised of my interest in AMERICA, so I carried along my growing collection, which he patiently (I suppose) reviewed and then complimented as he ended our brief meeting by presenting me with an autographed photograph of himself on the port bridge wing of AMERICA.
Also in 1951, I wrote to US Lines, advising them of my interest and boldly solicited anything ‘americana’ "they could spare". Imagine my surprise when I received a bundle of deck plans, New Yorker ad proofs, and additional pr material. But the biggest surprise was the arrival a few days later of a large, framed reproduction of W.J. Aylward’s famous painting of AMERICA outbound from New York harbor. This is a commercially mass-produced piece; probably widely used in US Lines’ agent offices in those days. It measures some 32 inches by 24 inches, and to this day retains its colorful appearance. And it’s still quite a treasure which I happily display in a place of honor in my retirement home in North Carolina.
Later in the 50’s, I entered the shipyard’s Apprentice School, and on one occasion had the opportunity to be assigned to work for a week on the AMERICA during one of her November visits to NNS. The assigned work itself was unimportant, but I deliberately went to work early every day that week, skipped lunch and stayed after work until they ran me ashore. I was able to look, and look, and look some more at all the public spaces, many staterooms and most of the working areas that are usually off limits to visitors and passengers. A small, nearly empty toolbox, a clipboard with unrelated work orders attached and a contrived look of authority were my passports! Little did I know that would be my very last time aboard…
By the mid-sixties, I had finished the Apprentice School and college, and was hard at work in the shipyard’s nuclear power design department. When AMERICA arrived in 1964 for her traditional voyage repair visit, I walked down to the waterfront one lunchtime to look her over up close. Since I really had no business onboard, I didn’t try to find some innovative way to gain access. My mistake.
Days later, her sale was announced, and I watched sadly and with disbelief as her red, white and blue signature funnels disappeared forever under a coat of Chandris black and blue. With little other change (except for painting out her name), she quietly sailed from Newport News forever on November 18, 1964. That was the last time I saw her underway, or at all. No longer Queen of the American Merchant Marine, she did not salute. But those faithful few of us on that well-trod bluff did…
In the long years since, I have continued to accumulate AMERICA memorabilia, and have included items representative of her several later lives. While several well-meaning friends have sent me information and pictures in recent years of her current sad state, I must profess no real interest in perpetuating such memories; nor of visiting what remains. Rather, I prefer to remember her when… I look forward to the day when the sea finally claims the last of her, and we all can replace those stark, sad images from the Canary Islands in our minds’ eye with happier visions of AMERICA in her prime.
Nevertheless, I have thoroughly enjoyed finding numerous indications on the Internet that this once-wonderful ship has left a lasting impression on many others whose paths once crossed hers. And I applaud those who continue to add to this electronic memory base. I am pleased to make myself (and my life-long hobby) known to you at this time. Perhaps I may join you in the continued exchange of memories, and contribute from time to time to your trips down AMERICA’s memory sealane from a different perspective.
There is quite a concentration on the Internet of remembering from former passengers and crewmembers. There is a third group – the shipbuilders of Newport News – who knew her first…and perhaps best. The following appeared in the shipyard’s publication upon her return to the service for which she was originally designed and constructed. I think this anonymous offering best expresses this group’s (and my own) feelings…
THE BITTERSWEET ROMANCE OF SHIPBUILDING
There is something about a ship that makes it the most loved of man’s inanimate creations. To share in the formation of a seagoing vessel brings to the shipbuilder That Certain Feeling and he belongs to her episodes thereafter. He follows her trials at sea, he rejoices in her good fortune and fame, he sets her apart from all others as his very own, and he mourns her eventual demise.
A crewmember may feel as if he is part of a ship, but the shipbuilder knows he is. He knew her before she was fully conceived in the drawing rooms, he saw her lying helpless in her shipway cradle, he was present at her christening, and he witnessed her graceful slide into her natural element. He remembers her first unassisted step as she backed into the channel, turned her bow seaward and rounded that last bend – going out of sight – perhaps forever.
To others who may line the riverbank, it is a grand and joyous occasion. She gathers speed, her freshly painted topsides sparkle, she passes other vessels at anchor in the harbor, she proudly returns their welcoming salutes with virtually continuous blasts of her own steam whistles. But to the shipbuilder, it is as if he has given up a daughter in marriage to King Neptune. As she passes from view, and even as he turns to his next creation, the shipbuilder hesitates, he strains to hear her last faint goodbye. And then he has That Certain Feeling forevermore.
In the summer of 1989, when she lay neglected in the backwaters of Greece, and in real danger of being scrapped, Newport News shipbuilders remembered AMERICA one last time. In a wake of premonition, her eventual demise was marked beforehand by the offering of memories to the yard’s in-house publication by many of the employees and retirees who had designed, built, converted, re-built and maintained her from 1938 until 1964. Entitled "Farewell America", it took most of two issues of this publication to contain the many fond memories her creators wished to offer in final tribute…and to inspire future generations of shipbuilders.
Later, when I had occasion to visit my birthplace…and hers…I called upon long retired Commodore Leroy Alexanderson (who turns 90 this year). As you are no doubt well aware, he was the last master of the SS UNITED STATES, and is often asked to help publicize efforts to save that equally fine vessel. But long before that, at one time during the late 40’s, he was master of the AMERICA. When I contacted him and advised that my interest was to show off my collection, he replied: "Everybody usually wants to talk about The Big U. But the AMERICA was really superior when it came to comfortable travel. Come on by and let’s see what you have!" So once again, I found myself in the company of a former AMERICA master, who studied and complimented my collection, then autographed for me a recent publication about both these famous US Lines vessels. History can repeat itself… We spent an entire afternoon together as he added significantly to my understanding of her glory years of transatlantic service, and he also told quite a few ‘sea stories’ about his entire seafaring career. I’m not sure which one of us enjoyed it the most…
Recently, I visited the Mariners Museum in Virginia and the Maritime Museum in New York. The Mariners Museum contains many contributions of AMERICA artifacts from NNS, including original oil paintings by Skinner, her last set of nameboards and a highly detailed model, over twenty feet long. The Maritime Museum is the main repository of items recovered from the once-proud US Lines. On display there are her builder’s plate, ship’s bell, additional original paintings and other memorabilia. Only at these two locations can one now see and touch these few remaining AMERICA treasures.
Feel free to share this message with anyone…everyone you know who may have similar fond feelings for AMERICA. I wish for you fair winds and a following sea in any and all future efforts you might undertake to help perpetuate the memory of your ship, their ship…and my ship.
William A. (Bill) Lee
1001 Brandon Court
Monroe, NC 28110 USA
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