When a reporter asked William Francis Gibbs if he loved his favorite ship more than his wife his answer was surprising both in its honesty and in the fact most didn’t doubt that the statement was true. Gibbs answered, “Yes, you are 1000% percent correct!”
While working in an industry plagued with high divorce rates, Gibbs is not the first mariner to think, or even say, these words, yet little did he know how those words, his marriage, and the story behind one of the world’s most magnificent ships would be so closely tied.
Gibbs is a monumental figure in America’s maritime history first proving his talent in the conversion of a World War I German liner into the SS Leviathan, the pride of America’s merchant fleet. When the next big war erupted, he focused his talent on developing a revolutionary process to construct the mighty Liberty Ships.
Despite his intense efforts building the low-cost, quick-to-build, Liberty Ships, Gibbs never gave up the dream of building the greatest ship of all time, a mighty $78 million sibling of his great Leviathan.
And he succeeded.
In March 1952, alongside a long overhanging dock – there sat a ship like no other the world had ever seen. It was a type of merchant vessel known as luxury liners or speed queens as they were once called. She was not the largest passenger vessel that had ever been built, and reporters at the time were not convinced she would be even the fastest.
The ship was, in fact, what a 1952 New York Times article called, “The most significant piece of merchant marine construction America has put forward in several generations, maybe since the magnificent clippers.”
The ship was the SS United States. The day she was launched from Newport News shipyard, the Times reported:
There is a very American cut to her in the springing jut of her prow and in the easy modernity of the furnishings. There is great mass in her lines, but no bulkiness. From the outside she seems far too big an object to move at all much less at better than thirty knots but deep inside is a seething power plant that will handle that speed with ease.
It is in many ways a ship to pop the eyeballs. The things that are public knowledge are arresting enough, the things that are military secrets are undoubtedly more so. New techniques, new ideas have gone into it. Standards beyond any before set were established and, despite anyone’s tears of protest, adamantly adhered to.
Thousands gathered for her launch but no-one looked upon her with greater admiration and pride than the eyes of her builder, the then 65-year-old naval architect William Francis Gibbs.
To the crowd and most of the nation, Gibbs was stood alongside the vessel at the apex of celebrity and respect. They were even more impressed after the ship set sail and destroyed the speed record by crossing the Atlantic in a record three-days and 10-hours.
Despite the impressive feat, America’s attention is infamously short and in a few years later she would sail the North Atlantic in relative obscurity, her great speed having been surpassed by the jet airplanes that began to fly overhead.
The new book “A Man and His Ship” brilliantly describes the impressive ship in such detail that even the most secluded landlubbers will be awed by both the ship and the brilliant individual who, seemingly, could accomplish anything. The book takes us from Gibb’s early days as a child who traded comic books for technical drawings and engineering manuals through his determination to navigate his plans for the United States through political, business, and personal assaults.
While the book concentrates on the person more than the ship itself, it’s packed with the juicy details any mariner would love. In short Ujifusa’s work is a love letter the SS united States and, as such, to the sea, merchant marine and the preservation of great vessels.
For those interested in this historic vessel an exhibit of the S.S. United States is now on view at the Forbes Gallery in New York (through Oct. 20) and efforts are underway to assure the vessel’s preservation. Visit gCaptain’s SS United States page to learn more.