The SS United States (top) and sister ship SS America (bottom) pass each other with the New York skyline visible in the background.
The SS United States was in service from 1952 until 1969 exclusively as a luxury liner. During this short 17 year period, America's flagship completed 400 voyages covering 2,772,840 miles. Total number of passengers carried was an impressive 1,025,691. Since each voyage included an eastbound and westbound component, the ship crossed the Atlantic 800 times. During the career of the ship, there was never a single major mechanical breakdown that would disrupt service. The SS United States was only delayed four times in 400 voyages yielding an on-time arrival percentage of 99%. The ship would depart from New York at approximately 12:00 noon. During Atlantic crossings, the ship would average 32 knots. During the first decade of service, the ship made continuous rounds to New York, Southampton, Le Havre, and an occasional trip to Bremerhaven. The non-Blue Ribbon crossings would take approximately 4 days and 8 hours.
The ship had the capacity to carry 1,972 passengers in 695 state rooms and 1,044 crew members. In her first Atlantic season, the SS United States carried over 36,000 passengers. At over 90 percent occupancy, the SS United States proved to be an immediate success. United States Lines had reason to be pleased. During her 17 year career, the Big U was the most prominent and successful passenger ship on the transatlantic run. The immediate success of the ship was largely due to the ship's status as the flagship of the American merchant marine, Blue Ribbon honors, the designation of largest ship built in America, unprecedented safety, and of course the SS United States was a luxury liner with all the amenity of a grand hotel. In addition, many Americans chose the Big U out of patriotism. The SS United States was viewed by many to be less "stuffy" and more down-to-earth than the prominent British liners. Although many criticized the interiors of the Big U for being too "austere," the ship's interior spaces were still very bright and cheerful and were filled with furnishings and decorations that were typical of that era. The SS United States was very meticulously maintained and always kept clean. The crew of the Big U was friendly and played a large part in promoting a loyal following. Passengers could always count on receiving some of the best food available at sea. The ship was unmistakably American both inside and out. All these factors contributed to the success of America's flagship.
The SS United States is said to have handled "like a Chris Craft." The ship was remarkably stable at high speeds and in rough seas, although she tended to roll up to 20 degrees in rough weather. Stabilizers were not likely incorporated into the SS United States because they would have reduced the ship's speed. The SS United States was about a third lighter than the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and would slice into large waves where the Queens would tend to drop into them. The relative narrowness and light weight of the SS United States allowed her to roll with the waves. The bow was like a knife and the stern tended to slide or "yaw" in rough weather. Due to the rolling and "yawing," the crew would reduce speed to around 20 knots in inclement weather to maintain passenger comfort. The Big U truly had a unique sea personality. No other large passenger ship incorporated the same design characteristics. These characteristics resulted in the most speedy and agile superliner ever created.
America's flagship SS United States was in good hands with Commodores Harry Manning (left), John Anderson (center), and Leroy Alexanderson (right) at the helm who served at different times during her 17 year service period.
Passenger lists of the Big U included numerous distinguished public figures and celebrities. Click here for a list of notables who sailed aboard America's Big Ship.
During the 17 year service period, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would not cross the Atlantic on any luxury liner besides the SS United States. Here the Duke of Windsor is seen interviewing in the forward lounge.
The SS United States would undergo an annual overhaul at Newport News. In the early years, this was conducted in December over the Christmas holiday and the ship was ready for service in early January. In the later years, this service was performed in November over the Thanksgiving holiday. The SS United States would make an overnight trip from New York to Newport News. Once there, there were extensive docking procedures, which would take several hours. The SS United States underwent the annual overhaul procedure in Slipway 10. Once docked, water was pumped out of the drydock facility. Maintenance would be performed around the clock. The Big U would be cleaned and painted, and the bottom would be scraped. Fractures were repaired and rivets replaced. Epoxy was replaced on the bow and the propellers were changed. While at Newport News, each year the SS United States' presence generated considerable excitement. Articles were printed in the Shipyard Bulletin, Newport News' monthly magazine. The overhaul included an annual Coast Guard inspection of the lifeboats and life preservers. William Francis Gibbs insisted on very tight security. Mr. Gibbs sent letters with security instructions to Newport News. No one besides the ship's chief officers and engine room staff were allowed in the engine rooms. Once completed, the SS United States was refloated and was piloted to New York to be readied for the next voyage.
The SS United States at Newport News undergoing annual around the clock maintenance.