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APV-4 / AP-53 Lafayette [ex-Normandie]

Before the 1950s, passenger ships, or "ocean liners" were, in the words of maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham, "the only way to cross." In the age before the jet airplane, the world had since the mid-19th century witnessed an explosion in shipbuilding technology. One of the main reasons to this was the steam engine. Although skeptical and reluctant to change their age-old profession in the beginning, sailors soon began to favor the steam engine instead of sails. The first steamship to cross the North Atlantic was the paddle steamer Savannah. In 1819, it made the trip from the Savannah River to Liverpool in 27 days. Although its steam engine was used for only 85 hours of the voyage, this marked the beginning of a new era.

At first, these revolutionary vessels' prime objective was to carry mail between the continents. Hence, the Titanic's official name was RMS Titanic - Royal Mail Steamer. But passengers, up until then referring to sailing vessels as 'Coffin Ships' because they seldom meant a safe crossing, soon discovered the improved safety and reliability of the new steam ships. Therefore, a group that so far had been a side income for the shipping lines, soon became the most important aspect of the trade--the passenger.

During the rest of the century, ships developed at a rapid pace. Soon, sails disappeared altogether, and the far more efficient propeller replaced the paddle wheels. With the number of immigrants to America increasing, the market called for bigger and faster ships. Ironically, the once so dominant sailing vessels were now used to ship and store coal for the new rulers of the sea.

By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the ocean liner had definitely established its place in the world. Now, they were not only means of transportation, but also great symbols of the nations who built them. With nationalism blooming in every corner of Europe and America, each nation wanted to boast with the best liners in the world being theirs. This struggle stood often between Great Britain and Germany. During this time, many beautiful ships were born, but sadly the circumstances leading to their creation would result in the destruction of some of the greatest. World War I saw the end of the Britannic, another sister ship of the Titanic, which was launched after the Titanic sank. Britannic was originally named Gigantic. The Lusitania, another passenger ship, was torpedoed off of Ireland during World War I.

After the war, the fleet of the Allies was rebuilt with German war prizes, and the transatlantic trade experienced yet another boom in the 1920s. In the twenties and thirties, the great ocean liners were the ultimate in luxury and speed. Competing with each other to see who could whisk their wealthy passengers across the atlantic the fastest and offer them opulence and service matched only by the finest hotels in the world. With the rapid refinement of the massive ships in the early years of the century, cruise lines reached to one-up each other with faster, larger, more luxurious ships. Although the depression struck hard on both the shipping lines and the shipbuilders, the 1930s was the decade in which ships like the Normandie and Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth came to life. The interwar period saw the birth of mass transatlantic tourism. The technological marvels and floating palaces of modern steamships like the Queen Mary, the Normandie, and Olympic transported a new breed of tourist between Europe and North America.

French luxury liner Normandie was laid down in 1931 by Compagnie General Transatlantique, St. Nazaire, France; launched 29 October 1932; and completed her first Atlantic crossing in 1935. Unlike most modern cruise ships, floating, boxy skyscrapers with cabins stacked so high you wonder why they do not topple over, the Normandie was designed as a sleek trans-Atlantic liner with a sloped facade leading up to the bridge and a stepped fantail with decks for lounging. Her first distiction would be as the first ship to exceed 1000 feet in length.

Steamships produce large volumes of exhaust gases from the boilers that produce the steam. Large uptakes at the top of the boilers take these stack gasses from the furnaces to the funnels which were the signature design element of the great liners. Titanic had four stacks, but the aft stack was added simply for esthetic purposes, and was not functional. The funnels are at the midline of the ship, and the uptakes are routed straight up through the intervening decks. The placement of the funnels is driven by the placement of the boilers, but the design of the funnels themselves is an esthetic matter, and they are typically of much larger diameter than the uptakes, with Normandie providing a particularly extreme example of this practice.

Quadruple Turbine Steamship (QTSS) NORMANDIE was laid up on 31 August 1939 at New York's "Luxury Liner Row". During the first few days of the war the Cunard liners lost their peacetime livery and were painted in wartime gray. QUEEN MARY arrived in New York on 05 September 1939 and remained out of service at Cunard's Pier 90. NORMANDIE as well as ILE-DE-FRANCE retained their peacetime livery as they sat immobilized at French Line's Pier 88. Only the Italian Line continued a transatlantic service for several months, with REX and CONTE DI SAVOIA operating from Pier 92.

After the fall of France, the Nazi Fuehrer summoned Admiral Darlan to a conference at Berchtesgaden on 11 May 1941, and Darlan brought back to Vichy a general agreement for French collaboration with the Germans. Interned in New York a few days later, Normandie was seized 12 December 1941 along with ten other French ships then in American ports.

A number of competing plans were put forth by private shipbuilders and by the services. Some sources claim there were plans to to convert her to an aircraft carrier, or a combination carrier / troop transporttransport, but these claims are not well attested. It was finally decided to convert her for use as a troop transport. Normandie was formally requisitioned by the Maritime Commission 16 December 1941 and transferred to the Navy on the 24th; and renamed Lafayette and designated AP-53. A contract for her conversion to a troop transport was awarded to Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co., a subsidiary of Todd Shipyards, Inc., 27 December.

During conversion she caught fire [under somewhat suspicious circumstances] at 1430 on 9 February 1942 and capsized 0245 on the 10th. The 83,000 ton ship caught fire due to a laxity of fire watches aboard. A life span of almost inestimable value was brought to a quick and tragic end by a man with a blowtorch. A $55,000,000 loss was represented in this great hulk -- a loss made inestimably more costly because it deprived this Nation of troop transportation facilities throughout the war, and because of the countless hundreds of thousands of man hours of labor diverted from critical war jobs, wasted, trying to salvage and rehabilitate her. All caused by the astounding carelessness of one man using an acetylene torch in the presence of inflammables after he had temporarily discarded an asbestos protective curtain. The lines of authority for fighting the fire proved to be indistinct. A small fire, that could have been contained, rapidly engulfed the whole ship. Because of delays, confusion and a few bad decisions, she later capsized to the embarrassment and dismay of all the agencies responsible for the vessel. Losing stability from the tons of water poured on the fire, the ship capsized at her berth.

To clear the vitally needed pier, the ship had to be salvaged. The Navy took advantage of this unique opportunity for training by using the New York site for a new diving and salvage school. The Naval Training School (Salvage) was established there in September 1942. After one of the largest salvage operations in history, Lafayette was righted 7 August 1943.

She was reclassified APV-4 on 15 September 1943 and placed in drydock the following month. She was towed to New Jersey for appraisal in November 1943 However, extensive damage to her hull, deterioration of her machinery, and the necessity for employing manpower on other critical war projects prevented resumption of the conversion program.

Her hull remained in the custody of the Navy until her name was struck from the Navy list 11 October 1945. She was sold as scrap 3 October 1946 to Lipsett, Inc., New York City. Standing at the foot of West Forty-sixth Street in New York was one of the largest and most palatial ships ever built flounders in the mud of the North River. The wreckage had stood there since that grievous day 5 years earlier when this great ship became the victim of one man's careless disregard for elementary fire hazards. The Normandie's insides were bared as wreckers hack her to pieces for scrap.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:34:38 ZULU