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S.S. Normandie, later USS Lafayette (AP-53), during her first year of operation in 1935.
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Class: LAFAYETTE (AP-53)
Design: Pass. & Cargo, 1935
Displacement (tons): 46,858 light, 66,400 lim.
Dimensions (feet): 1029.3' oa, 961.9' wl x 117.75' e x 37.5' lim.
Original Armament: 1-5"/51 13-3"/50 24-20mm
Later armaments: In the armament shown above, 7-3"/50 may not have been installed before the ship burned.
Speed (kts.): 29
Propulsion (HP): 160,000
Machinery: Als-Thom Turbo-electric, 4 screws
||24 Dec 41
||Ch. At. St. Nazaire
||29 Oct 32
||11 Oct 45
||3 Oct 46
||3 Oct 46
FY 1942. In the late 1920s the major shipping companies on the North Atlantic began to consider new ships to replace their aging flagships, many of which dated to before World War I and most of which had been designed to carry huge numbers of steerage-class immigrants from Europe to the United States. With the U.S. having closed the door to most immigration in the early 1920s, the new ship designs focused on carrying middle class tourists in elegance and at high speeds. Early examples were the German BREMEN and EUROPA (see AP-177) and Italian REX, while NORMANDIE was followed by the British QUEEN MARY and QUEEN ELIZABETH. NORMANDIE, however, which was laid down in January 1931, had the most radical and many would say the most beautiful design of any of them, with a slanting clipper-like bow, a slim hull, and three streamlined smokestacks, each one shorter than the preceding. The first liner to exceed 1,000 feet in length and 80,000 tons (gross) and the first to make a 30-knot eastbound Atlantic crossing, she was the largest ship in the world until the advent of the QUEEN ELIZABETH in 1940. She captured the Atlantic speed record from the Italian REX on her maiden voyage in June 1935 and lost it to the QUEEN MARY for the second and last time in 1938. NORMANDIE arrived in New York at the end of her 139th Atlantic crossing on 28 August 1939 and was laid up there because of the outbreak of the war. The Coast Guard took custody of the ship when France was occupied in June 1940.
Following U.S. entry into World War II the War Shipping Administration took over the title to the possession of NORMANDIE effective 16 Dec 41. (On 27 Dec 41 President Roosevelt, at the request of the French government, directed that except in case of loss WSA resell the ship to France following the war.) On 20 Dec 41 the Auxiliary Vessels Board noted for the record that the President had approved the transfer of NORMANDIE to the Navy and recommended that she be converted to a combat loaded transport. The Navy took over the ship by purchase on 24 Dec 41 and renamed her LAFAYETTE on 7 Jan 42. The Navy also leased the Manhattan French Line pier (Pier 88) at which the ship was moored and the conversion contractor, Robins Dry Dock and Repair Co. of Brooklyn (a Todd subsidiary), carried out the conversion work there. On 29 Dec 41 CNO directed that the following armament be fitted: 1-5"/51 single purpose gun (at the centerline aft on A deck), 13-3"/50 double-purpose guns (2 aft on the boat deck, 5 forward and 2 aft on the promenade deck, 2 aft on the upper deck, and 2 aft on A deck), and 24-20mm AA guns (5 above and on the bridge wings, 4 aft on the 1st Class promenade deck, and 15 on the sun deck). On 3 Feb 42 the New York Navy Yard reported that as of 31 Jan 42 1-5"/51, 6-3"/50, and 24-20mm guns had actually been issued to the ship. Conversion work was practically complete when at about 2:30 pm on 9 Feb 42 a workman's torch ignited a large number of life preservers that were being prepared in the grand lounge for distribution throughout the ship. Within the next hour strong winds spread the flames the length of the ship's upper decks, while the ship began to list from firefighting water from New York City fire department tugs that were trying to protect the ship's lower decks and the pier. By 11:30 pm on 9 February the list had gradually increased to about 40 degrees, and at 2:45 am on 10 February the ship completely capsized, coming to rest on her port side at an angle of a little under 80 degrees and completely flooded inside up to the outside waterline.
On 24 Feb 42 the Bureau of Ships assumed jurisdiction over the wreck and placed it under the cognizance of the Navy's supervisor of salvage, who while awaiting instructions on the salvage of the ship carried out some preliminary work including removal of the ship's superstructure. In early May 1942 a Navy committee recommended proceeding with what became one of the world's largest marine salvage operations and raise the ship. Following over a year of intensive preparations, pumping operations throughout the ship began on 4 Aug 43 and on 15 September the ship was fully afloat. On the same date she was reclassified as an Aircraft and Transport Ferry (APV-4), reflecting a Navy decision not to restore her to service as a troop transport. On 27 Oct 43 the Supervisor of Salvage turned the ship over to the Commandant, 3rd Naval District, who soon had her towed to the New York Navy Yard's Bayonne Annex in New Jersey. She entered drydock there on 3 Nov 43 and completed undocking on 10 Jan 44. The next day she was towed to the New York State Barge Canal Terminal Pier adjacent to the Todd yard at Erie Basin, Brooklyn. At about the same time the Navy leadership concluded that the time, manpower, and financial resources required to refit LAFAYETTE for any kind of naval service would be more effectively spent on other new construction and conversion work, and the ship remained laid up at this location through the end of the war. Postwar restoration as a passenger vessel was also found to be uneconomical by both the Americans and the French, and the hull was soon sold for scrapping. Her main contribution to the war effort turned out to be the training of the large numbers of newly-recruited civilian and Navy salvers who worked on her and for whom salvage schools were established on the former French Line pier next to the wreck.
Of the five British, German, and French superliners mentioned above, all but one (QUEEN MARY) had their careers ended or nearly ended by fire.
||Ex French NORMANDIE (completed 1935). Converted by Robins Dry Dock (Todd). Burned and capsized 9-10 Feb 42, refloated 15 Sep 43. Reclassified APV-4 15 Sep 43. To buyer (Lipsett) 28 Nov 46, scrapped by 21 Oct 47.
Compiled: 14 Jun 2009
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2002-2009