History of liner SS United States to be told in documentary film

To former merchant mariner Nicholas Landiak, it’s obvious why “Big U” is considered the greatest ocean liner ever built.

Landiak had been accustomed to working aboard World War II-era freighters when, in 1952, he was named first engineer of the new SS United States. The 990-foot ship was the largest passenger vessel ever built in the United States. At 241,000 horsepower, United States could outrun anything afloat.

“It was just an incredible amount of power built into her,” said Landiak, who served during the ship’s entire 17 years of trans-Atlantic passenger service. “It was a real nice feeling to have all that power under your feet.”

Landiak, 85, is one of several former United States crewmembers who have been interviewed for a documentary film about the legendary ocean liner. Preservationists hope the production will help rally support for rehabilitating the 54-year-old vessel, which sits idle along a Philadelphia dock.

Entitled “The Big U,” the film will tell the story of the record-breaking ship and how it symbolized the nation’s can-do superpower status of the post-war era, said producer and director Tim Phillips of Rock Creek Productions Inc.

In 1952, SS United States crossed the North Atlantic in 3 days, 10 hours and 42 minutes, averaging 35.59 knots. That shattered the previous mark held by Britain’s 178,000-horsepower Queen Mary by 10 hours. Phillips also plans to explain why the ship’s creator, William F. Gibbs, was one of the century’s most influential naval architects.

“These are two American icons that have been completely forgotten,” Phillips said. “When this ship broke the Queen Mary’s speed record, it was a huge event in this country. It mattered a lot. It was not only the golden era of ocean liners — it was also the golden era of the United States and its power and its technological ingenuity.”

The construction of SS United States at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Virginia cost $79 million. The superstructure included over 2,000 tons of aluminum, contributing to an unprecedented power-to-weight ratio. The hull was unusually narrow, allowing the sleek ship to cut through the water with less resistance and little bow wake. The vessel was made of totally fireproof materials.

The advent of the jumbo jet eventually brought an end to Big U’s trans-Atlantic service. Since 1969, the vessel has changed hands several times and its owners have failed to follow through on rehabilitation plans.

In 2003, NCL Corp. acquired the ship with plans to offer domestic cruise service to Hawaii. The Miami-based company insists that it still intends to restore the ship for its Norwegian Cruise Line operations.

“The United States is indeed the next project we have in mind for the NCL America brand,” NCL said in a statement in September. “The nature and timing of the rebuilding — it is more than a refurbishment — has yet to be determined and we are at an early stage, with an engineering feasibility study almost completed that will then lead to a more detailed design plan.”

Phillips became interested in SS United States because he traveled on the ship from Bremerhaven, Germany, to New York as a boy in 1968. Rock Creek Productions, based in Reston, Va., has interviewed dozens of former United States crew. The film will include memories from passengers and analysis from maritime historians. Phillips is aiming for a 2008 release, possibly on PBS.

The historical documentary project has nonprofit status, and donations are tax-deductible. Partners include the Mariners’ Museum, Kings Point Museum, Steamship Historical Society of America, Gibbs & Cox Inc., Windmill Point Restaurant and the SS United States Foundation.

Robert Hudson Westover, founding chairman of the SS United States Foundation, doubts Norwegian Cruise Lines will be willing to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars that likely will be needed to restore the ship to commercial service. Westover said $15 million might be enough to abate lead paint and restore one level for public view.

“The documentary can be hugely important,” Westover said. “It can have a profound effect (and) reach a large segment of the population. The restoration is only going to happen if there’s funding set aside by Congress.”

It saddens Landiak that the present-day Big U is little more than a decrepit hulk hidden behind a fence along the Delaware River. Landiak was first engineer from 1952 to 1969 — the entire life of the vessel as a glorious ocean liner.

“Our ship was in top shape at all times,” said Landiak, who lives in State College, Pa. “We were always doing maintenance on our boilers. That’s why the SS United States never sailed late or arrived late because of mechanical problems.”

Landiak hopes the documentary will reveal untold stories about the ship. For example, he said United States was capable of traveling at even higher speeds. Just in case it was put into service as a troop carrier, a standby system could provide extra power to outrun enemy submarines.

“There were specifications built in that ship that most people don’t know about,” Landiak said. “We had a booster system using high-pressure steam. The pipes were onboard, and if that was installed, it would have gone directly into the low-pressure turbines, and it would give us additional knots.

“It was never used. So we never knew what the top speed of that vessel could have been.”

By Professional Mariner Staff