This Day In History: The US Takes Possession Of The Normandie Liner (1941)

On this day in 1941, during the Second World War the US Navy commanders the world’s largest liner. The liner was the French ship the SS Normandie and it was taken over by the navy as it was docked in New York harbor.  The US navy decided to convert it to wartime use. The French had been defeated by the Germans in 1940 and the authorities did not want such a large ship falling into the hands of the Nazis.

The Nornandie was a marvel of maritime engineering. It was the first ship build to fully comply with international safety guidelines. It was also very big and it was over a thousand feet long and it was almost 120 feet wide. The ship was designed to provide luxurious voyages for the world’s rich and famous. At this time, only the very rich could afford to travel on a liner. The Normandie offered its passengers seven types of accommodation.  The liner had accommodation for almost 2000 passengers. The ship was launched in 1932 and it made its first trans-Atlantic journey in 1935. The ship had a crew of over 1000. They ranged from sailors to chefs to laundry workers. The Normandie was compared to a town floating on water. There were four propellers driving the huge ships and they were configured in a way that was innovative. The ship was amazingly fast and it could complete the Trans-Atlantic journey in four to five days depending on weather conditions.

Normandie on fire

In 1940 the American navy announced that they were placing the liner in protective custody. They kept the liner in the dock, and they decided that they would use it in the event of war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, the Americans seized the ship and renamed it the Lafayette, in honor of the Great French general. They immediately began to convert the ship. They intended to turn it into a troop ship and would be used to transport thousands of Americans soldiers to Britain.  The newly named ship was never able to take part in the war effort. On the 9th of February, the ship caught fire and it was destroyed. Such was the destruction that the ship capsized in the harbor. The ship was eventually rights but the fire had done so much damage that the Normandie was only fit for scrap. The ship was not scrapped until 1946. The cause of the fire at the time was believed to be sabotage. Some suspected that Nazi sympathizers in the large German-American community had set fire to the ship. There are stories that so concerned were the authorities with the threat of sabotage at this time that they asked the Mafia to watch for any suspicious activity. At this time the Mob controlled the unions on the NY waterfront. In fact, it seems most likely that the ship was set on fire by a careless welder.