BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Man and His Ship’

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By Steven Ujifusa
Simon & Schuster, $29.99, 437 pages, illustrated

It is an undeniable fact, although one often ignored by those unwilling to look beyond the obvious, that while wars are certainly terrible for those who fight them, they tend to bring ancillary benefits. Antibiotics had been invented well before World War II, but there was little indication that they would be produced en masse, let alone made available to the general public, until that conflict took them off the back burner. Even the Cold War brought improvements to this country: The teaching of science and foreign languages was upgraded and the interstate highway system was built. “A Man and His Ship” reminds us of another great thing that the “long twilight struggle” and the global conflict that preceded it brought us: the only great Atlantic superliner born and built in the USA — the SS United States.

Six-and-a-half decades ago, when Ronald Reagan was still a movie star (one of his more forgotten films, “She’s Working Her Way Through College” was screened on the SS United States’ maiden voyage) and Harry S. Truman sat in the White House, a government subsidy for a private commercial enterprise was not all that outlandish. Still, as maritime historian Steven Ujifusa tells us in this meticulously researched book, the vessel’s “onlie begetter,” seasoned naval architect William Francis Gibbs, had to struggle long and hard to achieve his lifelong ambition: an American liner that could take on — and best — the British Queens Elizabeth and Mary, which ruled the Atlantic waves even if Britannia’s navy no longer did.

These magnificent ships had proven themselves invaluable as troop carriers during World War II, so Washington deemed a subsidy for an American equivalent appropriate in those stormy days.

But it’s also fascinating to see what a hard bargain Truman tried to drive, and Mr. Ujifusa provides a detailed account of the struggle between government and private enterprise over terms that continued even after the ship was plying the ocean. Indeed, it was finally the withdrawal of the congressional subsidy for fiscal 1970 (it was supposed to run until 1977, a full quarter century after it set to sea) that doomed the SS United States and led to its abrupt mothballing in November 1969.

Without government aid, it would probably never have been built. But it also seems clear that its addiction to aid made it unable or unwilling to operate without it. Also, unlike Britain’s QE2, which was mobilized in the Falklands War, the SS United States never saw active service, so all that government money was, in effect, an insurance premium for a policy that never had to be claimed.

The beneficiaries were those passengers lucky enough to travel on this magnificent liner. Mr. Ujifusa takes his readers aboard ship and so vivid is his writing that he makes us appreciate its unique features and all-around splendors. William Francis Gibbs was obsessed with the danger of fire, so stainless steel was used in its construction, making it very light for its enormous size and helping to enable the speed — more than 40 mph — which shattered all existing records and held them as long it sailed.

There was also no wood aboard, except for the butcher block in the kitchen and the Steinway pianos. The cuisine onboard was second to none, an important part of making it truly world class, so the chef received special consideration. But entertainment onboard also was important. Not only was there an orchestra but only the finest piano would do:

Gibbs began pestering Steinway to build aluminum-framed pianos for the ship’s lounges. Theodore Steinway put his foot down, not wanting his name on them. No metal piano, no matter how well-designed, would have the same resonant tone as one made out of wood. Steinway trotted out a gleaming concert grand of the type that would be used in the first-class ballroom, doused it with gasoline, and threw a match on it. The gasoline burned but the piano did not. Gibbs relented and allowed several wooden Steinway pianos to come aboard.”

One thing is clear from this book: From grand design down to the smallest detail, Gibbs was the ultimate perfectionist.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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