This week is the 80th anniversary of the destruction of the S.S. Normandie. On February 9, 1942, the S.S. Normandie, recently renamed the U.S.S. Lafayette, caught fire as civilian shipbuilders were trying to retrofit her as a troop transport.
The Normandie was the pride of the French ocean liner fleet. Built in 1935, she was the largest and fastest and most luxuriously appointed of the new ocean liners. But when war broke out in Europe she was in New York Harbor. When France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, the Normandie was held by the U.S. government in New York Harbor. Still owned and crewed by the French, she was not allowed to leave. On December 12, 1941, just five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Normandie was officially seized by the U.S. government, and on December 27th she was transferred to the U.S. Navy, who re-christened her the U.S.S. Lafayette and began work on converting her to a troop transport.
In the first class lounge, where varnished woodwork and flammable life jackets were still in place, sparks from a welding torch lit a stack of life jackets on fire. Sadly, the Normandie's complicated fire suppression system had been disconnected during the process, and the hoses brought by New York City firefighters would not fit the French connections. The blaze aboard the Normandie could not be stopped, and she rolled and sank at dock.
Despite an extraordinarily expensive salvage operation in August of 1943, the righted Lafayette had sustained too much damage to be easily repaired, and both war materiel and labor were short. The Lafayette was never repaired and sat in dry dock for the remainder of the war. She was officially stricken from Naval records in the fall of 1945, and the French didn't want her either. Some attempts were made by private individuals to save her, but none were successful. She was scrapped at Port Newark, NJ between October, 1946 and December, 1948.
Despite this tragic end, many of her most beautiful interiors and artwork were saved and now reside in private collections and at museums around the world, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her whistle eventually ended up at Pratt Institute, and was used in the New Year's Eve celebrations until recently.
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