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Magnificent Normandie A Tragic Victim Of War

By James Donahue

When the 1,000-foot French liner Normandie was launched in 1932 it was designed to be the world’s largest and fastest passenger ship and a floating center of French art and decadence. For a brief time, even though it came into existence in the midst of the Great Depression, the Normandie held the distinction of being the finest passenger liner afloat.

Built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique of St. Nazaire, the Normandie and Cunard’s new liner, Queen Mary, briefly became competitors as the finest and fastest liners offering luxury for travelers on the North Atlantic. The Normanie was known for its sheer elegance which many people in France thought was too excessive in the midst of the depression.

Once launched and operating, the liner was a marvel to gaze upon. She had had three large raked red and black funnels, each diminished in height further aft. This design, plus the raked bow gave the ship a look of speed. The third funnel was a dummy, placed there merely for its aesthetic value.

The interior of the Normandie was a virtual work of art. The main dining room was decorated in hammered glass and bronze and Lalique fixtures. It was three decks high and was large enough to seat 1,000 passengers.

The liner also contained a theater with a stage for live performances. Each first-class cabin was finished in a different style, with 400 different styles used throughout the ship. The Normandie offered 1,970 passenger births.

There was more gold in this liner than in any other liner ever built. Glass was used extensively. The ship’s owners said the glass was practical because it never needed painting, was easy to keep clean and it was non-flammable.

 Some have said that the luxury of accommodations on the Normandie has never been equaled in any other liner ever built.

Normandie went into service in 1935. Tragically, this magnificent vessel’s career on the high seas was abruptly cut short in 1939 when war broke out in Europe. The liner was in New York harbor when the decision was made to lay her up for the duration of the war.

After the United States entered the war in 1941, all available liners were seized and converted for work as troop carriers. The Normandie was still docked at New York and was caught up in that sweep. She was transferred to the Navy Department and renamed USS Lafayette. The magnificent interiors were removed and the work of converting the liner for troop service got underway.

Just days before the work was scheduled to be completed, on February 9, 1942, sparks from a welder’s acetylene torch started a fire in a pile of kapok life jackets and the ship went up in flames. The workers evacuated safely and fire fighting units went to work fighting the blaze.

The lower decks of the ship were apparently sealed shut and all of the water from the fire hoses made the ship top-heavy. After a day of pouring water on the smoldering liner, the big ship became top heavy, snapped her mooring lines and capsized in harbor.

The wreck remained there for the next 18 months while America devoted all of its time and energy gearing up for the war effort. Finally an effort was made to salvage the Lafayette. It was with much effort that the water was pumped out of the hull and the hull returned to an upright position. The burned out hull was towed to Brooklyn until a decision was made as to what would be done with it. There was some thought of turning it into an aircraft carrier.

Finally the war ended and the vessel was stricken from the Navy’s armada of ships. The wreck was sold for scrap.