The great depression of the 1930s. Uncertain times, high unemployment rates and rising poverty in the United States. This was the context when the decision was made to build the America.
In order to get the economy back on track, President Roosevelt introduced his famous 'New Deal'. This public deficit spending program relied on government procurement to revive the economic cycle. This support also included the US merchant marine with the introduction of the so called 'Merchant Marine Act'. The United States wanted to emerge stronger from the crisis than they went into it.
So in 1936 the US Maritime Commission was created by the Merchant Marine Act, a shipbuilding program that would turn out to be the biggest in history.
The first ship to be laid down under a Maritime Commission contract and a symbol of the rebirth of the counrty's merchant shipping was the yet unnamed America.
The ship was planned to be employed as a transatlantic ocean liner operated by the United States lines. The shipping company had previously negotiated a deal to be able to replace their unprofitable aging flagship Leviathan with a smaller new building. Half of the constrction cost was paid by the US Lines and the other half was paid by the Maritime Commission, thus by the government.
Page1: Background and construction progress ashore
The America was a national prestige project. She was the most important maritime construction project of her time in the US, saving and creating thousands of jobs and provided a new flagship for the American merchant marine, a national symbol.
She should become the fastest, largest, most luxurious and most modern passenger vessel ever constructed in the United States up to this point.
To realise this plan, naval architect william francis gibbs was awarded with the development of the ships design in 1936. At that time, Gibbs was one of the most respected and successful naval architects in the country. Many passenger vessels, including such well-known as the Lurline, Mariposa, Malolo or Santa Rosa were designed by him and the team of naval architects of his company Gibbs and Cox. He and his team earned their high reputaion for numerous innovations and the setting of new standards in maritime safety.
But Gibbs and his team weren't completely free in determining the design of the new ship. Many different expactations had to be united in one final design: The shipowners needs for profitability, the Maritime commissions need for a safe and modern vessel and even the navys need for a potential use as a military transport. Questions like -'How big shoud the new ship be?', 'How many waterthight compartments should it have?', 'How fast should it be and what should it look like?'- rose different answers from every party financially involved.
Gibbs design proposal finally accepted was a 220 meters (728 feet) long and 22 knots fast ship with a capacity of 1200 passengers and a hull with a warship- like subdivision. This design was a compromise that convinced all parties. The completed draft officially was accepted on 22 July 1937 with the signature of Vice-Admiral E.S. Land of the Maritime Commission.
In the early 30's the United States Lines had decided to phase out their aging flagship, the Leviathan (formerly the German Vaterland, built in 1914) due to unprofitability and other problems. The US Shipping Board responsable for these decisions at that time, finally agreed with the condition to replace the Leviathan with a new building. But the received subsidies were too low and therefore the cost is too high for the US Lines. Therefore they tried to delay the construction of a replacing ship. As the Shipping Board was finally replaced by the Maritime Commission in 1936 as part of the extension of the "New Deal" to the Merchant Marine, subsidies rose sharply. Economic success was now possible for the United States Lines and they finally gave up their blockade.
The construction begins: Vice Admiral Emeroy S. Land of the Maritime Comission (white shirt) symbolically draws the first two rivets into the keel of America on 22 August 1938 .
-Pictures: Newport News Shipyard Bulletin, US Lines-
Back in the 30's, shipbuilding wasn't an highly automatized process like today, but bone-hard work with lots of dangers for the workers. There were some innovations like a small amount of prefabricated elements in America's construction process, but the bulk of the task was done in traditional style, riveted together frame by frame, by thousands of workers with lots of sweat, brawn and dust.
The finally accepted Gibbs & Cox Design MC was signed on 22 July 1937 by Vice Admiral E.S. Land of the Maritime Commission.
-Picture: Courtesy of Bill Lee-
Hull of America at an early stage of construction, looking toward the bow. You can see the individual bulkheads and an elevator shaft in the foreground.
-Picture: Universal Newsreel-
Above: Workers lay a plate in the garboard strake of America.
Below: riveting of the hull plating on wooden scaffolding.
-Pictures: United States Lines/ Univ. Newsreel -
Mr. Gibbs and his team designed the America so that it was the safest passenger ship of its time. 14 Waterproof compartments, three of which any could be completely flooded without endangering the ships stability, the riveted hull of the vessel was practically a double hull in sensitive areas up to the B-deck and the fire prevention and fire fighting system set new standards: 90% of the ship was made of non-combustible material, there was a central fire control station, comprehensive fire detection and extinguishing systems, as well as electromagnetically controlled fire doors, a worlds first in use on board ships. The double hull all metal lifeboats of gravity type were allowed to be lowered by a single person if needed in case of emergency and due to a chamber system were practically unsinkable.
Although 1936 is a key year for the development of the America, it's not the beginning of the development history of the ship. Preliminary designs date back to the time of the early 30s. A total of 16 different designs were made since 1932, starting with modernized versions of the United States Lines Manhattan class ships. Three times there was even a bidding process started for the construction of a hypothetical ship. But these early designs are not created with the objective and political influence under which the America was ultimately conceived in 1936 as a completely new and pioneering ship. Therefore these early designs are only of minor importance to the actual project.
Infobox: Early designs of America
Test of a model of the hull of America at 23 knots in the wave channel. Before the start of the ships construction, over 50 different models were tested in over 5000 test runs. Also a model with a bulbous bow was tested but not implemented. In addition to the flow behavior of the hull, the effect of swell to the hull was tested. Wavelengths of 30 to 300 meters (100 to 1000 feet) were simulated for this.
Half model of the hull of America. Using this model, the bending of the frames of the actual ship was calculated. The model is therefore as accurate as possible.
The keel of America with the first frames laid. The future shape of the hull can be guessed already.
The first step of construction was the keel laying. The keel was the backbone of America. It was the starting point for the subsequent construction and of important structural meaning. The keel was made of prefabricated sections assembled on wooden blocks, which later were important for the launch and the weight distribution of the growing vessel's hull.
Starting from the keel lay a skeleton of steel beams, the so called frames. They were the steel ribs of America. They determined the hull's shape and were therefore partially very complex shaped. The origination process of the frames is a good example to understand the complex operation, which was used in traditional shipbuilding component by component:
To create the frames a template on the so called mold loft was first drawn in 1:1 scale based on detailed construction plans and the half model shown above. Steel beams were then heated to glow for molding. With iron pins then the exact form of each frame based on the template was prepared in a perforated floor. Then raw muscle power was needed. Using hammers the steel was shaped in its new form. This procedure was very tedious and time consuming, since almost all frames of the hull were unique. The same was true for many steel plates of the hull, bulkheads and deck plating. All were numbered and had chalk marks for their exact alignment and position in the growing hull. Like a puzzle they only fitted to one particular position within the construction. The frames, beams and steel bulkheads of America grew rivet by rivet, steel plate by steel plate and deck by deck with a huge logistical effort.
The bids for the construction of this accepted design started september 15th 1937. The winning shipyard finally awarded with the construction of the new vessel on September 30th was the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Virginia. They had won against other competetors by offering the lowest bid, which was also a fixed price without possible skyrocketing costs.
Work on the new ship immediately started (after the Leviathan's replacement and scrapping was signed) on November 8th when the Newport News Shipyard took over to work out Gibbs drafts with the development of detailed blueprints by houndreds of draftsmen and shell expansion plans made from accurate models.
On December 8th the ships name was officially choosen to be America. Other names considered were Gettysburg, Mayflower and even United States. America won the race because it was catchy and international. There's no need of any translation in most other languages.
Work progressed fast. In June 1938 thousands of tons of steel arrived at Newport News and on August 22th, the keel of the hull could be laid.
The drawing of construction plans by houndreds of draftsmen at Newport News.