Tragic Tale of the Normandie Part 2: Salvaged in Vain?


Like metals to magnets, are humans to tragedies. On Tuesday, February 10, 1942, the day after the Normandie fire, the New York Times estimated a crowd of 30,000 had traveled into Manhattan to see the pitiful scene. Along 12th Avenue, soldiers, sailors, and policemen held the crowds to the opposite side of the street, On the West Side Highway drivers rubbernecked for a view, while high above the streets behind thousands of skyscraper windows, office workers could easily see 80,000 tons of ocean liner lying sideways in the icy waters of Pier 88. The Times wrote, “The sight of her hurts the human eye and heart.” After a few days and a few accidents on the West Side Highway, the city erected a plywood fence to hide Normandie from curious drivers.

Yet, there was no way to hide the anger. One man telegraphed FDR, “First Pearl Harbor and now the Normandie….Is this the type of performance for which you think America will pour out its blood, sweat, and tears?” Then anger gave way to the desire for answers, Was it sabotage? Congress, the Navy, and the New York Fire Department all conducted inquires, including a recreation of the fateful scene in the grand salon with welder Clement Derrick, the fire guards, and the life preservers. Once again a spark leaped onto the bales starting a quick burning fire. The common conclussion: “gross carelessness.”

Wth the blame fixed, the question now became what to do with this crippled colossus. The Navy wanted a quick decision becuase as John Maxtone-Graham wrote in The Only Way To Cross, “The Navy’s particular disgrace was compounded by having the reuslt of their neglect on permanent display…canted across a Manhattan slip like a discarded bathtub toy.” Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox appointed a committee to decide whether to raise and salvage Normandie or scrap her right there in the Hudson River at the foot of 48th Street.

The nine-man committee rejected the scraping in place option as too costly and dangerous to the nearby piers, but they found three good reasons to raise her. First, the Navy had developed a feasible plan for salvage. Second, a positive by product of raising Normandie would be the unique and invaluable training made available to navy salvage divers. Third, the French thought of Normandie as their “floating colony”; any attempt to raise her would be a propaganda coup for the United States. The committee decided to raise the great liner; what to do with the ship after refloating was left in abeyance. On May 21, 1942, President Roosevelt approved the committee’s decision, setting in motion the greatest marine salvage job ever attempted.

To complete the impossible job the Navy assigned its leading salvage expert Supervisor of Salvage, Commander William Sullivan. An MIT graduate, Sullivan had been salvaging vessels for 25 years. The actual salvage work would be done by America’s largest marine salvage company, New York’s Merritt, Chapman & Scott under the direction of the company’s wreck master, Captain John Tooker.

At a press conference on May 26, Commander Sullivan explained the salvage plan: After removing the stacks and superstructure, all the submerged openings would be sealed creating seperate watertight compartments so that some compartments could be flooded while others where emptied. This process would control the ship’s righting motion; then the water would be slowly pumped out of the submerged part of the ship until Normandie rolled back on an even keel.

This simple plan proved difficult in execution. Due to the ship’s sideways position, Normandies’s interior had become a massive booby trap. Harvey Ardman author of Normandie: Her Life and Times described a few harrowing episodes: “One man stepped onto a partition of gray-painted glass. It broke under his weight and he fell seventy feet down a passageway, as if it were an elevator shaft. Another opened a door above his head and, with the beam of his flashlight, picked out a tremendous steel safe hanging in mid-air, one leg hooked into an electric cable.”

Conditions inside the ship below the water were almost intolerable for the divers. Two city sewer pipes ran into the water at pier 88. This sewage along with mud and leaking oil darkened the light from the most powerfull underwater beams. Divers had to work by feel, which in the winter meant with numb hands. Both Navy and Merritt-Chapman divers overcame these obstacles. But the key to raising this enormous ship lay in an ingenious device created by Captain Tooker and named for him — the Tooker Patch.

If the ship had sunk in an upright position divers could have easily sealed the underwater portholes, but Normandie’s port-side portholes were lying on the bottom, so that the suction pumps not only emptied the compartments, but also sucked in more water and silt through the open portholes. According to author Maxon, Captain Tooker devised “a heavy wooden disk, constructed so that it could be bent in half. In folded position, it could be inserted through the porthole; then it was opened and drawn back, complete with rubber gasket, against the brass rim and secured internally with a strongback. No matter how strong the water pressure, it could only seal the patch more tightly.” Nevertheless, divers often had to dig through ten feet of mud to reach the portholes, Sometimes it took a week to finish one porthole — they had to seal 365 of them!

Salvage operations continued into the summer of 1943. Expecting an early August refloating, Navy officials set up grandstands in late July to allow the press and other guests to witness the Navy’s shame turned into triumph. The de-watering began on August 4, when the ship was declared water tight and the pumps turned on. By August 7, Normandie had gone from a maximum list of 79 degrees to 67 degrees and touched bottom only at the point of contact with the rock ledge that had temporarily stopped her list on the day of the fire.

But there, at compartment 16, trouble began. The ship had more leaks from that rocky ledge than Sullivan and Tooker had supposed. They solved the problem by placing 3,000 bags of rags outside the ship, near the holes. When the rags clogged the holes, workers poured concrete on top to seal the area. The pumps were restarted and early on the morning of September 14, 1943, Normandie’s log read, “Ship apparently afloat at this time.”

Normandie’s salvage was an engineering triumph. Although the price tag was 4.5 million and the job took 16 months, there were no deaths. The New York Sun wrote: “The Normandie went down in defeat. She comes up in victory. She will sail again — on war duty — and someday, with all her flags and all her lights, return triumphant to her old port.” But this was not to be.

On November 3, 1943, 15 tugs towed Normandie to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she was placed in a brand new drydock built for the Navy’s biggest ships. The drydocking revealed damage more extensive than first believed. All the ship’s machinery would need replacing, at a further cost of 50 million and another 18 months or more. By this time, the war was just too far along; there would be no need for history’s largest troop ship in a world at peace. When the war ended Normandie was declared surplus property and sold for scrap. In the words of a New York Times editorial, “She was a great and unfortunate ship. And an age, a period in history that will not return dies with her.”

Yet, becuase of the ship’s tragic circumstances, Normandie did contribute to the war effort in her own unique way. Prior to surrendering a port, the Germans would scuttle every ship in the harbor in order to deny the harbor’s use by the Allies. These harbors from Naples to Cherbourg to Antwerp were cleared rapidly by navy divers trained at Normandie’s school. During the summer of 1944, navy divers cleared the great liner’s home port and birthplace of LeHarve, France, hastening the liberation of the country to which Normandie would never return.