On this day, the largest and most luxurious ocean liner on the seas at that time, France’s Normandie, catches fire while in the process of being converted for military use by the United States.
The Normandie, built in 1931, was the first ship to be constructed in accordance with the guidelines laid down in the 1929 Convention for Safety of Life at Sea. It was also enormous, measuring 1,029 feet long and 119 feet wide and displacing 85,000 tons of water. It offered passengers seven accommodation classes (including the new “tourist” class, as opposed to the old “third” class, commonly known as “steerage”) and 1,975 berths. It took a crew of more than 1,300 to work her. Despite its size, it was also fast: capable of 32.1 knots. The liner was launched in 1932 and made its first transatlantic crossing in 1935. In 1937, it was reconfigured with four-bladed propellers, which meant it could cross the Atlantic in less than four days.
When France surrendered to the Germans in June 1940, and the puppet Vichy regime was installed, the Normandie was in dock at New York City. The Navy immediately placed it in “protective custody,” since the U.S. government did not want a ship of such size and speed to fall into the hands of the Germans, which it certainly would if it returned to France. In November 1941, Time magazine ran an article stating that in the event of the United States’ involvement in the war, the Navy would seize the liner altogether and turn it into an aircraft carrier. It also elaborated on how the design of the ship made such a conversion relatively simple. When the Navy did take control of the ship, shortly after Pearl Harbor, it began the conversion of the liner–but to a troop ship, renamed the USS Lafayette in honor of the French general who aided the American colonies in their original quest for independence.
The Lafayette never served its new purpose, as it caught fire and capsized. Sabotage was originally suspected, but the likely cause was sparks from a welder’s torch. Although the ship was finally righted, the massive salvage operation cost $3,750,000 and the fire damage made any hope of employing the vessel impossible. It was scrapped–literally chopped up for scrap metal–in 1946.