December 12

This Day in History

World War II

Dec 12, 1941:

United States seizes French liner Normandie

On this day, the U.S. Navy takes control of the largest and most luxurious ocean liner on the seas at that time, France's Normandie, while it is docked at New York City. Shortly thereafter, the conversion for U.S. wartime use began.

The Normandie was unique in many ways. It was the first ship built, in 1931, in accordance with the guidelines laid down in the 1929 Convention for Safety of Life at Sea. It was also huge, measuring 1,029 feet long and 119 feet wide. It displaced 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. But 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 now 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. Immediately placed in "protective custody" by the Navy, it was clear that the U.S. government was not about to let a ship of such size and speed fall into the hands of the Germans, which it certainly would upon returning 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 (after the French general who aided the American Colonies in their original quest for independence).

The Lafayette never served its new purpose. On February 9, 1942, the ship 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.

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