Comments, criticisms, or (one can hope) compliments are more than welcome! Please let me know what you think, tell me I'm crazy (I suspect this) or what you'd like to hear about. Comments are screened before publication, so if you want to share something with me only, just put that in the comment and I'll keep it to myself.


Saturday, May 31, 2014

For Those in Peril on the Sea


The RMS Queen Mary
After a two-day meeting in Pasadena, my friend Matt and I got a lift down to Long Beach for a visit to one of my favorite places, the former Cunard ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, which has served since 1967 as a static attraction and hotel. 

The Queen Mary along with her running-mate* the RMS Queen Elizabeth were laid down in the 1930s with the goal of a two-ship service across the Atlantic.  Since they could make the crossing in 4 1/2 days, it was possible to have a departure in each direction every week.

In practice, it would take another 15 years for this to be realized.  Construction on the Mary was interrupted by the Great Depression for several years, and she finally entered service in 1936, only to be requisitioned by the military when World War II broke out.  The Elizabeth was nearing completion in 1939 when fighting broke out, and her first function was as a troopship.  Capable of moving 15,000 men at a time, the two liners were credited with shortening the war by a year or more.

The ships' role in the war effort is documented as part of the walking tour which is included in the cost of an overnight hotel stay.  They often sailed alone as few vessels could keep up with them.  In 1942, the Mary accidentally struck and sank one of her escort vessels, the HMS Curacoa, with the loss of over 200 men.  She was directed to keep moving, rather than risk far more lives.

In 1948, the ships were returned to Cunard and refitted.  The goal of a weekly express service was finally realized, and the Mary and Elizabeth allowed the line to dominate the transatlantic passenger trade until the advent of the jet airliner led to its decline.  The two ships were replaced by the smaller RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (herself now also retired) in 1969.  That ship operated alone, spending much of the year off the transatlantic run to perform cruises, and it was assumed for decades that she would be the last liner.  However, a resurgence in interest (brought about in large part, ironically enough, by James Cameron's depiction of the sinking of the RMS Titanic) in ocean travel for its own sake led cruise giant Carnival to purchase the ailing Cunard Line and construct the RMS Queen Mary 2, the largest liner and for a time the largest passenger ship ever built.  My dad and I were aboard in 2004 for one of her first crossings.

The original Queen Elizabeth was briefly targeted to become a hotel in Florida, but was subsequently purchased by Chinese shipping magnate C. Y. Tung and renamed Seawise University (Sea-Wise, C.Y.'s, get it?)  In the process of refit in Hong Kong harbor in 1972, several fires broke out simultaneously and she was destroyed.

The Mary however, was purchased by the City of Long Beach and -- after an epic final voyage around the horn of South America -- arrived at her current home.  Her success in this role has been somewhat checkered, I believe in large part because she is berthed in a remote industrial area which is not walkable from the city itself.

On this particular weekend, however, she was bustling.  Her convention space, carved from what had been the cheaper passenger accommodations and forward engine rooms on the lower decks, was the venue for at least one high school formal, and we encountered bridal parties and business gatherings in addition to what appeared to be a healthy amount of tourists there for the ship herself.

Artwork in the former First Class Restaurant aboard the
Queen Mary.  Crystal models of the Mary and her
running-mate RMS Queen Elizabeth were moved along a
track to show their relative positions as they cris-crossed
the North Atlantic.
There is a good deal of controversy about the steps her various operators have taken to realize a profit.  Only her first class spaces were preserved, and much of her original furnishings are apparently piled up in areas that are not accessible to the public. Since she has now been at Long Beach for longer than she operated as a ship, the accumulated attempts to keep people interested and visiting have led to a number of arguably regrettable choices, such as the "ghost tour" and the fact that there is now a Starbucks on the Promenade Deck.  The thinnest of threads links some of the attractions to the ship's own story (example: the current Lady Diana exhibit).

Among the spaces that retain their grandeur are the Observation Bar, which overlooks the bow, and the First Class ballroom and dining room.  Since these bigger rooms are rented out for private events, it is only by dumb luck that regular hotel guests are able to see them.  Fortunately, on Sundays the latter is used for a ($50!) champagne brunch, and we were able to sneak in as it was winding down and grab some photos.

The Immortal Chaplains

Stained glass window depicting the Immortal
Chaplains, aboard the RMS Queen Mary
One area that is easily missed, but deserves to be seen, is the Immortal Chaplains.  This ersatz chapel was created on A Deck forward by survivors of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester.  This cruise ship-turned-troop transport was torpedoed off the coast of Greenland on February 3, 1943.  Of the 900 men on board, only 230 survived.

The chapel was created to honor the four clergymen who -- after comforting others and helping them to safety -- surrendered their own life jackets and went down with the ship, praying and singing together.

I wondered at first what this had to do with the Queen Mary, and learned that among those who contributed to the chapel's creation were two crew members from the German U-boat that sank the Dorchester.  They were transported to the United States aboard the Mary a year later, and the sub's first officer later said "We, the sailors of U-boat 223, regret the deep sorrow and pain caused by our torpedo.  Never again should be such a murderous war.  We should all live as these immortal four chaplains... to love where others hate."

NOTE: The Mary and Elizabeth are frequently referred to as "sister ships" which is technically incorrect.  This term is only used for ships built off the same plans.  The Elizabeth had two smokestacks instead of three and was slightly larger (and holds the record of the largest riveted vessel ever constructed), but the Mary was faster and always slightly more popular.

1 comment:

  1. Great page! Would love to see more stories on the history of the RMS Queen Mary!