January 17, 1994 Death of a Troop Ship

SS America had the largest total of any Navy troop ship in service during WWII, and included USO entertainers, Red Cross workers, and prisoners of war

The Federal Government passed the Merchant Marine act of 1936, “to further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well-balanced American merchant marine”.

The act served multiple purposes.  Among them was the modernizing what was at that time a largely WWI vintage merchant marine fleet, and serving as the basis for a naval auxiliary that could be activated in time of war or national emergency.ss_america_under_construction

Two years later, the first keel laid under the Merchant Marine act was the SS America, built by the United States Line and operated as a passenger liner until America entered WWII in 1941.

Naval interiors of the age tended to be stodgy and overwrought. SS America has the almost unique distinction of having its interiors designed entirely by women, as naval architect William Francis Gibbs turned to the all-female team of Miriam Smyth, Ann Urquhart & Dorothy Marckwald. “It is not without reason”, according to team leader “Dot” Marckwald, “the majority of the passengers are women, and no man could ever know as much about their comfort problems and taste reactions as another woman.”ss-america-lounge-from-balcony

SS America was christened by Eleanor Roosevelt and launched on August 31, 1939, the day before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland.

She would serve as a passenger liner for the two years remaining for US neutrality, with American flags painted on both sides of her hull.  At night she’d sail while fully illuminated.

Where there are government subsidies, there are strings. For SS America, those strings ss-america-flaggedwere pulled on May 28, 1941, while the liner was at Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. The ship had been called into service by the United States Navy, and ordered to return to Newport News.

Re-christened the USS West Point, she served as a transport for the remainder of the war, carrying in excess of 350,000 troops and other passengers by 1946. Hers was the largest total of any Navy troop ship in service during WWII, and included USO entertainers, Red Cross workers, and prisoners of war. As America, she had even carried two Nazi spies as part of her crew, until their discharge on America’s return to Virginia. The two spies, Franz Joseph Stigler and Erwin Wilheim Siegler, were members of the Duquesne spy ring, reporting allied movements in the Panama Canal Zone until they and 31 of their cohorts were found out late in 1941.

ss-united-states-ss-americaDuring her service to the United States Navy, West Point was awarded the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.

Returned to civilian service in 1946 and re-christened America, the ship remained a favorite for cruise ship vacationers through most of the fifties. By 1964, the competition from larger, faster ships and the airlines had put the best years behind the aging liner. Sold and then sold again, she had come full circle by 1978, when new owners tried to capitalize on the old ship’s mystique. She was in terrible condition and her refit nowhere near complete when America set sail on her first cruise on June 30, 1978. There was rusted metal, oil soaked rags and backed up sewage. There were filthy mattresses and soiled linens, and so many complaints that the ship turned back after barely clearing the Statue of Liberty.

Impounded for non-payment of debts and receiving an inspection score of 6 out of a possible 100 points by the Public Health Service, the US District Court ordered America to be sold at auction.

One new owner after another bought the hulk during the eighties, only to default. First it was going to be a prison ship, and then sold and renamed Alferdoss, which means “paradise” in Arabic. She was anything but at this point. The next buyer intended to scrap her, only to become the latest in a long line of financial defaults.

Sold yet again in 1993 and renamed the American Star, the new owners planned to convert her to a five-star hotel ship off Phuket, Thailand. A planned 100 day tow began on New Year’s Eve of 1993, but the lines broke. On January 17, 1994, the former SS America was wreck-ss-americaadrift in foul seas, running aground in the Canary Islands the following day.

Discussions of salvage operations were soon squashed, as the ship broke in two in the pounding surf.

The National WWII Museum in New Orleans reports on its website that the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now passing at a rate of 550 per day.  The Frank Buckles of their era, the last living American veteran of WWI, is expected to pass some time in the 2030s.  How many, I wonder, might think back and remember passage on the most successful troop transport of their day.

By the spring of 2013, the only time you could tell there’s a wreck on the beach, was at low tide.

 

 

 

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January 16, 2003 Columbia

231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000°F, when hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype, dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first spaceworthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

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STS-1, the 1st Space shuttle mission, launched aboard Columbia on 4/12/81

STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, aboard the Russian Vostok 1. It was the first, and to-date only, manned maiden test flight of a new spacecraft system in the US space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with its external hydrogen fuel tank painted white. From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted to save weight.

There were initially four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia was joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”. A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.  A piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank eighty seconds after launch, striking Columbia’s left wing and leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.  Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, they were unable to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even if there had been major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry. Columbia’s 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds in space came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003, as it broke up in the outer atmosphere. 231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000°F, when hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing. The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

Debris and crew remains were found in over 2,000 locations across Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. The only survivors of the disaster was a canister full of worms, taken into space for study.

petr-ginz-drawingPayload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program. Colonel Ramon’s mother is an Auschwitz survivor, his grandfather and several family members killed in the Nazi death camps. In their memory, Ramon carried a copy of “Moon Landscape”, a drawing by 14 year old holocaust victim Petr Ginz, depicting what the boy thought earth might look like from the moon. Today, there are close to 84,000 pieces of Columbia and assorted debris, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. To the best of my knowledge, that drawing by a 14 year old boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.