No one living on the Peninsula on Aug. 31, 1939, had to be told twice about the importance of the landmark vessel scheduled to be launched by Newport News Shipbuilding that morning.
Long before the gates opened, the first of more than 30,000 people began to crowd outside Shipway #8 and the giant, flag-draped hull of the SS America — drawn by the chance to see what was then the largest merchant ship constructed in the United States slide down the ways and splash into the James River.
Three national radio networks covered the launch, their tall microphone stands getting in the way of the news photographers and newsreel crews jostling for the best shot of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the christening platform. Two special trains steamed down from Washington, D.C., and New York, carrying nearly half of the more than 1,000 invited guests who would convene at the Hotel Chamberlin for a massive celebratory luncheon, the Daily Press reported.
What they all came to see was a nationally recognized milestone in the Depression-era rebirth of American commercial shipbuilding — and a vessel so laden with hope and symbolism that the federal agency overseeing the ambitious 500-ship program had designated it Hull #1.
But when war broke out in Europe the very next day, the dire news snuffed out the America's great expectations as a transatlantic passenger liner.
Even after it returned from heroic naval service to become the country's queen of the sea, its reign would be cut short in 1952 by the completion of the bigger, faster SS United States at the very same shipyard.
"The launching of the SS America was a national event, and — up until that point — it was certainly the biggest event in the history of the shipyard and probably the city itself," says Newport News native Bill Lee — the ship's unofficial historian — and a shipyard Apprentice School graduate whose history-minded parents took him to witness the spectacle at the age of three.
"But then it was overwhelmed by the news of the war and — as one writer put it — it was all dressed up with no place to go."
A war hero
Despite the global turmoil, the newly completed America steamed into New York harbor 11 months later, its gleaming red, white and blue hull greeted by whistles from scores of tugboats, harbor craft and ferries.
But the giant American flags painted across its sides as a precaution against German submarine attacks told everyone watching that the new ship's maiden voyage would not be across the embattled Atlantic.
Instead, the liner steamed for the Caribbean, then returned to New York after a 12-day cruise. Nine months later, it was in the Virgin Islands when the Navy called it up for service as a troop transport ship.
Designed by noted naval architect William Francis Gibbs, the vessel had been conceived and built with this secondary purpose in mind, enabling shipyard workers to convert the 1,202-passenger liner into the 7,678-passenger USS West Point in only 11 days.
No other Navy transport carried as many passengers during the war, when the comparatively large and speedy ship transported 350,000 American soldiers as well as 150,000 refugees, Red Cross workers, prisoners of war and foreign military personnel to destinations that ranged from Africa, India, Asia and Australia to America and Europe.
Among its most impressive missions while steaming nearly half-a-million miles was a 1944 voyage in which it carried 9,305 people. It also took part in some of the first "Magic Carpet" voyages, bringing American troops home from Europe.
"It was the greatest troop ship we ever had," says Newport News naval historian William A. Fox, who describes the vessel's illustrious if unexpected war career in his book "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships."
"It was huge. It went everywhere. And it never broke down."
The remade passenger liner also boasted the kind of speed and range that made it a long-distance champion among the Navy's transport vessels.
With an average cruising speed of 22 knots, it could outrun any enemy submarine and many surface ships. And — when needed — its confident crew could hit the pedal even harder.
"It was almost never escorted," Lee says, describing the 37,400-horsepower turbines that could drive the ship through the seas at better than 25 knots.
"The original builder's contract had a bonus/penalty clause, so they over-designed and overbuilt those turbines in order to get that bonus — and that gave it more speed than expected."
Days of glory
Decommissioned at Newport News on Feb. 28, 1946, the SS America became a source of pride again when it was not only converted back into a passenger liner but also restored to its original appearance.
Among the most visible changes of its rapid return was the paint on its trademark smokestacks, where the wartime coat of camouflage gray quickly gave way to its distinctive red, white and blue colors.
Still, no one failed to recognize its striking profile when it returned on its final voyage as a Navy transport.
"When it came out of the mist, it was a pretty formidable sight. Every inch of the ship was covered with soldiers — and all of them were waving," says Lee, who was at the C&O piers for the 5 a.m. arrival.
"And one of the first things they did was to paint those funnels — then light them up so everyone in town could see them."
Over the following nine months, shipyard workers removed all of the vessel's military trappings — including gun mounts, armor, shields, the enclosures built over its decks and scores and scores of life rafts.
Using the original drawings, the 1,000-person reconversion crew also rebuilt all of the stateroom bulkheads that had been removed to create its huge wartime berthing spaces.
Many of the ship's original decorative murals were saved during this meticulous revival, with any damage repaired or replaced by the same artists, a shipyard bulletin reported.
Guided by the original team of female designers from the New York firm of Smyth, Urquhart and Marckwald, the shipbuilders also outfitted the newly restored interiors with hundreds of new beds and mattresses, thousands of chairs and sofas and countless light fixtures, lamps and other furnishings that duplicated as closely as possible those found on the SS America of 1939 — including many identical items from the original manufacturers.
"To the eye, the ship was almost exactly the same," Lee said.
"Few people would have noticed any difference."
Returned to service on Nov. 16, 1946, the America became a prominent fixture on the transatlantic route between New York to Le Havre, France — and a favorite of many American travelers.
Though not as large or as fast as the British liners Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, it still traversed the Atlantic with commendable speed — and it did so with a style and comfort that many passengers found lacking in other vessels, Lee says.
During its annual maintenance visits to Newport News, it won continued admiration from its builders, too, including many who worked to complete the bigger and faster United States in 1952.
"When I was at the shipyard, a lot of the men I worked with had worked on both ships — and many of them favored the America," Lee says.
"It wasn't a racehorse like the United States, but it was the nicer ship — like a grand hotel at sea. And only a few other ships could make the crossing faster."
No ship could make the crossing faster than an airplane, however, and in 1963 the America was laid up at Newport News because of the competition.
It made its last voyage down the James in 1964, after which it was refitted for 14 years of service transporting immigrants from Europe to Australia.
"I was there when she first hit the James — and I was there when she left," Lee recalls. "But the last time there were no cheers or whistles."
Several stints as a cruise ship followed, at the end of which the oft-renamed vessel had fallen into such bad shape that — in 1994 — it had to be beached to prevent its sinking.
But after running aground later that year while under tow in the Canary Islands, it stood up to the pounding surf for more than a dozen years before breaking apart and disappearing.
"There are amazing pictures of it on the Internet," Fox said, describing the wreck that became a digital tourist sensation.
"It was a very well-built ship — and it lasted a long time."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads history stories at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
Online: Go to dailypress.com/ssamerica to see an archival photo gallery of the ship.