The Story of a Burning Passenger Liner

On two previous occasions, we have presented stories about the luxuriant French passenger liner, the “Normandie“. On this occasion we return to the story of the “Normandie”, and this time the story of its demise.

Construction work on the “Normandie” began at St. Nazaire on coastal France in the year 1929. It was intended that this huge ship, more than 1,000 feet long, would be the worldís biggest and the worldís best. In fact, the electric lighting throughout the entire ship was so prolific that it was called the “Ship of Lights.”

On October 29, 1932, the “Normandie” was launched amidst a fanfare of glamour and celebrity. The entire ceremony was broadcast to the world on international shortwave radio by Radio Paris, as it was known in those days.

Two and a half years later, the ship commenced its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to New York. On its arrival in New York, the event was heralded by another unique and magnificent radio broadcast that again spanned the world.

Programming from a radio studio in Washington, DC was transmitted on light waves from the upraised hand of the Statue of Liberty, and relayed on shortwave from American stations and re-relayed from Paris in France. After all, was it not the French who donated this majestic symbol of liberty and friendship to the Americans back in the year 1884?

Four years later again, after many voyages across the Atlantic, the “Normandie” was caught by the vicissitudes of war. In September 1939, the luxurious “Normandie” was detained in New York harbour by port authorities.

Two years later again, in May 1941, the Coast Guard seized the “Normandie,” and at the end of the same year the ship was seized again, this time by the American navy. They laid plans to convert this fabulous and now outdated passenger liner into a utilitarian troop carrier with a new name, the USS “Lafayette“.

During the hurried work of conversion on the ship, a fire broke out. So much water was poured onto the burning ship that it capsized and sank right at its berth in New York Harbor. In fact, it was so cold on this February day in 1942 that the entire body of water in the ship just simply froze into one great ice block.

For the remainder of the war the ship lay on its side, a slowly rusting hulk that betrayed no evidence of its former glory. In 1945, work began to break up the ship and sell it off for scrap. Demolition was completed on October 6, 1967.

At the time of the fire back on February 9, 1942, the ship again made the headlines, not only in the newspapers, but also on radio. It was the center of attention for a dramatic nationwide broadcast on network radio. The noted commentator, Graham McNamee, made a live dockside broadcast about the progress of the fire and the gradual capsizing of the ship, and this was heard nationwide over the NBC radio network.

Thus it was, that a dockside broadcast was made from the “Normandie” at its launching in 1932. A spectacular broadcast was made as the ship entered New York Harbor three years later. Under the callsign FNSK, the “Normandie” made many broadcasts while traversing the Atlantic, and at the time of its demise as the USS “Lafayette”, another dockside broadcast was heard far and wide.

From: Wavescan 440, June 8, 2003

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“Wavescan” is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave).