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Documentary 'SS United States' Tells Tale of Iconic Ocean Liner

One of the most impressive ocean liners ever built, the SS United States, had a brief but illustrious career in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the ship lies derelict at a dock in Philadelphia, but as we hear from Mike O'Sullivan, the makers of a documentary on the ship hope to see it return to service.

Filmmaker Bob Radler was awestruck as a child when he visited the piers where some of the world's big ocean liners were berthed.

"My father took me to ocean liner row in New York when I was about six-years-old - this was in the 1950s - [I] saw the Queen Mary, the Isle de France, and the SS United States," said Bob Radler. "And the razor-sharp bow of the SS United States and the fact that it looked like it was going 60 miles an hour just sitting there really appealed to me. And it looked like the future."

He says the ship was five city blocks long and 12 stories high, and with the name United States emblazoned on its bow, it was impressive.

The SS United States has been largely forgotten, but many who remember her appear in the documentary SS United States: Lady in Waiting. Radler directed the film and produced it with colleagues Mark Perry and Dea Shandera.

Radler says the story begins the ship's designer, William Francis Gibbs, a man who had no formal training in ship-building. Gibbs was a lawyer who hated his job and taught himself nautical engineering. He went on to design many US cargo ships during World War II, and realized the ocean liners that took troops across the Atlantic were slow and vulnerable. He designed the SS United States as a ship that would excel in both wartime and peacetime. It was built with help from the U.S. Navy, has an extra-thick hull, and was able to withstand an iceberg or torpedo. With almost no wood on board, it was virtually fire-proof. The ship's lightweight superstructure was the largest aluminum edifice in the world.

"It was a dual-purpose ship," he said. "It was designed to be the most modern, safe luxury liner in the world, but at the same time, within 24 hours could be converted to a troop ship and could carry 14,000 or 15,000 troops across the Pacific at top speed and back without refueling or re-provisioning. No other ship in history could do this."

The SS United States went into service in 1952. With its narrow hull and powerful engines, it reached speeds of at least 43 knots - nearly 80 kilometers per hour - while running at less than full power. Its top speed was a military secret, but the ship earned the trans-Atlantic speed award known as the "Blue Riband," previously held by the Queen Mary.

A 1952 newsreel captured the excitement as the SS United States returned to port.

"On her return to New York City, nearly everyone seemed to turn out to see the sleek new ship glide into the harbor, with a fire boat and huge harbor craft escort. Her owners were awarded the Hales Trophy, symbolic of the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, and her crew paraded up Broadway for the traditional heroes' homecoming."

The ship's heyday was short. It was retired in 1969, as more and more people were traveling by aircraft.

Bob Radler started work on the documentary while he was in film school in the 1970s, when he did preliminary photography on board the ship. More recently, he secured archive footage from the SS United States Conservancy, a non-profit organization, conducted interviews with former crew and passengers, and shot more video. His one-hour documentary will appear on many U.S. public television stations in May.

Since 1996, the SS United States has been docked in Philadelphia. Norwegian Cruise Lines bought it in 2003, offering hope for its supporters that the massive liner could some day return to service.

"When Norwegian Cruise Lines came in and said that they would refit the ship and reinvent the ship, we were all amazed, frankly," Radler said. "All we had wanted was for the ship not to be broken up and for it to be placed somewhere, perhaps as a hotel or some other attraction to save a great American icon."

Refurbishing the ship for any use would be a massive undertaking, and right now its future is uncertain.

But its story is moving people. Radler says a West Coast screening of the film aboard another ocean liner, the now-retired Queen Mary, evoked an emotional response.

"And the most telling comment: the assistant projectionist walked up to me wiping tears away," he said. "This is a big guy. And he said, that is not a film about a ship, it's a film about a country. And it's a film about what America is capable of, when it exerts itself, that nobody can touch us. And it's also a film about what has been lost over the years, and a film about attempting to recapture that."

Radler says the SS United States, a nearly forgotten relic, is a national treasure that should not be lost.