The third U.S. Navy ship to be named for Marie Joseph du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834).
(AP-53: displacement 68,500 (estimated); length 1,029'5"; beam 117'9"; draft 36'7" (mean load); speed 30.31 knots); complement 3,317; armament (ultimate approved -- not installed) 1 5-inch, 13 3-inch, 24 20 millimeter; class Lafayette)
The French turbo-electric quadruple screw liner Normandie was laid down on 26 January 1931 at St. Nazaire, France, by the Societe Anonyme des Chantier et Ateliers de Saint Nazaire (Penhoet) for the Compagnie General Transatlantique (French Line); launched on 29 October 1932; christened by Madame Andre Lebrun, wife of the President of the French Republic, and completed her first Atlantic crossing, arriving in New York City on 3 June 1935, winning the coveted Blue Riband.
Eventually, however, looming hostilities in Europe compelled Normandie to seek haven in New York harbor, where the U.S. government interned her on 3 September 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. She remained in French hands, “commanded by French officers and manned by a French crew” into the spring of 1941. On 15 May 1941, the U.S. Treasury Department detailed about 150 Coast Guardsmen to go on board the ship and Pier 88 to “insure [Normandie’s] safety and guard against sabotage.”
When the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) became a part of the Navy on 1 November 1941, Normandie’s USCG detail remained intact, with the “management of the boilers, machinery, and other equipment...left to the French crew,” the Coast Guardsmen becoming “as familiar with the ship and her operation as was practicable under the circumstances,[but] by observation alone.” On 12 December 1941, however, five days after Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard removed Captain Hervé Lehuédé and his crew and took possession of the ship, maintaining steam in the boilers, a fire watch, “and all other matters relating to the maintenance of the ship in [an] idle status.”
On 16 December 1941, James P. “Jim” Warburg, advisory assistant to Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, Coordinator of Information, in Washington, D.C., and a key affiliate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” sent forward a short memorandum that he had prepared the previous day: “It would be a swell propaganda stunt now that we have taken over the NORMANDIE,” he wrote, “to rename her the LAFAYETTE. What about it?”
Donovan obviously saw merit in the suggestion, and passed it along, with an even shorter memorandum, on 18 December 1941, to Secretary of the Navy William Franklin “Frank” Knox: “Here is a suggestion on the ‘Normandie’ from Jim Warburg.” Knox, in turn, passed the suggestion and its endorsement along to Adm. Harold R. Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), with the notation: “Please note the attached suggestion. It has some good features.” Soon thereafter, Adm. Stark contacted Rear Adm. Randall Jacobs, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation: “Looks good to me. Please stop in & talk it over.”
Soon thereafter, on 20 December 1941, the Auxiliary Vessels Board “as a matter of official record took cognizance of the oral information received” that President Roosevelt “had approved the transfer of the S.S. Normandie to the Navy.” Two days later [22 December], the CNO issued orders that Normandie be converted to a “convoy unit loaded transport,” and the following day sent a dispatch to Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews, Commandant, Third Naval District, authorizing him to accept the ship “under conditions satisfactory to the Bureau of Ships [BuShips].”
The Maritime Commission turned Normandie over to the Navy the day before Christmas of 1941. From that date, security for the vessel came under Rear Adm. Andrews’s jurisdiction, and under his orders, a USCG detachment of six officers and 277 men remained on board under Lt. Cmdr. Earl G. Brooks, USCG, to “...have the safety of the ship in hand.” A contract for her conversion to a troop transport was awarded to Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co., a subsidiary of Todd Shipyards, Inc., on 27 December. On that date, Capt. Clayton M. Simmers, the Third Naval District Materiel Officer, reported to the Bureau of Ships (BuShips) his estimate that the conversion work could be completed by 31 January 1942, and planning for the work to be done proceeded ahead on that basis. Lt. Cmdr. Lester C. Scott, USNR, headed the detail representing the District Materiel Office on board the ship to monitor the contractors' carrying out the terms of their contract. Soon thereafter, Secretary of the Navy Knox approved the name La Fayette (later universally and unofficially contracted to Lafayette) on 31 December 1941, and she was classified as a transport, AP-53.
The exigencies of war, however, militated against Lafayette’s conversion being accomplished in a shipyard, but alongside Pier 88. On 9 January 1942, the CNO offered the vessel to the U.S. Army, who accepted that offer on 14 January “with the understanding that the conversion would be completed by the Navy.” At the Navy's invitation, the army provided a group of “marine engineers and naval architects” familiar with U.S. Army transport construction “to recommend such changes in the conversion work as they might deem necessary if the vessel was to be operated by army personnel.” On 26 January, however, the CNO asked the Chief of Staff of the Army if the Navy could retain and operate Lafayette after her conversion, to which the army responded in the affirmative. That change in plans “set back or delayed [conversion work] for an estimated period of two to three weeks...” Capt. Simmers’s advising BuShips that “it would not be practicable to complete the conversion until about 28 February” fell on deaf ears. The CNO insisted to BuShips that Lafayette would be commissioned “as scheduled.”
Capt. Robert G. Coman reported as Lafayette’s prospective commanding officer on 31 January 1942. His crew, gradually augmented over ensuing days, consisted mostly of a skeleton engineering force that number 458 men, “less than half the number required for the efficient operation of the vessel at sea.” Capt. Coman soon saw that the complicated nature and enormous size of his prospective command “was such to require many weeks, and, more properly, months, for a crew to familiarize itself with the ship and be prepared to function as an efficient unit...” Mindful of that, and with his entire crew not yet assembled, Coman consulted with Capt. Simmers about 5 February 1942, the CNO-mandated commissioning date of 11 February 1942 looming ever nearer, and “expressed his anxiety over attempting to take the vessel out on 14 February.” Rear Adm. Andrews, cognizant of Simmers’s concerns, authorized him to take his complaint to Washington. Consequently, the latter communicated with the office of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, asking that Lafayette’s sailing be delayed for two weeks.
On 6 February 1942, Capt. Coman and Capt. Simmers traveled to Washington, and conferred with the CNO and with the Chief of BuShips, personally acquainting them with the situation and again urging that Lafayette's sailing be delayed. The two captains who had just come down from New York received encouraging word: “plans would be changed so that certain top[-] hamper...might be removed to improve her stability, and that [that] work would take another 60 to 90 days, and thus afford ample time for completion of the other work and preparation of the vessel for sea.” Undoubtedly relieved that their personal entreaties had bought time, Simmers immediately telephoned the contractor in New York, telling him of the change in plans. Accordingly, supervisors let off many workmen who would otherwise have been engaged in the rush to get Lafayette to sea.
An altogether unwelcome surprise, however, greeted Capts. Coman and Simmers upon their return from the capitol the next day (7 February 1942). They learned that plans for the reduction of top-hamper had been abandoned and Lafayette was to sail on 14 February as planned. This abrupt reversal necessitated summoning workmen back to the ship “and further added to the confused state of affairs” prevalent over the ensuing days. Coman and Simmers “made an appointment with Rear Adm. Andrews for 3 p.m. on February 9, at which time they hoped to persuade [him] to take a definite stand.” Simultaneously, BuShips’s chief had arranged to consult with the CNO to postpone the sailing date.
Meanwhile, contractors’ workmen rushed about their assigned tasks. Shortly before “...the time set for the respective conferences in New York and Washington,” however, sparks from Clement Derrick’s torch set alight a bale of kapok life preservers stored temporarily in the ship’s main salon. The meetings planned for that afternoon to discuss Lafayette’s sailing never took place. The fire that began at 1430 that day rendered any points, which could have been discussed, moot.
Derrick quickly extinguished his torch and joined the frantic initial efforts of workmen who tried to put out the flames by beating on it with coats, pieces of carpet, anything that came to hand. Witnesses described the ensuing blaze as a “racing fire,” a “singeing fire on the surface of the bales,” and a “grass fire.” All men engaged, whether employees of Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co., Coast Guardsmen, or Navy bluejackets, made “strenuous efforts” to extinguish the fire by “manual means and by fire[-]fighting equipment available in the vicinity,” “some of [whom] were in a state of exhaustion when the [New York City] fire department [eventually employing both land and maritime units] arrived approximately 15 minutes after the fire was first discovered.” A strong northwesterly wind blowing over Lafayette’s port quarter swept the blaze forward, eventually involving the three upper decks of the ship within an hour of the start of the conflagration. Capt. Coman, along with Capt. Simmers, arrived about 1525 to see his huge prospective command in flames.
Between 1745 and 1800 on 9 February 1942, authorities considered the fire “under control” with “mopping up” operations continuing until 2000. Water entering the ship through submerged openings and flowing to the lower decks negated efforts to counter-flood, however, and Lafayette’s list gradually increased to port. While the ship’s being equipped with neither sea cocks nor scuttling valves forced abandonment of that potential course of action.
Shortly after midnight. Rear Adm. Andrews ordered Lafayette abandoned, and the ship continued to list, a process hastened by the 6,000 tons of water having been played on her, New York fire officials concerned that the fire could spread to nearby city buildings. Lafayette eventually capsized during the mid watch (0245) on 10 February 1942, “coming to rest on her port side at an angle of about 80 degrees.”
“The world military situation at the time,” Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox later wrote, “imposed a most pressing demand for troop transports and the enormity of the expansion of ship construction and conversion resulted in the placing of an extremely heavy burden upon the shoulders of those engaged in readying ships for military service. As a result, corners had to be cut and responsibility delegated to personnel less experienced and capable than would be the case in normal times...” A subsequent investigation opined “that the gross carelessness and utter violation of rules of common sense on the part of the employees of Robins Dry Dock and Repair Company, Incorporated, was the direct and sole cause of the fire on [board] the U.S.S. Lafayette.”
Almost miraculously, only one man died in the tragedy—Frank “Trent” Trentacosta, 36, of Brooklyn, a Robins’ employee and a member of the fire watch. Some 94 USCG and USN sailors, however, including some not only from Lafayette’s pre-commissioning crew but men assigned to the receiving ship Seattle (IX-39), 38 fire fighters, and 153 civilians “received medical treatment or hospitalization for various injuries, burns, smoke inhalation, and for exposure.”
A subsequent congressional investigation, chaired by Congressman Patrick Henry Drewry (D-Va.) found evidence of (1) carelessness in how the burning operations [that started the fire] were carried out, (2) an “absence of proper coordination between the various units [USCG, USN] on board,” (3) that “divided authority and lack of a unified command” existed on board, and (4) that “there was undue haste, indecision, and lack of careful planning in connection with the conversion of the Normandie.” The investigators concluded that “confusion in the testimony and no direct evidence” militated against finding out “who was responsible for the order to sail on February 14,” but presumed “that it was done on the highest controlling authority.” The committee went on to state that “If a thorough and detailed survey had been made of this ship, it is probable that no order would ever have been issued directing such hasty preparation and speedy sailing. Such issuance of unreasonable orders, based on incomplete knowledge of actual conditions, should serve as an example to responsible officials of the dangers inherent in arbitrary decisions contrary to the recommendations or protests of the officials in the field.”
The Chief of BuShips assumed jurisdiction over the ship on 24 February 1942, and placed the wreck under the immediate cognizance of the Supervisor of Salvage, USN. “Removal of the superstructure, installation of scaffolding for access inside and outside the ship, removal of the fire hazard, and the exploration of certain unknown conditions which held the possibility of salvage in the balance” then began. Two days later, as a result of the disaster, President Roosevelt issued an executive order [26 February 1942] vesting “full responsibility for the protection of the water front, water front activities, and ships in our harbors in the Navy Department” with the Secretary of the Navy investing the Commandant of the Coast Guard as the “responsible individual” under that order.
“Considerable comment from the press and the public” had followed Lafayette’s capsizing. On 1 May 1942, the committee appointed by Secretary of the Navy Knox recommended raising the ship, with disposition to be made “when the salvage operations neared completion.” The Supervisor of Salvage received orders on 11 June 1942 to proceed.
One of the largest operations of its kind in history ultimately succeeded in righting Lafayette on 7 August 1943. She was reclassified to an aircraft and transport ferry, APV-4, on 15 September 1943 and placed in dry dock the following month. Extensive damage to her hull, however, deterioration of her machinery, and the necessity for employing manpower on other more critical war projects prevented resumption of the conversion program, and her hulk remained in the Navy’s custody through the cessation of hostilities with the Axis. While Lafayette never served in the role for which she had been taken over, the salvage work “produced scores of highly skilled salvage officers and divers who later played an important part in the salvage and emergency repair of vessels damaged during World War II.”
Lafayette was stricken from the Navy list on 11 October 1945. President Harry S Truman authorized her disposal in an Executive Order on 8 September 1946, and she was sold for scrap on 3 October 1946 to Lipsett, Inc., of New York City. Delivered on 28 November 1946, the ship that had once been heralded as “an outstanding achievement in shipbuilding and overseas transportation” was broken up at Port Newark, N.J., by 31 December 1948.
Robert J. Cressman
Updated, 17 August 2022