World War II Artifacts at Port Newark

May 18, 2011

by Jonathan Thayer, Associate Archivist

SS NORMANDIE BELL

Situated in the entrance of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) newly renovated International Seafarers’ Center in Port Newark, the Normandie Bell greets visitors, providing them an upclose look at a genuine piece of World War II naval history.

Built for the French line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, the SS Normandie entered service in 1935 as the largest and fastest passenger ship on the ocean. An excerpt from a publicity book distributed by Compagnie Générale Transatlantique makes clear that the launch of the Normandie was advertised as an issue of French national pride:

“The proud inheritance which belongs to France and its centuries of genius has been combined with hard work to produce this new giant of the sea which has taken possession of the ocean.”

The massive luxury liner made transatlantic crossings from her homeport of Le Havre to New York, boasting high-profile passengers such as William Randolph Hearst, Jimmy Stewart, and the Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie. The lavish accommodations included deluxe suite apartments, an 80-foot-long swimming pool, and a “winter garden” featuring a variety of caged exotic birds.

The Normandie first arrived in New York Harbor in July 1935, and the Institute was abuzz as staff members and seafarers assembled on the roof of 25 South Street to catch a glimpse:

“The Institute’s house flags were flying a welcome to the new queen of the seas. As she passed the Statue of Liberty an airplane flew over the SCI roof and from its radio rebroadcast the Marseillaise. The Normandie, a thrilling sight, proved an inexhaustible topic of conversation among our seamen.”

With the coming of the War, the Normandie’s reign as “queen of the seas” came to a tragic end. The United States seized the ship while in New York harbor and immediately began converting the Normandie into the USS Lafayette, a transport vessel that would be used to ship supplies and troops overseas to the front. On February 8, 1942, a fire broke out on deck that set the entire ship ablaze. The SS Normandie, once the pride of France, rolled over at 2:35 the following morning. Suspicions of German sabotage spread in the press over the months following the incident, prompting a full-blown FBI investigation over whether enemy “internationals” had intentionally destroyed the ship. But the investigation eventually lost steam when the FBI determined the fire started when a stack of burlap bales ignited, most likely from the sparks of a welder’s torch.

SS JANET LORD ROPER

On the third floor of SCI’s International Seafarers’ Center, the Institute proudly displays a model of the World War II Liberty ship SS Janet Lord Roper. The Janet Lord Roper was named after SCI’s own Mother Roper, head of the Missing Seamen Bureau and surrogate mother to many seafarers who found themselves at the Institute, far from home and family. Roper began her service at age 17 with the Boston Seamen’s Society before joining SCI in 1915 where she stayed until her death in April 1943. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a great admirer of Roper, and her name was among many of the country’s most respected historical figures chosen to adorn one of the Liberty ships, produced for wartime service, at the time of her death.

Built at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Fairfield, MD and launched on June 16, 1943, the Janet Lord Roper was put in service as a wartime transport vessel. American shipyards built more than 2,700 Liberty ships during the War years, producing them as quickly and cheaply as possible. The Janet Lord Roper spent just 32 days under construction and was the thirteenth ship launched during June 1943 from the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, one of the most productive and efficient shipyards in the country during World War II.

After the War, the SS Janet Lord Roper was sold and had her name changed to the P. W. Sprague, despite the best efforts and protests from the leadership at SCI.