USS Lafayette Capsizes in New York Harbor

We don’t often do detailed stories behind photos, but this one has quite interesting history behind it.

You may not know this, but during the early days of World War II, a horrible fate befell the French passenger liner SS Normandie, while it was being transformed into a troop ship dubbed USS Lafayette. 

She was originally launched in 1932 and had her maiden voyage in 1935, but with the outbreak of the war, she sought safety from German U-boats in New York Harbor in 1939, after Germany had invaded Poland.

On May 15th, 1940 France fell to Nazi Germany and the U.S. Coast Guard sent 150 men to board the ship at Pier 88, preventing any possible sabotage against the ship. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially entering World War II in 1941, the ship was formally seized by the Coast Guard.

West Side Highway with cobblestone pavement, lots of 1940s cars and the scuttled Normandy. 1942. New York

Source: Flickr user Andy Blair

In December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt approved the transfer of the ship to the U.S. Navy and plans for the ship were to convert it into a troop transport ship named USS Lafayette. Initially there was talk of turning it into an aircraft carrier, but with the level of effort being high and the need for troop ships being immediate, that plan was scrapped.

The ship was to be pressed into military service in early 1942 so work was done in haste to convert it as quickly as possible. During the frenzied work, sparks from a welding torch ignited a pile of life vests. Immediately, they were ablaze, and unfortunately they were in a room which was covered in woodwork, thus the fire spread rapidly.

All manner of problems manifested themselves as the blaze grew. The fire department’s hoses did not fit the standard French inlets, and the sophisticated fire suppression system was disabled during the conversion process. Firemen sprayed massive quantities of water in hopes of extinguishing the flames, but in doing so the ship began to list severely to the port side.

The ship’s designer, Vladimir Yourkevitch offered to help strategize how to save the ship, but for some odd reason, the fire department refused. The ship eventually capsized late in the evening and came to rest as it’s seen in the photo above.

Make sure you click on the above image for a larger, more detailed version. It’s pretty impressive.