October 21, 1937
Seventy years ago, the United States Maritime Commission and Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company signed a contract to build a ship. In parallel, the Maritime Commission and United States Lines signed an agreement that provided for the initial operation and eventual purchase of that vessel, upon completion.
The United States Maritime Commission had been created just the year before as a part of the nation's depression recovery effort; aimed at providing more jobs for American industry and to restore the American Merchant Marine to a position of prominence in the world.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 was a bold plan, conceived by President Roosevelt and pushed through Congress that summer. One purpose was to subsidize the design and construction of hundreds of modern ships - then lease them to American shipping interests. In addition, the government also paid for US Navy-approved additions, obliquely referred to as National Defense Features' that would enable ships contracted for by the Maritime Commission to quickly become naval auxiliaries in wartime.
This project needed a good starting point. What better symbol of the rebirth of the American Merchant Marine could there possibly be than a world-class ocean liner? Two men of vision, talent and determination quickly set the tone for just such a ship.
The Chairman of the Maritime Commission was Admiral Emory Land. Previously Chief of the Navy's Bureau of Construction. He was just the right man to guide the new organization and ensure that vessels built for the Maritime Commission were suitable for use in both peacetime and war. Before his work was finished, and World War II ended, thousands of such vessels were produced.
William Francis Gibbs was head of the world-famous naval architectural firm, Gibbs & Cox, and he fully agreed with the concept of designing ships with dual purposes. Obsessed with safety at sea, Mr. Gibbs' previous passenger ship designs had included many features similar to those found in contemporary warships.
By July of 1937, Gibbs & Cox had completed bidding documents for an all-American luxury liner, still only identified by the nebulous title: Design MC.
Competitive bids from three major American shipbuilding companies were opened on September 15th. Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company was declared the low bidder; offering to build the ship for a fixed price of $17,500,000.
A contract in that amount was signed on October 21, 1937. As an aside, and in sharp contrast to the sharply escalating costs trends and disputes over the value of change orders in modern times; the final amount paid to NNS for the ship was $17,586,478. Despite numerous changes required by the Maritime Commission, the Navy and United States Lines, the contract price only grew one half of one percent. Simpler times...
Shortly after the contract was signed, NNS gave this still unnamed vessel a number of their own, NNS Hull No. 369. Shipyard publicity releases could only utilize that number in lieu of a name, when this drawing - albeit inaccurate in a number of details - was first shared with the public in early 1938. Shipbuilder pride is evident in the title of this image. Back then, NNS consistently prefaced stories about each numbered vessel that they built by the phrase our hull; taking ownership, at least spiritually, right from the start for their many world-famous creations.
It was over a year later, well after the keel for NNS Hull No. 369 had been laid and her construction well advanced, before a name was finally announced. The suggestions were numerous, the arguments many; but in retrospect, the sobriquet selected to grace the name boards of America's newest, finest and fastest ocean liner was eminently suitable:
Over time, millions of people's lives were directly and indirectly affected by this ship.
But that's another story; one to perhaps be retold, a little at a time, when subsequent AMERICA anniversaries of noteworthiness occur.