The RMS Queen Mary

RMS Queen Mary, California

There was a child-like excitement running through me, very much like the excitement of Christmas morning, as I walked down the carpeted hall toward my room for the evening. I’ve always had a fascination with the RMS Queen Mary – ever since I had first read about the ship and its history and hauntings, it had been on my list of “Places I Want to Visit.”

While on vacation in southern California, I was bringing my childhood dream to life – I was spending a night aboard the former ocean liner that now serves as a hotel and museum in Long Beach, California. Upon checking in, the lady at the desk informed me I was free to roam the RMS Queen Mary as long as I wanted – I just shouldn’t go into the off-limits areas or disturb the other guests.

As I walked down the long, carpeted hallway to my room, the history of the liner filled the air around me. The construction of the RMS Queen Mary began in December 1930 at the John Brown and Company, in Clydebank, Scotland. Originally known as “Hull Number 534,” construction came to a halt a year later due to the Great Depression. The hull sat abandoned for two and a half years before the Cunard line applied for a loan of three million pounds from the British government to finish “Hull Number 534.” An additional loan of five million pounds was approved to build a sister ship, “Hull Number 552.” The two loans were given with a condition – the Cunard line had to merge with the White Star line. Both parties agreed and the construction of the two ships resumed in 1934. “Hull Number 552” would become the RMS Queen Elizabeth and “Hull Number 534” would become the RMS Queen Mary.

Note: The Cunard White Star line would revert to the name Cunard in 1968 when the last of the White Star liners was retired from service. In 2005, Cunard would become a part of the Carnival Corporation.

On September 26, 1934 the Cunard White Star line launched the RMS Queen Mary, named in honor of Queen Mary, the wife of King George V. The name was a closely guarded secret during her construction and legend states that the company originally intended to name the ship in honor of Queen Victoria. When the company representatives asked King George V if they had permission to name the ship after Britain’s greatest queen, he replied his wife would be delighted, so the company had no choice but to name it after her, or at least that’s the story that has often been repeated.

When she was launched on September 26, 1934 the RMS Queen Mary was 1,019 feet long, 118 feet wide and had a weight of 81,237 gross tons. Her twelve decks could carry 1,957 passengers and a crew – which included officers, of 1,174.

On May 25, 1936 the RMS Queen Mary made her maiden voyage, leaving Southampton, England, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to arrive in New York Harbor on June 1. She was the pride of the sea and carried countless celebrities and dignitaries across the ocean during her reign of the ocean.

She would make this run across the Atlantic Ocean regularly until the outbreak of World War Two. When she returned to New York on September 1, 1939, she was given orders to remain in port until further notice. RMS Queen Mary remained docked there until it was decided that she could be used to transport troops to Europe. She was stripped of her beautiful interior – which was stored in a warehouse until after the war – and was painted navy grey. This paint job was to help hide her from enemy ships and gave her the popular nickname “The Grey Ghost.”

On October 2, 1942 “The Grey Ghost” was involved in an accident off of the Irish Coast when she accidentally sliced through and sank one of her escort ships, the HMS Curacoa. The RMS Queen Mary was following a zig-zag course that helped her avoid German submarines when the two ships collided. The fault of the incident lies in a number of factors. First the captain of the RMS Queen Mary assumed that the HMS Curacoa would adjust its course to that of the RMS Queen Mary. The second was the captain of the HMS Curacoa, which was in the process of turning around, assumed that the RMS Queen Mary would follow the law of the sea and the overtaking ship would yield. The unfortunate tragedy saw ninety-nine men rescued of the 338 who were aboard the Cruiser HMS Curacoa.

In December 1942, while transporting American soldiers to Great Britain, the RMS Queen Mary was struck by a rogue wave. The massive wall of water was roughly ninety-two feet high and hit the ship broadside. The ship tilted almost fifty-two degrees and had she tilted another three degrees she would have capsized.

At the end of the war, the RMS Queen Mary brought soldiers home and also war brides and children to the shores of America. The RMS Queen Mary would be refitted to her original glory and on July 21, 1947 she returned to passenger service, crossing the Atlantic weekly.

The era of the ocean liner came to end in 1958 with the first successful transatlantic flight by a jet. She made one thousand crossings of the Atlantic Ocean at speeds of twenty-eight knots. While she still averaged a thousand passengers per crossing, there were many times the crew outnumbered the guests. The RMS Queen Mary was retired in 1967 and sold. The community of Long Beach, California purchased the liner for $3.45 million.

On October 31, 1967, she made her one thousandth, and final, trip across the Atlantic Ocean. She was supposed to go through the Panama Canal, but due to her size she was unable to pass through the locks, so she made the trip around Cape Horn. On December 9, 1967 she arrived at her new home where she has remained since.

Seeing the room came with a free tour of the history of the ship, I took my time with it and explored as much of the ship as I could. The tour started in an exhibit that told the history of the ship, reflecting on the celebrities who were passengers. Some of the famous people who traveled aboard the RMS Queen Mary include: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, and Winston Churchill.

However, there was one passenger whose journey aboard the RMS Queen Mary, would use his journey for the basis of his novel. In December of 1937, Paul Gallico was aboard when the ship was struck by a series of waves, which caused it to tilt. The tilt was enough that the plates on the tables of the First-Class Dining Saloon, where Gallico was eating, slid off and onto the floor. The incident would be fictionalized by Gallico in the novel The Poseidon Adventure and when it was adapted to film in 1972, some of the movie was shot aboard the RMS Queen Mary.

While I tried to visit as much of the ship as I could, the size of it would take a full day, if not more, to explore all of the areas open to the public. Having never been on an ocean liner before, I was completely taken in with it.

One of the memorials aboard the RMS Queen Mary has nothing to do with her at all. Instead, it is a small memorial chapel dedicated to the Four Chaplains. The small chapel is located near the front of the ship and took me a couple of minutes to find it. The audio directions on the tour were not clear at all on how to get into the chapel and after a couple of minutes of exploring I found the entrance.

The four Army chaplains who are memorialized here are Lt. Reverend George L. Fox (Methodist – born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania), Lt. Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish – born in Brooklyn, New York), Lt. Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic – born in Newark, New Jersey) and Lt. Reverend Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed – born in Columbus, Ohio). They were just four of the 902 men aboard the transport ship SS Dorchester, which was traveling across the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, moving the men from Newfoundland to a base in Greenland. On February 3, 1943, at one in the morning, it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and in less than twenty minutes slipped beneath the waves.

While the explosion knocked out the communication system of the SS Dorchester, two of the escort ships returned to rescue as many as they could. Only 230 of the 902 men onboard were rescued.

In the chaos the four chaplains remained calm, encouraging people to be courageous and directing men topside. They handed out lifejackets and when they ran out of them, they removed their own and gave them away. The four men remained on the deck, arms linked together, as the ship slipped under the icy waters and those in nearby lifeboats reported hearing them praying until they disappeared. Note: In the aftermath of the disaster, there were attempts to honor the Four Chaplains with the Medal of Honor. However, one of the criteria of the Medal of Honor states those receiving it had to be involved in combat with the enemy. The result was a special medal – the Four Chaplains’ Medal – was created to honor the sacrifice of the four men.

As I returned to the audio tour, I noticed that there was a haunted tour that evening. Seeing I already had one experience, mixed with the fact half the reason I wanted to stay here was because of the ghosts, I purchased my ticket and prepared myself for the evening tour.

Note: Continued in The Haunted RMS Queen Mary.

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