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Passenger Memories: Immigrating to the United States Aboard America's Flagship

The great ocean liners of the 20th century served many purposes: they gave people across the globe the opportunity to travel and see the world; they transported soldiers and equipment to and from war; they delivered the mail and other goods vast distances; they carried immigrants across the sea to new lives abroad.

Many of the people traveling on these ships — including aboard our nation's flagship, the SS United States — had only one way tickets, as they left their homelands in search of new opportunity overseas.

The Pittner family, 1955. Photo courtesy of Michael Pittner.

Eugene Pittner immigrated to the United States in 1955 with his wife Emma, his eleven-year-old son Michael, fifteen-year-old son Winfried, and sixteen-year-old son Norbert. They traveled by train from their native Germany to Le Havre, France, where they boarded the SS United States, crossing the Atlantic aboard America’s Flagship and experiencing their first American Fourth of July celebration aboard the ship, before arriving in New York on July 5, 1955.

Michael Pittner recalls:

"I was awed by the sheer size of the SS United States when we boarded in Le Havre. I was a mere eleven-year-old lad, and an adventurous one, so the second we were aboard, my goal was to explore the ship from stem to stern. I would return to my parents to tell them where this was located and where that was to be found — I was just bubbly with excitement. I was astonished that a ship could have a swimming pool. I remember distinctly it was filled with salt water, which I didn’t expect when I jumped in. 'Yuk' to the taste, 'yay' to the swimming.

Another thing I loved to do was to lean into the breeze as the SS United States sped along. Shuffleboard? What an odd game, but, there it was. Something to do while racing across the Atlantic. The just-released Disney movie 'Lady and the Tramp,' was shown, which was a huge deal to me, although at the time, I spoke zero English!

I thought it was really cool to be able to sleep in a bunk bed (never having seen one of those before). It was fun playing peek-a-boo with my parents who had the bunk below. I remember the extravagant meals, too — coming from a war-torn country, the kinds and amount of food available was, I felt, only for kings and queens. We actually felt ashamed to eat those luscious meals.

I remember, too, the celebration on the 4th of July, though I had no clue what the fuss was about. There were party hats, music, balloons, outstanding food, and lots of fun. I had no knowledge of a '4th of July,' so I honestly thought the crew and passengers were throwing a party to welcome my family to the USA!"


American history is made up of the stories of immigrants like the Pittners, and the SS United States is a powerful tool to share these stories. This incredible ship still stands or our nation’s motto, "E Pluribus Unum" – "Out of Many, One." She is a soaring symbol of national unity — join us today in the fight to save this American icon.

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