Oral Histories of the SS United States:
The SS United States touched thousands of lives over her 17-year service career. One day, young Jerrold Ross responded to a job posting in the paper. The rest, as they say, is history. Here is his story:
I came to work at Gibbs & Cox as the result of an employment ad for a “junior typist” in the New York Times. I was told by the manager of the recruitment department that it was the only time such an ad was placed. In spite of my age (either 15 or 16), I was called in, took a typing test, and passed it.
What I didn’t know was that the job required security clearance, and that FBI agents were questioning my neighbors to determine whether I demonstrated any “subversive” qualities. With nothing on my record, and no odd behaviors, I passed that hurdle, too.I guess it was not generally known that a passenger ship could be converted to a warship, and as I worked with plans, it was imperative that I not photograph them for sale to a possible enemy. It seems funny now, but was obviously viewed by the government as something serious.
Manhattan skyline from the Hudson River, 1941. Photo courtesy of the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection/Indiana University Archives.
Those were the days before computers, of course, so my task was to copy plan numbers by means of an ordinary typewriter. I still remember the head of my unit, who checked my work for complete accuracy, asking if I ever made a mistake. I did, but I corrected them, which was not easy! You had to razor off part of the paper, re-type whichever section contained the error, and hope everything lined up.
Hour after hour of this, day after day, was not the most exhilarating experience, but it paid $52.50 a week – a fortune for someone from my economic background. And the office was bright, modern, and congenial. Had I stayed, in a few years I might have risen in the administrative ranks.
Mr. Gibbs, whose appearances in that part of the company were not all that frequent, was an imposing figure to me at my age. I felt a certain amount of awe regarding the job itself, as it was my first real one. When I saw the recent publicity surrounding the efforts to restore the ship and make it beautiful once more, memories of the pride of Gibbs & Cox in the design, and its success as it set the record for crossing the Atlantic, came back to me.
I’m not one to long for the “good old days,” however. There were no such things. The good days are still ahead of us.
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The SS United States Conservancy is proud to collect the stories of those whose lives were touched by the vessel. Share your own story at firstname.lastname@example.org.