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Former CIA spy Shirley Perry remembers the SS United States

In September of 1952, Shirley Perry boarded the SS United States as a First Class passenger en route to Vienna, Austria to begin her new job behind the Iron Curtain with the Central Intelligence Agency.

While sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Shirley enjoyed meeting fellow passengers and exploring the many decks of the Big U. During meals, she’d spot Rita Hayworth; she had to extricate one black sheep trunk from Ms. Hayworth’s luggage earlier on in the voyage. At the time, Shirley still went by her maiden name, Hendricks, which caused one of her trunks to be placed on the dock near Ms. Hayworth’s. Although a minor mix-up, Shirley enjoyed the happy happenstance, as she was a drama major in college.

Shirley befriended two German exchange students who were traveling home. Together, the three danced and socialized below deck while drinking beer and eating the pretzels provided at the bar. Shirley also enjoyed sitting on the ship’s deck, where she chatted with fellow passengers in between reading books from the ship’s library, as well as partaking in high tea in the afternoons. The dining experience, Shirley fondly remembers, included 10 options for entrees and countless desserts. Shirley recalls the five-day crossing being as smooth as silk. Upon boarding, she was enamored by the ship’s entrance which she found to be beautiful and impressive. She remembers it feeling as though she was entering another world. She felt special and privileged. In considering the ship’s future, Shirley still could never forget the ship’s speed, elegance, and eminence in ocean travel. According to Shirley, during the ship’s service years, it represented the confidence and eagerness of the United States to showcase the country and link with Europe in solidarity after the devastation in the wake of World War II. Today, Shirley stresses the Big U’s importance as an icon. It embodies a slice of life in a time of relative tranquility. It was, and remains, the world’s largest and fastest ship that whisked people across the ocean in five unforgettable days. Like so many others, Shirley recognizes the imperative need to preserve the ship.


We love hearing stories from the men and women whose lives were personally impacted by America's Flagship, just like Shirley. Do you have your own SS United States story to tell? Send us an email at!

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