THE BLUE RIBAND BLOG

Passenger Memories: Peter Dreher Reflects upon His Return to the Big U After 63 Years

Former passenger Peter Dreher recently joined the SS United States Conservancy on a special limited-access curatorial tour of America's Flagship, joined by fellow passengers and crew members assisting with our ongoing Legacy and oral history projects.

Peter was moved by the experience, and has generously shared his thoughts below:

Former passenger Peter Dreher returns to the SS United States. Courtesy of Peter Dreher.

Earlier this month, I had the rare opportunity to take a tour of the SS United States. After 63 years, I stood again on the tourist-class deck where my dad had taken a family picture during our November 1955 crossing. The shuffleboard markings were still visible on green peeling surface of the deck, but the deck chairs and the children’s playroom nearby were now gone. As immigrants, we were on a one-way trip from La Havre to New York harbor. I remember being on this upper deck with my parents and brother, playing and gazing across the horizon. I recall that my brother loved using my dad’s binoculars even though he was somewhat too short to see over the railings. And I was again so impressed to be so high above the water on one of the ship’s highest decks. As I stood there, so many decades later, I wondered how many languages had been spoken on this section of the ship where countless of hopeful immigrants saw Ambrose Lighthouse and the Statue of Liberty come into view.

Our tour leaders were very helpful and informative in guiding us through the ship. Although the interior features — such as cabin walls, auditorium seating, artwork, and furniture — are gone or stripped bare, the Big U still retains a majesty and grace. As one former fellow passenger on the tour pointed out, the ship decks and hull were designed with a bow, adding to the craft’s structural integrity. When we looked down the enclosed promenade deck, which runs the length of the entire ship, we saw that the deck gradually rises at either end of the ship.

Peter Dreher and family aboard the SS United States, 1955. Courtesy of Peter Dreher.

For my visit to the Big U, I had taken along the 1955 Passenger List pamphlet that offered “information for passengers” at that time. This booklet provided insights into life aboard the Big U. The ship was fully air-conditioned, and each stateroom had a thermostat that could be set at “any reasonable temperature.” The booklet states that passengers can “enjoy a constant flow of dry, fresh ocean air with freedom from draft.” For business matters, the Purser’s Office offered a Dictaphone Time-Master so that passengers could, free of charge, “voice-write letters, memos, notes, etc.” on “plastic monobelt records.” Moreover, “a Remington Noiseless Typewriter Machine Model 7” was also available without charge. Passengers could find the “closing prices of the various [Stock] Exchanges, received by radio,” in the Ocean Press News, which was published daily. And the ship’s clocks kept “accurate seagoing time via a synchronous wired system...which reset clocks by electrical impulses from a master control.”

The booklet also offers several warnings and cautions. Smoking in bed was forbidden, and passengers were cautioned not to throw lighted cigarettes, cigars, or matches overboard lest flaming objects be drawn into open portholes or ventilators. My dad had pointed out to us that the SS United States had been designed without flammable materials, so that the only wood aboard was the chef’s cutting board and the piano. Recalling our rough crossing in November, I now realized that many of the precautions made sense:

  • Do not remove safety hooks from furniture.

  • Avoid holding on to the frames of open doors as the ship’s movement may cause the door to shut on your hand or fingers.

  • Do not stroll about the ship unnecessarily. Remain seated in furniture which is secured.

  • If your chair should move in the Dining Room while at meals, hold on to the table— do not attempt to save table utensils or equipment.

Although that Atlantic crossing happened more than 60 years ago, there are still moments — triggered in some Proustian manner by a sound or smell — when I recall being on the open promenade deck with the salty mist striking my face, seeing the distant horizon as the foam of the waves rush by me. Whenever, I hear a flag cable strike a metal flagpole, I remember looking up at the ship’s flags fluttering powerfully in the wind next to the ship’s red funnels.

Former passenger Peter Dreher returns to the SS United States. Courtesy of Peter Dreher.

I am very thankful for having had the opportunity to visit the Big U once again. And I greatly appreciate our guides for making the special effort to help me find the exact location (“Game Deck”) between the two funnels where our family had snapped that photograph. Moreover, I am eager to see the SS United States refurbished, so that future generations can appreciate not only the technology and beauty of the ship but also her glorious history. I support the efforts of SS United States Conservancy and urge others to do so as well.

The stories of the passengers and crew members who traveled aboard the SS United States are vital to the ship's incredible history. Today, the Conservancy is preserving those memories through our Legacy Project, documenting the intangible history of America's Flagship.

Do you have your own SS United States story to share? CLICK HERE to learn how, or drop us a line at archives@ssusc.org. Interested in joining us on our next curatorial tour for former passengers, crew and family members? CLICK HERE.

#oralhistory #passengers #curatorial #tour #immigration

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