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Remembering the Crew of the SS United States: Chief Officer Samuel L. Ely

The story of the SS United States is the story of many dedicated crew members — extraordinary personnel that served aboard the vessel during her service career and who, through their hard work, cemented the Big U's enduring legacy as our nation's greatest ocean liner.

Today, the SS United States Conservancy continues to document the singular history of America's Flagship, collecting the stories of passengers and crew members who traveled and worked aboard the SS United States.

Captain Samuel L. Ely in uniform as a United States Lines captain, 1970. Ely served as master aboard several US Lines vessels following ten years as Second and Chief Officer aboard the SS United States. Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Ely.

Jonathan Ely recently reached out to the Conservancy to share the story of his father, Samuel L. Ely, whose prolific career at sea took him from the WWII shores of France to a position as Chief Officer aboard the SS United States, and later to a role as Captain for United States Lines.

Jonathan writes, regarding the start of his father's career:

"My late father, Captain Samuel Ely, was a proud graduate of the United States Merchant Academy. He graduated March 24, 1944. His first voyage after graduating as a Third Mate was on the Liberty ship SS James A Wetmore. His Continuous Discharge Book indicates the voyage lasted from April 29, 1944 to January 31, 1945. Although his ship was not in the first wave of D-Day, it arrived to the shores of France shortly after, and then continued for the next nine months to ferry supplies and troops from England to France.

Samuel Ely served on many ships during the war, and at some point signed on with United States Lines...After the war he served on United States Lines cargo ships, until a couple of voyages on the passenger liner SS America in early 1952. He signed on to the SS United States as a Second Officer on June 21, 1952, sailing the ship into New York Harbor for the first time. He continued on for the record-breaking maiden voyage and served on the SS United States for another 10 years, leaving her as Chief Officer."

Chief Officer Samuel L. Ely in his dress uniform on the bridge of the SS United States.

Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Ely.

The SS United States played another significant role in the life of Samuel L. Ely, introducing him to his wife, Mary Ann. Their son shares the heartwarming family story:

"On the first anniversary of her maiden voyage (Voyage 23), the SS United States had a ship's nurse aboard for one voyage only, Mary Ann Knight. Miss Knight worked as nurse in New York City hospitals and doctors’ offices, and for 'vacation' would sign on as a ship's nurse for a voyage — the only way she could afford to see the world. A last minute call from the Union Hall for an emergency replacement nurse, and an understanding employer, landed Miss Knight on the decks of the Big U.

On the Eastbound voyage, a Third Officer offered Miss Knight a tour of the bridge, which she accepted. While on the bridge, she was introduced to Second Officer Samuel Ely. She noted his U.S. Merchant Marine Academy ring and asked if he’d graduated from Kings Point. He curtly reported back 'Of course!', giving Miss Knight the first impression that he was a snob. On the Westbound voyage, Officer Ely made his way down to the ship's hospital with the excuse of needing some aspirin. Again meeting Miss Knight, and after talking to her a for a while, Ely asked if he could take her out sometime when the ship was in New York. Miss Knight, who enjoyed fine dining and a free meal, said yes.

Not quite one year later on June 11, 1954, Mary Ann Knight and Samuel Ely were married in Lady Chapel of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City."

Following his ten-year career aboard the SS United States, Samuel Ely sought a new position in order to support his growing family. The dedicated seaman would serve as master aboard several United States Lines cargo ships, including the SS American Champion and SS American Reliance, before passing away in 1977 at the early age of 53.

Jonathan Ely recalls the impact of America's Flagship on his own life:

"I grew up in a house surrounded by pictures and mementos of the SS United States. A silver nut dish (an engagement present to my mother from William Frances Gibbs) was displayed in the hutch, framed Maiden Voyage Tracks and pictures of the Big U on the walls. A Chelsea clock given as a wedding present from the officers of the great ship still chimes the watch in my living room today.

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the significance of this ship until after my father’s death. When I was tired of studying in the college library, I began to research her. I’ve been captivated by her ever since and am a supporter of the SS United States Conservancy."

Did you or a family member work aboard the SS United States during her prolific service career? We want to hear from you! Drop us a line at or CLICK HERE to learn how you can share your story today.


This is a crucial time for the SS United States, and you can play a decisive role in securing her future. There are many ways to get involved — you can make a donation today, join one of our amazing regional Conservancy chapters or follow us on Facebook to help spread the word about America's Flagship in your own community.

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