Salty-tongued, superstitious, and with no formal training in marine engineering or naval architecture, William Francis Gibbs quit his job in real estate law in 1916 to devote himself to designing the world’s fastest ship. Gibbs would go on to direct plans for more than 60 percent of the nation's wartime fleet during World War II and design over 6,000 ships — including the record-breaking SS United States.
Gibbs' wife, Vera Cravath Gibbs, recorded her impressions of the SS United States during the ship's triumphant 1952 maiden voyage. Her diary offers a candid peek at life aboard America's Flagship, and alongside the vessel's dedicated designer.
Vera's entry for July 4, 1952 reads:
"Despite his multifarious duties, William Francis managed to join us for lunch and dinner each day. In addition, he never failed to dress, nor did any other man on the trip. My, what a relief to see men in their tuxedos every night! That is one of the advantages on a maiden voyage, dressing for dinner is 'obligatoire.'"
Regarding the moment that the SS United States passed Bishop's Light, officially securing the Blue Riband and setting a transatlantic speed record that still stands to this day, Vera wrote:
"The Meyer Davis Orchestra had come up on deck, having played the whole night through. There was dancing, singing, and finally a snake dance up and down the deck. Everyone danced with everyone else. One man was offering any woman he saw a swig from his bottle."
An enthusiastic crowd greets the SS United States on her maiden voyage. Photo courtesy of Corbis Images.
Vera continued in her diary, musing upon the determination of her husband, ship designer William Francis Gibbs:
"When I look back on the weeks, months, and years that W.F. spent on the SS United States, I wonder how his enthusiasm remained undiminished.
The series of disappointments that he had to face, the political battles he had to face, all those went on for so long. Those aggravations kept repeating themselves with slight variations, over and over again. What I always wondered was why the wellspring of W.F.’s enthusiasm didn’t dry up.
I am reminded of what Edmund Burke wrote: 'The nerve that never relaxes, the eye that never blanches, the thought that never wanders, those are the masters of victory.'”
The SS United States Conservancy, led by William Francis and Vera Gibbs’ granddaughter, Susan Gibbs, remains determined to save the triumphal SS United States so that the iconic vessel continues to inspire and endure. For more information about the Conservancy, visit www.ssusc.org.
Vera Gibbs on board the SS America — also designed by her husband. Photograph courtesy of Susan Gibbs.
CLICK HERE to listen to Conservancy Executive Director Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of Vera Cravath and William Francis Gibbs, share intimate stories of her grandfathers' vision and passion for "the big ship" on a recent podcast.
The SS United States has always been a soaring symbol of ingenuity, innovation, and the nation's ability to join arm-in-arm to advance common goals. It is inconceivable that she has endured all of these years, only to be lost now.