The R.M.S. Queen Mary is a relic of a time when luxury ocean liners ruled the open seas. Now, this ship sits as a silent sentinel on the shores of Long Beach, California. Her permanent address is 1126 Queens Highway. Although she has since retired from sailing the seas, the Queen Mary has a history as rich and proud as her namesake. She was a luxury ocean liner, a troop transport and inspiration for adventurous stories. Now, she serves as a hotel for guests seeking luxurious accommodations and the experience of a lifetime.
A ship designated only as No. 534 started out as ink on paper in 1928. Construction on the ship began in December 1930 at the John Brown & Company shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland. One year later, on December 10th, a lack of funds due to the depression era economy caused construction on No. 534 to immediately cease. It appeared as though construction on the luxury liner would never be completed, but after some convincing, the British government extended an offer of £9.5 million to finish construction. On Tuesday April 3, 1934, to the cheers of hundreds of workers and townsmen, the rust was dusted off and construction on the ship resumed.
The name for No. 534 was a closely guarded secret. As such, there have been many stories about how the ship ended up with its name. According to lostliners.com, the most convincing story is as follows:
Sir Ashley Sparks, then Chairman of Cunard Line’s American offices, had been part of a delegation that had gone to King George V to ask his permission to name the ship after Queen Victoria. When he had an audience with the King, Sparks said, “Your Majesty, it is our wish to name this new vessel after England’s greatest Queen!” King George’s wife, Mary, was present and interjected, “I would be delighted!” And so…No. 534 had a name; RMS Queen Mary.
The R.M.S. Queen Mary made history during her launch, for this was the first time a reigning monarch had christened a merchant vessel. On September 26, 1934, hundreds of thousands of people lined the shores of the River Clyde to witness to such a historic event. Her Royal Highness, Queen Mary, speaking into a microphone, gave the ship it’s name with the famous words, “I am happy to name this ship the Queen Mary. I wish success to her and all who sail in her…” and the ship slid into the water.
Thanks to the invention of film (and YouTube) you too can witness the Queen Mary’s launch and a portion of her maiden voyage in this video clip:
The R.M.S. Queen Mary was an extremely prosperous ship. Tickets were sold out months in advance voyage after voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. She even took the Blue Riband, an unofficial award given to trans-Atlantic passenger liners in regular service with the highest recorded speed, in August of 1936. But in 1939, World War II began and the Queen Mary was soon transformed into a troop transport.
The British admiralty officially requisitioned the R.M.S. Queen Mary for active war duty on March 1, 1940. As the war broke out in Europe, the Queen Mary made full steam zig-zagging across the Atlantic towards New York where she stayed docked at Pier 90 until March 21st when, without warning, she left to get refitted for war.
Two weeks after arriving in Sydney, Australia, the ship was stripped of her identity as a luxury liner and was prepped to become a military vessel. The grandiose assortment of decor was recorded and shipped to northern Australia for storage and her capacity was increased through the addition of extra bunks, kitchens and lavatories. The work was completed, and on May 5, 1940 she steamed her way to England.
On August 5th, the Queen Mary arrived in Singapore where she was placed in naval dry dock. During her 41 days in dry dock, the ship underwent massive maintenance to the engines, boilers and steering. She was also refit with a mine sweeping device called a Paravane and deck guns. It was also during this time that the Queen Mary’s hull was scraped clean and repainted a dull grey which would provide camouflage for the ship while on the open seas. Though the color made the Queen Mary difficult to spot at sea, it was her unannounced departures and arrivals that would earn the ship the sobriquet “The Grey Ghost”.
Assigned to active duty as a troop transport along her old trans-Atlantic route, the Queen Mary ferried approximately 15,000 troops at a time from the United States to Europe. It was customary in wartime for sizeable ships to travel in a zig-zag pattern to keep submarines from targeting and sinking them. These ships were often provided military escorts, though the escort ships were often slower and, in order to keep up with the faster ships under their escort, they traveled a straighter course. The two ships would frequently cross paths.
During one voyage on October 2, 1942, the Queen Mary collided with her escort ship, the anti-aircraft cruiser H.M.S. Curacoa (Ker-a-sow), slicing through the cruiser’s hull 150 feet from the stern. Steaming full ahead at 28.5 knots and under the risk of attacks from German U-boats, the Queen Mary was unable to stop and assist the crew of the Curacoa. 331 of the 432 crewmen perished in this tragic incident. Damage to the Queen Mary was minimal; though she was taking on water in her damaged bow, the Queen Mary’s collision bulkhead held and she was able to limp to Gourock at half-speed where the hole was temporarily plugged with cement. Shortly thereafter, she would sail to the Boston Naval Ship Yard where her hull plates could be repaired.
Despite sporadic rumors from the Germans that she had been sunk, the rest of the Queen Mary’s tour of duty was uneventful. She was released from active duty on September 27, 1946. Her luxury fittings were restored and she returned to her former profession as a luxury liner up until commercial air-travel would replace the need for ocean liners as a means for trans-Atlantic transport.
On May 8, 1967 the current captain of the Queen Mary, Captain William Laws, received a sealed letter which would retire the ship. The letter read:
“It is a matter of great regret to the Company and to me personally, as it will be to friends throughout the world, that these two fine ships, the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, must shortly come to the end of their working lives. They hold a unique position in the history of the sea, and in the affections of seafaring people everywhere. But we cannot allow our affections or our sense of history to divert us from our aim of making Cunard a thriving company and no other decision will make commercial sense.”
There was much debate as to the fate of this great ship. Eventually, she was put up for sale. The City of Long Beach, California bought the ship for $3.5 million and the Queen Mary left on her “Last Great Cruise” across the Atlantic Ocean on October 31, 1967. At 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, December 9, 1967, the Queen Mary made port for the final time.
During her years as a great ocean liner, a troop transport and even in retirement, the Queen Mary was party to many great and terrible experiences. Though she was sea-worthy, the Queen Mary was what sailors refer to as a “roller”– a ship that sways side-to-side on particularly high seas. Passengers and crew were often injured from falls prior to the installation of storm rails. Author Paul Gallico traveled on the her once. The journey was particularly rough and it gave the author inspiration for his 1969 book The Poseidon Adventure, which was set on an ocean liner that was capsized by a tidal wave. When the story was first put to film in 1972, the Queen Mary was even used as a set for some of the scenes.
Unfortunately, some of the more tragic events that have happened aboard this stately ship have sparked questions as to whether the ship bears the scars of those who perished between her iron walls…
History plays an important factor in the stories of haunted locations. I hope you forgive me as I postpone the end of this story for tomorrow, when I’ll discuss in detail some of the more haunting aspects of the R.M.S. Queen Mary. In the meantime, visit the Queen Mary website http://www.queenmary.com/