Politics & Policy

William Francis Gibbs, American Hero

William Francis Gibbs (The Mariners’ Museum Library)
A Man and His Ship is a fitting memorial to our greatest naval architect.

America forgets its heroes at a dispiritingly rapid rate. Barely does a statue go up in, say, Manhattan’s Bryant Park or Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., before passersby have to stop to read the plaque to figure out whom they’re looking at. Soon after, no one stops to read at all. The whole history of the Gold Rush and the founding of California as a U.S. state is told in the statuary of San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, yet among the thousands who wander through every day, how many could name a single likeness?

William Francis Gibbs, America’s foremost naval architect, never even got a statue. Ironically, his greatest work endures, rusting at a Philadelphia pier, nearly as unloved and unknown as her maker.

Gibbs is important for at least four reasons. First, he designed the SS United States, which may have been the greatest ocean liner of all time. It’s the fastest and finest single-hulled non-military vessel ever built in an American yard, and it will almost certainly never be surpassed. Second, he was crucial to the Allied victory in World War II: Gibbs’s firm designed 70 percent of the American naval and merchant tonnage built during the war, including the iconic Liberty ships. Third, techniques Gibbs pioneered to make construction of the Liberty ships cheaper and faster helped to revolutionize post-war manufacturing. Fourth, Gibbs was responsible for more advances in marine engineering — fireproofing, compartmentalization, and high-pressure, high-temperature steam, to name a few — than any of his peers.

Beyond all this, Gibbs’s life makes a great story, one that is ably told in Steven Ujifusa’s A Man and His Ship. The basics of Gibbs’s life have seen print before, but always in books that focus on his work. Exhaustively researched, Ujifusa’s book is the first to explore the man.

Gibbs was born in Philadelphia to a striving father with pretentions of upper-class grandeur. Part entrepreneur and part con man, William Warren Gibbs hustled enough money to buy a mansion on Rittenhouse Square, hobnob with the city’s Quaker elite, and send his elder son to Harvard. There, young Willy struggled, not because he wasn’t smart or didn’t study but because he devoted all his energies to a subject for which Harvard had no formal curriculum. Locked in his room in Claverly Hall, Gibbs spent his waking hours poring over engineering manuals and technical journals, teaching himself to design ships. Eventually he left without a degree. Gibbs would later claim that he flunked Latin. Ujifusa speculates that the family’s financial collapse played a more direct role.

The elder Gibbs disapproved of engineering as a profession and extracted a promise that his son would try the law. So William Francis enrolled at Columbia, earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in only three years, and dutifully took up a profession he hated, sending money home to keep his embarrassed family afloat. At night he and his brother, Frederic, continued to design improbably huge and fast ocean liners that they had no plausible reason to believe would ever be built.

A bold and persistent man, William Francis used his father’s connections to finagle a meeting with J. P. Morgan Jr., owner of International Mercantile Marine, at the time the world’s largest shipping company. That Gibbs was able to convince an astute businessman like Morgan to put up millions to build what would have been the largest and most expensive ship thus far in history — a ship first conceived in the dorm room of a student who soon dropped out of college and who had no formal engineering training — suggests that his schooling as an advocate was not altogether wasted.

Alas, it was not to be. American entry into World War I scuttled the plan. But the war also allowed Gibbs to quit the law and devote himself to naval architecture full time. The projects were mostly boring troop-ship conversions, but Gibbs never stopped dreaming about his “big ship.” Unfortunately for his dreams, the U.S. government seized so much German merchant tonnage during the war that, post-armistice, the economic rationale for building a new superliner was nil. Gibbs did, however, manage to win the most prestigious and important peacetime maritime project, the reconversion of the commandeered German Vaterland (renamed Leviathan) from troop ship back to luxury liner.

The project was a triumph for Gibbs personally, although the ship herself proved less successful. She lacked peers in her line and sailed with ships far inferior, which meant that passengers had to book their return sailing on a less prestigious vessel, not a happy prospect for most luxury travelers. Prohibition further disadvantaged Leviathan — she was the most expensive American ship, but many who could afford her preferred to sail on European liners where they could drink.

Gibbs steadily built his firm, Gibbs and Cox, into the premier maritime design shop in the world. The U.S. Navy became his most important client, but he also got the chance to work on civilian projects. The most important in this period was the SS America (launched by Eleanor Roosevelt on August 31, 1939) — a fine ship, but less than one-third the size of, and much slower than, the great behemoths then dominating the North Atlantic. The Blue Riband — the accolade given each year to the ship with the swiftest transatlantic crossing — had over the prior decade been traded back and forth among six different ships, all European.

Another war kept Gibbs busier than ever and raised his profile: He made the cover of Time in 1942. An intensely patriotic man, he took great pride in his firm’s contribution to the war effort. He remained obsessed nonetheless with building his “big ship,” first dreamed up in Harvard’s Claverly Hall in 1908.

It was the war that gave him the chance. Impressed by the troop-carrying capacity of Britain’s mammoth Queens (Mary and Elizabeth), U.S.-government officials agreed to subsidize the construction of a front-rank American liner — the first since 1894’s St. Louis, financed by Gibbs’s father and the inspiration for Gibbs’s own ship obsession.

The resulting SS United States is a masterpiece in every sense. The American ship was less opulent that her European competitors, but her design and technology exceeded theirs in every way. On her maiden voyage in July 1952, the “Big U” won the Blue Riband by the largest margin in history. Her top speeds have never since been equaled by a single-hulled vessel and, given the economics of shipping today, never will.

A formal and laconic man, Gibbs had a family life that was cordial but not much more. When one journalist told him, “I do believe you love the United States more than your wife,” he replied, “You are a thousand percent correct.” Every week his chauffeur took him from his Fifth Avenue apartment to the foot of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge so he could watch his “big ship” steam out or come home. And every single day the ship was at sea, he telephoned the bridge and the engine room to check up on her.

When Gibbs died in 1967, the party on the North Atlantic was already over. The great liners were sailing half full or worse: Jet aircraft outranked them as paying propositions. But Gibbs’s firm lives on and remains one of the most important in the world. Improbably, the United States also survives. Laid up in 1969 because of poor earnings and persistent labor trouble, she has since bounced from owner to owner, none of whom could find a way to make her pay. The current hope is to refurbish her as a floating museum, much like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. It remains to be seen whether the enormous sums required can ever be raised.

Gibbs’s is a story of immense achievement and contribution to his country. It is also one of relentless focus, persistence, and optimism. Ujifusa ably chronicles the myriad frustrations, humiliations, obstacles, and plain bad luck that Gibbs, Job-like, had to endure over 44 years before realizing his vision. Many similarly driven men are (or become) insane. Most sane men eventually give up and move on. Rare is the man who is both monomaniacal and completely rational.

A Man and His Ship is a monument that William Francis Gibbs, one of the rarest and purest expressions of the American character, richly deserves.

— Michael Anton is writer in New York City, and he served on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.

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