The scale of this salvage operation is nothing short of daunting. The SS Normandie was an ocean liner put into service in 1935 and capable of carrying 1,972 people across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship is still the fastest turbo-electric-propelled passenger vessel ever built, so it’s no surprise that it was seized by the US Navy during World War II for conversion to a troop carrier called the USS Lafayette. But in 1942, during retrofit operations, the vessel caught fire and capsized. The topic of today’s Retrotectacular is the remarkable salvage operation that righted the ship. Unfortunately, it was subsequently scrapped as bringing it into service was going to be too costly. Lucky for us the US Navy documented the salvage operation which makes for a fascinating 35-minutes of footage.
A huge barrier to success was the total lack of underwater visibility due to mud, sewage, and debris. Divers were first sent in to remove as much extraneous gear as possible, much of the time cutting with torches and attaching hoisting lines using only their sense of touch. To bring the ship upright the water flooding the hall needed to be displaced. To facilitate this, wooden bulkheads were built using timbers with tongue and groove joinery. These wooden barriers were sealed to the metal hull using cement poured under water. With everything patched up a very careful pumping procedure began, with many starts and stops to ensure the righting of the vessel was controllable. Of course not all was smooth sailing. Things get pretty interesting again at about 27 minutes in as a serious leak prevented the evacuation of the remaining water. You’ll need to watch for yourself to learn how they got around that. In the end it too 17 months and 19 days to right the ship.
If you liked this offering we’d recommend you watch the documentary AZORIAN: The Raising of the K-129 which is a fascinating look at engineering wizardry leveraged to salvage a Soviet ballistic missile submarine from three miles of depth. Here’s a trailer for that film.
Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.