Jacqueline Heron Wray
The Grey Ghost Ship, RMS Queen Mary.
Updated: May 31, 2022
In 1839, the British government and Cunard developed a contract to deliver mail to and from America. Reliable, fast ships were necessary for that vital service. Plans to build the Queen Mary began in 1926, but the Great Depression of 1927 placed a spanner firmly in the works. The British government decided to give a loan to Cunard to allow them to complete building the ship, but only if they agreed to merge with their competitors, the White Star Line (who had built Titanic). The RMS Queen Mary crossed the Atlantic one thousand and one times after she was launched from John Brown shipyard in Clydebank, Glasgow. Up until the day of the launch, on the 26th of September 1934, she had been known simply as job number 534. On that pouring wet September day, Queen Mary, accompanied by King George V, announced for the first time that the new liner was to be named Queen Mary. Loud cheers and cries of delight echoed around the shipyard as the newly named ship slid into the especially widened River Clyde. The liner became the epitome of elegance, comfort, and style, and was known as ‘The Ship of Beautiful Woods’ She was also extremely fast, in fact, her speed was used as a weapon during WW2; she was faster than the torpedoes which were fired by German U-boats. Hitler offered a reward of $25,000 and the Iron Cross, to any U-boat captain who could sink her. The Queen Mary became a Government Service Transport ship during the war and was used to transport American GIs. across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain. GI stood for ‘Government Issue’ and was stamped on army equipment. Eventually the term GI became used as an abbreviation for American troops. It has been said that many soldiers used the abbreviation with more than a touch of sarcasm, believing that they were nothing more than mass-produced products to be issued by the United States government. The soldiers used a warm bunking system, using bunks for eight hours at a time; the bunks never had time to grow cold. The great ship was painted grey and was known as ‘The Grey Ghost’. She usually crossed without an escort, but on the second of October 1942, she was escorted by His Majesty’s ship, HMS Curacoa who provided an anti-aircraft escort for the last part of her journey to Greenock from New York. The Queen Mary had been following an indirect zig-zag course at that time, which was meant to confuse German submarines, known as U-boats. The HMS Curacoa was also following a zig-zag course. It not known exactly what happened, but the two ships found themselves in a collision course – each captain thought the other would take evasive action. The ships collided. The Queen Mary split the smaller ship in two, one witness later said it was like ‘a knife through butter’, and almost immediately, the smaller ship was engulfed in flames. The HMS Curacoa sank within six minutes; 338 men perished from a crew of 439. The Queen Mary was following strict orders not to stop for anything in the U-boat-infested waters and continued to Scotland with her now damaged bow. The 15,000 GIs on board felt helpless as they threw life jackets and life belts to the men drowning in the sea. The men who witnessed the tragic accident were sworn to secrecy and the loss was not made public until the war was over for fear of demoralising the nation. After a lengthy trial blame was apportioned as two thirds the fault of the Curacoa, one third the Queen Mary. In 1943, The Grey Ghost carried sixteen thousand, six hundred and eighty-three men, the largest number of humans ever carried in one vessel. At the end of the war the ship was used to carry American soldiers back to their homeland, along with over thirty thousand war brides and babies. I have seen photographs of some war brides on board. The women, some noticeably young, looked happy and excited. I often wonder what they were really thinking. I suppose when we are young everything is an adventure and you either don’t foresee pitfalls or choose not to. I remember watching one lady being interviewed many years later. She explained that she had never seen her husband out of uniform before, and that although they had been married for almost three years, she barely recognised him. At the end of the war, the ship was re-fitted for civilian trans-Atlantic service and was fully restored to her former glory, complete with her beautiful wood panelling and inlays, including American and French walnut, British and Australian oak, and ash. Fifty types of wood were used, plus fifty-six polished veneers, one for each of the British colonies at the time the ship was built. Six of those woods are now extinct and the Queen Mary is one of the few places where they can be seen. The ship is full of intricate carvings and decorative murals. Copious amounts of glass and marble were used to decorate her, as well as the ultra-modern and fashionable, at that time, linoleum which was used in the main foyer, the social and shopping area for cabin (first) class passengers. Indian Silverwood furnished the walls inlaid with Indian laurel bands. The tobacco shop was constructed using cedar wood from Honduras. There were three classes of passenger on board, and three separate entrances. Cabin, tourist (second) and third class. Cunard proudly claimed that third class on the Queen Mary was the equivalent to first-class travel on other ships, but I am not certain that was true. Cabin-class passenger cabins were situated in the centre of the ship, top to bottom because this was where they could be offered the smoothest crossing. Tourist class were located aft at the stern (the rear of the ship) top to bottom, and third-class passengers at the bow top to bottom. During rough weather, the bow was known to completely disappear under crashing waves. In its heyday, the Verandah Grill was the most popular night-time destination on board the Queen Mary. It was twenty-nine feet wide, and seventy feet long, and boasted a semi-circular glazed wall which looked out onto the sun deck. It was, and still is, a remarkable sight. Cabin-class passengers had to reserve a table to dine there. It was used as a dining room, supper club and cocktail bar and offered an à la carte menu. The dance floor was made from sycamore parquet with a mahogany border. It also had a pearwood inlay and a band of ebonised hornbeam. The stage, used by the dance band, was in front of a 1,000-foot square mural which was painted by Scottish artist Doris Zinkeisen. (Doris was re-commissioned to oversee the refurbishment of it after the war and is thought to have been so very unhappy about the damage caused to her painstakingly created mural, that she left a mouse painted into the hair of Marie Antoinette.) Glass dividers which were used as railings between the levels, changed colour in time to the music, and reflectors helped to illuminate cabin class passengers twirling and swaying feet. The rest of the grill was fitted with a self-coloured black Wilton carpet which was insisted upon by Doris. What a magnificent and decadent sight it must have been on the primarily art-deco-styled ship, but it was strictly for cabin-class passengers only. The cabin-class dining room was the largest ever built at that time. It was three decks high and spanned the entire width, 118 feet of the ship. It had private dining rooms in each corner and in its entirety, could accommodate all 815 cabin-class passengers in one sitting should it ever be required. On two occasions, the restaurant was unable to provide what a passenger requested. One request was for Dr Pepper which was not available in the UK at that time; the steward thought it was some sort of health drink but knew he didn’t have it on board the ship. The other was when some oil tycoons asked for rattlesnake steaks. The passengers who requested this unusual dish were given baked eel while waiters waved baby rattles as a joke. Ugh! The cabin-class swimming pool was on ‘D’ deck below the main foyer. It boasted a vaulted ceiling which was covered with simulated mother of pearl. The actual pool was tiled with beige-coloured terracotta tiles which were decorated with bands of green. It was fully enclosed and so could be enjoyed all year round. It is thought to be haunted. Many people have visited and taken the Queen Mary ghost tour. The pool balcony led through revolving doors to the Turkish bath suite, which was divided into the classical laconicum, caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium for heating, cooling, and cleansing the body. It also sported a steam room and massage room. Ingeniously, the terracotta tiles grew darker as you left the pool area to relate to the room temperatures. Clever, eh? The cabin-class lounge was situated on the promenade deck and was connected to the ball room, smoking room, and bar. It had a stage, complete with all the necessary theatre accoutrements such as lighting and drop curtains. There was cinema screen at one end, and a large, curved onyx fireplace at the other. Above the fireplace there is still a carved gesso panel depicting unicorns in battle, fashioned by Alfred J Oakley and Gilbert Bayes. Gesso is formed by mixing glue with plaster of Paris. It is then spread over a carved wood surface and then painted or gilded with gold leaf onto cream paint. The panel had some hinged doors which opened to reveal film projection equipment. The walls were covered with maple burr, and it had a birch ceiling. The room was up lit by striking art deco alabaster torchieres, or urns. Each of the eight torchieres was carved from the same block of alabaster to ensure uniform colour and grain. The tables were made from maple burr to match the walls. The Wilton carpet could be rolled back to reveal the oak, mahogany, and laurel wood parquet dance floor. Thirteen-foot-high windows lined the side aisle affording views of the ocean and promenade deck. Impressive by any standards. These days, some of the décor might seem a little odd; the cabin class bathrooms were panelled in Formica. At that time, Formica was new and ultra-fashionable. During the maiden voyage in May 1936, there had been no handrails in the wood-panelled corridors. It had been thought that the ship would be too large and stable to need them. After a spell of extremely rough weather, it was decided that handrails were needed, and to rectify the situation, plastic handrails were installed. Plastic was thought to be very modern at that time. The cabin-class bathrooms also had four water taps, for hot and cold fresh and salt water. Saltwater baths were much sought after, and some people thought they were more relaxing than freshwater baths. That said, there was only salt water available in the tourist and third-class accommodation. Our bathroom had four taps, but I was disappointed to find that there was no longer salt water on offer. ‘A’ deck was home to the cabin-class staterooms and suites. These were mostly panelled with light woods like bird’s eye maple and Canadian birch. Apart from chairs and stools, the furniture was fully fitted and made from the same wood as the walls. Each of the fifty-four special state rooms on the main and A decks, was individually designed and decorated and had a telephone which was ultra-modern at that time. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor always booked the same suite of staterooms, M58 on the main deck. The chief steward made sure they were furnished with curtains and bedcovers in the Duchess’ favourite colours of vibrant blues and greens. Sadly, the increased desire and requirement for speed, and the growing popularity of air travel in the 1960s meant that the Queen Mary could not compete. Revenue plummeted and in 1967 she was purchased by the city of Long Beach in California; the plan was to use her as a tourist attraction and convention centre. The ship was too large for the Panama Canal, and so her final voyage carried her 15,000 miles through Cape Horn and around South America. She was taken to a naval dry dock, the only one large enough in California, to be re-fitted before being taken to Long Beach, her final resting place.
Taken from King Street To King’s Road, written by Jacqueline Heron Wray 2019.
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