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Saigon Kids Stories: SS President Hoover

by Bruce Thomass (ACS 1960-61)

As I wrote my *Before Saigon* story, I noted that was the 53rd anniversary of the day we boarded SS President Hoover for our journey to Saigon. It might be interesting to some readers to know a little bit about the history of that ship.

Panama CanalIn 1932, his final year as President of the United States, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to counter the deep depression included a proposal to divest the Panama Canal Company of its steamship holdings. The Panama Canal had been in operation for nearly 20 years by that time, and this operation of the U.S. government was always profitable and self-supporting. But the need for a large steamship division after the construction years had greatly diminished. The fleet had already been reduced for that reason, as well as because world cargo trade had dropped after the First World War. Hoover’s attempt to get rid of the steamship division entirely was probably a sound move from a business standpoint, but Congress thwarted the effort, and the steamship division kept its few remaining ships. In fact, two of them were subsequently upgraded for the princely sum of a million dollars.

Then, in Franklin Roosevelt’s second term of office, three new ships were ordered for the Panama Canal Steamship Company. These would be built in Quincy, Massachusetts, with the trio of identical sister ships costing four million dollars each. It would be a shot in the arm for domesticPresidental Jetliner shipbuilding, a New Deal effort financed with Panama Canal tolls. All three ships were launched in 1939, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal — first SS Panama, then SS Ancon, and finally SS Cristobal. Built under new standards for maritime safety, these cargo liners were designed to carry about 200 passengers along with a substantial amount of cargo. They had comfortable air conditioned staterooms, and the luxurious interiors were designed by the famed Raymond Loewy. (In 1961 he was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy to design interior and the distinctive blue, white, and chrome livery for the new presidential jet. That distinctive design has remained in use for more than 50 years for all the aircraft in the presidential air fleet.)

I was lucky enough to sail on two of these three vessels, long after they had endured the indignity of being stripped and converted to troop transports during the Second World War. After the war and their reconversion to fashionable cargo liners, the cargo business between New York and Panama continued to dwindle, and SS Panama was sold to the newly established American President Lines in 1957. Ironically, given his 1932 proposal to divest the Panama Canal Company of steamship holdings, this ship was renamed SS President Hoover and began sailing out of San Francisco across the Pacific.

Just fourteen months after our Pacific crossing on SS President Hoover, and after our sudden unplanned departure from Saigon (due to Dad being wounded when a hand grenade was tossed into our front yard), my father was assigned to an FAA position in the Canal Zone. A couple of months after arriving home from Vietnam, we drove to New Orleans and boarded a ship belonging to the Panama Canal Company. To my surprise, it was absolutely identical to the President Hoover, down to the piano in the upper lounge. (I would continue my attempt to master Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.)

For several days we sailed aboard SS Cristobal, the one remaining ship of the original trio built for the Panama Canal Company in 1939, arriving at the city for which it was named, as we began another year outside the borders of the 48 states. Just two months earlier, SS Ancon had been transferred to the Maine Maritime Academy and renamed State of Maine. But eventually, even the Cristobal was sold. Between 1973 and 1985 each of these three lovely ships ended up being turned into scrap. In the meantime, the American TV show, “The Love Boat,” helped to teach a later generation the joys of ocean cruising, but with much larger ships.

4 comments to Saigon Kids Stories: SS President Hoover

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Bruce, you are one great story teller.

    While sailing on a passenger, or perhaps a cargo, ship between points A and B is a hell of a lot more comfortable that flying, I, for one, cannot understand the pleasure of some of these huge vacation cruisers run by Carnival and other such companies. Yes, I know they have entertainment, good restaurants, etc., but all of that is available on dry land as well, at least in most major cities around the world. And these ships are getting bigger and bigger and one day, thousands of people will perish when one sinks, being miles away from are sort of rescue. The wreck in Italy is a case in point, but that one worked out well, luckily except for about 32 who died. After the Italian wreck, one has to ask how well trained are the crews…certainly the crew of the Costa Concordia didn’t know what to do. I once read that the Queen Mary II has 40% more steel in its construction than the biggest of the cruise ships….think about that, 40%. The Queen Mary II was built for the rough seas of the North Atlantic…makes one wonder how well constructed are these cruise liners.

    As a kid I crossed the Atlantic several times (Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and on MATS ships – USS Rose and USS Patch) and had a great time, but I was a kid…what did I know then. Just as a small point of interest I arrived in the US originally in 1946 on the Queen Mary with my mother, an English war bride. I was 18 months old. The other trips were made in the early 1950s except for the MATS. My last trip was in 1954, sailing from New Jersey to Istanbul on our way to Baghdad, Iraq. My wife just reminded me that we were on a ship from Tangiers to Sete, France in 1999, leaving our Rabat assignment and on our way to Frankfurt…both of us got seasick…..

    Have a good week.

  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Our family sailed on a sister ship, The U.S.S President Wilson, in the summer of 1958 from Long Beach, CA. to Hong Kong. It was 3 wonderful weeks of rest and relaxation across the Pacific, dancing in the evenings to Bobby Darin’s Mac the Knife and Splish Splash in the Teen Lounge.
    My first cruise experience left me wanting more. Charles and I cruised the Inside Passage of Alaska last summer on the Princess Sapphire and enjoyed every minute of it. BTW: Juneau is only accessible by ship or plane as it is the only State capital with no roads to it. Glad we did not miss the humpbacks bubble-net feeding in Juneau’s waters.
    We were also escorted non-stop by the U.S. Coast Guard all the way from Juneau to Ketchikan…guess they were ready to radio for help should be have needed it, Ken,although it was a little disconcerting to awaken at 3AM and see them still puttering alongside our ship.
    Not much of a flyer, but having a Navy dad has made me a very happy sailor. Love being on the sea or just sitting on a beach looking at it.

  • frank

    In 1956, my family took the U.S.S. Constitution from New York to Naples, Italy. We had been on home leave (and yes, I saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show that summer) were heading back to Iran for our next three years. The ship had swimming competitions of which I won all of them in my class age. I was eight years older than my little sister, so in the evening I was her baby sitter, of which I did not mind. Really! We stopped in Barcelona for a day and night and my Dad, brother and I went to a bullfight. There are good memory’s growing up, but some were not so good. My wife is the only one that knows what I’m about to tell you, but when you get old, I guess a person doesn’t care about impressing friends and whether hell exists! One of the Ship’s Purser’s took a liking to me. The day I won the grand price for the swimming competition, I was told to meat him in his office that evening. I remember hearing the waves breaking outside his office as he molested me. I was 12 years old. My parents were having so much fun. They were so happy one of the ship’s crew was so nice to me. My Dad said he had spent so much time working on ships during the war, that he wanted his family to have a wonderful time on the “Sun Deck”. I did not dare break the news. Wow! Molested twice in my life time….a priest and a ship’s purser. I guess my thoughts today are so much for cruises and religion.
    Although I’m seriously looking into doing one to Vietnam.
    Actually, I did do another cruise that I did not mind. In Oct. 1968 I took the U.S.S. Fort Snelling (LSD) on a trip to Vegas, P.R.

    PS: Yes, for some of you that were wondering…When I heard the waves hitting against the hull, I was wondering that if I tried to stop him, would he throw me over the side rail, which was about 15 feet (or less) away.

  • frank

    O.K…Time to change the subject and attempt to use proper spelling. Why did I like it better when all tropical storms were named after women?

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