R(oyal) M(ail) S(hip) Queen Mary
Six years ago this week, my husband Joe and I sailed on the Ruby Princess from Seattle through Alaska’s Inside Passage. We were on board for seven nights, and I must say, it was one of the greatest adventures of our lives. For several years, our “bucket list” (such as it was) included “take a cruise to Alaska,” but I don’t think we would have tried it in 2015 had we not been invited by our good friends the Wilkersons to join their happy group. Sailing that far north during the summer solstice is a perfect time to go because you can observe the beauty of Alaska very early in the morning, all day long, and very late in the evening. (We were blessed with good weather all week.) Our cabin had a balcony and we used it frequently, including one early morning when we had breakfast delivered as we sailed into Tracy Arm Fjord. We bundled up—it was cold!
The ship is enormous (longer than three football fields), with passenger capacity at 3,080 and 1,200 crew members. For the most part, the sailing was very smooth (but I packed Dramamine, just in case). We splurged and signed up for a helicopter ride from the Juneau airport up to Herbert Glacier where we took a two-mile dog sled ride. Without a doubt, pretending to be mushers on four thousand feet of ice was the coolest thing we’d ever done.
Before the 1960s when cruising became popular as a “vacation destination,” ocean liners were used to transport passengers across major bodies of water (e.g., the Atlantic Ocean). One of the largest of these liners was the RMS Queen Mary. The ship was built for the Cunard White Star Line in Clydebank, Scotland (near Glasgow) and was christened on September 26, 1934 by Queen Mary, consort of the UK’s King George V. Departing from Southampton in southern England, her maiden voyage commenced on May 27, 1936 and ended with her arrival in New York City five days later. She was a grand ship, with Art Deco interiors, two swimming pools, a music studio and lecture hall, beauty salons, libraries, outdoor paddle tennis courts, and dog kennels. She was the first ocean liner to offer a Jewish prayer room, evidence of Cunard’s efforts to avoid the antisemitism that was steadily growing in Nazi Germany at the time.
With the onset of World War II, most of the world’s grand ocean liners were converted to troopships. These ships were critical in the support of military operations because of their massive size (they could carry as many as 16,000 troops, packed in like sardines), plus they were among the fastest ships on the water at the time. Speed (over 30 knots) was the best defense against German U-boat attacks. She sailed without escorts except when nearing port.
RMS Queen Mary was sailing to New York City when war broke out in Europe in September 1939. After she arrived, and as soon as the decision was made to convert the ship for military use, most of her luxurious interiors were removed and stored in New York for the duration of the war. The following March, she left for Sydney, Australia, where the troopship conversion was completed. The ship’s hull, superstructure, and funnels were painted navy gray, and anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the deck.
From March 1940 to September 1946, RMS Queen Mary, nicknamed the “Gray Ghost” during the war, made a total of 215 sailings, transporting troops and supplies to places they were needed most. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, many of Queen Mary’s cruises were round trips from New York City to Gourock, Scotland. She sailed that route exclusively between May 1943 and August 1944 in preparation for and just after the D-Day invasion at Normandy. (Joe’s Uncle Leon, a U.S. Army Air Corps airplane mechanic, was on one of those sailings.) In early May 1943, Winston Churchill sailed from Gourock to New York to meet with President Roosevelt. Five thousand German prisoners of war were also on board during that sailing. Perhaps some of those POWs ended up in Camp Algona.
RMS Queen Mary was demobilized at Southampton on September 27, 1946. During her troopship tenure, she carried 765,429 military personnel. After the war, she also ferried 12,886 European war brides and children to the U.S. and Canada.
In December 1984, Joe and I flew from our home in Oklahoma to Los Angeles to spend the holidays with my sister Nancy and her husband Tom. During that week, we paid a visit to the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach where she’d been moored since 1967. I’m sure I learned a lot about the ship’s contribution to the war effort during the tour, but I don’t remember any of those details. It was fun spending time on the ship, though, imagining what it might have been like to enjoy the comforts of first-class travel in the 1930s.
Today, the RMS Queen Mary 2 is the only ocean liner in operation on the high seas. I just checked their website—they’re taking bookings for December 2021. Also, after more than a year of a pandemic-driven hiatus, Princess Cruises is sailing to Alaska next month—just one ship, the Majestic Princess, and they’re bypassing Canada, but it’s a start.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.