Follow the Stories | Savannah, Georgia (2004)
The Normandie: A Legend Undiminished
An Eye-witness Account
Naval firefighters battle the flames aboard the Normandie, February 9, 1942. (Photo courtesy of Betsy Gunter Johnson)
In February 1942, Dr. John Gunter was a U.S. Navy lieutenant in New York City, awaiting active-duty assignment overseas. He witnessed the burning of the Normandie in New York Harbor. His daughter, Betsy Gunter Johnson, of North Carolina, has kindly provided ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online with the following excerpts from Dr. Gunter's diary from that time, as well as several of the photographs that he took.
New York, N.Y. February 9, 1942, Monday.
The country went on War Time today. This afternoon Frank and I decided to go to a movie. As we approached the Capital Theater on Broadway, the doorman announced that he had just heard that the Normandie was on fire. He pointed down Broadway at the great clouds of smoke which he said were coming from her. With no further thought for the show we hastened to the Taft to get our cameras and then to the R.C.A. building. From the top we could get an excellent view. Great clouds of smoke were pouring everywhere from the ship. A southwest wind carried the smoke across the lower part of Manhattan Island obscuring the Empire State Building and other skyscrapers in this vicinity. Now and then a small bit of flame could be seen in the forward part which was towards us. More detail could be seen through the telescopes up there. We took many pictures. Frank's were no good because he forgot to do something about his camera. Mine were in Kodachrome and won't be seen for awhile. We watched the fire for an hour from here. It was very cold & we had to go inside & warm frequently. Presently the crowd got too thick for us and we went back to the Taft Hotel and could get an even closer view from the top of this, although the smoke wasn't abundant now. The giant ship was showing a marked list toward the port side. No more flames were to be seen. Darkness came and with it more cold & we went below. The Normandie started burning a little before 3:00 PM & we first saw it a little after 4:00 PM.
New York, N.Y. February 10, 1942, Tuesday.
This morning I got up early to meet Mother at the train at 8:55 AM. With the new time it seemed like the middle of the night. We returned to the hotel & squared her away with a room. Then to the twentieth floor to have a look at the Normandie. During the night the rising tide had caused her to roll over on her port side. The disaster occurred quietly the papers said around 2:30 AM. The stacks which were so plainly seen the day before could no longer be seen from this distance. Desiring a closer view we hire a taxi and Mother and Frank & I had the driver take the elevated highway past the docks. We got an excellent view of the mammoth ship as she lay helpless on her port side with the port sides of the tops of the stacks just touching the water level. Water was still being poured on the decks from the fire boats which were standing by. We took several pictures as we rode slowly past & returned on the other side of the highway. Of course we were not allowed to stop. The sight was one not soon to be forgotten.
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