As time passes and as new birthdays arrive for me, it is becoming harder than ever to improve on previous birthday celebrations. For example, on this website, I am to be seen in a video celebrating my 73rd birthday by drinking burgundy wine in Burgundy, France. What can beat that? Last week Pat and I undertook the task of celebrating my 75th birthday. We chose to do so with a lady, whom I first met many years ago and who is my age. She is world famous under the name of the RMS Queen Mary and it was the Cunard Line that built this magnificent ocean liner. The initials ‘RMS’ are short for Royal Mail Ship and have been much prized in the shipping industry since 1840, when the postage stamp was invented. They signify that the ship is one that has been commissioned by the Crown to carry the Royal Mail. The liner made her maiden voyage in 1936, just as I was preparing to make my own entry onto the world stage. Cunard had planned to call her The Queen Victoria and told the King of their intention to name the vessel after “Britain’s greatest Queen”. King George V, grandfather of Britain’s present Queen, had married Mary of Teck who was a minor German princess. He told Cunard that his wife was delighted with their suggestion to use her name and had given her permission. Thus Cunard was rather stuck with the RMS Queen Mary.
The RMS Queen Mary broke many records in achieving fastest transatlantic crossings, but it is her record breaking during World War Two that is particularly impressive. She was taken over by government for use as a troopship and moved many US soldiers from stateside to the European front. On occasions, she carried as many as 16,000 soldiers. There were so many people on board that they had to sleep in shifts. Never before or since has any ship carried so many passengers. It was during the war that she was involved in a tragedy that killed hundreds of sailors. Escort ships naturally protected The Queen Mary against Nazi submarine attacks during her transatlantic troop carrying activities. In October 1942, an escort ship named HMS Curacoa was literally “run over” and sunk by The Queen Mary, which could not stop to pick up survivors. Her orders, with U-boats in the vicinity, were to stop for nothing. Most of the 339 man crew of the HMS Curacao was lost at sea. Winston Churchill sometimes used The Queen Mary to visit the United States during the war. He insisted that the lifeboat assigned to him be equipped with its own machine gun so that, if the ship was sunk, he could fight on and avoid being taken alive.
After the war, the Queen Mary regained its position as the greatest passenger liner for transatlantic crossings and it was in that capacity that I had the privilege of sailing on her from New York City to Southampton in December 1963. Weather was bad and, for that reason, the voyage was not a comfortable one. By that time however, the jet age had arrived and there now were faster and cheaper ways of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. This circumstance turned the Queen Mary into a major financial loss maker for Cunard and, for that reason, she had to stop work in 1967. I am pleased to say that I was able to continue working for more than forty years after my contemporary, the Queen Mary, had to retire.
The Queen Mary has spent her retirement moored in the harbor at Long Beach, California. It was here that, together with our daughter Tara, Pat and I visited her last week to celebrate my 75th birthday. The Queen Mary is now used as a tourist attraction, museum, hotel and restaurant and it was the first time that I had seen her since my 1963 voyage. The big staircases, with their brass rails in the art deco style, were just as I remembered them. We joined a shipboard tour called Ghosts and Legends, which involved walking down those staircases into the very bowels of the ship. The staff on the ship seemed to enjoy meeting someone, who had actually sailed across the Atlantic on her. Such visitors are apparently rarities. Fortunately, at the end of the tour, there was an elevator to take us back to the top. I could not have climbed back up. At the lowest point in our tour, we were 36 feet below the waterline, and it was good that the elderly vessel was not leaking. The basis for the Ghosts and Legends tour is the great deal of paranormal activity going on in the bowels of the ship. While at sea, the occasional passenger has died or perhaps been murdered, but a more fertile source of ghosts is provided by the crew of the HMS Curacao. When the Queen Mary sliced through their ship in 1942, many crew members must have gone to their deaths without the slightest idea of what was happening. That their spirits should still be haunting the bowels of the Queen Mary seems entirely logical.
Before we left the Queen Mary, Tara went to the very front of the ship to be photographed (see picture) in a style reminiscent of the pictures of Kate Winslet in the film, Titanic. If only that ship could also have enjoyed a comfortable retirement in the sunshine of Southern California. Our birthday visit to the Queen Mary was delightfully nostalgic. Yet where can we go on future birthday celebrations that won’t be anti-climactic?