A Steward’s Story
Family visits relative’s former ship sitting in Philadelphia
My somewhat distant relatives in southern Sweden are understandably rather proud of a relative by marriage who left the shores of the Oresund, which separates Sweden and Denmark, and then proceeded to sail off the shores of many another nation.
His name was Anders B. Malmsea and he was the chief steward on the SS United States, the fastest passenger ship in the world. The record the ship set for a North Atlantic crossing still stands. You can visit the renowned ship today in Philadelphia.
In 1963, Malmsea married Gertrud Jonsson, who was a teacher in a small village in southern Sweden, and who was the aunt of Margareta Olefelt, who in turn is related to my late mother, Alma, although there is a generation or two of separation in the linkage.
During a trip to Europe In the late 1990s, my wife, Judith, and I visited Margareta and her husband, Sven, at their home in the tiny village of Kagerud in southern Sweden. The southern tip of Sweden is known as Skane, which is a former Danish province that became a county of Sweden in 1720 after years of battles.
Sven, now retired, then helped manage a family-owned carpentry shop in the nearby coastal town of Landskrona. This is the town where the Olefelts now live in an apartment tower overlooking the Oresund, the sound which separates Sweden and Denmark.
Malmsea, whose father had nautical ties, was born in 1906 in Landskrona. Because of World War I, conditions were tough in southern Sweden when Malmsea left home in 1921 and joined the crew of a cargo ship as a deck boy. He was promoted to cabin boy after 6 months.
He left his ship in New Orleans at age 17 and changed his name from Anders Malmsjo to Anders B. Malmsea.
Although still an illegal immigrant, he became a U.S. citizen in 1934 at age 28, as this was then allowed. He lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. and worked on many ships as a steward, sailing out of New York as is the case with many seafarers.
During one of his Atlantic voyages during World War II his vessel was attacked by a German U-boat off Africa and a nearby ship was torpedoed.
After the war, he sailed on the SS America, a United States Lines passenger liner built in 1939, as the chief steward for the tourist class. As the USS West Point, this vessel served as a troopship during the war and carried some 350,000 personnel (or more than any other vessel of its type) on its many voyages in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The SS America sailed for United States Lines for 18 years after the war and was known as an elegant, safe, and friendly ship.
Its wreckage lies today on the shore of Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands.
Malmsea next became an instructor at the steward school operated by the U.S. Maritime Service at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, which was known as the “boot camp” for this type of shipboard service.
In 1952, Malmsea joined the SS United States, which had just been launched by the Newport News (Va.) Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. as the assistant chief steward.
The ship cost some $80 million to build (about $625 million today) and was made so that it could easily be converted into a troopship. It was never used for that purpose. Aluminum was used extensively in its construction, and the ship’s hull required 18,300 separate pieces. Its highly compartmentalized hull was long considered “classified.”
Malmsea would remain on the ship, also known as “The Big U” until it made its last voyage in 1969 and served as chief steward on the United States Lines ship from 1966 1969.
He was on the ship when it made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic and broke the previous record for the crossing which was held 14 years by the RMS Queen Mary. The crossing took 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes at an average speed of 35.5 knots or 41 mph. “The Big U” also eclipsed Queen Mary’s time on its return trip across the Atlantic.
The ship could cross the Atlantic three times in the time the two “Queens” …(“Elizabeth” was the other) … would take for two.
The four manganese bronze propellers (two with five blades, two with four) which so capably pushed the SS United States through the waves are on display at maritime museums in the New York -Virginia area. Each one weighs 60,000 pounds.
After Malmsea retired, he and Gertrud lived in a large house near Landskrona. He donated a considerable portion of his wealth to New York City, where he had lived for so many years (as a base for his seafaring) to establish a trust fund aimed at supporting the city’s parks.
He died in 1983 of cancer, which could well have been caused by the asbestos which was used extensively for the ceilings on “The Big U.”
Sven says that among the artifacts Malmsea left were hundreds of autographs of famous people who had sailed on the United States (Former President William Clinton is among those who did so) as well as many other photographs of the same nature.
Since the ship’s retirement, there have been many proposals and even one effort to make use of the ship’s potential.
The one substantial effort involved towing the ship to Sevastopol, Crimea, Ukraine, where it was stripped of its asbestos. (The workers there were given the ship’s aluminum lifeboats as pay.)
Nothing came of this effort and the ship was returned to the U.S., where it remains in Philadelphia at Pier 82 on the Delaware River, which is where Sven and his family visited the ship on a trip to the U.S. some years ago.
The ship was purchased in 2011 by the SS United States Conservancy and donations since to this organization have covered the considerable costs of keeping the ship at its Delaware River berth.
In an agreement between the conservancy and RXR Realty of New York city, the latter is seeking to find a place and purpose for the famous ship at leading U.S. port cities.