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How She Survived

In response to:

Vichy's Ocean Liner from the May 9, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

Many thanks to Professor Robert Paxton for clarifying the question regarding the Flandre/Maréchal Pétain/La Marseillaise story [“Vichy’s Ocean Liner,” Letters, NYR, May 9], but there is more, I think, of interest relating to this ship.

First, it should be noted that this ship was only in small part a Vichy project. The origins of the ship go back at least to December 1938 when the Messageries Maritimes, a Marseille shipping company, set out to construct a liner for its service to Indochina, ordering a vessel on that date of small enough size to operate in the restricted port of Saigon. Design commenced immediately and had progressed sufficiently for the keel to be laid on June 15, 1939, a full year before Vichy came into existence. This ship, known as Hull 161, a designation that would remain until the vessel was launched, was constructed at the La Ciotat yard in the south of France.

After the defeat of France, construction was resumed in December 1940 and continued slowly (and, according to some reports, with sabotage holding up work) until June 1944, when the hull was far enough along to be launched. It was at this time that she received the name Maréchal Pétain; however, the hull was sunk by retreating German forces in August 1944. It was raised in May 1946, renamed La Marseillaise, and repaired, with construction continuing on her upper works and interior until 1949, when she was completed and put into service to the Far East as originally intended.

Following the end of the Indochina war, demand for the ship dropped off and in 1957 she was sold to the Arosa Line and refitted and renamed the Arosa Sky, but her service was short and commercially unsuccessful. She was sold to the Costa Line in 1958 and renamed the Bianca C, modernized again, and put back into service in 1959. Unfortunately, she caught fire on October 22, 1961, and sank when being towed from St. George’s harbor, Grenada.

Today she serves as a popular tourist site attracting divers from around the world. Thus we have a vessel that was conceived, designed, and laid down under the Third Republic, constructed under the Third, Vichy, and Fourth Republic, sailed under the Fourth and Fifth Republics, and continues to entertain the public seventy-five years later.

David D. Hebb
New York City

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