Every Thursday, Robert Sturm drives an hour from his Medford home to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point to revisit his past.
Sturm, 82, is a 1956 graduate of the academy, but it’s not nostalgia for his days as a midshipman that draws him back to the campus. It’s the American Merchant Marine Museum located there — and specifically, its collection of documents and photos of vessels owned by United States Lines, a shipping company that also operated luxury passenger ships.
He had a 44-year career in the transportation industry, working for the Long Island Rail Road, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and an engineering consulting firm. But it was the two years he worked aboard the historic ocean liner SS United States that has been keeping him busy lately. Last year in June, he self-published a book, “SS United States: The View From Down Below,” that details his knowledge about the ship gleaned during his 44 transatlantic voyages, from 1957 to 1959.
At the museum, Sturm’s role as a volunteer archivist is to organize and catalog boxes of documents and photographs the museum acquired when United States Lines was dissolved in 1992.
The files that most interest Sturm are those about the liner SS United States. “The ship is the epitome of American genius when it comes to naval architecture and marine engineering, both in design and construction and in operation,” Sturm said. “It was truly a magnificent piece of work.”
Launched in 1952, the SS United States was the most lavish and fastest passenger ship in the world. It was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War so it could be quickly converted into a troopship, if needed. Its maiden voyage from New York to England set a speed record of three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. Taken out of service in 1969, it still holds the Blue Riband prize for the fastest westbound transatlantic crossing by a passenger vessel, won in 1952 on its return trip. The Blue Riband competition was started by shipping companies in 1838, Sturm said, and ended after jet travel put transatlantic liners out of business.
For more than two decades, the ship’s rusting hull has been moored in Philadelphia. Efforts by the SS United States Conservancy to restore the vessel have been unsuccessful.
Sturm wrote his 89-page book about the ocean liner at the suggestion of conservancy executive director Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, who designed the ship. “Bob Sturm offers a riveting account of more than the ship’s rivets: he explains how the SS United States’ top-secret engines worked and why they were so unique,” Susan Gibbs said.
Joshua Smith, interim director of the academy’s museum, said “What Bob brings to the museum is that he’s an alumnus with deep interest and incredible experience in the maritime industry, especially on this fantastic ship. . . . We’ve got this huge collection of papers from the United States Lines, which was the pre-eminent American steamship company in the mid-20th century, and it’s completely unorganized.” When the company closed, museum staff collected filing cabinets from its Manhattan headquarters. Sturm is going through each box, “listing the contents and organizing them so they will become a useful collection that scholars and others can use,” Smith said. Sturm started archiving the material a year ago and calculates he’s got another year to go.
While he enjoys working on the collection and applying his expertise to the project, Sturm said his long career in the railroad industry was more personally rewarding. He’s writing a book on the history of the Long Island Rail Road, from the time it was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, through its takeover by New York State. It will be his third book about railroads in New York.
As a Kings Point midshipman, Sturm spent his Sea Year — all students spend a year sailing on commercial or government vessels — as an engineering officer aboard ships operated by Lykes Brothers, Mississippi Shipping, Socony-Mobil and United States Lines. After graduation, he worked on United States Lines freighters for a year before being transferred to the SS United States. The huge ship was a challenge. “It was like a city with a large staff, including 50 engineers,” recalled Sturm, who was a junior third assistant engineer. “It was a little daunting at first.” Twelve engineers would be on duty at any time. Working four hours on and eight hours off, they supervised firemen, oilers and wipers, who did mostly painting and cleaning, and two machinists.
The engineering crew was under strict orders to avoid contact with paying guests. “We were forbidden to intermingle with passengers,” Sturm said. “We had a lounge, and we had our own dining room, and we had our own sports deck that was open to the engineers. It was not unusual to see Burt Lancaster running around the open promenade deck or Billy Graham, gazing off into the distance, meditating.”
As much as Sturm enjoyed the job, he left the grand ocean liner to get married. “I thought it was a fine job for a single guy,” he said. “But for a married person, I thought it was imposing too much of a burden on the family, especially with the children.” As a crewman, he worked seven days a week for 11 months and then would have one month off.
Four days after leaving the ship, he married Ruth Finkernagel of Massapequa on Dec. 26, 1959. The couple, married for 57 years, have two daughters, a son and five grandchildren.
Sturm spent 15 years with the LIRR as a planner and project manager for the West Side Yard, where trains are stored. He worked for five years with the MTA in planning and project engineering. He retired at age 75 from an engineering consulting firm. “Some of the conceptual engineering plans that I developed are now being implemented,” Sturm said, including East Side Access, a multibillion dollar MTA project involving LIRR access to a new terminal under Grand Central Terminal.
Sturm’s first two books were written for the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society: “The New York Connecting Railroad: Long Island’s Other Railroad,” (2006, $39.95) co-written with William G. Thom; and “The Long-Island Rail-Road Company: A History 1834-1965” (2014, $43.95). All of his books, including “SS United States” ($39.95), are available through Sturm’s email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
When he’s not writing, archiving at the museum or giving lectures based on his books, Sturm builds models. His latest is a 30-inch miniature of the Lykes Brothers freighter Reuben Tipton, on which he sailed as a midshipman. He’s also building an HO-scale model railroad of the LIRR during the transition from steam locomotives to diesel engines.
Aside from an occasional cruise, Sturm and his wife don’t travel much. “When I first got married, I had spent four years traveling steadily and didn’t want to go anywhere,” he said. His time at sea drained all wanderlust, he said, which is why “I’ve never owned a boat.”
Sharing his train expertise
Robert Sturm will be giving a talk about the history of the Long Island Rail Road and how it affected the growth of Great Neck.
WHERE/WHEN Great Neck Historical Society, 14 Arrandale Ave.; March 23, 7:30 p.m.
INFO 516-288-6124; greatneckhistorical.org/events.html