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SOS for a national treasure

The SS United States once symbolized grace and power. Now, it may be headed to the scrap heap.

Dan McSweeney

is a Marine officer and vice president

of the SS United States Conservancy

America's national flagship, the SS United States, is being listed for sale after more than a decade on the Philadelphia waterfront. This means there's a good chance she'll be broken up and sold for scrap - an unacceptable fate for a vessel that served as America's Cold War ambassador-at-sea, the perfect embodiment of U.S. power and efficiency.

This legendary passenger ship sailed from New York to Europe and other destinations from 1952 to 1969. Its manifests listed U.S. and foreign presidents, a multitude of A-list celebrities, and a generation of leaders in business, diplomacy, culture, and the arts. (Bill Clinton and future members of his cabinet were introduced to each other on the SS United States in 1968, while sailing for England to pursue their Rhodes Scholarships.)

But this ship was far from snobby or exclusive. In its two decades of service, it transported thousands of immigrants to our shores in modern, affordable, and democratic fashion.

The SS United States was the space shuttle of its age - a great national project that made Americans and our allies swell with pride and a deep sense of security. Its massive twin funnels made it clear that it meant business. It set a trans-Atlantic speed record on its maiden voyage, in 1952, that will probably never be broken.

The ship also served as a secret weapon in America's arsenal, capable of quick conversion to a troop transport that could move an infantry division more than 10,000 miles without refueling or replenishment. Its hull design was top-secret, and the ship almost saw action in Korea.

You would be hard-pressed to name a more important U.S. merchant vessel. But we now inhabit a time and place in which only the shiny and new draw public attention.

Like many artifacts of the modern age, the SS United States has been forgotten. It has literally and figuratively faded from glory - replaced in the public consciousness by other innovations, such as jet service to Europe and gargantuan (and ungainly) cruise ships.

To observe this tension between tradition and innovation, stand quietly outside the gates of the ship's berth on the industrial South Philly waterfront, across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea. It will look like a mirage, and through the rust on its hull and the flaking red paint of its stacks, you may hear the faint cheers of an era long gone.

Fortunately, the wear is only on the ship's surface. Its hull remains overwhelmingly sound. After being gutted to remove asbestos in the 1980s, the ship has passed through the hands of a variety of owners - all ultimately incapable of resurrecting it, or preserving its dignity and service to the larger cause of national memory.

In 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the ship and pledged to return it to service on the high seas. I remember the announcement well. It was in the early days of the war in Iraq, and my unit was about to conduct an operation southeast of Baghdad.

Given my personal attachment to the ship, it was the best news I'd heard in months (years?), and I remember climbing into the back of a seven-ton truck thinking that, no matter what else happened that day, everything would be all right.

Unfortunately, however, Norwegian has been unable to follow through on its plans. Given current economic conditions, this comes as no surprise. Regardless, we must do something to save our ship.

We need to think carefully about how we treat this great vessel. Can you imagine selling the Spirit of St. Louis or the USS Constitution for scrap? If the SS United States is lost, there will never be another like it.

We can establish a public-private partnership to return this vessel to a place of well-deserved honor. In refurbishing the ship, we could introduce a new generation of Americans - including wounded veterans - to the shipbuilding and hospitality trades. If we do it the right way, we'll be restoring a powerful symbol of American pride and creating thousands of jobs in the process.

Some possible new missions for the ship include establishing a unique national maritime museum; creating a self-sufficient, revenue-generating floating hotel and convention center in a large U.S. city; or outfitting it for worldwide humanitarian assistance. (That would be a great symbol of America in the 21st century.)

Especially today, it's important to remember the greatness Americans are capable of. Let's not forget that some of the best examples of "hope and change" come from the past, needing only a new sense of purpose and a good dusting-off.