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SS Île de France during WWII. (Source: Naval History and Heritage Command)

For actions on July 26, 1956
Gallant Ship Award citation:

“Responding unhesitatingly to an SOS from the sinking ANDREA DORIA off Nantucket Island in the North Atlantic on the night of July 25, 1956, the ÎLE de FRANCE altered course and raced from many miles away to the side of the stricken ship. Holding a position close to the sinking vessel, and by her very presence giving courage to passengers and crew clinging to the wreck, she launched thirteen lifeboats, which in a series of trips, and aided by the lifeboats of other ships, brought back to the ÎLE de FRANCE a total of seven hundred and fifty-three survivors, some seriously injured. All were taken safely aboard, contributing to one of the greatest marine rescues in history.

The courage, resourcefulness, sound seamanship and teamwork of her master, officers and crew in successfully completing an extraordinary rescue operation caused the name of the ÎLE de FRANCE to be perpetuated as a Gallant ship.”

SS Île de France, a luxury ocean liner, was delivered by shipbuilder Chantiers de Penhoët in 1927. Designed in the Art Deco style of the 1930s, the vessel was constructed in a partnership between Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) and the French government. The vessel was a marvel to French and international observers, who would frequently flock to the Île de France’s berth to observe its innovative design and style. The ship became so popular that by 1935, it had carried more first-class passengers than any other transatlantic liner.

In 1939, Île de France was the last passenger vessel to depart from France before that county and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany; upon its arrival in New York, Île de France and the passenger liner SS Normandie were laid up by CGT to protect the vessels from German commerce raiders and submarines. Shortly before the Battle of France, the French government loaned Île de France to the British Admiralty to transport troops and material – once that government had fallen to Germany, the British seized the ship outright. In 1941, the British converted the vessel into a troopship; it made several trans-Atlantic crossings before it was returned to CGT in 1945.

In 1947, CGT sent the vessel to Penhoët shipyards for rebuilding. Spanning a period of two years, the refit would change many aspects of the ship, both inside and out. Île de France’s profile was forever altered when one of its three funnels was removed, and the other two streamlined. The vessel’s accommodations were altered, with half of its third-class (now “tourist class”) berths removed.

After its refit, Île de France returned to passenger service. On July 26, 1956, the vessel responded to one of the worst disasters in modern maritime history. Late in the evening of July 25, the cruise ships SS Andrea Doria and MS Stockholm collided in heavy fog south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Stockholm’s bow struck Andrea Doria’s side, tearing a large hole in the Italian ship, which immediately developed a severe list. Within half an hour of impact, Andrea Doria’s master ordered that all abandon ship; however, the list prevented Andrea Doria’s crew from accessing the ship’s port-side lifeboats. Even the starboard-side lifeboats could not be loaded until they had been lowered into the water, and Andrea Doria put out an urgent call for more lifeboats from any nearby vessels.

Île de France was eastbound, traveling from New York and already past Nantucket, when the vessel received an SOS from the stricken Andrea Doria. Upon receiving the distress call, the vessel’s captain, Raoul de Beaudean, decided to turn his fully-loaded vessel around to assist with rescue operations. After arriving on scene, Île de France launched 13 lifeboats and crew members began ferrying survivors back to the waiting French liner. The arrival of the large liner at the scene of the accident was reported to be a turning point in the rescue operation; although American cargo vessel SS Cape Ann and U.S. Navy troop transport USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas were already on scene, neither was equipped for the sort of large-scale lifeboat rescue that Île de France could perform. By the morning of July 26, the crew of Île de France had rescued 753 survivors, more than any other vessel at the scene. After discharging survivors in New York, Île de France resumed its voyage to Europe.

By the late 1950s, ocean travel began to decline as transatlantic air travel became more common and more popular. In the face of faltering sales, CGT sold Île de France to a Japanese ship scrapping company. The vessel departed Le Havre for the last time on February 16, 1959 and was dismantled in Japan later that year.