The Genius Behind The LST
John C. Niedermair Was A Giant in the Field Of Naval Architecture
By Mel Barger, LST-555
When John C. Niedermair was chosen for a high national honor in 1956, it was noted that more than 8,000 ships had been built from designs originated under his guidance—a record that is never likely to be equaled. As Technical Director of Preliminary Ship Design at the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships, Niedermair had been responsible for the basic designs of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, patrol and mine craft, and numerous auxiliaries.
Yet, the great love of his life was the LST. “Worthy of particular mention is the part he played in the design of the LST,” a press notice said at the time of the award, terming the ship “in large measure the product of Mr. Niedermair’s originality and fine engineering judgment.” Although the LST had none of the graceful lines of the Essex carriers and other ships to which Mr. Niedermair made design contributions, it was said that his role in designing the “Large Slow Target” brought him the most professional satisfaction of his career.
Niedermair was born November 2, 1893 in Union Hill, New Jersey and lived in Staten Island, New York, as a youth. He was selected for a scholarship to and entered Webb Institute of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering in 1914. He graduated at the head of his class in 1918.
After serving briefly as a Naval Officer candidate, he accepted a permanent appointment in December 1918 as a ship draftsman at the New York Navy Yard and served there until joining the Preliminary Design branch at the Navy’s Bureau of Ships, where he would ultimately become the highest ranking civilian in the Bureau.
While working at the New York Navy yard, Niedermair was assigned to the salvage of the S-51, a submarine sunk at sea in a collision. His calculations and engineering techniques finally resulted in the raising of the sub, and incredible feat in view of the primitive diving equipment and methods then available. In describing this first scientific salvage job, one high-ranking Navy man said that Niedermair had raised the sub “with a lead pencil.”
At the Bureau of Ships, Niedermair became the Navy’s resident expert on watertight integrity and ship salvage jobs. In 1929, he attended the International Safety of Life on Sea Convention in London, and was one of the signers of the resulting agreement. His ideas and standards on watertight integrity and ship stability were adopted for every passenger ship constructed in the United States. He authored numerous papers on ship construction and stability, and occupied such a preeminent position in the field of basic ship design, that he could well have been termed the father of the modern United States Navy. For his outstanding services to the Navy both prior to, and during World War II, Niedermair was presented the Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the Navy’s highest honorary award, in 1945.
Niedermair’s work also spanned the nuclear age. He had a role in designing the first nuclear-powered submarines, Nautilus and Skate, the carriers Forrestal and Enterprise, and guided missile ships as well as Polaris-type submarines.
A devoted family man, Niedermair had eight children. He explained, “It’s just as easy to raise a big family as a small one, if you have a good wife.” And when his doctor ordered him to take a rest after the way, he ended up, it was said, by building a seaside house—not a cottage, but a two-story house which he put up with his own hands.
Niedermair retired from the Bureau of Ships in 1958. He died in 1982, leaving a legacy of Naval architecture that at least influenced two generations of ship designers.