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Look how Harry Truman’s Presidential Yacht ended up before it sank into the mud

PortandTerminal.com, November 21, 2019

WASHINGTON – The USS Williamsburg was many things in her life before she ended up as an unwanted, rusting hulk in an Italian harbor far from home. The ship started its life as a private yacht, spent time as a Navy gunboat in the WW2 and had her proudest moments as the Presidential Yacht from 1945 to 1953.

USS Williamsburg (circa 1950)

Private Yacht

Hugh J. Chisholm, Jr, (1886-1959)

The USS Williamsburg was originally the yacht “Aras”. She was constructed by the Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, for Hugh J. Chisholm, and was launched on December 8, 1930.

Chisholm, a wealthy wood-pulp magnate from Maine, had the Aras built as a pleasure craft. The ship was named after his former wife Sara (Aras is Sara spelt backwards) who had died prematurely.

A brochure describing the finishing and decorating efforts that went into the Aras

The yacht displaced 1,834 tons fully loaded; with a length of 243 ft and is reported to have cost $2 million when it was built. In its day, it was easily one of the largest private yachts in America.

Navy Gunship

The USS Williamsburg (ex. Aras) – 1946

In the early 1940s, the US Navy started acquiring all seagoing yachts held in private hands for wartime harbor patrol duty and anti-submarine work.

The Aras was acquired by the U.S. Government in 1941 and renamed the USS Williamsburg PG-56.  Newspapers at the time reported that the government paid just $250,000 for the ship, a vessel which Chisholm had originally built for $2 million.

Presidential Yacht: USS Williamsburg

President Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States (Photo Source: White House)

Before there was Air Force One, there was a Presidential Yacht. When President Truman took office in 1945 the Presidential Yacht was the USS Potomac. The Navy though had recently condemned it as being unfit for duty in open waters and recommended using the USS Williamsburg as the Presidential yacht instead. President Truman accepted the recommendation and on November 10, 1945, the USS Williamsburg took her first cruise as the Presidential Yacht. 

An oil painting from the estate of the USS Williamsburg’s captain, William H. Bartos, that was originally part of the décor of the Williamsburg itself.

As it turned out, President Truman used the Williamsburg a lot. During a long period of his administration, the White House was undergoing restoration and forced the President to decamp to Blair House. Truman found Blair House cramped and preferred the yacht for meetings and weekend retreats. According to the crew, Truman was aboard the Williamsburg for 17 consecutive weekends in the summer of 1948.

Actress Lauren Bacall listening as President Truman plays the piano. The USS Williamsburg had two pianos on board in case he ever had the urge play.

President Truman had good reason to enjoy being aboard the yacht as often as he could. The Navy manned the Williamsburg with 8 officers, 130 men and 26 stewards. The finishing onboard the ship was also impressive. The Williamsburg was also equipped with two pianos, one in the President’s Lounge, and one in the Dining Room, should the President get the urge to play.

Famous guests aboard Williamsburg included many Heads of State. Winston Churchill was particularly fond of the ship and came aboard for talks in January of 1952 wearing the uniform of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

President Harry S. Truman and Winston Churchill aboard the USS Williamsburg in the 1940s.

Other visitors treated to cruises onboard the ship during the Truman administration included Clement Atlee, Prime Minister of Great Britain, President Aleman of Mexico, the Prime Minister of France, among others.

Photograph of participants in a conference aboard President Truman’s yacht, the U.S.S. WILLIAMSBURG: (seated, left to right) British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden; British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; President Truman; Secretary of State Dean Acheson; Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder; Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett; (standing, left to right) Walter Gifford, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain; General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Oliver Franks, British Ambassador to the U.S.; Lord Cherwell, British Paymaster General; Lord Ismay, British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations; Mutual Security Administrator W. Averell Harriman.

The Williamsburg’s descent from glory began almost as soon as President Truman left the White House in 1952. His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower used the yacht briefly before announcing that it was “too rich for my blood” and ordering the ship decommissioned in the spring of 1953.

The USS Williamsburg pictured in the 1940s

After its decommissioning, the Williamsburg languished dockside in Norfolk, Virginia, and then at the Philadelphia Naval yard along with other decommissioned ships in the navy’s Mothball Fleet.

The end of the USS Williamsburg

USS Williamsburg rusting into the sea at a port in Italy

After President Eisenhower had the USS Williamsburg decommissioned it idled dockside in Norfolk before being bounced around as part of the Navy’s Mothball Fleet.

In 1962 the Williamsburg rechristened the Anton Bruun and became a research vessel for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Under its new name, the vessel participated in a multi-year international Indian Ocean expedition involving 24 nations and more than 40 vessels.

The end though for the once-proud ship wasn’t pretty and didn’t come quickly.

The Maritime Administration eventually sold the vessel to a New Jersey marina owner in 1969 for conversion into a combination restaurant, cocktail lounge, gift shop, and boatel. The venture lasted two years.

According to a 1990 Washington Post article, the Williamsburg was “a bedraggled, listing vessel” with “grass, weeds and even small trees” sprouting “from the sodden pulp of her once-gleaming teak decks.”

The once-proud Williamsburg mouldering in Italy

In 1993, a group of investors calling themselves the USS Williamsburg Corporation purchased the yacht and sent it to Italy for what was billed as a $65 million restoration. 

The restoration never happened. Despite many noble attempts by various parties who wished to preserve the yacht, it sat decaying in a small Italian harbor for years.

When it became clear that there was going to be no death-row reprieve for the Williamsburg it was offered up for scrap with an asking price of $33,000 dollars. There were no takers.

The ship sank at her moorings, in La Spezia harbor, in 2015.

On 19 January 2016, the Port Authority of La Spezia authorised the operation for the removal of the ship. Her wreck was scrapped in situ in March that year.

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