USS Williamsburg served as a presidential yacht from 1945 to 1953
The steel-hulled, diesel-powered yacht Aras was laid down on 19 March 19, 1930 by the Bath Iron Works; launched on December 8, 1930; and delivered to wood-pulp magnate Hugh J. Chisholm on January 15, 1931.
Aras displaced 1,805 tons fully load; with a length of 243 feet; 9 inches long; a beam of 36 feet; and a draft of 14 feet. Her two Winton diesels generated 1,100 bhp, with a speed of 13.5 knots
The U.S. Navy acquired Aras on April 24, 1941, and renamed her Williamsburg. The former pleasure craft entered the Brewer Drydock and Repair Co., of Brooklyn, New York, on June 23 for conversion into a gunboat.
Williamsburg (PG-56) was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on October 7, 1941, with Lt. Commander Frederick S. Hall as her commanding officer. Williamsburg was ordered to the Norfolk Navy Yard to complete fitting-out, arriving on November 5.
As a gunboat, Williamsburg had two 3" gun mounts, six .50 cal. machine guns, two .30 cal. Lewis machine guns, two dct, one "Y" gun, 16 rifles, and 10 pistols. Her crew complement was 81.
After final alterations, the gunboat departed Norfolk on December 2, touched briefly at Washington, D.C., and eventually arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on December 6, the day before Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.
World War 2
Williamsburg departed Halifax on December 8, bound for Iceland; via Hvalfjörður; and reached Reykjavík later in December 1941. She arrived at a time when the newly established Naval Operating Base (NOB), Iceland, was encountering rough sledding. Rear Admiral James L. Kauffman, the first commandant of NOB Iceland, had arrived in Reykjavík in the battleship USS Arkansas (BB-33) shortly after the United States entered the war. He found that no quarters existed ashore, either for himself or for his staff. Moreover, while tentative arrangement had been made to assign a station ship to Reykjavík, the congestion of shipping there and the shortage of space made a permanently pier-moored ship an impossibility. Therefore, it was necessary to have a ship that could be anchored clear of the docks. The problem was solved when Admiral Kauffman transferred his flag from Arkansas to Williamsburg at Hvalfjörður on December 23. Since the Army's Port Authority in Iceland at that time was also in need of headquarters, its commanding officer and his staff were also accommodated in Williamsburg.
Rear Admiral Kauffman flew his flag in Williamsburg into the spring of 1942. By then, the ship had been moored alongside the main quay at Reykjavík. She not only provided Kauffman with a headquarters, but also served as quarters for the communications personnel and the admiral's staff. When Camp Knox — the naval facility on Iceland — was completed in mid-May, Kauffman hauled down his flag and moved ashore to release Williamsburg for other duties.
The gunboat got underway on May 18, with a party of Army officers embarked, for an inspection tour of the island of Iceland. Led by Major General Charles Bonesteel, the party inspected bases at Akureyri, Dalvík, Búðareyri, and Reyðarfjörður. While making the cruise, the ship escorted the British troop and supply vessel SS Lochnagar to these ports. With the inspection trip completed by the end of May, Williamsburg put to sea to make contact with the disabled merchantman SS Gemini, reportedly suffering from a damaged propeller and under tow by the British tug Jaunty.
Assisted by a PBY, the gunboat searched for Gemini and Jaunty. Escorted by USCGS Duane (WPG-33) and USS Babbitt (DD-128), the tug and merchantman finally hove into sight on June 1; and Williamsburg fell in as additional escort to Reykjavik. Shifting to Hvalfjörður on June 4, the gunboat underwent tender repairs alongside USS Melville (AD-2) into the middle of the month. Returning to Reykjavik soon thereafter, Williamsburg escorted USS Pegasus (AK-48) on a coastwise supply mission to Akureyri. While en route, a PBY provided air coverage ; and the gunboat sank a drifting mine with machine gun fire. She returned to Reykjavík on June 20.
After transporting a party of Army officers and nurses to Hvalfjörður and back to Reykjavík for an inspection trip and a visit to the battleship USS Washington BB-56, Williamsburg operated on local patrol and convoy escort during July 1942, On the 12th, in the midst of one such mission escorting SS Richard Henry Lee, Williamsburg took on board 28 sealed boxes of gold bullion — valued at approximately $1,500,000 — at Seyðisfjörður and transported it to Reykjavík where she turned it over to Washington. When the transfer of the precious metallic cargo was completed, Williamsburg berthed alongside Melville for tender repairs from July 14 - 16.
Williamsburg next steamed on Weather Station Patrol "Baker" from July 18 – 20 and towed two buoys from Reykjavík to Hvalfjörður before returning to her home port on July 22 to remain there until the end of the month.
Williamsburg again served as a VIP transport the following month, taking a USO troupe to Hvalfjörður, where the entertainers put on two shows on August 2. Eight days later, the converted yacht got underway for Derry, Northern Ireland, for emergency repairs. Underway on the August 10, she joined HMS Paynter, HMS Bredon, and HMS Blackfly in escorting Convoy RU-35 consisting of nine merchantmen. Detached at the Minches on August 14, Williamsburg proceeded independently through the Irish Sea and arrived at Derry later that day. She was then drydocked from mid-August into the second week of September.
Her repairs completed on September 10, the gunboat conducted antisubmarine practices in company with a British submarine on September 13–14 before getting underway on September 15 for Iceland. Proceeding again independently, she battled her way through a gale which sprung both depth charge tracks and tumbled three depth charges into the sea, as she rolled and pitched violently in the fury of the storm. While en route, she received dispatch orders to rendezvous with the merchant vessel Medina and screen her at Höfn, during the cargoman's unloading. The gunboat proceeded ahead without sonar (it had developed a casualty en route) and with both depth charge tracks badly sprung. Having no radar, she experienced difficulty finding her charge before she finally made contact with Medina at Berusford on September 18. Both ships started for Reykjanes soon thereafter.
Detached from escorting Medina on September 19, Williamsburg rendezvoused with USS Uranus (AF-14) and relieved USS Leary (DD-158) as escort the same day. She convoyed the stores ship to Búðareyri, where Uranus delivered supplies to the Army base there. Underway for Seyðisfjörður on September 22, Williamsburg spotted an unidentified four-engined bomber overhead at 0830 but, due to the mist and rain, could not identify the plane. Word soon came, however, that the plane was indeed an enemy--possibly a Focke Wulf Fw 200 Condor used for anti-shipping and reconnaissance missions by the Luftwaffe. The plane approached again at 0945 and once more failed to identify itself. Williamsburg manned her general quarters stations but lost the plane in the swirling mist and fog. The enemy aircraft never came within the gunboat's range.
At Seyðisfjörður on September 24, Williamsburg took on board 15 survivors from the merchantmen SS Wilham Hooper and SS Daniel Morgan, both sunk during the ordeal of Convoy PQ-17 at the hands of German planes and submarines. While en route to Reykjavík with these mariners, the gunboat sighted two drifters well inside the fjord at Aðalvík and moved closer for a better look. After investigation, Williamsburg continued on her way, having found only two Icelandic fishing trawlers. She arrived at Reykjavik on September 29.
Shifting to Hvalfjörður on the 30th, Williamsburg underwent repairs alongside Melville from September 30 to October 3, at last receiving repairs to her damaged depth charge tracks. The gunboat subsequently escorted SS Lochnagar on revictualling missions to Búðareyri, Seyðisfjörður, and Akureyri, before she returned to Reykjavík later in the month.
Following further coastwise convoy escort runs in November and December, Williamsburg underwent a tender overhaul and availability alongside USS Vulcan (AR-5)] through Christmas of 1942.
Upon the completion of these alterations and repairs on January 3 1943, Williamsburg resumed her coastwise convoy escort duties and continued the task through January of 1943. After getting underway for New York Harbor on February 7, the gunboat touched at St. Johns, Newfoundland, en route and was briefly diverted to Argentia to escort Pontiac (AF-20). Williamsburg eventually arrived at the Bethlehem Steel docks at Hoboken, New Jersey, on February 22 to receive an overhaul.
After one month of repairs and alterations, Williamsburg sailed for Norfolk where, after her arrival on March 31, she soon became the flagship for Rear Admiral Donald B. Beary, Commander, Fleet Operational Training Command, Atlantic Fleet.
Over the next two years, Williamsburg operated primarily in the Hampton Roads-Chesapeake Bay region, occasionally deploying to Newport, Rhode Island; New York City|New York]]; Florida]] waters, or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Williamsburg came under the aegis of Commander, Service Force, Atlantic Fleet, on June 16, 1945. On July 10, she entered the Norfolk Navy Yard for conversion to an amphibious force flagship (AGC). The need for such specialized craft had been realized in the Pacific; and, with the war with Japan not yet over, Williamsburg was selected for the metamorphosis. The end of the war with Japan -- hastened by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- resulted in further work being canceled. Instead, Williamsburg's new employment was to be that of presidential yacht--to replace USS Potomac (AG-25), the former Coast Guard cutter and long-time favorite of the late President Roosevelt
Williamsburg remained at Norfolk into November undergoing conversion. The ship then sailed for the Washington Navy Yard where, on November 5, 1945, she relieved Potomac as presidential yacht and, on 10 November 1945, erstwhile gunboat was re-designated AGC-369.
During President Truman’s tenure, she embarked such American and foreign notables as Secretary of State George C. Marshall, President Miguel Aleman, of Mexico; and two successive British Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Clement R. Attlee. During the ship's first tour as presidential yacht, she cruised the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay regions, while occasionally venturing into the open sea for cruises to Florida, Bermuda, Cuba, and the Virgin Islands.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower made only one cruise in Williamsburg before ordering her decommissioned. He came on board at Washington on May 14, 1953 and cruised to Yorktown, Virginia, where he disembarked to visit the ship's namesake, the colonial city of Williamsburg. Re-embarking the Chief Executive at Yorktown later that day, Williamsburg touched at Norfolk, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, before she returned to the Washington Navy Yard to disembark the President on May 18.
That proved to be Williamsburg's last cruise as a presidential yacht, because President Eisenhower directed that the ship be placed out of commission. Accordingly decommissioned at the Washington Navy Yard on June 30, 1953, she was turned over to the Potomac River Naval Command for maintenance and preservation. Subsequently shifted to Newport, Rhode Island, she remained in "special status" from about April 2, 1959. Williamsburg was struck from the Navy list on April 1, 1962.
National Science Foundation
Williamsburg was transferred to the National Science Foundation on 9 August 9, 1962, Williamsburg underwent a change from presidential yacht to oceanographic research vessel at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. During the overhaul, the presidential staterooms and other yacht-like trappings were removed, and special facilities installed.
Among the modifications was a seawater aquarium for preservation of live specimens and a lab equipped with microscopes and other instruments for examining and classifying samples of marine life. Two winches and a small crane were fitted for dredging and deep sea work, while a small side deck platform was added to permit long line fishing. The ship's engines, too, were reconditioned, and her bilge keels were modified to make the ship more stable.
Renamed Anton Bruun, in honor of the noted Anton Bruun Danish marine biologist, the ship made ten scientific cruises in the Indian Ocean, conducting broad sample studies of bottom, midwater, and surface life. She caught specimens of plankton; did long line fishing and trolling in deep water ; conducted meteorological observations ; and periodically obtained water samples. A multinational assemblage of scientists from the United States, India, Thailand, Brazil, and Pakistan worked on board the ship during this cruise.
Upon the conclusion of the Indian Ocean expedition, Anton Bruun returned to the United States in February of 1965. Eight months later, she sailed for the Pacific Ocean to make a series of eight cruises in the Southeastern Pacific Oceanographic Program, conducting biological research in the area of the Humboldt Current and other areas of the southeastern Pacific. Anton Bruun subsequently continued her oceanographic voyages until 1968. During that year, while laid up for repairs in a floating drydock, the ship suffered extensive damage when the drydock sank unexpectedly. According to the book, Oceanographic Ships Fore and Aft, published by the Oceanographer of the Navy in 1971, Anton Bruun was slated to be transferred to the Indian government. Restoration, in view of the apparent damage suffered in the drydock mishap, appeared uneconomical.
Offered for sale by the Maritime Administration, the former gunboat, presidential yacht, and oceanographic vessel was acquired by a commercial concern whose intention was to use the ship as a combination floating hotel-restaurant-museum to be permanently berthed in the Salem River, in New Jersey, but she was instead laid up.
In 1993, the former Williamsburg was transferred to Genoa, Italy for conversion into a luxury cruise ship. These plans were never realized, and the former yacht was faced with imminent scrapping at La Spezia, Italy, but an urgent appeal to the Italian government saved her. The USS Williamsburg Preservation Society was formed with the goal of returning Williamsburg to the United States for restoration and preservation.
The Williamsburg was indeed docked in the Salem River near the Salem Bridge, not laid up, as we had our wedding reception there on December 16, 1972. There was a complete restaurant and bar below the main deck with a large reception area with bar in the stateroom above that. The yacht remained docked between Pennsville and Salem, in Salem County, NJ, for several years thereafter as a "floating restaurant" before being sold to new owners.
Source: Christine and Karl Taigel, Lower Alloways Creek, NJ