Two history buffs are waging a “last-last-ditch,” $40 million campaign to save a Maine-built yacht that was President Harry S. Truman’s “seagoing White House” in hopes of restoring the ship as a symbol of American diplomacy.
After serving as a private yacht, a Navy gunboat, Truman’s refuge and a research vessel, the former USS Williamsburg may take its final voyage to the scrap heap in a matter of weeks. The only hope is a legitimate offer to save the Bath Iron Works-built ship that once hosted world leaders, but now sits rusting and partly submerged at a shipyard in Italy.
With no buyer on the horizon, two former White House staffers are turning to the public for help via a $40 million fundraising plea through the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. If successful – and that’s an aircraft carrier-sized “if,” given the tight deadline – the pair said their nonprofit would contract to restore the ship for use once again as the presidential yacht or donate it to a museum, potentially in Maine. If not, the Italian shipyard where the Williamsburg has sat abandoned for two decades could begin scrapping the 244-foot ship this month.
“This is a labor of love and probably an improbable quest of love, but it was worth a try,” said Peter Lord, a Maine native who studied maritime history at Bowdoin College and now lives in Washington, D.C. “If we can show that we have a viable (fundraising) event, then that will buy us some time. But if it is not possible, I fully expect them to continue moving on scrapping of the ship.”
AND MILLIONS TO GO
As of Friday evening, the campaign had garnered just 11 pledges totaling $20,545. That left $39,979,455 to raise by Oct. 27 if Lord and Rob Knake, the other co-founder of the Save the Williamsburg nonprofit, are to meet their 30-day Kickstarter goal.
“The time is really driven by the fact that the boat is sitting in the water rusting and will be scrapped by the Italian government if this campaign is not successful in late fall or early winter,” Knake said. “Either it will take off in the next 20 days or it won’t, and a longer period won’t help.”
Lord and Knake began talking about sparing the Williamsburg from the scrapper last year after reading news reports about the ship’s plight while the two were working together on national security and cybersecurity issues at the White House. Lord was struck by the symbolism of the yacht, which Truman used extensively throughout his administration for both personal and official business, and was distressed to see a Maine-built ship with so much history headed for demolition. He called the campaign “our last ‘Hail Mary.’”
“Wouldn’t it be great if the American people could get behind something from American history and give us a new tool for American diplomacy?” Lord said.
And so began either the latest or the last chapter in the Williamsburg’s storied life.
The ship actually began as the Aras II, a 244-foot luxury yacht built for the son of Hugh Chisholm Sr., an industry magnate and part-time Maine resident who built one of the world’s largest paper and forest products companies. The ship was launched at BIW on Jan. 15, 1931, and came in “the final twilight of the gilded age of yachting,” author Ralph Snow wrote in his book “Bath Iron Works: The First Hundred Years.”
The Aras proved more than seaworthy and served Hugh Chisholm Jr. for a decade. The Navy purchased her as part of the mass militarization of domestic ships during World War II. The renamed USS Williamsburg gunboat spent the war escorting other ships, shuttling VIPs and serving as the flagship for the Navy admiral in charge of training for the Atlantic fleet.
GUNBOAT INTO DIPLOMATIC YACHT
Truman, seeing the gunboat’s potential, had the Williamsburg converted into his presidential yacht after the war. It was a time of dramatic changes as Truman grappled with domestic issues as well as the reconstruction of Europe, the Korean War and the emerging U.S.-Soviet arms race. He regularly used the ship as his second office to escape the physical heat and political pressure of Washington, for vacations and for weekend getaways.
“I do not know of any easy way to be President,” Truman wrote in his memoir, “Years of Trial and Hope,” published in 1956. “It is more than a full-time job, and the relaxations are few. I used the Presidential yacht, as well as the Little White House at Key West, less for holiday uses than as hideaways, and they were very useful when I wanted to catch up on my work and needed an opportunity to consult with my staff without interruptions.”
In an August 1949 article, The New York Times described the Williamsburg as “a slim white boat, a beauty to look at but not always comfortable on a choppy sea.”
“Apparently Mr. Truman thinks a great deal of his 244-foot craft,” the article continued. “He has prepared some important messages aboard and has spent New Year’s Day on it every year he has been in office except in 1948. The craft is sometimes used for Presidential receptions such as those given for the Governor’s of the Virgin Islands, Bermuda and Puerto Rico during Presidential cruises. Winston Churchill was once a guest on the yacht.”
Churchill was apparently impressed with his visit.
“At the table at the end of the evening, (Churchill) said to the president that of all the meetings which he had attended in his career as prime minister with his American colleagues, he had never attended one in which he thought the atmosphere was so conducive to close and cordial relations between the two countries as the one upon the Williamsburg,” Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, wrote in a memo about the meeting maintained by the University of Wisconsin.
FROM YACHT TO RESEARCH VESSEL
The Williamsburg was converted into an oceanographic research vessel after Truman’s successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, decommissioned the ship in 1953, but it was badly damaged while in dry dock in the 1960s. Several groups ran the ship as a floating restaurant in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, yet it gradually fell into disrepair.
Art Girard, a Portland resident and business investor, came close to purchasing the Williamsburg roughly 20 years ago. The deal fell through, however, because the ship was tied up in a complicated bankruptcy.
“We were thinking of bringing it back to Maine,” Girard said Thursday. “When we looked at it, it was a restaurant. But it wasn’t in that bad condition, otherwise we wouldn’t have thought of bringing it back here.”
In the early 1990s, the Williamsburg was transferred to a shipyard in Italy by a group planning to convert the vessel into a luxury cruise liner. That project went bankrupt as well, and ownership of the ship eventually transferred to the Navalmare shipyard in La Spezia.
Time has pretty much run out for the “ghost ship” Williamsburg, its hull severely eaten by rust and its interior largely gutted. Stefano Pitton, commercial director at Navalmare, said in an email that the shipyard presented its demolition plan to the local port authority last week and could receive authorization next week.
“After two days of yard preparation we will commence with the cutting of the superstructures and then we will continue with the hull,” Pitton wrote. “We waited for more (than) twenty years, now that the ship sank, really we do not have more time. If there are (individuals) interested in the restoration of the USS Williamsburg, please tell to him to contact me very shortly.”
Knake and Lord are working with an international yacht broker who handled a previous effort to sell the ship. They also have a restoration firm in mind that has developed plans for the Williamsburg. And if this unlikely campaign succeeded and the federal government wasn’t interested in the boat, Lord said his initial preference would be to donate it to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, located just downriver from the ship’s birthplace at BIW.
“So really this is a last-minute SOS to save the vessel,” Knake said.