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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
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Williamsburg

 

Middle Plantation—later renamed Williamsburg—was settled in colonial Virginia during 1633 as an offshoot of Jamestown. Renamed about 1699 to honor William III, King of England, the city remained the capital of the colony into the revolutionary years and presently is the seat of James City County.

 

(PG-56: dp. 1,805 (f.); l. 243'9"; b. 36'0"; dr. 14'0"; s. 13.5 k. (max.); cpl. 81; a. 2 3", 6 .50-cal. mg., 2 .30-cal. Lewis mg., 2 dct., 1 "Y"-gun, 16 rifles, 10

 

pistols)

 

Aras—a steel-hulled, diesel-powered yacht—was laid down on 19 March 1930 at Bath, Maine, by the Bath Iron Works Corp.; launched on 8 December 1930; and delivered to the wood-pulp magnate, Hugh J. Chisholm, on 15 January 1931. The Navy acquired Aras on 24 April 1941 and renamed her Williamsburg. Classified a gunboat, PG-56, the erstwhile pleasure craft entered the Brewer Drydock and Repair Co., Brooklyn, N.Y., her conversion yard, on 23 June.

 

Commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 7 October, Lt. Comdr. Frederick S. Hall in command, Williamsburg was ordered to the Norfolk Navy Yard to complete fitting-out and arrived there on 5 November. After final alterations, the gunboat departed Norfolk on 2 December, touched briefly at Washington, D.C., and eventually arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 6 December, the day before Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.

 

Williamsburg departed Halifax on 8 December, bound for Iceland; proceeded via Hval Fjordur; and reached Reykjavik 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 Reykjavik in the battleship 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 Reykjavik, 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 Hvalfjordur on 23 December. 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 Reykjavik. 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 18 May, with a party of Army officers embarked, for an inspection tour of the island of Iceland. Led by Major General Bonesteel, the party inspected bases at Akureyi, Dalvik, Budareyi, and Reydarfjord. While making the cruise, the ship escorted the British troop and supply vessel SS Loch-nagar 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 Duane (WPG-33) and Babbitt (DD-128), the tug and merchantman finally hove into sight on 1 June; and Williamsburg fell in as additional escort to Reykjavik. Shifting to Hvalfjordur on 4 June, the gunboat underwent tender repairs alongside Melville (AD-2) into the middle of the month. Returning to Reykjavik soon thereafter, Williamsburg escorted Pegasus (AK-48) on a coastwise supply mission to Akureyi. En route, a PBY provided air coverage; and the gunboat sank a drifting mine with ma-chinegun fire. She returned to Reykjavik on 20 June.

 

After transporting a party of Army officers and nurses to Hvalfjordur and back to Reykjavik for an

inspection trip and a visit to the battleship 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 Sey-disfjord and transported it to Reykjavik 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 14 to 16 July.

 

Williamsburg next steamed on Weather Station Patrol "Baker" from 18 to 20 July and towed two buoys from Reykjavik to Hvalfjordur before returning to her home port on the 22d to remain there until the end of the month.

 

Williamsburg again served as a VIP transport the following month, taking a USO troupe—"Command Performance"—to Hvalfjordur, where the entertainers put on two shows on 2 August. Eight days later, the converted yacht got underway for Londonderry, Northern Ireland, for emergency repairs. Underway on the10th, she joined HMS Paynter, HMS Bredon, and HMS Blackfly in escorting Convoy RU-35 which included nine merchantmen. Detached at the Minches on 14 August, Williamsburg proceeded independently through the Irish Sea and arrived at Londonderry later that day. She was then drydocked from mid-August into the second week of September.

 

Her repairs completed on the 10th, the gunboat conducted antisubmarine practices in company with a British submarine on 13 and 14 September before getting underway on the 15th 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 Hofn, 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 the 18th. Both ships started for Reykjanes soon thereafter.

 

Detached from escorting Medina on the 19th, Williamsburg rendevoused with Uranus (AF-14) and relieved Leary (DD-158) as escort the same day. She convoyed the stores ship to Budareyi, where Uranus delivered supplies to the Army base there. Underway for Seydisfjord on 22 September, 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 antishipping 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 Seydisfjord on 24 September, Williamsburg took on board 15 survivors from the merchantmen SS William 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 Reykjavik with these mariners, the gunboat sighted two drifters well inside the fjord at Adelvik 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 29 September.

 

Shifting to Hvalfjordur on the 30th, Williamsburg underwent repairs alongside Melville from 30 September to 3 October, at last receiving repairs to her damaged depth charge tracks. The gunboat subsequently escorted SS Lochnagar on revictualling missions to Budareyi, Seydisfjordur, and Akureyi, before she returned to Reykjavik later in the month.

 

Following further coastwise convoy escort runs in November and December, Williamsburg underwent a tender overhaul and availability alongside Vulcan (AR-5) through Christmas of 1942. Upon the completion of these alterations and repairs on 3 January, Williamsburg resumed her coastwise convoy escort duties and continued the task through January of 1943. After getting underway for New York Harbor on 7 February, the gunboat touched at St. John's, Newfoundland, en route and was briefly diverted to Argentia to escort Pontiac (AF-20). Williamsburg eventually arrived at the Bethlehem Steel Co. docks, Hoboken, N.J., on 22 February, to receive an overhaul.

 

After one month of renairs and alterations, Williamsburg sailed for Norfolk where, after her arrival on 31 March, 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, occasionallydeploying to Newport, R.I.; New York; Florida waters, or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

 

Williamsburg came under the aegis of Commander, Service Force, Atlantic Fleet, on 16 June 1945. On 10 July, 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 atomic bombs at Hiroshima and at Nagasaki—resulted in further work being cancelled. Instead, Williamsburg's new employment was to be that of presidential yacht —to replace 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 5 November 1945, she relieved Potomac as presidential yacht. Five days later, on 10 November 1945, the erstwhile gunboat was redesignated AGC-369.

 

In the ensuing years, Williamsburg served two presidents, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. While under the former, she embarked American and foreign notables—including George C. Marshall, Secretary of State; Miguel Aleman, President 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 and Chesapeake Bay regions, occasionally venturing into the open sea for cruises to Florida, Bermuda, Cuba, and the Virgin Islands.

 

President Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, made only one cruise in Williamsburg before ordering her decommissioned. He came on board at Washington on 14 May 1953 and cruised to Yorktown, Va., where he disembarked to visit the ship's namesake, the colonial city of Williamsburg, Va. Reembarking the Chief Executive at Yorktown later that day, Williamsburg touched at Norfolk, Va., and Annapolis, Md., before she returned to the Washington Navy Yard to disembark the President on 18 May.

 

That proved to be Williamsburg's last cruise as presidential yacht, because President Eisenhower directed that the ship be placed out of commission. Accordingly decommissioned at the Washington Navy Yard on 30 June 1953, she was turned over to the Potomac River Naval Command for maintenance and preservation. Subsequently shifted to Newport, R.I., she remained in "special status" from about 2 April 1959. She was struck from the Navy list on 1 April 1962.

 

Transferred to the National Science Foundation a little over four months later, on 9 August 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 Danish marine biologist, the ship made 10 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—including those fromthe 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 erstwhile 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.

 

 

The crew of USS Williamsburg (AGC-369) man the rail as President Harry Truman returns on board afterfleet maneuvers off the Virginia capes, 1946. (80-G-702503)