The Esther Williams Trophy
The Esther Williams Trophy is one of two trophies that have circulated among ships of various navies, after originating in the Royal Australian Navy. Initially, in 1943, the trophy was a joke between two friends, Lieutenants Lindsay Brand and David Stevenson (later the RAN's Chief of Naval Staff), serving in HMAS Nepal, an N class destroyer attached to the British Eastern Fleet. Stevenson wrote on a photograph of Esther Williams, "To my own Georgie, with all my love and a passionate kiss, Esther"; Brand (aka "George") put the screen idol over his bed. The photo was taken to another ship by a fellow officer, and the "trophy" was then circulated by officers among some 200 other ships including in United States Navy, Royal Navy, and Royal Canadian Navy ships in Asian watersThe original photo became the "trophy copy" to be kept in a safe location. A "fighting copy" was displayed where officers from other ships could attempt to steal it or take it by force, often with a good deal of roughhousing between the officers of the ships involved.
Only Officers were allowed to participate; no exceptions!
After the "fighting copy" had been successfully removed from the custodial ship, the "trophy copy" would be presented to the new owners with appropriate ceremony. At various times, the holders of the trophy have either flown an Esther flag or sent naval signals to other nearby ships to indicate where the trophy resided.
In 1957, "Esther" was retired by the United States Navy and sent to the RAN's Naval Historical Collection in Sydney, Australia following the death of Esther Williams. My involvement with Ms. Williams occurred a year earlier in Yokosuka, Japan.
I was part of ship’s crew on the USS Brown, DD546, a Fletcher type Destroyer, in port after a month’s steaming in the South China Sea. We were tied up between two other Tin Cans (synonym for Destroyer) and performing routine ship’s maintenance. I was sitting on my bunk, hung over, when I heard the following announcement over the intercom: “Now Garner, Sonar man second, lay to the Wardroom on the double”. Now for those of you unfamiliar with the term, the wardroom is officers’ country pure and simple. No good can come from a white hat being called to that area, let alone “on the double”. When I arrived at the closed door, I gathered myself and knocked.
“Enter.” This in a deep and somber baritone.
I opened the door and there before me at a long rectangular table sat every officer on the ship, Captain Drew at the head. No one was smiling. No one spoke. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Lt. Jack Bell, the ship’s operations officer, a tough, no nonsense man not given to levity said “Well, Garner, you’ve really done it this time.”
I saw my life pass before my eyes. There were a score of things they could have nailed me on. I’m sure I turned pale. Suddenly the room exploded in laughter! Loud, raucous, prolonged laughter. I didn’t, to use an enlisted man’s term of art, know ‘whether to shit or draw small stores.
Wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, the Skipper said to me, “Garner, we have a job for you.” He went on to tell me the story of the Esther Flag and how the trophy was currently in the wardroom of the USS Bradford, our sister ship, tied up next to us. He went on to outline a plot to capture the trophy and the part I was to play in the caper. This is how it went down.
It would not be unusual for a white hat such as myself to board a ship tied up alongside so as to inspect work being performed from a different angle. I boarded the Bradford and feigning interest in painting being done on the port side of my ship, I worked my way, ladder by ladder, up to the bridge where the ship’s intercom was located.
While I was doing this, a select group of officers from my ship was quietly gathering in the midships passageway. That group was led by Capt. Drew (an all-American lacrosse player as a midshipman at Annapolis), our engineering officer Mr. Webster (A defensive lineman at Navy famous for recovering a fumble against Army), Ensign Tom McShane (former Holy Cross rugby player), and the afore mentioned Mr. Bell. To say these were tough men is to state the obvious. They crouched in waiting.
Once I reached the bridge, I quickly approached the intercom and opening all circuits announced the following:
NOW ON THE BRADFORD. THIS IS NOT A DRILL! FIRE IN THE AFTER ENGINE ROOM! All HANDS PROVIDE. ALL HANDS LAY AFT IMMEDIATELY!
As the crew of the Bradford rushed toward the fantail of their ship, the officers assembled on the Brown jumped aboard their sister ship and proceeded toward officer’s quarters where the trophy was sequestered. While they jumping on the Bradford, I was jumping off. By the time the sailors of the Bradford realized they had been duped, the marauders of the Brown were back on board with Ester in hand.
So that is how the officers of my ship became among the select few to be lovers of Ester Williams and how I, an enlisted man, must remain forever redacted. Such is the fate of those of us who serve in silence and in secret.
Servite in Silentio