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Mystery Ship

March 2023
2min read

Over a period of several months late in World War II, a ship’s bow of welded steel plate slowly began to take shape at Washington’s Naval Gun Factory. About fifteen feet high overall, it was perhaps twenty feet long fore and aft. Its purpose was not obvious; word around the slip was that it was to be an icebreaking prow for emergency mounting on small vessels assigned to the Navy yard. The slow progress likely reflected both the low probability that the Potomac would soon freeze over and the higher priority of other work at the docks, including the maintenance of a variety of Navy river craft and the presidential yacht Sequoia .

Suddenly in midsummer 1944 all attention shifted to the neglected bow. Painters arrived to cover the rusted shape with a coat of Navy gray. Oddly, they painted a column of numbers much like the draft marks on most Navy ships, except that the range of this block of numbers was appropriate for a huge carrier—wholly out of scale with the modest little bow sitting in the dock.

And this burst of activity was not confined to the steel shape alone. Soon carpenters and riggers had built a platform, complete with a railing and a short stairway, to face the bow at about mid-height. Big enough for a dozen people, it, too, was painted, pure white.

The sporadic construction followed by the almost overnight appearance of the handsome platform was watched with puzzled but growing interest by me and several fellow engineers from the vantage point of a third-story loft over a small wind tunnel adjacent to the slip. (Employees of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, we designed parachutes for air-launched naval mines and torpedoes.) Within days we had seen the often ignored and still incomplete shape fast-forward to become what appeared to be the bow of a very small and spanking new ship—but a very big ship if you focused on the curious block of keel depth numbers.

Clearly a stage was being set for some event. That became even more obvious when workers appeared as soon as the platform paint was dry to decorate it with flags and bunting. The following day we arrived at work to find the slip sealed off by security guards, but our third-floor windows gave us front-row seats to the little pageant that next took place. Mid-morning, several cars arrived to unload passengers; most were flag-rank naval officers. Another curiosity: Although it was summertime and sizzling hot in Washington, the officers wore winter blue dress uniforms instead of whites. Then, as we watched, Eleanor Roosevelt left her car to join the others and climb the few steps to the platform deck.

Things proceeded quickly: One of her aides assisted Mrs. Roosevelt into a dark, full-length coat while the officers donned winter-uniform overcoats; someone handed the president’s wife a ribbon-decorated bottle; with a full swing she struck the bottle against the bow; it shattered and she and others nearby were showered. End of scene, all recorded by a crew of cameramen.

In a few minutes the visitors left in their caravan of cars, and in a few hours the platform, bunting and all, was gone. Later the numbers on the little bow were painted over and the bow resumed its slow progress to completion that fall.

Within a day or two of this puzzling performance we learned why it had taken place. It seems that, months before, Mrs. Roosevelt had been guest of honor at the launching of the Yorktown and had christened it with the traditional bottle. However, the camera crew responsible for recording the event had somehow missed the brief but critical moment when the bottle shattered on the huge ship’s bow. So, to fill the gap in the ship’s film library, the little bow in the little slip in Washington was dressed up to look like a big one.

Although it was sizzling in Washington, the officers wore winter uniforms, and Mrs. Roosevelt put on a full-length coat.

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