American History

Combat Yacht

Ravaged by aerial attack, the auxiliary tender, heavily burdened with a load of ammunition, depth charges, and aviation fuel, was wallowing in open water between the Solomon Islands and New Guinea on Friday, May 22, 1943. The vessel’s 136-man crew had abandoned ship. A tin fish deliberately loosed by a friendly boat set off explosions that blew the tender to pieces. The pieces sank in the South Pacific. The ship that vanished and its mercy killer both belonged to the U.S. Navy. However, while the attacking craft, though wooden-hulled, was strictly military—a Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat—the vessel destroyed was made of steel and had had a complicated career. Originally an industrialist’s yacht more accustomed to hosting big shots than serving swabbies, USS Niagara had been commissioned for the duration. Now its war was over.

Work on the pleasure craft destined for combat began in July 1928, when American asbestos magnate Hiram Manville, proprietor of the Johns-Manville Company, put a down payment on a diesel yacht at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. By June 1929, when, with most of Bath’s population watching, the 267’, 1,333-ton white-hulled vessel slid from a shipyard cradle into the Kennebec River estuary, change orders had run the original $769,827 price beyond $900,000—today, in excess of $12.6 million. The first syllables of the names of father Hiram, daughter Estelle, mother Romaine, and Manville comprised their ship’s appellation—Hi-Esmaro, the same tag the family bestowed on its 150-acre estate at Pleasantville, New York.

Romaine Manville christened the yacht, built for pleasure and to display status. On the boat deck beneath the bridge and chart room, the forward deck house featured a sunroom from which occupants had an unobstructed view of what lay ahead. Aft of the sunroom were the captain’s also had two bachelor rooms, plus accommodations for maids and valets. The main deckhouse incorporated a sedate but attractively decorated main salon and dining room paneled in solid teak. Estelle Manville, 24, had married into the Swedish royal family in 1928; replicas of that nation’s crown hung over the stateroom beds. Designed by yacht architect Henry J. Gielow,  had two Bessemer diesel engines and a sister ship, , built simultaneously for a Boston investor. A crew of 50 to 60, sometimes including a surgeon and a barber, staffed each vessel.

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