The thing that most impressed me about the RAN (Royal Australian Navy) Heritage Centre is its focus on the leisure and off-duty activities of sailors at sea and in port (ok, maybe not all of them!). A significant part the Centre’s exhibits is focused on giving the visitor an understanding of what it was, and is, like to live on a warship and an understanding of the traditions and pastimes of the Navy and how these reinforce the spirit of a fighting service.
This review concentrates on one of these traditions, which I found especially interesting.
This particular tradition, which lasted 70 years, started in 1943 as a joke between two friends, Lindsay (‘Georgie’) Brand and David Stevenson. Stevenson ‘autographed’ a photograph of pin-up US swimmer and actress, Esther Williams, with the words ‘To my own Georgie, with all my love and a passionate kiss, Esther’ and gave it to Brand as a consolation for loosing out to a fellow officer when attempting to woo a lady in Durban. Brand placed the photo above his bed.
At one point, someone took the photo to another ship on the basis that Esther’s honour needed rescuing. Why so? Who knows…… there are countless explanations – some more printable than others. Whatever the reason, Esther’s picture became a ‘trophy’ to be rescued by one ship from another and indeed by one navy from another for the next 70 years.
Over these 70 years the ‘Esther Williams Trophy’ circulated among over 200 ships (in the Pacific arena) in not only the Australian Navy but also within and between the United States Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy (British), with sailors having to devise ever more cunning and elaborate strategies to rescue Esther’s honour.
Means fair and foul were permitted in rescuing Esther’s honour. In one attempt three American sailors and one Australian sailor ended up in hospital. in 1958, to protect the original photo from damage in often very rough exchanges a ‘fighting (or battle) copy’ was produced. When the fighting copy was secured, according to the rules as detailed in picture 3 above, the original copy (now called the ‘trophy copy’) was formally handed over to the capturing ship for safe keeping, until the fighting copy was again captured by another crew.
When the trophy changed hands ships would send a signal to other ships in the area to let them know that that they had captured the trophy and an Esther pennant was displayed when the ship was in port. Picture 4 depicts a log of Esther Williams Trophy messages sent between 1945 and 1958.
Often when a ship rescued Esther’s honour a copy of the trophy picture was taken and converted into a memorial of some kind which would serve as a reminder that Esther had once been the ship’s guest, after she had been ‘rescued’ by another ship. My final picture is of the Esther memorial from the USS Boxer CV21 recalling her visit to that ship in 1956.
Following Esther Williams’ death in 2013 the trophy was officially retired with the trophy copy and the then current fighting copy being given to the RAN Heritage Centre where they are proudly displayed today. For 70 years Esther had given the RAN, and other navies, a sense of camaraderie, something to strive for, while injecting fun and rivalry between crews.
Yes, Esther Williams was aware of the trophy and loved the adulation and attention bestowed upon her but it was at Esther’s request that the trophy was retired upon her death.
Georgie Brand, on the other hand, did not know of his inadvertent role in the starting of this tradition until some fifty years after he pinned his US sweetheart’s picture above his bed.
Getting to Garden Island/ RAN Heritage Centre
Garden Island is an active naval base and public access is only permitted to the Garden Island Public Access Precinct on the north tip of the island. Unless you are on a bus tour, access is only permitted via Sydney Ferries using the Circular Quay to Watson’s Bay route. Ferries stop at the Garden Island Wharf during RAN Heritage Centre opening hours only and you must leave the island by the last ferry each day (around 4pm). The RAN Heritage Centre is a short walk from the wharf.
RAN Heritage Centre Opening hours
9:30am to 3:30pm daily except for New Years Day, Australia Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Eve.