The Chisholm Family Yacht: ARAS

Aras, a long graceful steel ship, was originally built for Hugh J. Chisholm of the Oxford Paper Co. as a private yacht. The US Navy purchased the vessel in April 1941 for use as a patrol gunboat and re-christened it USS Williamsburg.

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In 1945, after a successful tour of duty in the North Atlantic, Williamsburg was to be converted to an amphibious force flagship. Instead, she was refitted at the Naval Gun Factory, Washington, DC, as President Truman’s yacht. President Eisenhower decommissioned the yacht in 1953 due to her high operating costs. The National Science Foundation acquired the vessel on 8/9/1962, refitted it for science, and christened it Anton Bruun in memory of the noted Danish marine biologist who chaired the first International Oceanographic Commission.

The vessel was chartered to WHOI for the International Indian Ocean Expedition, originally for a 4 year period. Anton Bruun made 9 legs of a cruise for this project, from March 1963 to December 1964, and then returned to the Navy in late December 1964. In 1980 the Endangered Properties Program planned to restore the vessel, but as late as 1984 nothing had been done.

The Williamsburg was originally the yacht “Aras” (Sara backward). She was constructed by the Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, for Mr. Hugh J. Chisholm, and was launched on December 8, 1930. The yacht ARAS had her trial trip on January 10, 1931, and had 614 net tonnage; length 243 feet, 9 inches; breadth 36 feet, 1 inch; depth molded amidship 21 feet, 10 inches. She was acquired by the U.S. Government on April 24, 1941, and renamed the USS Williamsburg PG-56.

When President Truman assumed office the USS Potomac had been condemned by the Navy Department as being unfit for duty in open waters and recommended using the U.S.S Williamsburg as the Presidential yacht. President Truman accepted the recommendation and on November 10, 1945, took her first cruise as the Presidential Yacht. President Truman made several short cruises down the Potomac. On August 16, 1946, the USS Williamsburg departed Washington, D.C. with President Truman on board, for a trip to Quonset Point, Rhode Island. On August 20, 1946, she got underway for Bermuda in company with the USS WEISS returning to Washington September 2, 1946. President Truman entertained several foreign leaders aboard the yacht; May 1, 1947, President Migual Aleman of Mexico; December 5, 1950, Prime Minister Clement R. Attlee and January 5, 1952, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Navy manned the Williamsburg with 8 officers, 130 men, and 26 stewards.


1. President Truman spent more time aboard the Williamsburg than any president spent on a presidential yacht because during a long period of his administration the White House was undergoing restoration and the President lived in Blair House. Truman found Blair House cramped and preferred the yacht for meetings and weekend retreats. Bess Truman stayed home at Blair House.

2. According to the crew. Truman was aboard the Williamsburg for 17 consecutive weekends in the summer of 1948.

3. Truman loved to get away from Washington on the Williamsburg to enjoy his favorite pastime with special friends. Poker An avid player was his Naval Aid, Clark Clifford. Upon arrival on a Friday evening, the President would head straight for the aft guest lounge where the custom-made round poker table sat and immediately start a game. The stakes were high -$500 bets – or low, depending on the fortunes of his guests. It is said he never took advantage of anyone’s low finances.

4. Truman often would request to anchor the ship in Occaquan bay and go for a swim during hot weather. He was once given a pair of inflatable swim trunks designed to keep him afloat for safety sake. When he blew up the trunks his head went down and his trunks came up. Secret Service men jumped in and rescued the bewildered President and the inventor of the trunks underwent the obvious questioning!

5. Famous guests aboard Williamsburg included many Heads of State. Winston Churchill was particularly fond of the ship and came aboard for talks in January of 1952 wearing the uniform of the Royal Yacht Squadron. Other visitors treated to cruises on board the ship during the Truman administration included Clement Atlee, Prime Minister of Great Britain, President Aleman of Mexico, the Prime Minister of France, among others.

6. During the Truman years, many monumental decisions that still affect our world today were made aboard the Williamsburg. Truman wrestled with the aftermath of his decision to drop the Atom Bomb, a decision made just months before the Williamsburg became the Presidential Yacht in November of 1945. The results of the Potsdam conference were weighed aboard this ship. The Presidential Campaign of 1948 was planned here, as well as the American strategy during the Korean War. Truman conferred here with many military aids, leading to the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur.

7. In March 1950, President Truman and the Williamsburg headed for the Little White House in Key West, Florida. The ship hit very heavy weather oft Cape Hatteras and the President, his guests, and many crew members were reported sea-sick for two days! Although the President was reported in good spirits upon arrival in Key West, he returned to Washington by plane. He never again used the Williamsburg, now known for rocking and rolling, on an off-shore cruise – only the smooth waters of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

8. The Captain of the USS Williamsburg from 1948 to 1958 was Donald MacDonald of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Captain MacDonald had won distinction in World War II as commander of the destroyer O’Bannon. Called the “one ship Navy” the O’Bannon sunk numerous enemy ships with no serious harm to itself. President Truman suggested that if Captain MacDonald could see his ship safely through the war, he was sure he could see him safely down the Potomac.

9. We have all seen the photograph of Lauren Bacall perched atop a piano while President Truman played. The Williamsburg was equipped with two such pianos, one in the President’s Lounge, and one in the Dining Room, should the President get the urge to play.

10. In December 1949 the seaman doing the Presidents Laundry found a $100 bill in the President’s shirt pocket. He returned it to Mr. Truman who in turn autographed one hundred new $1.00 bills and presented them to the seaman. He gave them to shipmates aboard the Williamsburg. Many still have that dollar.