- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Mike Harreth and two dozen other former crew members of the presidential yacht Sequoia yesterday took a trip down the Potomac — and memory lane — as they met for their first reunion.

"This is so great. We're sharing old stories with each other. And let me tell you, we have some good ones," said Mr. Harreth, a deckhand during the Johnson administration.

"It was LBJ's birthday, and we didn't have any pistachio ice cream. It was his favorite, and we ended up flying it in by helicopter and lowering it to the boat."

The Sequoia was the presidential yacht during nine administrations, from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter, until Mr. Carter sold it during his "austerity" push, said Bill Codus, spokesman for the Presidential Yacht Sequoia Foundation, a nonprofit group trying to raise enough money to make the now privately owned boat "public."

Also on board the 104-foot, 100-ton wooden boat yesterday were family of former crew members. Among them was Karen Murray, wife of seaman Bob Murray, who worked during the Kennedy administration.

"I'm just thrilled about being here," Mrs. Murray said. "I'm on the same yacht as all these presidents. It's very exciting."

The yacht, which during its years of presidential service was docked at the Navy Yard, was built in the early 1920s for about $200,000. It was named after an American Indian chief who invented the Cherokee alphabet.

After it was sold by Mr. Carter in the 1970s, it had different owners until Gary Silversmith bought it in 1999 for $1.9 million. Mr. Silversmith charters it for $10,000 and up.

"But I want to see the government buy it," Mr. Silversmith said. "It's a National Historic Landmark, and it should be in public hands."

Mr. Codus said the foundation has the ear of certain members of Congress for future appropriations, but he said he understands, during tough economic times, if the yacht is not at the top of Congress' list.

"We have to be patient," Mr. Codus said. "A lot is going toward defense now, and we understand that." The yacht's appearance changed through the years as each president added his own touch. Franklin D. Roosevelt added an elevator — since taken out — and Mr. Johnson a bar. Mr. Kennedy had a television installed for the crew and a hinged door panel into the presidential cabin, or stateroom, so crew members could communicate without having to intrude.

But no, Marilyn Monroe was never on the yacht, Mr. Codus said. "It's just one of many rumors."

Harry Truman installed a piano on which he and his daughter Margaret would play.

"Truman wasn't too bad," said Rudolph Ventura, a deckhand during the Truman era. "It was a way for him to relax."

Margaret, however, was not a good pianist. "But you couldn't say that," said one former crew member.

Crew members said they heard and saw many things on which they couldn't, or shouldn't, comment.

"You initiated no conversation, but if a guest wanted to talk to you, you stayed as long as they wanted," said Dix Darby, chief engineer on the boat from 1959 through 1961.

He recalls one instance when Mrs. Kennedy, on the way to Mount Vernon for a function, asked him to "switch off" the engine as if it were a car. But instead of telling her it was a little more complicated than that, he just agreed to do it and went down to "kill" the generator.

Another time, a guest asked whether he could please bring the "cordials."

"I had no idea what she was talking about. I'm a country boy from Alabama," he said. "I told her, 'Certainly,' and then asked another crew member what she meant."

Of all presidents, Richard Nixon used the Sequoia the most: 107 times. He sometimes used it twice a day, just to get out of the White House, said Robert Bjelland, seaman between 1973 and 1976.

"He was a friendly man. He always talked to the crew.

Ford was more reserved," Mr. Bjelland said.

But the Sequoia was not just a place for light entertainment, relaxation and family get-togethers.

Mr. Roosevelt and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower planned D-Day on the Sequoia, and it was where Mr. Nixon negotiated the first arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union, planned America's withdrawal from Vietnam and told his family he would resign the presidency.

While the reunited crew members worked for different administrations, from Mr. Truman to Mr. Ford, during which the boat went through many changes, they all agreed on one thing: The Sequoia is not nearly as well-maintained as it used to be.

"We polished several hours a day," said Mr. Murray, a deckhand during the Kennedy era. "You could see your reflection," he said, pointing to a teak wall panel. "We took pride in keeping it perfect."

But in private ownership the crew is down to four from 30 when it was still a presidential yacht. The shining chrome and perfect polish are things of the past, as are some of the art and pieces of furniture.

There used to be paintings and drawings of old Navy battles, like Midway, and portraits of generals like George Washington, Mr. Codus said.

But now, in best museum style, the walls are full of plaques and historical pictures: President Ford meeting with senior staff members Alan Greenspan, Frank Zarb and Brent Scowcroft; former Japanese Emperor Hirohito visiting the boat where Mr. Truman, on the very same deck, decided to bomb Hiroshima 30 years before.

Several pictures are dedicated to Mr. Kennedy's last birthday party, which took place on the boat. Sitting in the aft salon where the party took place, Herbert Dudley, an 18-year veteran of the Navy, reminisces on his time aboard the yacht.

"It took me 40 years to get here," said Mr. Dudley, referring to his place in the salon instead of below it. "I was always below deck fixing things. Look at me now — I've come a long way."

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