- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

There were no presidents aboard Presidential Yacht USS Sequoia, but that did not keep a deck full of visitors and former crew members from reminiscing yesterday about the days when Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy were on board the vessel.

The Sequoia has not been a presidential yacht since 1935, and most of the families and retired crew were from the ship’s successor, Presidential Yacht USS Williamsburg.

“I remember the quality of people,” said Chuck Wolter, 73, a native of Wisconsin and a Korean War veteran. “We felt we were there to see that the presidents were comfortable. We were all considered a part of the White House staff and also served at Camp David. It was a good duty.”

Mr. Wolter is also a high school dropout who went on to earn five college degrees.

The crews and their families have an annual reunion, and this year they held it aboard the Sequoia — now owned by lawyer Gary Silversmith. He has been collecting presidential memorabilia since he was 14.

Mr. Silversmith did not charge for the reunion, but it typically costs about $10,000 to rent the yacht for four hours. The Williamsburg employed about 743 crew members over the years, and about 200 are still alive.

Visitors on board the reconditioned, 104-foot-long Sequoia paused yesterday to look at photographs of the yacht’s most famous visitors. Among them are pictures of President Kennedy celebrating his 46th birthday on May 29, 1963, about six months before he was assassinated.

The Sequoia was the yacht for the Secretary of Navy when President Truman held office, but he and his wife, Bess, continued to use it as a presidential yacht. So did Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford.

“Truman, he was a nice guy,” recalled 75-year-old Robert Dawson, then a damage-controlman second class. “He said what was on his mind.”

Bess Truman was described by crew members as a quiet woman who didn’t visit with the employees or guests too much. But, engineer Richard Laham, 76, remembers her and guests having tea parties on round trips to Mount Vernon.

Former Capt. Jesse B. Gay Jr., the USS Williamsburg executive officer for nearly three years, remembered going with President Truman on a boat named the Cruiser Augusta to the Potsdam Conference near the end of World War II.

He said President Truman said at the evening meal that a bomb would be dropped on Japan the next day.

Jim McDonald, 76, of Chicago, and a graduate of the University of Iowa, said President Truman roamed the yacht and visited with the crew. But once, he was seasick.

Ray B. Driver, 84, of District Heights, Md., who died two months ago, is remembered most as the chief boatsman of the Williamsburg. His 3-year-old son, Ray, also got seasick one day on a visit, said his widow, Elizabeth Driver.

Charles Costello, 75, of Milton, Mass., remembered the time he was spraying the sand-covered deck with a high-pressure water hose and pushing sand, grit and water off the deck and over the gangplank in preparation for another President Truman voyage.

“Your husband came out with an ax and cut the hose,” Mr. Costello told Mrs. Driver.

One former crewman remembered former Adm. William D. Leahy complaining, then becoming relieved to “get off that round-bottomed hull.”

“I’ve been sort of the Sequoia’s godfather for so many years,” said retired Navy Capt. Giles M. Kelly, 82, who was in command again yesterday and recalling many of the anecdotes.

He said the Sequoia was once painted green. Yesterday, docked at the Gangplank Marina, it was white. Brass and stainless steel window frames were polished and gleaming in the sun. Obviously old woodwork gleamed through varnish.

Just a few years ago, Robert Connelly, an organizer of the reunions, found the badly worn Sequoia in a shipyard south of Norfolk, Va. Then he saw it again a few months later.

“In October, she was in poor shape,” Mr. Connelly said. “In April, she was in good shape.”

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