What Can You Do with a Ship When It’s Retired?

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Queen Mary (Turbo steamship : 1936)
Caught by the famed photographer Keith Beken of Beken of Cowes, Queen Mary (1936) sets out for New York for the last time. (From P0001.003, Photographs of Steamships, Motorships and Ocean Liners)

Welcome to the New Year, dear readers! I hope you had a peaceful, restful, enjoyable holiday, which now is finally drawing to a close. As usual, this past season while I took a rest from work, I watched movies. I did not watch, however, one of my childhood favorites, that old Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye chestnut White Christmas.  But I thought about it when processing a curious part of MS0528, the Herbert Beazley Ocean Liner Ephemera Collection. That section we named, “Repurposed Ships.” You see, in the film Bing goes on television to ask his old Army buddies to come to Vermont for Christmas, to help out their former commanding officer who now operates a ski lodge. To introduce the idea, Bing croons, “What can you do with a General, when he stops being a General? Oh what can you do with a General who retires?”

Beazley’s liners

Herbert Beazley was all about ocean liners. A small series within his sprawling collection concerns ocean liners that are no longer ships. Many of you will know about one of them, the Queen Mary, now a hotel in Long Beach, California. Since 2018 another former Cunarder, Queen Elizabeth 2, has joined her as a floating hotel in Dubai. Beazley also collected material about the ongoing proposals to repurpose the United States.   Read more

Merrill’s Marauders

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Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Collection
Kneeling, left to right: Pvt. Frank L. Pruitt, Pvt. Patrick J. Muraco, Pfc. Angelo O. Pomotto. Standing, left to right: Pvt. Fred E. Nalley, Pfc. Joseph J. Colaci, Pvt. Samel J. Rayner.

Counted among the heroes of World War II are a few whose exploits became the stuff of legend, there you will find Merrill’s Marauders. Officially known as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), but best remembered by their catchy nickname given them by a war correspondent, the unit’s special mission was to unite with Chinese and British allies in Burma, east of India, in order to harass and disrupt the Japanese Army’s offensive.  The conditions in Burma were unbelievably harsh, not only were they out manned and outgunned by the Japanese, but they had to contend with exceptionally rugged terrain and tropical disease.

The six men pictured below were part of the 5307th and survived the brutal Burma Campaign. A Signal Corps photographer shot this photo as the men passed through Hampton Roads on their way home, December 26, 1944. The caption on the print labels them, “suicide outfit.”   Read more

HRPE in moving pictures

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HRPE Collection, US Army Signal Corps, E-2602
Ensign John R. Branch, Second Class Seaman Richard L. Lowe, and First Class Seaman Dexter B. Alley posing with cameras.

The majority of our collection about the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation consists of still photography produced by the Army Signal Corps. However there are some moving pictures as well, including some shots made by the US Navy on June 3, 1943. A copy of the 35mm film is housed at The Mariners’ Museum and another copy belongs to the National Archives and Records Administration who has digitized the movies and uploaded them to a public online database. Much to our delight a retired librarian with the screen name WWIIPublicDomain has been going through the database and putting some of it on YouTube where it can be more easily found by the general public.

Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation sent and received millions of men and millions more tonnes of cargo, most of it bound to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. These short clips document the 45th Infantry Division embarking from Newport News destined for the invasion of Sicily, code name Operation Husky.   Read more

Photographs of the Photographers

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Sergeant Joseph Shere photographing three Navy photographers
Sergeant Joseph Shere photographing three Navy photographers

As we work through the HRPE collection, we see many images of the same subject matter – ships, stacks of crates, military vehicles, etc. – so it is always a pleasant surprise when we come across photos of something different. I recently cataloged a few photographs that show a little behind-the-scenes view of the photographers themselves.

While our collection of HRPE photos were taken by the Army Signal Corps photographers, the Navy had their own dedicated photographers. The first image shows Sergeant Joseph Shere of the Army photographing a Navy crew while Captain William R. Wheeler, the Port Historian, takes notes.   Read more

The Smoking Snakes

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E-14256

The Brazilian Expeditionary Force was an Allied force fighting in the Mediterranean during World War II and the only ground troops sent into the war from a South American country. The BEF had some notable victories in Italy in 1944 and 1945, but was generally late entering the war. At the beginning of the war Brazil tried to maintain neutrality, but as the war progressed trade with the United States became more important than trade with Germany and Brazil slowly came over to the Allies. The Brazilian Navy began to help the US Navy to keep shipping lanes open in the Atlantic and Germany retaliated by torpedoing Brazilian merchant vessels, killing hundreds.

The Brazilian government did not want war and the Brazilian people protested against it. It seemed highly unlikely that the Brazilian Army would ever send ground troops to fight in the European campaign. A popular saying in Brazil at the time was “the snake will smoke” before the BEF will go fight. This is something like our idiom in English, “when pigs fly,” meaning its not going to happen. The soldiers of the BEF adopted this phrase, calling themselves Cobras Fumantes, the Smoking Snakes. This bit of folk wisdom is captured in their divisional insignia.   Read more