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24 April 2014 / leggypeggy

Esther Williams lives on in Australia

Esther Williams Trophy display

Esther Williams Trophy display

My mum loved to swim—she was even invited to train for the Olympics in the 1930s—so it’s not surprising that she loved watching Esther Williams, Hollywood’s swimming star.

I have no idea how many Esther Williams’ films I’ve watched and, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, my daughters have watched them too. With elaborate synchronised swimming routines choreographed by Busby Berkeley, these films were true extravaganzas.

Original Esther Williams Trophy photo

Original photo

But there’s another mini extravaganza linked to Esther Williams and I wonder if my mum had ever heard of it—I hadn’t until I visited the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre on Garden Island in Sydney.

It’s the ongoing saga of the Esther Williams Trophy, and the quest to ‘rescue’ and hold her.

The trophy came to life in 1943 when Lieutenant Lindsay Brand, serving on HMAS Nizam, received a studio publicity photo of Ms Williams. A fellow officer grabbed Brand’s photo and wrote ‘To my own Georgie, with all my love and a passionate kiss, Esther’ across it.

Soon a competition was on between Royal Australian Navy units (wardrooms) and other fleets throughout the Pacific.  There were five strict rules attached to the ‘captured’ trophy.

1. The battle trophy is to remain unsecured and in full view.

2. The trophy may only be removed by force (preferably of the brute variety) or by exceedingly low cunning and vile stealth.

3. Use of enlisted personnel (ratings) in any fashion is prohibited.

4. The only other restriction is against firearms and clubs.

5. Unsuccessful suitors are to be given haircuts and lodging (cells).

Esher Williams 'battle' trophy

Esher Williams ‘battle’ trophy

Perhaps the most brutish of raids was when officers of the USS Boxer attempted to retrieve the trophy from the HMAS Warramunga. Three Americans and one Australian ended up in hospital, but I haven’t been able to find out where ‘Esther’ landed.

There’s more than one Esther William Trophy. The original was battle damaged and withdrawn from use in the 1950s. A ‘battle’ or ‘fighting’ copy was created and used thereafter.

Both were retired to the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre after Ms Williams died in 2013. It was at her request that they be decommissioned after she died.

Commander Jason Hunter of HMAS Stuart escorted the trophy on her final voyage from Fleet Base West, presenting her to Commander Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Tim Barrett. When receiving it, he said, ‘The Esther Williams Trophy has moved around the fleet on a regular basis. Since 1943, she has been more than just a picture to put on the bulkhead, she has provided a sense of camaraderie, something to strive for, while injecting a little fun and rivalry between units.’

Esther Williams Trophy copy

A copy trophy made by a wardroom as a memento of the time they captured the real thing

It’s believed that over 70 years of existence, the trophy circulated among more than 200 ships and establishments including those of the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the United States Navy.

I think the coolest aspects of all this—besides the fact that it is so beautifully displayed today—is that Esther Williams herself knew of the trophy and thought it great fun and that Brand did not know (until 50 years later) of his inadvertent role in the whole thing starting.

Here’s another great story about ‘chasing Esther’.

I’ll be back soon with more about the displays in general at the Heritage Centre, which is well worth a visit.

4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Darbro / Apr 24 2014 1:51 pm

    What a cool story, Peggy! thanks for sharing.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Apr 24 2014 1:55 pm

      My pleasure Mike. I think it’s a great story too, and am surprised I’d never heard of it.

      Like

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