Esther Williams Trophy

 

Origin

 

The Esther Williams trophy comprised a framed, signed photograph of Hollywood screen and swimming star Esther Williams. It was destined to become one of the most unique, enduring and 'competed for' unofficial trophies in the history of the RAN fleet.

 

The trophy originated in 1943, onboard the destroyer HMAS Nepal while attached to the British Eastern Fleet. Lieutenant Lindsay ‘Georgie’ Brand had been gifted a photograph of the Hollywood starlet which he jealously guarded. His friend (and later Chief of Naval Staff) David Stevenson took the photograph inscribing it: ‘To my own Georgie, with all my love and a passionate kiss, Esther’.

 

Thereafter the photograph hung above Lieutenant Brand’s bed until it mysteriously went missing. It had in fact been commandeered by a fellow officer and removed to another ship, reportedly to ‘protect Esther’s honour' . The photograph was later stolen back from that ship beginning a tradition involving hijinks and skull duggery in order to secure the morale-boosting prize. Word of the unorthodox trophy soon spread, resulting in the photo changing hands over two hundred times between four separate navies over two decades.

 

The final iteration of the 'fighting trophy' featuring Hollywood star Esther Williams. It was destined to change hands more than two hundred times. 

Conduct

The practice of attempting to liberate ‘Esther’ saw raiding parties from the RAN, United States Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Navy, regularly compete for the trophy throughout the Pacific theatre.  Cunning, zeal and subterfuge became the hall-mark of raiders intent on securing the trophy which had become a source of national pride to Australia and a great morale booster for the ship's company who possessed it.

 

Over time, measures were taken to preserve the coveted trophy. The original photograph was framed and secured under lock and key for posterity. In its place, a duplicate, waterproofed ‘fighting copy’ was produced and prominently displayed in the wardroom of the ship concerned for all to see. 'Rules of Engagement' were also established as outlined below:

 

1.The 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 in any fashion is prohibited (the contest was strictly between competing wardrooms).

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

5.Unsuccessful suitors are to be given haircuts and lodging.

 

The contest was spirited and not for the faint of heart. Several people were hospitalised after officers from USS Boxer conducted a raid on HMAS Warramunga (I). Stealth attacks were popular and creating diversions and raising false alarms proved a reliable way to create a distraction and opportunity to secure the most coveted of prizes. 

 

Legacy

Esther Williams was well aware of the trophy and said to be highly encouraging of the competition it stimulated among Allied navies. She would occasionally write letters of support and encouragement to the wardroom of the ship holding her photograph and often poems or signals were passed between ships heralding its liberation and whereabouts.

 

The contest continued amid much fanfare throughout the 1940’s and well into the following decade. In 1957 ‘Esther’ was returned to the Royal Australian Navy and retired, having been in the custody of the USN for some time.

 

The trophy was re-introduced to the world in 1997 after being 'borrowed' from the Naval Historical Repository at Spectacle Island, Sydney, by officers from the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane (II). It was temporarily reunited with its original owner, Lindsay Brand, in 2004, the fourth time since 1943, and he was amazed that the tradition had again been reinstituted.

 


Commander Glen Miles and the officers of HMAS Collins recorded their liberation of Esther from planning through to execution in a dashing raid on Fleet Base West. c. 2006.

Following the death of Esther Williams in June 2013 at the age of 91, the trophy was officially retired. The last unit to capture ‘Esther’ was RAN Clearance Diving Team Four, which presented the trophy to HMAS Stuart for the voyage to its final destination, the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre at Spectacle Island.