Anyone that has been to our warehouse knows that we have coins everywhere. But Tim has also accumulated years and years worth of other collectibles, antiques, and goods. And every once in a while, he’ll pull something out of the stash, and this time it was two different silver serving trays. Engraved onto the trays were pictures of a boat, a name, and a date. And that’s where I come in. It was time to learn more about these silver trays.
Throughout time, sailors and seafarers have asked for protection from the mighty seas for their ships and their crews. Whether it was the early Greeks asking for the blessing of Poseidon, or the Romans with Neptune, ship launchings usually included ceremonial processes. Wine was drank and poured over the vessel, shrines were carried on board, and prayers were said. It wasn’t until more modern times that our current tradition of sponsorship of Naval vessels started to take shape.
Many of the traditions that we use today were passed on from the European navies. The first American warship with a record of christening was the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” in Boston on October 21, 1797. Her sponsor, Captain James Sever, USN, stood on the weather deck at the bow. “At fifteen minutes after twelve she commenced a movement into the water with such steadiness, majesty and exactness as to fill every heart with sensations of joy and delight.” As Constitution ran out, Captain Sever broke a bottle of fine old Madeira over the heel of the bowsprit.
The tradition of women being the sponsors of ships didn’t happen until many years later. In 1827 it was recorded that the sloop-of-war “Concord” was “christened by a young lady of Portsmouth.” The first woman to be identified as sponsor was Miss Lavinia Fanning Watson, daughter of a prominent Philadelphian. She broke a bottle of wine and water over the bow of sloop-of-war Germantown at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 22 August 1846. As time passed the christening, testing, commissioning and decommissioning of a ship became a more formal procedure with some standardized rules and guidelines that are still done today.
Bellingham, WA, from its earliest days, was only accessible by boat and has a long maritime history. Of particular consequence was Bellingham Marine Railway Co. which was a boat repair business going back to the early years of the 20th century. Later it became Bellingham Marine Railway and Boatbuilding Co. in 1921 when they built a new facility on the west side of Whatcom Creek waterway, on Squalicum Creek. It was owned by O. I. Thorsen and J. G. Brown, who were joined in 1928 by A. S. Nilsen, of Nilsen & Keletz, the Seattle shipbuilders. In 1941, it became Bellingham Shipyards when it merged with Bellingham Iron Works and was owned by Archibald Talbot. They built minesweepers for the US Navy, and also started the Bell Boy Boats line before eventually closing in 1963. But during its heyday in WWII, Bellingham Shipyard was the largest privately owned shipyard in the country and one of the biggest producers of ships for the US Navy.
Bellingham Shipyard continued to make naval minesweepers beyond WWII and into the 50’s which were some of the last wooden ships produced for the US Navy. Why wood you ask? Because many mines were magnetic and wooden boat wouldn’t attract them. Two such ships produced were the USS Vireo and the USS Warbler. Both were sponsored by Bellingham locals. Mrs. Millard “Minnie” Wahlstrand along with Mrs. S.A. Blythe were named co-sponsors of the USS Warbler, which launched on June 18, 1954. Steward Blythe was the son of Arthur J. Blythe, who founded Blythe Heating and Plumbing. While Mrs.Katheryn Blythe is the only sponsor listed in the Ships of the United States Navy and Their Sponsors the tray clearly has Mrs. Millard Wahlstrand engraved on it. Minnie’s husband Millard was also plumber likely working for Blythe Heating and Plumbing as well possibly explaining why there were co-sponsors. Ms. Marvin Olsen, Rena, was named the sponsor of the Vireo. Marvin was one of the principle partners in the Bell Boy Boat company, which was a division of the Bellingham Shipyards Company. They were one of the first boat builders to feature fiberglass in their hull designs. As sponsors, Rena and Millie were most likely involved in the keel laying ceremony where they etched their initials in the keel. They were prominently featured in the christening ceremony where they broke a bottle of champagne over the bow of the ship. It was customary to present the sponsor with a small gift at the launching as well. The silver trays pictured above may have been the gifts given to both Minnie Wahlstrand and Rena Olsen. The sponsors may have also been involved in the decommissioning ceremony when the each boat left the US Navy, since it was encouraged that the donors participate in the entire life of the boat. Often times a small inconsequential piece of the boat such as a nameplate, was gifted to the sponsor when the ship was decommissioned.
The USS Warbler (AMS-206) was “laid down” on the 15th of October, 1953. It was launched in June of 1854, as shown on the silver tray, and then redesignated to MSC-206 on February 7, 1955 and then commissioned on the 26th of July, 1955 at the Naval Station in Tacoma, WA with LTJG James S. Efelt in command. It then operated out of Long Beach for the next year before departing to Sasebo, Japan with its sister ship, Whippoorwill, also from the Bellingham Shipyards. It stayed in that area for the next 14 years with the Mine Division 32, participating in training exercises with neighboring navies. It was then sent to Vietnam where it was used for “Operation Market Time” patrols off the coast. Here it patrolled for boats carrying arms and munitions to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Because of the Warblers size, it was adept at patrolling where larger destroyers couldn’t go, but was better armed than the smaller patrol boats. It was used to board junks, and crew would inspect their cargo, and check their destination. By the end of the Vietnam Conflict, the Warbler was issued 7 engagement stars for its participation in “Operation Market Time.”
The Viero (AMS-205) was laid down on September 14th, 1953 and had it’s launch ceremony on April 30th of the same year and was redesignated as MSC-205. After a trip to Seattle to complete it’s tests and trials, the Viero was commissioned on June 7th, 1955 and was sent to San Diego for shakedown training. Eventually the USS Viero would also end up in Sasebo, Japan and serve in the region for the next 14 years. The first 8 were running peacekeeping missions, including minesweeping exercises with other local navies. Eventually, the Viero would also end up in Vietnam in 1964. It also participated in patrols that were a part of Operation Market Time. After an overhaul in Sasebo in 1966, the Vireo was involved in its first bit of actual live enemy fire. After the Coast Guard ship, Point Grey took .50 cal machine gun fire from a trawler, the Viero and Brister were called in for support. The enemy trawler was forced aground, and it was decided that US forces would try to salvage it by towing it but when the Point Grey approached, it took heavy fire from the shore. Both the Vireo and the Point Grey responded with fire from the 20mm guns. The Point Grey retreated under covering fire from the Viero, and air strikes were called in that eventually destroyed the trawler. The Viero won the Navy Unit Commendation and her commanding officer won the Bronze Star Medal.
In July of 1970 the Viero and Warbler were recalled to Long Beach, and were transitioned into a Naval Reserve training ships. The Viero was decommissioned on October 1st, 1970. In July 1975, her name was struck from the Navy list and on October 1st, she was transferred to the Fijian Navy, renamed Kula, and was eventually discarded in 1985. The Warbler was decommissioned on the same day as the Viero and was also sold to the Fijian Navy in 1975, was renamed the HMFS Kiro. She served until 1995 when she was decommissioned and destroyed the following year.
I can only guess as to where exactly the silver trays fit into the story, but they served as a link between the past and present. It gave us the opportunity to learn a little about Bellingham’s past, it’s importance in the shipbuilding industry, and to get a look at some of the traditions of sponsorship of Naval vessels that are still used today. Check out a close up of the inscriptions below and let us know what you think!