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The Story of Esther
6 January 2001
by CAPT William C. Green
Webmaster Note: If you don't know who the movie star Esther Williams was...    HERE is a picture
Standing at the left in the picture is Ensign Chang. Seated is yours truly saying something obviously very funny as all the flyboys are smiling.
A little background on the events leading up to this picture.

Back in 1956 I was a lieutenant, newly assigned to the USS SEA FOX, commanded by Lieutenant Commander L. H. Neeb.

"Uncle Lew", as he was known throughout the submarine force, was a charismatic leader, who was given to much honest bragging about his boat. He was set on having a perfect 4.0 cruise. Among other things, he was determined to keep his officers out of trouble on the beach. He had several ideas, one of which included the pursuit of the Esther trophy.

The prize consisted of nothing more than a World War II publicity photo of Esther Williams, the swimming star of many Hollywood films. Possession of the trophy was all the rage in the western Pacific (WestPac). According to legend, the whole thing started during World War II on board an Australian ship. A young officer who constantly mooned over this photo was due to be transferred. One version has it that his mates, not wanting to lose the picture, stole it, the other is that it was purloined just to vex this star-struck youth.

After this, Esther passed through many hands. By 1956, having endured the attentions of pursuers during both World War II and the Korean War, the tradition had spread to all allied navies cruising the Western Pacific. A few simple rules had been set down: first, to possess Esther was to have her. And, whoever had her was required to display her free and clear on a wardroom bulkhead. Those desiring Esther could pursue her by use of stealth, guile, or brute force. Finally, suitors were restricted to wardroom members only.

During the outbound passage, Uncle Lew regaled the junior officers with Esther stories, making it plain that he would be more than pleased to have Esther in our wardroom and her flag flying from our periscope. Also, when entering port, the ship carrying Esther was entitled to send a message addressed to all ships present, announcing her presence on board, and inviting one and all to come, look, and admire, but not touch. Such messages were usually written in doggerel verse.

In Auckland, the SEA FOX learned from HMAS BLACK PRINCE that there were actually two photos of Esther Williams. The original, having become worn over the years was encased in plastic and mounted on a handsome mahogany board with a file of all Esther messages attached. The fighting copy, also encased in plastic, was safeguarded with an attached kapok life ring.

After arrival in Yokosuka, we learned Esther was in residence aboard USS BOXER. That night our XO decided to make a solo raid. He was caught.

The next morning, the XO was nowhere to be found. During quarters, a caravan of vehicles from BOXER drew alongside Berth One. The XO, in handcuffs and leg irons, was convoyed by a large group of raucous aviators across the other boats in the nest and deposited on board the SEA FOX with jeers about the submarine force.

Uncle Lew was beside himself. It didnít take much to whip us into a frenzy of desire for Esther. However. We had to change our plans when we learned that the USS LEXINGTON had made a successful run on Esther. It seemed that Lex had on board an ensign named Ming E. Chang (later VADM Chang). 

Dressed in hardhat and work clothes, Ensign Chang passed perfectly as a Japanese shipyard worker. He boarded the Boxer during the noon meal and planted a smoke bomb in the hangar bay. When fire quarters sounded, he simply walked into an empty wardroom and lifted Ester. He tossed the picture over the side to a waiting boat, and the Lex had her.

Estherís new residence was a heaven-sent opportunity as my next-door neighbor in Coronado was a member of the shipís company. I devised a plan to find this neighbor and invite him to the Submarine Sanctuary; several of us would sandbag him at the bar, then carry the helpless wretch back to his stateroom on board the Lex, thus circumventing Esther security. My plan was only partially effective, as, like so many aviators, my friend had a hollow leg. 

By the end of the evening we werenít sure who was carrying whom, but three of us from the SEA FOX with our protagonist in company, set off for the Lex. My friend was under the impression that he was showing Esther to some naïve and uninformed submariners. Once onboard, we found Esther, according to the rules, hanging free and clear from the wardroom bulkhead, but she also rested against a pressure switch hooked into the shipís chemical alarm and to a release mechanism attached to a large net suspended from the overhead. To add to our concern, several beefy ensigns were standing watch over her.

What happened next is none too clear. Our attempts at diversion were not completely successful. We grabbed Esther, the alarm sounded, the net dropped, and the ensigns pounced. We spent the rest of the night handcuffed to a wardroom stanchion, where an amateur barber shaved a large L on each head.

Thus you have the story leading up to the picture. 

SEA FOX eventually got Esther, as I mentioned, but that is another story.

Illigimiti Non Carborundum


Posted by George Arnold on January 05, 2001

I was aboard the SEA FOX when this all took place, and even though Capt. Green certainly does not need any confirmation on his story, it is all true! We were blessed with an outstanding wardroom and skipper! We had a great boat and even greater people aboard, and that includes personnel of all ranks/rates. What an outstanding time in my life.


Posted by SOB (aka Bill Parker) January 05, 2001



I presume that "Uncle Lew" Neeb was the one and same Chief of Staff to COMSUBFLOT ONE in what, 63-64? Talk about an operator, he took it upon himself to refurbish some of the abandoned Army buildings there at Ballast Point - outside of official channels. Everyone benefitted. CPO Club. Ballast Tank ("COM CLOSED" hah!) Housing.

Maybe you have the full story, in which case, I'd sure appreciate its repetition here. All I can remember is that, among other things, boat sailors who got crosswise with management (you fill in that blank) wound up swinging hammers, sloshing paint, or otherwise contributing to the early days of SUBBASE SAN DIEGO!

When Navy IG showed up, according to the legend, Uncle Lew foreclosed upon all objections to the existence of this unauthorized and unlisted but none-the-less fully functional Submarine Base by pointing out that it did not cost a cent of Military Construction funds. However, nothing was ever said about the raids upon the boats' OPTARS.

Surely, the statute of limitations has expired by now ... Story, please?


Posted by Bob Thomas (aka Cap'n. Bob) on January 05, 2001

Dear SOB, 

The stories about "Uncle Lew" Neeb are correct. He was Chief of Staff for ComSubFlot One from summer of 1965 until 1966. He was relived by Capt Bob Gautier in 1966 and I relieved Gautier in 1967. Uncle Lew went to VietNam in 1966 as skipper of the amphibious ship USS Paul Revere and then returned to San Diego as a Squadron Commander in 1967. During that period 1967-68, I worked with him every day. I still see him here in San Diego very often. He will be 80 years old sometime this year and is still reasonably healthy. He is just as mischievious as ever. When ever I am around him, I always place my wallet in my front pocket, otherwise he will steal it. He did a lot for the sailors back in those good old days

DBF !!! 

5 January 2001
Search engine follow-up results
by Sid Harrison

A half hour with a search engine and the letter shown below is the only ref I found. it is a letter posted on an Esther Williams fan-club board.

Sorry. He didn't have a copy of the WestPac ESTHER picture.


Hello Ms Williams,

My name is John Potter and I'm emailing from Melbourne, Australia. I'm contacting you to relate a story which grew out of your legend during the Korean War and thereafter. I was told this story when I (and other officers from my ship at the time - HMAS Brisbane) visited the Royal Australian Navy repository at Spectacle Island in Sydney and I viewed the original photograph of you which started the whole story.

It seems that during the Korean War a young Australian Naval Officer received a public relations package for the ship in his role as Public Relations Officer. Amongst the items received was a photograph of you in a swimsuit. The young officer decided that he wanted to keep this photo for himself and signed it 'To George, with all my love, Esther.'

He then mailed it to himself so he could become the envy of his fellow officers. To stop it from being stolen, he had it framed and hung on the wall in the Wardroom (officer's mess). Unfortunately, this didn't stop other ships' officers from stealing it and the photo quickly became a hot trophy amongst the Australian, British, American, Canadian and New Zealand ships on station.

Each time a ship lost or gained the trophy, a signal would be raised to all ships to advise of the transfer - many of these were quite lengthy and poetical and great wads of them still exist at Spectacle Island.

It all came to a head one day when a Canadian officer on the US ship holding the trophy at the time, snatched it off the wall and bolted for the gangway just as the ship was leaving the wharf. He was tackled on the rear of the ship by an American Officer and the Canadian and the trophy went into the sea near the turning propellors! He was lucky not to be minced up!

The Admirals of the five fleets met and agreed that the business had gone far enough. A 'fighting trophy' was made with a floating ring around it and the following rules were agreed. The trophy could only be taken by a commissioned officer; no weapons were to be used; and once taken the trophy was not to be permanently fixed or hidden.

The original trophy was to be kept by the senior Australian ship on station. After the war the trophy disappeared for many years. A few years ago, an Australian shore depot was being decommissioned and cleaned out and ammongst the items turned up was the original of your photo! How it got there no one knows but it was given to the curator at spectacle island.

He then wrote to the many now senior officers around the world who had contacted him over the years asking of it's whereabouts. Many of them then wrote back demanding that it be sent to them after the injuries they had received acquiring 'you' for their ships! Fortunately he resisted this pressure and it is still safely held in the museum to this day.

When the officers of Brisbane visited, we were highly amused by the story and our navigator (an expat Canadian) decided we should restart the tradition in the modern Australian fleet! The curator made us a replica of the original trophy complete with medal ribbons of the campaigns 'you' served in and a summary of the story on the back. The trophy has already travelled around South East Asia on our last deployment and was also the temporary guest of a number of other Australian ships along the way! I may have got some minor details of this story wrong but it is largely as I relate it.

I'd also be interested to know if you already knew of this story and the effect you had on the Naval Officers of five fleets, many of whom battled valiantly in your name!! The recent escapades have also seen some late night episodes and deception! Hope to hear from you soon.

Best wishes, John Potter - 2/99

L.H. "Uncle Lew" Neeb  CO USS SEA FOX  1955-57    (Eternal Patrol - 18 March 2009)
Esther Williams died on 6 June 2013   (aged 91)

Here is a Aussie Defense Dept. link RE the Esther Williams picture.

(External link) Another perspective of the Esther story found at