Champagne and flowers were a symbol of honor among women in the World War II era as some were chosen to be a “sponsor” for a new ship.
As movies and popular culture show, the chosen woman would break the bottle of champagne on the bow of the ship to christen the vessel before it was sent into the water. In Orange, the water was the Sabine River.
The first World War II launching in Orange was on Texas Independence Day, March 2, 1942. Consolidated Steel, which had built a $5 million shipyard on the river, launched the 376 foot U.S.S. Aulick (below), in a grand ceremony.
The U.S. had begun a defense shipbuilding effort long before the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack sent the country into the war.
The November 17, 1941, edition of Life magazine had advice under the Modern Living section for “How to Sponsor a Ship.” The story included etiquette hints for a christening. “With Rear Admiral Land promising ‘Two Ships a day to keep the Nazis away,’ no woman in the U.S. can tell when she may be called upon to sponsor a battleship, tanker, or glorified dinghy.”
Life covered an East Coast christening with photos and reported the lady of honor received a gift of a diamond pin worth $200 to $1,500. The magazine said the cost of the gift was paid by the shipyard but included in the ship’s cost.
People in Orange by 1942 were not impressed by the expensive gifts. Apparently, the main gift given was a $50 war bond.
And not every ship sponsor was grown. Jerry Suzanne Weaver (later Harris) was eight years old when she christened a minesweeper constructed by Weaver Shipbuilding. Years later, the late Harris talked about how all four third grade classes and their teachers from Anderson School got to attend.
The February 18, 1944, Orange Leader reported she was the youngest to christen a ship in this area.
She had a connection for the honor. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. L.A. Weaver, and her great-grandfather, Captain Joe Weaver, had started Weaver Shipyard.
She christened the YMS 372, a minesweeper. Her father presided as master of ceremonies during the event. She was the third generation of her family to sponsor a ship during the war.
Mrs. T.A. Thomson Jr. of New Orleans was the sponsor of the U.S.S. Aulick, the first World War II ship built in Orange. Her husband was Captain T.A. Thomson Jr., commander of the Eighth Naval District.
The Orange Leader reported workers at the shipyard were given an hour break to attend. They “shivered” in the 40-degree temperature with a strong north wind.
Miss Mickey Chatellier, drum major for the Bengal Guards, presented Mrs. Thomson with a bouquet of flowers. Harold Jungmichael, a former University of Texas football star, represented the Orange Shipfitters Social Club and gave the sponsor a bouquet of red roses.
The Bengal Guards Drum and Bugle Corps and the Bangal Lancers band from Orange High School played patriotic songs. The “Star Spangled Banner” was played as Mrs. Thomson hit the bow with the champagne. The ceremony closed with “God Bless America.”
Admiral A.H. Van Keuren gave an address and Orange’s H.J. Lutcher Stark, representing Governor Coke Stephenson also spoke. Captain Harry B. Hird, executive vice president of Consolidated Steel, was the master of ceremonies.
The newspaper said Mrs. Thomson was injured by a sliver of the champagne bottle hitting her right hand. “The ever-ready first aid kit within arm’s reach was used in a half inute to arrest the slight flow of blood as the little lady smilingly presented her hand.”
An estimated 6,000 people watched the launching. The VIPs were invited to a luncheon at Sunset Grove Country Club.
As the war went on and dozens more ships were built, the ship christenings became less elaborate, but still important.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-