How Queen Elizabeth II honored the bicentennial of our independence

Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, who just went to her eternal reward, has been termed an "accidental queen" — this on account of the abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII, in 1936, when the crown passed to her father, George VI. 

But as Edward had no children ("no issue"), the crown would have passed to his brother's side of the royal family in any event. 

Edward, made Duke of Windsor, died in 1972, twenty years after his brother's passing.  Thus, Elizabeth would have taken the throne in any case, but in 1972, at age 39, rather than at 25 in 1952

Edward's abdication meant that Britain and the world got to see Elizabeth grow up: at age 19, in her dress uniform as a Territorial on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, near to Churchill, on V-E Day in 1945.  The British witnessed her marriage to Philip in 1947, and the world watched her formal coronation on TV in 1953.

Incompetent ministers of Elizabeth's ancestor, George III, were responsible for the Anglo-American divorce in 1776.  Two and a half centuries later, Americans are no longer in a position to look down upon the likes of Charles Townshend or Lord North, as we now know what it is like to be ruled by less than brilliant leaders.

The Anglo-American reconciliation began in the 1890s, and it continues.  I witnessed a minor episode in that process on July 4, 1976. 

We made a very big deal, as we should, of the bicentennial of independence.  The powers that be decided that one way to celebrate was simultaneous big events in New York City, Operation Sail and the International Naval Review.   The latter survives in a slimmed down form of Fleet Week just before Memorial Day.  The now departed Third Naval District (COMTHREE), the host command, rented Pier One on West Houston Street on the Hudson River in Manhattan to house a Press Center.

I was then in the Reserve, assigned to Naval Control of Shipping Office 102, a unit that would be responsible for organizing WW2-style convoys in the event of WW3.  A call went out for press officers.  They must have run out of candidates, so I got pulled in, my sole qualification in that profession being that I had been a published writer, with an analysis of racial tensions in the Pacific Fleet that National Review printed in 1973.

The days before and after the weekend of July 3–4 were loaded with paperwork, but, thanks to my amphibious warfare background, I pulled the duty of commanding a landing craft (LCVP — "Papa Boat"), of WW2 fame, on loan from an LST brought to Brooklyn for the purpose. 

On July 3, I had to carry a boatload of journalists to a spot near Liberty Island.  There, civilian photographers were to take pictures of the parade of naval ships entering port as they proceeded to anchorages in the Hudson, with the skyline of lower Manhattan in the background. 

The problem with the plan was that that morning was hazy, and looking into the sun did not make for memorable photography.  A radio call to command to request a change of position, so that the photographers would have the sun at their backs, was rejected.  It would have meant crossing between the incoming ships, with the possibility — however remote — of a collision between a foreign warship and an U.S. landing craft.  Some two dozen journos going in the drink was probably not a desirable outcome.

I had learned my lesson.  On Sunday, July 4, I was to take the Papa boat upriver, to just past the end of the passenger ship piers, and stay there, this time to watch the parade of sailing ships entering port, moving to anchorages parallel to the naval ships.  When we arrived at the position assigned, well before arrival of the tall ships, led by USCG Eagle, the WW2 prize ship Horst Wessel, I told the coxswain to keep going; we approached the line of warships in their anchorages maybe a quarter mile off Manhattan.  

It was almost at 1300 (1:00 P.M.), when we were maybe a hundred yards from HMS London, a Royal Navy cruiser.  On its helo deck was the Royal Marine Band, in dress blue uniforms topped by white spiked helmets.  On the mezzanine deck just above the helicopter hangar, a squad of sailors held rifles and bayonets at Present Arms.  At exactly 1300, the instant at which the 13 colonies severed their connection with the British Empire 200 years before, our passengers were the only witnesses to those representatives of Her Majesty's forces playing the American national anthem. 


We kept on our upriver journey to USS Mount Whitney, at the northern end of the line.  A helo from USS JFK, at Stapleton, Staten Island, brought POTUS Ford, V.P. Rockefeller, SecState Kissinger, and other VIPs to Mount Whitney.  They made their way to a whaleboat that brought them to USS Wainwright, a cruiser.

Wainwright weighed anchor, got underway, and proceeded downstream on a course opposite the parade of tall ships then heading upstream, a few hundred yards west.  We were at a position where a Navy photographer from COMTHREE took a shot that appeared to have Wainwright and Eagle colliding, though maybe two hundred yards separated them.

Back at Pier One, I briefed the journalist types and went inside to confess to disobeying orders, but I got a pat on the back instead of a kick in the can. 

During the afternoon, the Navy ships weighed anchor and went to moorings pierside.  A horde of civilian celebrants boarded them for ship visits, a mob far larger than anticipated by planners.  We had to call the USN liaison officers on each ship, having them implore their respective captains to allow the visits to continue past the planned cutoff time.  I was to call the German cruiser, FRGS Köln.  Knowing little German, I tried my best: "Bitte. Kann iche spreche mit der Americanische Kriegsmarine liaison offizier?"  The petty officer of the watch answered in crisp Oxford English, "I'll get him right away, sir."

I have no idea how the decision was made for a warship from the mother country to honor the bicentennial of American independence from Great Britain.  Was a junior admiralty bureaucrat responsible?  Probably one did make the initial suggestion, but, no doubt, the idea made its way up the chain of command to HRH Queen Elizabeth, who gave it her enthusiastic endorsement.

God bless the queen.

Image: U.S. National Archives via Picryl, no known restrictions.

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