Historic Museum and Armory in East Greenwich, RI

Book Lecture & Q&A with Christian McBurney, Writer, and Independent Historian

Monday, March 10, 2014

Christian McBurney's latest book, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, hit the bookshelves in December 2013, and has all the makings of a must-read for anyone with an interest in American history. McBurney's book takes us back to late 1776, when a party of British dragoons surprised and captured Major General Charles Lee at an isolated tavern in New Jersey. Lee was second-in-command in the Continental Army, behind only George Washington. In order to have a British captive the same rank as Lee, Rhode Island's William Barton planned and executed the cross-bay capture of Major General Richard Prescott at the Overing house in Middletown. At a time, Prescott commanded the British garrison occupying Newport and the rest of Aquidneck Island.

Barton's raid was the outstanding special operation of the Revolutionary War and still ranks as one of the greatest special operations in American military history. But did the pride he earned from this mission after the war ruin 13 years of his life?

About the speaker: Native Rhode Islander Christian McBurney attended South Kingstown High School and Brown University. He is a graduate of New York University School of Law. Books by McBurney include The Rhode Island Campaign, Jailed for Preaching, and A History of Kingston, R.I. 1700 – 1900.


RSVP … Social hour begins at 5:45, followed a catered dinner at 6:30 p.m. (Fee is $15.) Please RSVP to John Adams at 508/735-4283 or 401/886-9078 or by email at JWADAMS148@aol.com by Friday, March 7.

Upcoming Events

March 15: Newport St. Patrick's Day Parade. The 58th Annual Newport, RI, St. Patrick's Day Parade steps off at 11 a.m. The Varnum Continentals, RIM, will be marching with the Newport Artillery Company.

April 14: Varnum Members' Meeting. Built from Stone, Westerly Granite Story. Speakers Linda Smith Chaffee, John B. Coduri, and Ellen Madison, Ph D.

May 12: Varnum Members' Meeting. Captain Jeffrey Ahern, author, Sons of Hope, the story of CAPT. Ahern's time as a platoon leader in Iraq in 2005 – 2006.

May 26: East Greenwich Memorial Day Parade. The Varnum Continentals, RIM, will be stepping off in our home-town parade. If you are not a uniformed member but would like to participate, consider marching along with our "Veterans' Corp." More details will be presented in upcoming newsletters.

June 9: Varnum Members' Meeting. Susan Luz, author, The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse's Journey of Service, Struggle, and War.

Historic East Greenwich Hill & Harbor Scenes!

As part of our Art at the Armory Exhibit earlier this season, the Varnum Continentals released archival fine art reproductions of two beloved paintings from the Varnum House Museum collection. The original oil paintings from which the fine art prints were created were painted ca. 1860 by Dr. Daniel Howland Greene, physician, local historian, and artist. Greene wrote the History of the Town of East Greenwich and Adjacent Territory: From 1677 to 1877.


These fine art prints, on canvas, will be available at Greenwich Gallery (B&H Framing), at 514 Main Street, East Greenwich. The prints are available in two sizes: 16 X 20 and 24 X 30 and may be purchased stretched and ready-to-frame or rolled in a tube, suitable for shipping. Prices range from $125 to $250. Each comes with a certificate of authenticity.

To purchase your print, please visit Greenwich Gallery or call John Adams at 508/735-4283 or

Proceeds from the sale of these prints will help with the cleaning and restoration of artwork in the collections of the Varnum Memorial Armory and Varnum House Museums.

Liberty Ships, Frigates and AKAs: WW II Shipbuilding in Providence

By Varnum Member & Trustee Brian Wallin

Providence Harbor isn't what it used to be. Once, the Providence River was home to numerous fishing boats, ferries, and oceangoing passenger and cargo ships. Shipbuilding was a major industry in the port from its earliest days. The Crandall Shipyard was once known for its sturdy vessels. However, by the 1930s it was reduced to dry dock and repair work.

But war was looming, and the Providence waterfront would play its part. Right after Pearl Harbor, the US Maritime Commission began a massive shipbuilding program and, in 1942, selected 144 acres on Fields Point for the location of one of 18 emergency shipyards. The Army Corps of Engineers used millions of tons of fill to create a stable shoreline. The yard was built with full support facilities and had six shipways.

The first vessels were laid down in March of 1942. Eventually more than 21,000 workers, many of them women, would labor around the clock. The Rheem Manufacturing Company held the original contract, but the work soon outstripped their ability. In early 1943, the yard was taken over by the Walsh-Kaiser Company, and the legendary Henry J. Kaiser brought his revolutionary shipbuilding techniques to Providence. His Liberty Ships were built in two-thirds the average time and at a quarter the cost of all other shipyards.

Liberties, all named after famous Americans, were turned out in a matter of weeks using Kaiser's welding and prefabrication techniques (in a publicity stunt, one Liberty was completed in just 4-1/2 days). The Providence yard built at the same pace as other Kaiser facilities. By the end of the war, the Walsh-Kaiser Yard in Providence had completed 11 Liberties, 21 frigate warships, and 32 combat cargo ships (AKAs).

The Liberty Ship was an ugly duckling, based on an old British tramp steamer design. Some 440 feet in length, weighing more than 14,000 tons and powered by a single-screw oil-fired engine, they were broad-beamed and deep hulled to carry loads of 10,000 tons or more. Some 2700 were built. Today only three are still afloat as museum ships. Two are fully operational (The Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco and the John H. Brown in Baltimore). The third is a static floating museum in Greece.

In 2010, the Brown returned to Providence for a nostalgic visit, mooring at the Conley Dock not far from the place where she first slid down the ways in the dark days of war.

Liberties were intended to be expendable, sometimes lasting only one voyage in the submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic; 773 were sunk with the loss of 7,000 crewmen. But the majority survived to make multiple voyages and sailed worldwide long after the war. In the end, American knowhow and resources simply outstripped the enemy's abilities to overcome the vast merchant fleets that took to the seas.

Considered the most important contribution of the Walsh-Kaiser Yard was the construction of 21 combat-loaded transport ships, or AKAs. About the same size as a Liberty, AKAs were powered by twin turboelectric engines and drove through the water at 18 knots, almost twice as fast as a Liberty. The Providence yard could turn out an AKA in about 4-1/2 months and complete it in just 80 days.

AKAs were equipped with the latest marine technology and were used primary in the South Pacific, where they supported the island-hopping strategies of the Allies over wide distances. Fully loaded, AKAs could carry 250 troops and their supplies.

The first of the 32 Providence-built AKAs, the USS Artemis (AKA-21), was the namesake of her class. She served in the Pacific theater from late 1944 to the end of the war. After carrying thousands of troops and many tons of equipment, Artemis was decommissioned and scrapped in 1947, having earned two battle stars for her service.

An interesting class of ships built locally was the frigate. All 21 Colony-class warships were built in Providence. Originally designed for the US Navy as patrol-frigates and based on a British design, they were quickly superseded by the American-designed destroyer escort and so were designated for lend lease to the British government. At 1200 tons and 300 feet in length, they were armed with 3-inch guns and anti-submarine weaponry and served in the Battle of the Atlantic as convoy escorts and patrol ships.

One Providence-built frigate, HMS Caicos, was used in the North Sea to detect German V-1 buzz bombs aimed at Great Britain. When WWII ended, most of the frigates were given back to the US under the intent of lend-lease. The Navy had no use for them, as they were pretty much outclassed by the end of the war. Three were sold to foreign governments, and the rest went to the breakers between 1947 and 1949.

At the end of WWII, shipyard production quickly wound down and the facilities closed. In 1949, the property was sold to a private developer and gradually became home to numerous businesses. One fondly remembered by many Rhode Islanders was the Shipyard Drive-in Theater, which finally went dark in 1976.

Today, traces of the shipyard are still visible: a few buildings and a long pier that still welcome the occasional ship. Stand dockside on a cold winter day. Imagine this special place seven decades ago – great ships being prepared for war by an army of workers – a nearly forgotten chapter in the history of the Port of Providence.


Varnum Continentals Membership Calendar

-- Monday, March 3, 2014 -- Executive Committee Meeting

-- Monday, March 10, 2014 -- Steak Fry/Member Meeting

-- Monday, April 7, 2014 -- Board of Trustees Meeting

-- Monday, April 14, 2014 -- Steak Fry/Member Meeting

-- Monday, May 5, 2014 -- Executive Committee Meeting

-- Monday, May 12, 2014 -- Steak Fry/Member Meeting

-- Monday, June 2, 2014 -- Executive Committee Meeting

-- Monday, June 9, 2014 -- Steak Fry/Member Meeting

-- Monday, July 7, 2014 --Board of Trustees Meeting

-- Monday, August 4, 2014 -- Executive Committee Meeting

-- Monday, September 1, 2014 -- Executive Committee Meeting

-- Monday, September 8, 2014 -- Steak Fry/Member Meeting

-- Monday, October 6, 2014 -- Executive Committee Meeting

-- Monday, October 13, 2014 -- Varnum Continentals Annual Meeting


Varnum House Museum (1773), 57 Peirce Street, East Greenwich, RI 02818-3338
Varnum Memorial Armory, 6 Main Street, East Greenwich, RI 02818-3827
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