The site where the Pleiades was built at the Consolidated Shipbuilding was situated in the Bronx, across the river from Manhattan’s Harlem River Drive at 193rdStreet. The yard “was a builder of luxury yachts, the result of the merger of Charles L. Seabury Co., originally established at Nyack in 1885, and Gas Engine & Power Co. Note that the companies operated jointly for many years: their activities were consolidated under the Consolidated Shipbuilding name during World War One. The yard was located on Matthewson Road, in the Bronx, in what is now Roberto Clemente State Park. After WWII, Consolidated bought the Robert Jacob shipyard on City Island and closed the Morris Heights yard. It ceased to be an active shipbuilder in 1958 but continues as a yacht repair center” (Tim Colton, shipbuildinghistory.com/ history/shipyards/6yachtsmall/consolidated).
The name Pleiades originates in Greek and also Hindu mythology. The name refers to the seven daughters of Atlas whose names were Maia, Electra, Celaeno, Taygeta, Merope, Alcyone, and Sterope. According to legend they were metamorphosed into stars either to save them from the pursuit of Orion or, after they killed themselves for grief over the death of their half-sisters the Hyades (thefreedictionary.com). As a result, Pleiades refers to a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus. Though there are several hundred in the cluster, six of them can be seen by the naked eye.
Pleiades was commissioned, built, bought and owned by only one private individual: J. Lester Parsons of New York. Her dimensions were 78 feet, nine inches (by some accounts 82 feet overall), with a beam of 14 feet four inches and a draft of six feet nine inches aft and three feet 11 inches forward. Her tonnage is listed in the 1933 “Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts” as being 51 tons net and 75 tons gross (fully loaded with fuel, water, passengers, etc.). Her official number was 227205. She was both designed and built by the Consolidated Shipbuilding Corporation of Morris Heights, Bronx, New York.
Pleiades’ propulsion consisted of twin gasoline engines of four cycles and six cylinders. By one account they were built by a firm named Buda Diesel and by another they were described as “7 X 8.5 Speedway”. It is possible that she was originally powered by gasoline engines built by Speedway, and that between 1928 and 1942 – a span of 14 years – she was re-powered with Buda diesels. The engines are listed as developing 300 horsepower, which would suggest each was capable of 150 hp. The hull was fabricated of wood. Her listed speed is 12 knots. In any event, by the time the US Navy acquired her she was propelled by the less volatile and more powerful diesel engines.
Her owner, J. Lester Parsons was, in the words of a law case in 1931, “a man of wide experience, who had been in the fire insurance business for over twenty-five years, and was then the President of two fire insurance companies” (Lucille F. Parsons and J. Lester Parsons v. Federal Realty Corporation, 12/15/31). One of these companies appears to have been the North River Insurance Company was located at 95 William Street, New York, NY, and J. Lester Parsons was Vice President in 1919 and gave his domicile as 110 William Street, virtually across the street.
It would appear from the New York Post on January 26 1938 that J. Lester Parsons’ wife Lucille died and that his daughter married George W. Vanderbilt: “The marriage of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s father, J. Lester Parsons to Mrs. Helen Boynton Wells of St Louis which took place here [New York City] quietly last Saturday afternoon [January 22, 1938], apparently was not so much of a surprise to their close friends as it was to society in general. Mr. Parsons, whose first wife died last September  following a lingering illness, and his bride are now on a honeymoon cruise in the bridegroom’s yacht, the Pleiades, in which he usually passes several months in Southern waters. They will return to New York in the spring”.
On January 12th1941 the Palm Beach Post reported that J. Lester Parsons entertained a “men’s luncheon followed by cards” aboard his yacht Pleiades on Saturday the 11th. On February 6th 1941 the Parsons and guests took the Pleiades on a weekend cruise of the Florida Cays, according to the Palm Beach Post. Their residence in Palm Beach is listed as Via Vizcaya. In 1954 Mr. and Mrs. Parsons cruised the South Pacific and Japan on the RMS Caronia under Captain Williams.
His son J. Lester Parsons was the co-founder in 1965 of the prestigious maritime law firm of Burke & Parsons in New York, which is still extant. His descendants continue to be benefactors of a variety of causes, among them the Henry L. Ferguson Museum of Fisher’s Island, New York.
After more than 13 years of service to the Parsons family and extensive cruising of the US east coast from the Florida Keys to New England, the Pleiades lasted just over ten months in the US Navy before a trained crew of 20 men wrecked her in the Bahamas. During her civilian life the crew required to man the yacht consisted of a Captain, perhaps an engineer, and a small crew to serve guests. In all likelihood Mr. Parsons conned the wheel for some, if not all of the time.
Within six months of Hitler declaring war on the United States Mr. Parsons had given, or technically sold Pleiades to the US Navy. For his patriotism Parsons was remunerated the princely sum of one dollar. The transaction is listed as having taken place on the 8thof June 1942 when the yacht lay in Miami Florida (she was “accepted as a gift”). Two days later, on the 10th of June, the Chief of Naval Operations directed she be delivered to a US Navy conversion yard and placed in service post-haste.
The earliest record which the US Navy kept on the yacht was dated the 9th of May 1942, at which point it can be presumed that the navy was in contact with Mr. Parsons and was performing due diligence on the yacht prior to assuming ownership of her. There is a “conversion progress record” dated the 18thof May 1942, however her conversion had not yet begun, as the yacht had not formally been handed over to the navy. Once the handover was complete, however, work would proceed rapidly.
Since the US Navy was under siege by German U-boats ravaging the east coast of Florida up to Cape Hatteras, and even in the US Gulf at the time, they were under tremendous pressure to “do something” about the menace but had inadequate numbers of destroyers and submarine chasers available from other theaters, such as the Pacific, which was being treated as a priority at the time.
From these various circumstances arose as collection of amateur yachts which were either manned or donated by civilian personnel in a patriotic effort to help protect the home front from foreign invasion (two sets of sabateurs were nevertheless landed in mid 1942 in Amagansett Long Island New York and Punta Vedra Florida, near Jacksonville, Florida). The US Coast Guard called this group of volunteers the Coastal Picket Patrol, and more romantically they were known as the Corsair Fleet.
Others, like Parsons, opted to donate their vessels outright not to the US Coast Guard, but to the US Navy. Those donated to the navy tended to be larger in size. The tradition of donating what today would be known as “mega-yachts” to the US Navy dates at least to the First World War, and tales of the deplorable state the yachts were returned in make colorful reading.
Pleiades was delivered to the US Navy at the Merrill-Stevens yard on the 19th of June. The Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Company, located at 1270 Northwest 11thStreet on the Miami River, was founded in 1885 in Jacksonville, Florida. It moved to Miami in 1923 and was foreclosed on in 2011. Until that time the firm claimed to be the oldest continually operating business in Florida, having survived 126 years. According to naval records, conversion on the Pleiades began the very day she was delivered and continued for roughly five weeks, until the 23rd of July, 1942. There is no cost of conversion provided.
A day after her delivery Pleiades was formally assigned to the Seventh Naval District, which extends from Jacksonville in the north to Miami in the south, along most of Florida’s eastern seaboard. This would have been a natural choice to deploy the vessel as it was already located in the region and the need for defensive weaponry on that coast and at that time was acute. It may have also reflected an opinion by the navy assessors that the boat was not fit for a long voyage to other destinations such as New York or New Orleans, or the Caribbean, though this would not be consistent with the navy outfitting the boat for service and manning it with US Navy personnel. If they didn’t think they yacht was seaworthy they would have never commissioned her in the first place.
After roughly five weeks of refit and overhaul, followed by a wait of only one week, the Pleiades was renamed YP 453, for Yard Patrol Craft. According to Tim Colton of Shipbuildinghistory.com, “The designation YP originally meant a yard patrol craft. The Navy created its initial fleet of YPs from about sixty Coast Guard boats no longer needed after the end of prohibition. This fleet grew to about 650 for WWII, mostly by the acquisition and conversion of private yachts and fishing vessels. After the war, all these boats were sold off and the YP became a training craft, primarily at the U.S. Naval Academy”. Pleiades was formally accepted into service by the Seventh Naval District in Miami on Wednesday the 29th of July 1942 – this can be considered her “commissioning date” into the navy.
Little is known about YP 453’s short career in the US Navy, except that it lasted between the 29th of July 1942 and the 5th of April 1943 (formally the 28th of July, 1943, when she was struck from the navy register, or “list”, exactly one day shy of a year since she was commissioned. Presumably YP 453 patrolled the east coast of Florida from the Miami to Jacksonville, including the strategic Cape Canaveral, where the majority of submarine attacks were occurring. Probably skippered by a naval Lieutenant and a crew of roughly 20 men, they would have been vigilantly on the lookout for enemy submarines, and acted in coordination with other US Navy ships and perhaps the US Coast Guard. At least one memoirist, Edward du Moulin, reports escorting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor between Nassau where he was governor and Miami, where the couple liked to take in the horse races and the social scene.
Over her naval career YP 453 clearly voyaged to the Bahamas at least once, since she was wrecked there, though it is entirely possible that her only foray to the islands was to ground in the Bimini Islands, perhaps after being disabled in the Gulf Stream in the Straits of Florida. If the boat was overwhelmed by weather or waves anywhere east of the centerline of the Gulf Stream, the nearest refuge would have been the Bahamas and the Bimini Islands.
The Daily Admiralty Bulletin of the 5th of September 1942 noted that YP 453 was transferred to maintenance on the 28th of August 1942, indicating that there were at least some teething problems with the vessel, and perhaps some serious structural or propulsion-related issues which needed working out.
Between September 1942 and April 1943 there are no naval communications relating to YP 453 in her file. Then in April came the following entry “Grounded on Bahama Bank and Damaged beyond repair. Request authority to strike from navy list and destroy hull upon completion of salvaging removable material and engines” (Com 7 R-152105). According to the same navy communications, YP 453 first grounded on Tuesday the 5th of April at Barnett Harbour, Bimini Islands. As we shall see, Barnett Harbour is little more than a cluster of rocks barely above sea level, but constitutes a destination or waypoint for vessels coming across the Gulf Stream from Florida and accessing the shallower and comparatively sheltered waters of the Bahama Bank.
For three days, from Tuesday the 5th to Friday the 8th, the men of YP 453 struggled to salvage their vessel. It must have been a sleepless period. What is not known is whether the boat was an anchor when it dragged ashore, whether it lost propulsion, was flooded, or simply drifted ashore. By Friday the 8ththe vessel was intentionally beached. The report indicates that the former Pleiades was “damaged beyond repair”, and that “all possible machinery and material [was] removed and stored; hulk has broken up.”
Barnett Harbour is located in position 25°38’15.00″N by 79°19’0.00″W. It is three miles north of Gun Cay, which itself lies just north of North Cat Cay, and 3.25 miles south of Port Royal, South Bimini Island, which lies just south of Alice Town and Bailey Town on North Bimini, the capital of the Bimini District of the Bahamas. The region is known above all as a deep sea fishing destination due to its direct and easy proximity to the Gulf Stream. Also it is one of the first landfalls in the Bahamas from the United States, being only 44 nautical miles just south of due east from the cut outside Miami’s Biscayne Bay. It is 111 miles across the Little Bahama Bank from the capital Nassau.
On the 28th of July 1943 YP 453 was formally stricken from the US Navy Register and given up for good. There is no telling exactly how the engines and other machinery (winches, possibly a generator) were disposed of or whether or not they were auctioned off to locals in nearby Bimini rather than transported back to Florida. In a Navy press release dated October 2nd 1942 the yacht was reported “destroyed by grounding in the Bahamas 15 April 1943”. A subsequent Naval Intelligence Report of Losses dated 2nd of May 1946 simply states “Destroyed by Grounding.”
Since World War II and particularly the advent and popularization of SCUBA diving from the 1970s onward there have been persistent rumors of a German submarine in the Bimini Islands specifically. Aside from a discounted report of a piece from U-432 in the Abaco Islands (that particular submarine never came close to the Bahamas and never left northern Europe), the most emphatic claims of sub sightings come from Bimini. Diving entrepreneur and some would say “living legend” Stuart Cove reports that a submarine was reported off Bimini and that divers blew apart the hull in the 1980s to get better access. As a result, the hull has broken up and disintegrated. Others report clearly seeing a submarine off Bimini from the air.
While it might be possible that the US Navy, which conducts extensive and secret submarine tests on nearby Andros (at their AUTEC, or Atlantic Undersea Testing and Evaluation Center), left the carcass of a submarine there, it is highly unlikely that the only German submarine known to have been sunk within hundreds of miles (U-157 sunk off Key West), could have drifted north in the Gulf Stream to Bimini. Sunken subs simply don’t float north – they don’t float at all. Could it be possible that the World War II submarine which divers and enthusiasts have been reporting off Bimini was in fact the remains of the Pleiades, or YP 453?
Queries to a number of diving firms in Bimini are inconclusive. None of the present-day operators, including Stuart Cove and salvage expert Marcus Mitchell have actually dived on or witness the alleged submarine. The mystery – and whether the loss of YP 453 had anything to do with it – remains unsolved. What is most likely is that with her fittings and machinery gone the YP 453’s wooden hull and beams would have disintegrated quickly and there would be almost nothing left of the vessel and its hull except stringers and fasteners and odds and ends. Even these would be likely buried deep in the sand or covered with coral in the intervening 70 years.