It Came from the Archives: Dothan man was among fastest on the open sea

Dr. Marty Olliff's ongoing series turns its attention to a Dothan man who once shared the Atlantic crossing speed record.

Dr. Marty Olliff's ongoing series turns its attention to a Dothan man who once shared the Atlantic crossing speed record.

People in the Wiregrass have known about Bishop Cleaners since it opened in Dothan in 1947. But few know that in November 1945, its founder, Eustace E. Bishop, was one of the fastest men on the open sea.

A lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Bishop served on the aircraft carrier/troopship USS Lake Champlain (CV 39), when it made the fastest run to date across the Atlantic Ocean, a record it held until 1952.

Born in 1912 in Ashburn, Georgia, Bishop attended the University of Georgia for a year, then graduated from Georgia Tech in 1933, where he had been president of the student body. His family moved to Decatur, Georgia, in the 1930s, where he met and, in 1937, married Agnes Scott College student and Dothan resident Mary Alice Newton. Bishop worked as an insurance agent in Decatur until he entered the U.S. Naval Reserves during World War 2.

Lt. Eustace E. Bishop, USNR
Lt. Eustace E. Bishop, USNR

Bishop served as a lieutenant during Operation Magic Carpet to bring 3 million service men and women home from Europe. The Army and Merchant Marine led the operation but soon realized they needed resources from the Navy to avoid the problem of slow removal that troops had faced in World War 1.

The first ship the Navy dedicated to Operation Magic Carpet was the USS Lake Champlain, a Ticonderoga class aircraft carrier commissioned at Norfolk in June 1945, then refitted to carry 3,300 troops in place of its usual complement of 90-100 aircraft. The Champlain entered service in October 1945.  It was 888 feet long, its beam measured 93 feet, it weighed 27,100 tons, and it carried a combat crew of 3,448.

USS Lake Champlain, September 27, 1945, in Chesapeake Bay. From “NavSource Online: Aircraft Carrier Photo Archive,” http://www.navsource.org/archives/02/39.htm

Having set a west-to east speed record from Norfolk to Bishop Rock off the coast of England on an earlier voyage, The Champlain broke the Queen Mary’s east-to-west record on its third voyage in November 1945. It took four days, 8 hours, 15 minutes to ply the Atlantic Ocean’s 3360.3 nautical miles from Gibraltar to Norfolk, an average of 32.048 knots (almost 37 miles per hour).

Bishop wrote a long letter home during the voyage that explained the Captain’s motivation “to bring the boys into the states in a hurry.” Provisioning 5,000 hungry passengers was, as Bishop wrote, “quite a problem.” He gave an example – the officers’ mess he ran usually fed 350 men per day, but he had to feed 550 ravenous soldiers.  Even the 505 pounds of turkey he prepared for Thanksgiving dinner didn’t suffice.  It was gone so quickly that his 96 stewards had to eat something else.  He warned, “you civilians had better be prepared for these people. . .  get plenty of food ready . . ..”

The Navy mothballed the Champlain in 1947, but it returned to action in the Korean War and was part of the Cuban Missile blockade fleet in the fall of 1962. It also served as the prime recovery ship for the U.S.’s first manned space flight in February 1962, Alan Shepard’s Friendship 7, as well as the Gemini 2 mission in 1965. The carrier was decommissioned in 1969 and scrapped in 1972.

Lt. Bishop’s Commemorative Certificate for his 1945 Atlantic Crossing Speed Record.
Lt. Bishop’s Commemorative Certificate for his 1945 Atlantic Crossing Speed Record.

The Champlain’s speed record stood from 1945 until the summer of 1952 when the SS United States, a 900-foot-long commercial ocean liner designed to be quickly converted to carry 15,000 troops, sped eastward across the Atlantic at 35.59 knots (41 mph) and returned at 34.51 knots (40 mph).

After the war, Bishop and his family moved to Dothan, where they opened Bishop Cleaners. Expanding by employing family members, the business expanded into Albany and Valdosta in 1953-1954, then purchased three plants in Panama City in 1955. It further expanded beyond laundry and dry cleaning into emergency cleanup, restoration, and uniform rental. Reconfigured over time, by 1987 Bishop Enterprises consisted of four operating plants helmed by Eustace (Top) Bishop, Jr.

Opening Day at Bishop Cleaners, Jan. 6, 1947.
Opening Day at Bishop Cleaners, Jan. 6, 1947.

E.E. Bishop served the Wiregrass until his death in 2005.  Among many other services, he helped to build First Methodist Church and to bring Wesley Manor retirement center (now Wesley Place) to Dothan. He chaired the 1950 National Peanut Festival, and served as president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club. He participated in industrial and transportation development initiatives such as the Houston County Port Authority, the Alabama Ameriport Authority, and the Dothan-Houston County Airport Authority (establishing Dothan’s current airport at Napier Field). In addition, he was a member of the group that opened the local Boys Club and of the committee that steered Dothan through racial desegregation in the 1950s and 60s.

For his contributions, the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce honored him among the 2012 inductees into its Business Hall of Fame.

Regardless, for seven years Lt. E. E. Bishop, USNR, and his shipmates were the fastest people on the Atlantic.

Mr. Bishop’s archival collection is being processed at the Wiregrass Archives and will be available for research in the Fall of 2020.

It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.