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From 'seagoing White House' to ghost ship: Truman's yacht rusts far from home

Once an iconic "seagoing White House, " Harry S. Truman's presidential yacht is now rusting in a picturesque Italian port. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

LA SPEZIA, Italy -- If you’re under 70, you’ve probably never heard of the USS Williamsburg.

But at one time she was among the most famous ships on the planet -- the stuff of newsreels and bold headlines.  

Steel-hulled and built to look like a mini-Titanic, the 240-foot Williamsburg started out in the early 1930s as the Aras, a private yacht. She became a patrol gunboat during World War II.  But it was as President Harry S. Truman’s yacht that she gained acclaim as his "seagoing White House."

Truman loved to do business on the Williamsburg as much as he loved the ship itself.

Over his seven tumultuous years as president, discussions on board with leaders including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – often over card games and long bourbons - led to decisions that still affect the world today: the launch of the Cold War, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Korean War, and the creation of Israel, to name but a few.   

NBC's Kerry Sanders takes a tour of the newly restored Honey Fitz, once a symbol of Camelot as it cruised the waters of the Potomac, Palm Beach, and Hyannis with JFK and Jackie Kennedy lounging on the deck.

But, for the past 20 years, the USS Williamsburg has barely kept afloat in a quaint backwater in northern Italy. 

The vessel's Italian owners  – who run a shipyard – say that in four or five years it will likely sink from its own decay and will be cut up for scrap.  How did it come to this?  And what can be done to save it?

VIDEO: A glimpse inside the iconic USS Williamsburg

Ask Gianfranco Oddone, a man on a mission. Oddone is a retired ship repairman who once was a high school exchange student in Truman’s home town of Lamar, Mo. He will tell anyone who listens about the Williamsburg’s saga, as he seeks out a buyer who’ll sail this piece of Americana back to where Oddone believes it belongs -- in the U.S.

In the meantime, the grandest of America’s surviving presidential yachts increases its list – and rust – far from home.