In the book The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue (now a motion picture), authors Tougias and Sherman set the stage for the sinking of the SS Pendleton, which was launched from a Kaiser shipyard. They make the case that this T-2 tanker, which broke in half on February 18, 1952, was a disaster waiting to happen.
“…These ships had gained a more dubious nickname, and some critics referred to them as “serial sinkers” [referring to the conventional non-military ship designation SS, for “steam ship”] and “Kaiser coffins.” The trouble with T2 tankers dated back nearly a decade, beginning on January 17, 1943, when the Schenectady split in half while still at the dock! The ship had just completed its sea trials and had returned to port at Swan Island, Oregon, when suddenly she cracked just aft of the bridge superstructure. The center portion of the ship buckled and lifted right out of the water, leaving its bow and stern to settle on the river bottom. Like the Schenectady, the Pendleton had been built hastily for the war effort.”
“But the ship’s strong outward appearance concealed the subpar welding methods used in its construction. As in many T2 tankers built during that era, the hull of the Pendleton was most likely put together with ‘dirty steel’ or ‘tired iron,’ in other words, steel weakened by excess sulfur content.”
“The ship had suffered a three-way fracture in the bulkhead between number 4 starboard and center tanks just one year before in January 1951. The three-way fracture had never been repaired. Amazingly, the Pendleton passed its last Coast Guard inspection on January 9, 1952, in Jacksonville, Florida, with flying colors.”
Alarming though these statements may be, some of these criticisms are erroneous or exaggerated. In the interests of a balanced historical record, here are some counterpoints:
1. The “Serial sinkers” and “Kaiser coffins” references were not commonly applied to the T-2 tankers, or even to the Liberty and Victory class cargo ships – they referred to the Kaiser’s Escort Aircraft Carriers, or their naval hull classification CVE. These vessels, with initials that were derisively said to mean “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Explosive,” were built for the Navy yet were thinly armored. This was a deliberate design compromise giving them speed and maneuverability.
2. Missing from Tougias’ and Sherman’s account is the fact that in July, 1951, the SS Pendleton ran aground in the Hudson River near New York and refloated the next day. The part of her hull impacted by the grounding was the same section where the ship was to break nine months later. Whether the grounding was a factor in her breaking up will never be determined.
3. Wartime shipbuilding was always a work in process, with hard lessons and new advances occurring on very short timetables. During World War II, fabrication of ships by welding (rather than riveting) was still new, and the civilian workforce – even though trained and certified – was relatively inexperienced.
It must be pointed out that the Schenectady, launched in late 1942, was the first all-welded tanker built by the Kaiser Company. Improving productivity without risking worker safety was a major priority, and this was effectively accomplished as the war progressed. War materiel produced during war is never expected to last very long, just long enough to do the job. There is no question that the massive volume of ship output, only possible with these new construction methods, was essential to the Allied victory.
4. Manufacturing steel for welded ships was also a work in progress, and at the beginning little was understood about the impact of “brittle steel,” especially when exposed to cold-weather duty (the air temperature when the Schenectady broke was 23 degrees Fahrenheit). As problems arose, manufacturing and processes improved.
5. Perhaps most importantly, the overall record of all the wartime-built ships was impressively good. In July 1945, the Secretary of the Navy established a blue-ribbon panel to look into this problem; in 1947 they issued their Final Report on a Board of Investigation to Inquire into the Design and methods of Construction of Welded Steel Merchant Vessels.
Their review of the 4,694 merchant vessels built during the war concludes that only 25 sustained a complete fracture of the “strength deck” or bottom. Of those, eight were lost at sea and two – including the above mentioned Schenectady – broke in two but were not lost. And the human cost? A total of 26 lives were lost as a result of structural failures.
The Board’s conclusions were laid out on the Final Report’s page 10:
(a) The fractures in welded ships were caused by notches and by steel which was notch sensitive at operating temperatures. When an adverse combination of these occurs the ship may be unable to resist the bending moments of normal service.
(b) The serious epidemic of fractures in the steel structure of welded merchant vessels has been curbed through the combined effect of the corrective measures taken on the structure of the ships during construction and after completion, improvements in new design, and improved construction practices in the shipyards.
(c) Locked-in stresses do not contribute materially to the failure of welded ships.
(d) Existing specifications are not sufficiently selective to exclude steel which is notch sensitive at ship operating temperatures.
(e) A tendency for certain ships to incur repeated casualties can be measured but the trend is not great and the effect is not significant.
(f) The basic analytical method used in calculating nominal stresses in the main hull girder under a known bending moment is valid.
(g) The overall strength of the Maritime Commission ships is satisfactory.
The official government conclusion supports the position that, dramatic and tragic though the SS Pendleton’s sinking may have been, it was not representative of the quality of the vast majority of merchant ships built during World War II.
An excellent source on this subject is Ships for victory; a history of shipbuilding under the United States Maritime Commission in World War II, by Frederic Chapin Lane, 1951. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
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In previous blogs we have looked at Kaiser Community Homes, Henry J. Kaiser’s partnership with Southern California housing developer Fritz Burns. Here we let Kaiser express, in his own words, his vision behind this bold project.
The 1944 speech was published in the beautiful handmade book Twenty-Six Addresses Delivered during the War Years, but it’s important to know that he was already thinking about this a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And in a previously unpublished 1945 speech in San Francisco, a city currently experiencing a housing crisis of a different sort, he announced the formation of KCH. It’s impressive that a major developer would express such concern for aesthetics, social benefit, and affordability.
There was even the idea of linking KCH home ownership to discounted membership in the Permanente Foundation Health Plan. This was proposed in an unpublished 1946 Kaiser report about expanding hospitals in the Los Angeles area, but it was never implemented:
Occupants of the Kaiser Community Homes are another potential membership source. On this basis the Health Plan would be sold along with the house. This could be optional or mandatory and sales or collection costs of the Health Plan (approximately 15%) would be eliminated, thus making the payments more attractive to the buyer.
Unfortunately, despite an ambitious start (5,319 homes in the Los Angeles area alone), KCH didn’t achieve the momentum that Kaiser had hoped for. The housing shortage turned out to be less than anticipated, prefabricated construction was less efficient than hoped for, and by 1948 West Coast based KCH was surpassed by the Levitt brothers, East Coast competitor developers whose Levittowns became the postwar planned community standard.
Below are three iterations of Henry J. Kaiser’s views on postwar housing.
“Kaiser is back – Post-War Plan Will Not Harm War Effort,”
San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 1942
“We’ve got millions of new homes to build after the war. What kind of homes? What will they look like? How will they be built? We’ve got to sit down and figure that out – and start doing it right now.”
He described one type of housing “of particular interest to us” – a prefabricated steel house, three rooms, fully furnished and equipped with all sanitary and disposal facilities. It can be erected by eight men in one day and would cost $1,500 completely furnished. It can be moved readily to new locations and set up again with ease.
“Building the future: An address before the Conference of the National Committee on Housing, Chicago, Illinois,” March 9, 1944 (excerpts)
Prefabricated houses might provide as little as five per cent of the total during the first five years of peace. But prefabricated units are a different story. In the Ladies Home Journal for January of this year, Richard Pratt, the architectural editor, gives us a stirring preview of the possibilities: a bathroom “completely prebuilt and equipped, would come ready to be fitted into its preplanned space and be fully connected within an hour.” Such a room, cast almost in one piece out of plastic, is no idle dream. From what we know about economies of mass production, it is reasonable to suppose that the cost would be one-half, or even less, that of present installations…The prefabricated unit will enjoy an immense popularity, and the economies will be substantial.
Furthermore, there shall be no repetition of that drab similarity which characterized the unhappy period when our forebears built block after block of shelters which had no more individuality than dread monotony. Today our architects, city planners, and builders are not only ready, but eager, to build for beauty, as well as utility.
Profits, as important as they are in an independent economy, must be secondary to that degree of social vision which will provide a vast volume of employment for the huge army of men who are skilled in the building arts. Such vision would grasp those things, which are in the realm of possibility, and even presume to recognize the good in human nature, rather than to emphasize its selfishness.
Modern American advertising, with its genius for eliciting responses to direct consumer appeals, could separate fact from fancy. But let us in such advertising be scrupulously honest with the American people…Many people in their eagerness to have new homes seem to forget that the cost of the dwelling does not include the cost of land and utilities; nor does it include taxes and upkeep. Perhaps if we hammered such points home, we could save a lot of foreclosures, in which everyone loses.
Remarks at press conference announcing the formation of Kaiser Community Homes, San Francisco City Hall, May 9, 1945 (excerpts; a short published account also carried in the Oakland Tribune, May 9, 1945 “Kaiser to launch huge home building program”)
We have called this Press Conference today to announce the organization of a national home and community building enterprise. In this enterprise the Kaiser organization has formed a partnership with Fritz B. Burns and Associates, builders of homes in Los Angeles. The name of this new enterprise is the Kaiser Community Homes Corporation.
Kaiser Community Homes will build homes, grouped together in complete communities – including health, recreation, school, and commercial centers – for the families of America everywhere in America. Into the field of homebuilding, it will introduce industrial methods, comparable to those developed in other lines of production. Resultant savings will be reinvested in the homes to enhance its value and service to its owners. On this sound economic basis, Kaiser Community Homes Corporation expects to create a new home market among the majority of U.S. families who do not now own their own homes.
This national home-building enterprise will get under way at once. It will be spearheaded by the immediate construction of 10,000 homes grouped in several communities at West Coast centers of population. Sites for these initial operations already have been purchased by Kaiser Community Homes Corp. In order to command the efficiencies implicit in large-scale operations, the organization will build communities of 200 homes upward, with the average projected at 500 homes.
We have had to think about a lot of things during the last five years, but postwar employment has been for me the lode-star which drew us all toward this day when we could turn our thoughts from war to peace. In announcing Kaiser Community Homes today we are ready to make our first contribution toward that goal.
Also see: Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis by Greg Hise, 1999.
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The Finest Hours is a major motion picture (release date: January 29, 2016) about the heroic 1952 Coast Guard rescue of sailors from two stricken oil tankers off the storm-swept Cape Cod coast. The events depicted are dramatic and true. Less dramatic, although equally true, is the rich World War II home front story of one of those broken tankers, the SS Pendleton. [For more on the phenomenon of World War II merchant ship problems, see followup essay “In defense of Henry J. Kaiser’s World War II ship quality“]
The Pendleton was the 49th “T2” model tanker built at the Kaiser Swan Island shipyard, on the Willamette River in Portland, Ore. T2s were the largest “navy oilers” of their time, just over 500 feet in length and displacing 21,100 tons when fully laden. Their holds could carry nearly 6 million gallons of oil or gasoline. The ship was named for the rural Oregon town of Pendleton, host of the Pendleton Round-Up – one of the largest and most prestigious rodeos in the world. It’s the real deal, held almost continuously since 1910.
The Pendleton’s launch ceremony was a tribute to Native Americans engaged in war production. It is estimated that during the war as many as 40,000 Native American men and women left their reservations for the first time to find jobs in defense industries across the nation.
When she slid down the ways on January 21, 1944, the event was considered one of the most colorful ever staged in those yards. The sponsor of the Pendleton was Princess Melissa Parr, a full-blooded Cayuse Indian and direct descendant of Chief Joseph. Chief Willie Wo-Cat-Se from Pendleton expressed his appreciation for the naming of the tanker. Chief Anthony Redhawk was his interpreter.
A two-page spread in the weekly shipyard magazine The Bos’n’s Whistle described the launching:
Indians in striking regalia staged war dances and beat their drums on the launching platform. Melissa Parr, descendant of Chief Joseph, was the sponsor, with Ramona Minthorn, matron of honor; Thelma Parr, maid of honor; and Vernita McKay, flower girl. Willie Wo-Cat-Se, Pendleton Round-Up chief, was a speaker. Indian workers of the yard were honored guests at the launching and the luncheon which followed. The yard took on a real Western flavor during the day, with Indian tepees drawing crowds of interested spectators. Rear Admiral Howard L. Vickery of the Maritime Commission made the principal address at the launching ceremonies.
An audio recording in the Kaiser Permanente heritage archives lets us hear the praise offered for the diversity of the shipyard workforce:
Gathered here on the platform below, as special guests today, are Indians from various tribes of the Northwest. A good many of them work here in the yards and play an important part in the production of our tankers…We feel that this occasion, in honor of American Indians, is proper not only in view of their vast contribution on the battle front and the production front, but also in view of the fact that the American Indian was actually the first ship builder in the Northwest.
Too often the American Indian is not sufficiently thought of when we speak of the various nationalities and races living harmoniously in America, yet they have shown that great attribute – forgiveness.
Reports of courage and skill of the American Indians in our armed forces is well known to us all. Their bravery has set an example to the most daring.
In this area, there are more than one thousand Indians contributing their skill and effort in the building of ships. Here, again, their performance ranks among the finest…The Indians, our first Americans, are still leading Americans.
It is unlikely that those shipwrecked sailors or the brave Coast Guard crew in 1952 knew of their vessel’s rich creation history, but the human spirit baked into that practical slab of steel was part of the SS Pendleton’s stirring story arc.
Audio link: (partial clip available online, identity of announcer is unknown)
“Launch recording #148-149” S.S. Pendleton, 1/21/1944: A tribute to Native Americans engaged in war production Rev. Earl Cochran–Invocation. Mr. Sprague H. Carter, Mayor of Pendleton. Pendleton Roundup Quartet singing medleys of cowboy songs. Bob Williams and Goose Williams –Native American dance, songs and speeches. Mr. Kaiser Introduces Admiral Vickery. Admiral Vickery–History of Swan Island. Rev. Earl Cochran–Invocation. Tom Hoxie–burning of the plates.
I clipped the image of the tanker being towed by a tug from the Kaiser Companies film “We Build Tankers.” and after looking at it in detail have learned the following:
1. The film shows two different tankers being launched – the SS Grand Teton, launched August 1, 1944, and the SS Fort Matanzas, launched July 11, 1944. The film doesn’t identify the ships by name, but these names are visible on the bows.
2. The ship being towed has no name on the bow. That was standard protocol – the names were painted out after launching, and never had them during war service for security reasons. So, we don’t know which, if either, of these two ships (or it could have been a third) are in that still.
3. The tug is the James W, of Portland’s Shaver Transportation Company, still in business and proud to be part of this history.
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