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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