, Heritage writer
Buried on the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, lies an unmarked graveyard of war veterans. And my uncle played a small but important role in their short lives.
At the end of World War II, a parade of proud but battered ships arrived at U.S. scrapyards to be recycled. Many of these were Kaiser-built Liberty and Victory ships completing their destiny after having helped win the war for the Allies. Like spawning salmon, many of these ships were returning to be recycled only miles from the three Portland and Vancouver (Wash.) yards in which they were built. But when workers took cutting torches to these noble vessels, they ran into a problem – solid ballast.
Every ship requires ballast to stay upright, and cargo ships have particularly challenging demands. If ballast is not properly placed fore to aft or side to side, or there’s not enough of it, a ship will not be trimmed properly and risk listing or even capsizing under adverse conditions. In extreme circumstances uneven ballast and cargo loading can break a ship in high seas. And since these vessels are constantly taking on and removing massive quantities of cargo, ballasting is a dynamic problem.
As is typical in large vessels, Liberty ships were built with multiple ballast holds. These included “deep tanks” below the main cargo holds that could contain dry cargo or sea water ballast; even deeper “double bottom” tanks that could carry either fuel oil or seawater ballast; and designated holds for permanent solid ballast.Solid ballast can be anything from rocks to iron, and has the advantage of being much denser (and thus heavier) than water. Liberty ships were built with a dead weight capacity of 10,800 tons and required 1,500 tons of ballast. The engine was in the center, but to compensate for the aft weight of the rudder, screw, and prop shaft the ship’s lower bow section – the fore peak – was filled with solid ballast. They also produced “movable ballast” cast blocks, usually 9x11x13 inches and weighing about 175 pounds, which could be moved or removed as needs changed. At first pig iron was used, but even that lowly metal was too precious to waste on ballast during the war. Alternatives were sought, and eventually found – in the form of magnetite-infused concrete.
Magnetite is low-grade iron ore, generally unsuitable for manufacturing, with a specific gravity of 5.17. That is less dense than pig iron’s 7.1 but far higher than concrete’s 2.32. The magnetite-concrete mixture was considerably cheaper than metal; a 1948 U.S. Department of the Interior report noted that the substitution saved about $2 million during war production.
Although most of the magnetite used on the Pacific Coast came from California. a major deposit was available from a Lovelock (Nevada) mine controlled by Charles H. Segerstrom, Jr. and John M. Heizer. John was my uncle; my other uncle Robert was working as a steamfitter in the Kaiser Richmond shipyards at the time. As early as October, 1943 rail cars were carrying one carload a day from the mines to ballast fabricators near San Francisco bay.
This is how it was reported in “Nevada iron deposits provide warship ballast,” published in the Mineral County (Nevada) Independent News, June 13, 1945:
The ore is high-grade magnetite (60 to 65 percent iron) of high specific gravity and is in demand by west coast shipbuilders. Crushed magnetite and Portland cement are mixed with magnetite sands recovered magnetically from beaches in California, and the mixture is placed as concrete in the ship bottoms to set as a permanent ballast…
Heizer and Segerstrom have subleased the property to the Dodge Construction company of Fallon to fulfill a contract in excess of 10,000 tons of magnetite iron ore to be used by Kaiser shipyards of Richmond, California. Production of the magnetite started in early July, 1944.
Magnetite iron ore has been used successfully for permanent ship ballast and the Kaiser shipyards have contracted for an additional tonnage. Meanwhile, the shipyards at Portland, Oregon, have also negotiated for a substantial tonnage.
The ballast was a great solution for shipbuilding, but later on it posed a problem for postwar shipbreaking. The concrete could not be easily separated from the valuable iron, so the fore peaks were deposited at the edge of the river as erosion-control landfill.
Portland shipbreakers at yards such as Zidell tackled more than 183 Liberty ships, buttressing the Willamette River shore with more than 100 fore peaks and other ballast blocks. In 1991, the Naito family created the Portland Liberty Ship Memorial Park, setting it on property they had purchased. In 2006 this park was redeveloped into a high-end condo community, literally built on top of the bows of a marvelous wartime achievement.
Plans are being made to honor this past with an outdoor maritime display on the Willamette River Greenway. Perhaps these battered remnants of the World War II Home Front merchant marine fleet will once again raise their peaks and proclaim “We can do it!”
Short link to this article: http://bit.ly/14NMsym
 Photo from “Portland South Waterfront Greenway: Conceptual Schematic Design Phase,” August, 2004, Buster Simpson; also photo #3.
 Liberty ship schematic adapted from Sawyer, L. A., & Mitchell, W. H. (1970). The Liberty ships: The history of the “emergency” type cargo ships constructed in the United States during World War II. Cambridge, Md: Cornell Maritime Press.
, Heritage writer
“Whenever and wherever Americans gather, there you hear Americans singing, because America is a singing nation.”
This is the stirring introduction to a recording of patriotic music from the Oct. 27, 1945, launching celebration of the SS Bent’s Fort, the last tanker built in the Kaiser Swan Island Shipyards in Portland, Oregon, under the wartime contract.
“Song of the Victory Fleet” is performed by “The Singing Sentinels,” four Oregon Shipbuilding Company security guards (Del Von Zuethen, Chuck Faris, John “Ken” Rogers and Mel Gordon) who provided entertainment at ship launchings and other
After the war they continued as the “Kaiser-Frazer Singing Sentinels” at the Willow Run automobile plant in Michigan.[ii]
We’ll build and sail ‘em – We’ll never fail ‘em!
The Victory Fleet will be complete we know.
On every ocean, we’ll be in motion,
The Victory Fleet will soon defeat the foe.
We’ll have a bridge of ships beyond compare,
We’ll soon be able to walk from here to over there.
The world is cheering! The skies are clearing!
With the Victory Fleet – Let’s go.
“Song of the Victory Fleet”
words and music by
Leonard Whiteup, 1942 (1903-1979)
“Song of the Victory Fleet” was first performed May 22, 1942, at the initial wartime observance of National Maritime Day.
It was dedicated to the U.S. Maritime Commission, and immediately adopted as theirs.
Congress established National Maritime Day in 1933 to honor our country’s role in marine transportation; at the time the Merchant Marine was quite small. But that all changed with World War II .
Absent from this recording is the interlude:
In the fact’ries hear the hammers night and day.
In the shipyards everyone is on his way.
On the ocean every seaman joins the fray.
We heard the bugles blow! We answered our country’s call!
We’re ready one and all!
Journalist Peter Edson, writing his column for the Times Daily, had this to say when the song premiered:
“The song is one of those rousing sea chanteys that even a landlubber building lifeboats in Kokomo can limber up his larynx on and get a belt out of bellowing or barber shopping.
“And when you accompany the tune with full orchestration and sound effects of riveting hammers, clanking anchor chains and the blowing of full-lunged baritone and bass steamship whistles – matey, it does something to your morale.
“Morale building is the big idea behind observance of Maritime Day this year and this whole shipping program is something to give your spine a tingle. It isn’t just something to celebrate on salt water, either, with maybe the Great Lakes thrown in for good measure.
“There will be big celebrations in the 60 shipyards where, on some 300 ways, ocean-going ships are under construction.”
After the war, celebrations of service focused on those in the military, and merchant mariners were left out of the festivities. Maritime Day ceased, but in 1970 the Maritime Administration resurrected this observance of honoring veterans of the merchant marine and those who gave their lives in service to the United States. That observance has been held every year since then.
Hear the Singing Sentinels perform “Song of the Victory Fleet”
Short link to this story: http://bit.ly/1cCZjRh
[i] Article on the Singing Sentinels, http://weirdportland.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-singing-sentinels.html
[ii] Article in Saline (MI) Observer 3/20/1947
By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
Part of a series about our regional origins
When Henry J. Kaiser’s shipyards closed at the end of World War II, the Permanente doctors lost almost all of their patients. Roughly 200,000 members had been employed in the seven West Coast shipyards and most were covered by the Health Plan.
To survive in the postwar era, Kaiser Permanente needed to gain a large number of new members in a competitive market.
A handful of Permanente physicians in the Pacific Northwest had caught group practice fever and were inspired to stay on despite the uneven odds against their success. Six or seven (nobody recalls for sure how many) out of 45 wanted to give it a go.
Charles Grossman, MD, one of those who hung on, recalled:
“All of us were firmly committed to the prepaid, group health concept, and we decided to rebuild Northern Permanente rather than allowing it to close down,” Grossman told Portland historian Michael Munk. The Permanente physicians judged their wartime hospital to be in good enough shape to withstand a few more years of service.
A cool reception from traditional medicine
Not only were the doctors at first without patients or income, they were given the cold shoulder by the leaders of both the Oregon and Washington medical societies, the states in which Permanente hoped to offer care.
The traditional fee-for-service physicians, unaccustomed to the concept of salaried physicians practicing as a group, branded Kaiser Permanente as “socialized medicine.”[i] The Health Plan and its doctors in all regions faced this type of criticism for decades in the 20th century. The Multnomah County Medical Association of Oregon didn’t accept Permanente physicians until 1963.
Meanwhile, Northern Permanente opened its first clinic in 1947 on Broadway in Portland, Ore. In 1959, the Health Plan opened the Bess Kaiser Hospital in Portland to its 25,000 members; membership doubled to 50,000 in the next two years. In 1975, Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside Medical Center was completed in Clackamas County, southeast of Portland.
Today, the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Region has about 470,000 members. Its newest hospital, green-award-winning Westside Medical Center, opened Aug. 6 in Hillsboro, Ore., on the west side of the Portland Metro Area.
Innovation a hallmark for Northwest
Over the years, the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Region has been at the forefront of innovative and successful health care practices. Below are some examples of the region’s innovations.
- Dental coverage – Head Start children residing in the Model Cities area of Portland were eligible for dental care through an Office of Equal Opportunity pilot program offered in the Northwest Region in 1970. The program was so successful that dental coverage has continued to be offered as an optional benefit to all group members in the region.
Study of health care delivery for the poor and elderly – Kaiser Permanente Northwest took part in a Medicare and Medicaid demonstration started in 1984 to identify the best ways to integrate acute and long-term care for patients covered by prepaid, per-person, per-month (capitation) financing arrangements.
- Testing of an occupational health model — With the goal of decreasing injured employee lost work time and reducing medical costs related to workplace injuries, the region started Kaiser-on-the-Job in 1991. Between 1990 and 1994, the region reduced average lost time per claim by more than two days and achieved a cost savings of $666 in average cost per claim. The occupational medicine program, separate from the Health Plan, covers more than 300,000 workers through their employers in the Northwest Region.
- Sunday Parkways – Recognizing not everyone can succeed in challenging athletic pursuits, Kaiser Permanente’s Northwest Region helped launch a special, less taxing mobility event with the city of Portland in June 2008. Six miles of local streets were closed to traffic from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In 2009, up to 25,000 Portland area residents walked, biked, jogged and skated in three summer Sunday events.
- Sustainable use of resources – The Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center, new this year, has already received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Westside is the second Portland-area hospital to receive the LEED Gold designation and one of just 36 hospitals nationally to earn the honor.
Short link to this story http://ow.ly/pD11u
[i] “Present at the Creation: The Birth of Northwest Kaiser Permanente,” unpublished interview edited by Portland historian Michael Munk, 2013.
by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
What does one do with a decommissioned hospital? When Portland’s beloved Bess Kaiser hospital was closed down (to become the American headquarters of the Adidas sporting gear company) several 40-foot shipping containers of recycled components – doors, fixtures, cabinets, even the proverbial kitchen sink – were salvaged and crated up.
Community volunteers and hospital staff worked with the Portland Rebuilding Project and Mercy Corps to ship these still-usable items to far-flung health care facilities in Central America, the Balkans, and Central Asia.
Short link to this item: ow.ly/onT5u
By Laura Thomas
(First of two articles)
Christmas 1945 was undoubtedly the happiest Americans had known since 1940, the year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese surrender in August closed the final chapter of World War II and meant the return of loved ones serving overseas and the hope that normal life would resume.
But it was not entirely clear what that would mean for tens of thousands of shipyard workers in California, Oregon and Washington whose lives were irreversibly changed by their trek westward to work for Henry Kaiser. Would their lives ever be normal again?
From a height of 93,000 employees in the Richmond shipyards in 1943, the total spiraled downward in 1945 as the contracts were cancelled, with 40,000 workers in March dropping to 16,000 by the end of September.
In the Northwest, where Kaiser had yards in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., the cutbacks were sudden. From January to December, employment fell from 90,000 to just above 10,000.
After three years of hard-driving work fueled by a strong sense of mission and new experiences, many, especially the women and black workers, were once again jobless and possibly a little disoriented.
Vancouver worker Chauncey Del French describes the last day on the job in November for the paint crews who “took off like so many flushed quail to their locker room…a half-hour later, the ‘painters’ parade’ started up the dock.
“Men and women, arm in arm, sang Auld Lang Syne in the rain. They had their honorable discharge papers and were going to collect their ‘rocking chair money’ and live the life of Riley,” French wrote in his book “Waging War on the Homefront.”
Workers in the Northwest were told to grab farm labor work with 9,000 jobs available picking pole beans. “Highest wages ever received in Oregon by farm workers are being paid out this year,” stated an article in the “Bosn’s Whistle,” the shipyard newsletter, which noted they would be displacing Mexican workers who had been brought in to do the picking during the war.
Henry Kaiser relentless in pursuing postwar contracts
Meanwhile Kaiser said he “was determined to keep the job level at Richmond shipyards at the highest possible point” as he anticipated rail car and dry dock contracts. He also labored to get repair contracts and to attract work building ships for the Merchant Marine. Despite the major lobbying by Kaiser’s top officials motivated by concern for the workers, the U.S. Maritime Commission closed Richmond’s and Portland’s yards in 1946 and 1947.
No doubt what had Kaiser worried was news in his own press. “Fore ‘n’ Aft,” the newsletter for the Richmond yards, reported a survey of Yard Two workers in December 1944 that showed 63 percent of the out-of-state workers wanted to stay in California.
Yet, in 1945, many started to move to better jobs or – as contracts disappeared and layoffs began amidst some predictions of mass unemployment – started to head home. They also faced loss of the medical care provided by the Permanente Health Plan and the much-touted child care program that Kaiser had helped to start with the Richmond schools.
As the number of health plan enrollees in the shipyards dropped, Kaiser Permanente was invited to provide care for Vallejo residents of eight large wartime public housing dormitories and, in July, its first attempt to extend prepaid medical care to the general public was under way.
But other services that eased the burden of these dislocated workers disappeared rather quickly. Richmond hesitated to step into the breach, with some hoping that cutting back on services and beginning to tear out wartime housing would prompt the workers to leave. And many did leave, but, as it turns out, not for long.
Next time: Laid-off shipyard worker dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?
Launch of the S.S. Multnomah Tanker, One of Kaiser’s Last Ships, Was 65 Years Ago This 4th of July Weekendposted on July 2, 2010
By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
Henry J. Kaiser, who had witnessed his boyhood hero Teddy Roosevelt as the trust-busting President fighting monopolistic business practices, had lived through the Great Depression and he had a vision of a better post-war America.
“If we re-build a world of monopoly and special privilege, we will taste a defeat as bitter as a victory for the Axis powers,” he once said during World War II. “Our task and our hope is to release our energies for creative effort. …It is now our portion to be better-fed, better-housed, better-clothed, better-skilled in all the arts of production than at any time in the history of mankind. It is now our lot to enjoy better health…”
It was for visions like this that Kaiser, whose desire for better health for all Americans became Kaiser Permanente, led a heroic civilian production army of Kaiser employees who set records in shipbuilding never matched before or since.
So we thought it would be a good Fourth of July moment to let you relive those times by bringing you, from our Heritage Archive, a recording of the launch of the SS Multnomah, a tanker named for the county where the main city is Portland, on July 3, 1945 – 65 years ago Saturday.
The Multnomah was among the last of the Kaiser ships launched from his Oregon shipyards.
Launch of the SS Multnomah
Click here to listen.
Listen to the launch of the SS Multnomah from the Swan Island Shipyard by Mrs. Martin Pratt, who was the wife of the Multnomah County sheriff. You will hear the crack of the champagne bottle and a shipyard workers quartet, the Singing Sentinels, singing Anchor’s Away as the Multnomah slides into the Willamette River.
The SS Multnomah went into private shipping after the war as an oil tanker. It was renamed the Esso Worcester in 1947, the Hess Refiner in 1961 and the Pieces in 1976. The ship was scrapped in Taiwan in 1984 after 39 years service.
[Revised 1/15/2016, audio link updated]
Henry Kaiser’s Respect for People of All Races Dates from African-American Worker Who Was One of First Employees Ever Hiredposted on June 15, 2010
By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
Little Edgar Kaiser, 5, would call out to a gregarious black laborer named James A. Shaw with those words.
Jimmy Shaw would hoist the lad up onto his shoulders and carry the boy, all the while raking asphalt on a road-building project for Edgar’s father, Henry J. Kaiser.
The year was 1913. The site was a work camp where the toddler would often live, sleeping in a car or a tent, with his parents, Henry and Bess Kaiser. Little Edgar’s affection for riding on Shaw’s shoulders, calling out “Tote, Tote!” when he’d see Shaw, earned Jimmy the nickname “Tote,” or sometimes “Totem,” for the rest of his life.
This was in the early years of Henry Kaiser’s fledgling road-building business—long before he became the great 20th century industrialist who gained fame building highways, dams, and World War II ships.
And Totem Shaw’s story, as recorded in historic archives, helps shed light on both Henry and Edgar Kaiser’s later reputations as businessmen who understood the value of workforce diversity and, in their personal lives, moved beyond racial divides decades before the rest of the country.
Born in 1879, Shaw was not quite two years older than Henry J. and represents the earliest documented friendship between the Kaisers and a person of African heritage. Shaw’s is a powerful story that helps explain why Henry Kaiser was open to hiring minority workers.
Shaw was Kaiser’s first black employee, hired several years before Kaiser even formed his own company. He actually was hired by A. B. Ordway, Kaiser’s very first employee, when they were working for another company paving part of Post Street in Spokane, Wash., about 1909. Kaiser was general superintendent and Ordway was foreman.
One day Shaw walked up to the Post Street paving gang and asked Ordway for a job. According to Gordon Barteau, a Portland Oregonian newspaper reporter who wrote a profile of Shaw in 1943, “Ordway sized Tote up and said he thought Tote looked kind of runty for a job like that.”
In a style reminiscent of Kaiser himself, Shaw offered to work for free for a week on trial.
“Well … the first day he wore out two men and the next day Ordway told him he was on the payroll,” the Oregonian reported.
“Tote” worked in a variety of jobs on just about every big Kaiser project – from road building in Cuba to the Grand Coulee Dam, the Vancouver Shipyards in World War II, and the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, Calif., before he retired. It was during the war years in Vancouver, according to Barteau’s article, that whenever Henry Kaiser “comes to town he always looks up Tote and they hash over the old days.”
Clearly, it was Shaw’s relationship with Edgar and his ability as a skilled laborer with problem-solving skills that made him a lifelong, unforgettable friend of Henry Kaiser.
During construction of the original Highway 99 between Redding and Red Bluff in Northern California, in 1921, Kaiser was having trouble keeping a muddy detour open. He’d sent in a work crew of six men, and they had failed.
Kaiser summoned Shaw. “Tote,” he said, “every truck on the job is stuck in the mud. …You go down there and see what you can do.”
Shaw grabbed an axe, a pick, and a shovel. In short order, he had all of the trucks out of the mud and running.
“How did you do it?” Kaiser asked him.
“Mr. Kaiser,” he replied, “when you do things, you mixes brains and money. Well, sir, I mixes mud and brains.”
“Kaiser loved the phrase,” wrote one of his biographers, Mark Foster. “It became a company slogan.”
Shaw lived his final years in Fontana. They had a big party for him when turned 85 in 1964. In addition to cards, gifts, and a huge birthday cake, a teletype arrived from the giant Kaiser Industries headquarters in Oakland—birthday greetings from A. B. Ordway, who had known “Tote” since the day he had walked up to Ordway on Post Street in Spokane and asked for a job.