Rusty derelict turned out to be historic Liberty Ship lifeboat
What looked like a rotting-away hunk of scrap steel was a rare artifact of Portland's World War II shipbuilding industry — but the discovery was made just a few days too late.
The rusty hull of the World War II Liberty ship lifeboat, photographed
on the beach in February 2011. (Image: Mike Malone)
By Finn J.D. John — July 29, 2012
In February of last year, Mike Malone of Zigzag put his boat into the Columbia River at St. Helens and headed upstream.
On his way past Sauvie Island, Mike decided to put ashore and investigate a curious derelict tri-hull boat that he’d noticed there many times before, while he was trolling for spring Chinook salmon along that part of the river. It was lodged high on the bank by Collins Beach, apparently washed there by the flood of 1996.
The tri-hull was huge and weird-looking, something like a flying saucer made of ferro-cement with three fins on the bottom of it and a flying bridge at the back. “When this thing was on the water, it must have been a bizarre-looking sight,” Mike said.
The data plate on the lifeboat identified it as a 24-footer, built in June 1944.
(Image: Mike Malone)
But there was something else there, too — something even more interesting than the tri-hull, although it didn’t look that way at first.
It was a rusty old steel rowboat, long and deep and double-ended.
“I’ve seen it many times over the years as I fished for springers (spring Chinook salmon), and most or all of that time it was upside down, partially buried in the sand,” Mike said. “However, when I was there last February, it had just been flipped over and dragged towards the vegetation line with a piece of heavy equipment.”
Now that the boat was right-side-up, Mike could see that it was a steel lifeboat. And there was now a manufacturer’s plate visible.
Workers at the Globe American Corp. factory get a batch of lifeboats ready
to go. The rails along the bottoms of the lifeboats are for mariners to hang
onto if the lifeboat should swamp and roll over. (Image: The Rotarian)
“GLOBE AMERICAN CORP,” it read. “KOKOMO, INDIANA.”
The tag also told Mike the lifeboat was 24 feet long and had been built in June 1944.
1944, eh? Mike, a serious history buff, took a second look. Could this rusty hulk have a World War II story associated with it?
When he got home, Mike got on the computer and looked for info on the mysterious lifeboat. He learned that the Globe American Corp. was a small manufacturer of kitchen ranges and heaters. When the war broke out, its general manager, Alden Chester, came up with the idea of retooling the works to make lifeboats for the Liberty Ships that were already pouring out of shipyards — including the one in Portland — at a rate of three or four a week. Despite having no experience building boats, Globe developed a prototype, got the contract and soon was cranking out fully-appointed 24-footers at a rate of one every two hours.
Finding one of these on the beach, 70 years later, was an amazing discovery. This junky old derelict was indeed a veteran — and was, moreover, one of the last surviving pieces of Portland’s role in the phenomenal Liberty Ship story. Most of the Liberty ships are gone now. There are just two still afloat — the Jeremiah O’Brien, berthed in San Francisco, and the John W. Brown in Baltimore. All the others — more than 4,000 of them — have been cut up for scrap or are rusting away in remote boneyards.
“After studying up on Liberty and Victory ship lifeboats, I realized that the lifeboat on Collins Beach is a rare World War II naval artifact!” Mike said. “In fact, searching the web led to no other Liberty Ship lifeboats.”
Mike wondered what the story of this particular lifeboat was. It had been built in the summer of 1944; could it have seen action? Plenty of Liberty ships took torpedoes and bombs in the last year of the war, and their crews rowed away from sinking ships in Globe lifeboats. Could this have been one of them?
He contacted the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. They were very interested in the boat. So Mike got on the phone and found the government agency responsible for Collins Beach on Sauvie Island, and got hold of the area manager.
“The area manager was happy to write a letter transferring ownership to the museum,” Mike said. “They had no idea of the lifeboat’s heritage, and considered it to be a piece of abandoned junk. The manager asked me to work with his maintenance director to help load the lifeboat onto a trailer for transport.”
But when Mike called the maintenance director, he learned that just a few days after he’d found and photographed the boat, it had been hauled off the beach, squashed into a ball and trucked away to a scrap yard.
It was gone.
“It was pretty disappointing to have to give this news to the museum in Astoria,” Mike said. “It still makes me sick to think about how close I got to having the lifeboat donated to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, only to learn I was too late!”
The news isn’t all bad, though.
“After I posted the story on iFish, a member of that site e-mailed me saying that he knows where a similar lifeboat is abandoned on another island in the Columbia.,” Mike said. “One of these days I am going to follow up on that one.”
(Sources: www.ifish.net “Life in General” forum board; The Rotarian magazine, April 1942; correspondence with Mike Malone)