For captain and crew, shipwreck was luckiest break of their lives
Whatever happened to the S.S. Drexel Victory as she steamed across the Columbia River Bar that day sent her to the bottom in little more than an hour, but everyone survived. Had it happened during a storm in mid-Pacific, though ...
By Finn J.D. John — June 12, 2016
When their ship suddenly started sinking beneath their feet, just after nightfall on a winter day while crossing the notorious Columbia River Bar, chances are that Captain Canute Rommerdahl and his crew thought their luck had run out.
They’d figure out later that the sinking of their ship, the S.S. Drexel Victory, was probably the luckiest break they’d ever caught in their lives.
No one actually knows what happened to the Drexel Victory that night, as she steamed across the bar en route to Yokahama, Japan. The ship was practically brand-new, having been built less than two years before at the Permanente/Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, Calif. But she was a Victory ship — and that gives our best clue as to what might have suddenly happened to her at 5 p.m. on the fateful evening of Jan. 19, 1947.
Victory ships were, in a sense, souped-up Liberty ships.* And Liberty ships were one of the most important reasons the Nazis lost the Second World War.
The basic Liberty Ship was patterned after a First World War-era British cargo steamer, with the blueprints modified to make mass production possible. To keep costs down and make huge production numbers possible, it was obsolete by design, using an antiquated but reliable 2,500-horsepower steam engine to shove a squat, blocky 441-foot-long hull through the water at a barely-adequate 11 knots. But it was capacious, and it was cheap, and when production really got rolling the Portland shipyard alone was cranking them out at a rate of one new ship every three days. The Nazi submarines, trying to choke off the torrent of supplies crossing the Atlantic to keep the war going, soon found themselves inundated with thousands of these ugly things, and no matter how many they sank, the numbers never stopped increasing.
But an awful lot of them were getting sunk. Slow and underpowered, they were sitting ducks when a submarine got them in its sights, and no amount of guns and depth charges added to the upper decks could change this.
Also, when a submarine put a hit on a Liberty ship, the results could be quite dramatic. Part of the modification of the original British design involved having the Liberty ships’ plates welded rather than riveted. This resulted in a stronger, tighter connection between the plates, and a much faster one to boot — but it meant something else, too: When a crack got started, it could literally circumnavigate the ship. A Liberty ship could crack in half. And plenty of them did exactly that.
Of course, when a German torpedo hits an unarmored cargo ship, she’s going to sink one way or another, cracks in the hull or no cracks in the hull. What was more alarming were the three known cases of Liberty ships just breaking in half and sinking while minding their own business, nowhere near a German raider. One of these, the S.S. John P. Gaines, broke in half and sank off the Aleutian Islands, drowning 10 mariners. And, of course, plenty more were lost in storms and heavy weather at sea; it’s a good bet that under the strain of hurricane winds and mountainous seas a few other Liberty ships went down with all hands and no one the wiser as to why.
So it was with all these factors in mind that the U.S. War Shipping Administration commissioned a replacement for the Liberty, just a few months after Pearl Harbor. That replacement would become the Victory class. The Victory was an improvement in every possible way. Thanks to a massive power upgrade, it was over 50 percent faster — 17 knots, which is roughly the same speed as a surfaced German submarine — so it was far harder to put a torpedo into. It was bigger — 455 feet long and displacing 15,200 tons, versus 441 feet and 14,245, respectively. Then, too, it was far easier on the eyes than a Liberty ship, with a raked bow and an elegant cruiser stern. And to help address the cracking problem, the internal bracing was changed to make the hull less stiff.
The very first Victory ship, the S.S. United Victory, slid into the water at Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Company yard in Portland, in January 1944. From then until the end of the war, a total of 531 of them were launched from six shipyards — the largest number of them built in Portland — to join the 2,750 or so Liberty ships in Uncle Sam’s wartime production records.
The Drexel Victory was one of the last Victory ships built, in the waning months of the war. Now, two years later, she was making her way across the bar with a modest load of cargo bound for Yokohama, Japan, when suddenly something big and loud happened to the hull amidships — between holds 4 and 5.
It was nothing as dramatic as what had happened to the doomed Liberty ships, but it was enough. Water poured into the ship; plates bulged under the sudden pressure. The crew got to the pumps and tried to keep up, but the ship was clearly sinking.
By now the darkness was complete, but fortunately the weather wasn’t too heavy, so the Coast Guard motor lifeboat Triumph and cutter Onondonga managed to get the crew evacuated without any major trouble.
Then the Onondonga tried to get a line on the drifting, unmanned freighter, hoping to beach her or at least make sure she didn’t sink in the middle of the channel. All efforts failed, though, and the sinking Drexel Victory drifted out to sea, wallowing lower and lower and finally sinking in deep water just offshore.
So, what happened? No one really knows for sure. The captain was exonerated at the subsequent hearing; he’d had his ship in the channel, doing everything he was supposed to do, when it had happened. The Drexel Victory drew 30 feet of water fully loaded; the channel where she started taking on water was 60 feet deep. And the Army Corps of Engineers, surveying the channel after the sinking, found no obstructions there.
So either the Drexel Victory rammed a derelict ship, or — as seemed far more likely — that pesky metal-fatigue problem that had plagued the older Liberty ships had not been completely licked.
And if that was the case, the crew of the Drexel Victory had had a very narrow escape indeed. The bar that day had hit the ship with a few big swells, but nothing compared with what a good January storm can dish out on the north Pacific, between Portland and Yokohama. And if the hull had cracked as it did in the middle of one of those, there likely would have been no survivors.
(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; National Parks Service, “Liberty Ships and Victory Ships, America’s Lifeline at War,” Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plans, www.nps.gov; S.S. Lane Victory museum ship Web page at www.lanevictory.org)
* By “souped-up Liberty ships,” I mean that the two ship types looked generally similar and served similar functions, and the Victory was a marked improvement over the Liberty — not that the Victory was literally a Liberty ship with a hot-rod engine in it. Perhaps a better analogy would be to Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. But Hurricanes and Spitfires wouldn't give me the segue I want to talk about Liberty ships in the next paragraph.