USS Oregon’s Radio Shack

Backyard relic of battleship awaits a home


USS Oregon (BB 3)
in 1919

Amazing story from the state of Oregon:

Up a small hill from Willamette Drive, behind a distinctive 1927-vintage house, sits the old radio shack from the Battleship Oregon. The ship played a key role in the Spanish-American War, then served as a waterfront museum in Portland harbor from 1925 to 1943, drawing thousands of visitors every year.

But in a maddening twist of history, the ship was reclaimed by the Navy and sacrificed to the scrap drives of World War II. The radio shack, fitted to the Oregon after the turn of the 20th century — the ship was built before radio was invented — was salvaged after the old pre-dreadnought was stripped, before the Navy towed the hull away.

And the old radio shack has sat in West Linn ever since.

I had no idea that the Oregon (BB 3, though the Navy didn’t adopt this numbering system until 1920) had survived as a museum ship until 1943. The story of her demise, though, is sad. I suggest that you check out A Chronicle of the Battleship Oregon by Ken Lomax in the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

I will post an excerpt in the extended section below.

The Oregon was decommissioned in 1919 and loaned to the state of Oregon as a museum ship in 1925.

For the next sixteen years, the Oregon served as a war memorial and museum and was a popular meeting place for social groups, veterans, school tours, and scout troops. During 1941, over a hundred thousand persons signed the ship’s guest book. In 1938, the Oregon was moved to a more sheltered moorage at a basin near the southwest end of the Hawthorne Bridge, the site of a proposed Battleship Oregon Marine Park. Eventually, the park was dedicated and a few improvements were made. There were also plans to surround the ship with concrete to make the berth permanent, but funds were not available to proceed with the entire project.


Stereoscopic pair
from 1898

In fact, the USS Oregon was only on loan to the state. The Navy had retained ownership, and after the start of World War II, Oregon Governor Charles Sprague naively offered to return the ship to active service. The navy quickly declined, but the stage was set for its demise. Although the navy denied that there were plans for scrapping the Oregon, the War Production Board had decided to claim the ship for the war effort. In the end, President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally settled the matter, turning the Oregon over to the board for scrap metal.

The Battleship Oregon Commission and the ship’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post lodged formal protests with the navy, but to no effect. Despite the mounting fervor of wartime metal drives, the scrapping of the ship did not go unquestioned. Expressing “the proper spirit of patriotic resignation,” Marjorie W. Hennessey of Hillsboro wrote to the editor of the Oregonian:

If we in future years must contemplate a yawning vacancy where now the grand old Oregon lies in her carefully prepared moorage basin, let us be extremely sure that we can say “It had to go, so we gritted our teeth and gave it” rather than “The Oregon went for nothing and need not have gone at all.”

The Oregon was put up for sale on November 2, 1942. Through a closed bidding process, it was sold for thirty-five thousand dollars.

On a cold, slushy December 7, 1942, one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a parade commemorating the ship marched through the streets of downtown Portland. Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson flew in to deliver the keynote speech, and a quarter of the front page of the Oregonian was taken up with a fifteen-stanza ode to the ship by Oregon poet Ben Hur Lampman. The last lines read:

The gray, gray mists where once she lay —
(Ah but her name is pride!)
She loosed her moorings and bore away
To serve again in a thunderous day —
The Oregon sails with the tide!

The Oregon was towed down the Columbia River to Kalama, Washington, where the superstructure was stripped and bronze, brass, and copper were reclaimed from the rest of the vessel. Valuable machinery was also apparently sold off around this time. As it turned out, the need for scrap metal from the ship was hardly critical, and Portland newspapers reported that piles of scrap from the Oregon never left the area. It was not until 1945 that nine hundred tons of steel from the ship’s armor was finally sent to Seattle to be melted down. Public remorse over the fate of the ship grew, and former governor Sprague proclaimed that he was grieved at the lack of use and waste in reconverting the battleship.

The Navy, embarrassed by public criticism of the project, reclaimed the hulk and reinstated it as Miscellaneous Vessel (IX-22). The empty, armored hull of the Oregon became a huge munitions barge, and, loaded with fourteen thousand tons of dynamite and other explosives, it was towed to Port Merizo, Guam, in July 1944. After the cargo was unloaded, the ship lay rusting in Guam until November 1948, when a typhoon hit the island. The Oregon was torn from its moorings and struck out to sea, unmanned. It was presumed that the ship had sunk, but on December 8, a Navy aircraft spotted the hulk happily bobbing on the waves nearly five hundred miles southeast of Guam. An oceangoing tug returned the ship to harbor. The Oregon again languished in Guam while proposals to save it came to naught. In March 1956, the hulk was sold for $208,000 to Massey Supply Company, then resold to the Iwai Sanggo Company, which towed the hull to a scrap yard in Kawasaki, Japan, where it was broken up. The Oregon was gone.

Also see the Naval Historical Center for more info and pictures.

Comments

  1. Thr Oregon was one of 3 US Battleships to singlehandedly sink an enemy BB (IIRC she sunk 2 2nd class BBs at Santiago) . The others were the old Texas (ACR2) and the Washington (BB56)….all were scrapped or sunk as targets. Absolutely galling.

  2. Wow! I live a few minutes away in West Linn and I had no idea such an amazing piece of history was just down the road!

  3. You know, if they had just saved the Oregon in WW2, we could all be sitting at our keyboards right now arguing about whether we should be reactivating her or not…