A new battle

Historians and veterans battle to save a Portland-made World War II ship slated for sinking

08/13/03 - BILL STEWART - "The Oregonian"

copied from Original Source so it doesn't disappear

Each day's tides bring a Portland-born war veteran closer to death. But a group of history buffs and former sailors, scattered from coast to coast but linked by the Internet, wants to save the veteran . . . ship.

The volunteers' first goal is to save the USS Gage, a World War II attack-troop transport, from being sunk next year as a gunnery target. The second task is to find a home for the ship. To that end, Portland's historians and maritime experts are being asked if they want to adopt the Gage as a museum focusing on amphibious warfare.

Thus far, there have been no takers.

During World War II, emergency shipyards in Vancouver and Portland popped up almost overnight. They turned out hundreds of cargo ships, small aircraft carriers, patrol boats and other craft.

None of the Vancouver-built ships survives today. Two of Portland's creations -- the Gage and the freighter Furman Victory -- remain, each with the designation "historic," meaning they participated in at least one major World War II battle.

The Furman Victory was modified after the war to be a cable-laying vessel, but the pristine -- if a rusty 59-year-old vessel can be pristine -- Gage is now part of the mothballed Ghost Fleet anchored in Virginia's James River. It was built in 1944, went to war and was retired in 1947. That short career resulted in little wear and tear.

But the Gage is on the "Sinkex 2004 list," meaning the U.S. Maritime Administration has scheduled its death next year in Navy gunnery practice.

That is, unless the group of volunteers can save it. They are circulating an Internet petition, hoping the Navy or Congress will change the plan.

The Gage and the other 116 attack-troop ships shared a basic design with the 455-foot Victory-class cargo ships. They carried about 300 troops and, in its five large cargo holds, 17 landing craft to get those troops to the beachhead.

The Gage, named for a Nebraska county, won its battle star for delivering Marines to the beach on Okinawa, Japan, in April 1945.

The old transport, during an inspection this month by marine engineers, drew high praise. Lead paint and superstructure rust must be removed and the hull checked, but it has almost no oil onboard that would need to be disposed of.

Little work needed Peter Stoudt, a Virginia writer who is leading the charge to save the ship, said it looks as if relatively little work would be needed to get it in steaming condition. Stoudt, a former dean at the University of Virginia, would like to see the Gage operated as a memorial vessel, periodically taking the cremated remains of veterans to be scattered at sea.

Michael Skillern of Vancouver, who works on the Southwest Washington Veterans Memorial Museum, thinks it would be fitting to bring the ship home. Skillern, who served on a sister ship and is acting as a local spokesman for the Gage effort, contacted numerous leaders in the maritime and history community, pointing out that the shipyards were key in developing today's Portland and Vancouver, "but we really don't pay homage to an historic period."

Dick Montgomery, spokesman for the Oregon Maritime Center and Museum in Portland, said he has discussed with Skillern the city, its maritime history, and the dearth of donations for such a project. The museum, which has its own operational sternwheel tug, hopes to turn a financial corner this fall.

Skillern said the Gage, because it was untouched for more than a half century, "is a virtual time capsule." Others have likened preserving the ship to a modern archaeological dig.

The condition of the Furman Victory, the other Portland "survivor," is a distant second to the Gage and would require much more work. It is now a cargo vessel in the reserve fleet near San Francisco.

Stoudt, in a phone interview, said his group is collecting petition signatures by e-mail, rather than asking individuals to write letters to the Maritime Administration, which technically owns the Gage. The federal agency oversees the nation's merchant marine fleet and coordinates it as emergency transportation for the military.

Those petitions as well as historic background are on a number of Internet sites that can be reached through search engines using "APA Project" and "APA Gage." Stoudt hopes the group soon can add the ship's log books and journals.

One obstacle for Stoudt's group is its loose affiliation. A Virginia-based writer, Stoudt said he thinks he inherited the leadership spot because of his unsuccessful attempt to save the small aircraft carrier Cabot. That project, under the name "Iron Woman Foundation," lobbied to protect the Cabot and worked to save it as a war memorial for Inchon, Korea. But salvagers' cutting torches won the race.

Stoudt said that in some cases, a community will work to save a vessel as a showpiece, but there is no central organization or budget for preserving ships. His group has researched the reserve fleet to identify historic ships worth saving.

He has an estimate of $10 million to get the Gage in operating condition, but he thinks volunteers could cut half of that.

"This is a chicken-egg thing," Stoudt said. "This is one of the most historic things from Portland, and it's not even in Portland. But the first thing we have to do is stop the sinking."

Bill Stewart: 360-896-5722 or 503-294-5900; billstewart@news.oregonian.com