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The ship that suddenly broke in half while moored at the dock

The combination of bitter cold air and relatively warm river water acted on the S.S. Schenechtady's brittle welded-steel plates like boiling water poured into a cold Mason jar. The results were similar, but on a massive scale.

The S.S. Schenechtady as she appeared on the morning of Jan. 17, 1943, after suddenly and unexpectedly cracking in half for no apparent reason while moored at the fitting dock at Swan Island. (Image: U.S. GPO)

The S.S. Schenectady was a very big deal for Oregon, back when it was first launched on New Year’s Eve in 1942.

It was a war year, of course, and it hadn’t been such a swell year for the United States. American forces were hard-pressed on every side, and although the Battle of Midway had given a ray of hope in the Pacific, the Nazis were looking just as dangerous and inexhorable as ever.

But in Portland, Henry Kaiser’s Liberty Ship-building wonder-plant was just getting up to speed, and any home-front Oregonian watching the operation had to feel a thrill of pride, a feeling that Hitler and Tojo couldn’t possibly sink ‘em as fast as we were building ‘em.

And the Schenectady represented another leap forward for Oregon shipbuilding. It was an oil tanker, an essential sort of ship for a war that was almost totally motorized. It was the biggest ship ever built on the West Coast, and it was followed in a matter of weeks by another just like it — and another, and another. In fact, the Schenectady was the first ship off a brand-new Henry Kaiser assembly-line shipyard on Swan Island, just like the assembly-line shipyards that were already cranking out thousands of Liberty Ships, only set up to build a bigger model. The shipyard manager expected that by early summer, the Swan Island assembly line would be producing one new Schenectady-class tanker every four and a half days.

The Schenectady-class tankers were 523 feet long and 68 feet wide (Liberty Ships were 441 by 57). A 6,000-horsepower steam-electric drive system propelled it at 15 knots, or 28 miles per hour — a very respectable speed, and a real lifesaver in an environment where most German U-boats topped out at 17 knots. It cost $2.7 million to build, and it took almost twice as much steel to build as did a Liberty Ship.

More than one spectator, watching this 16,000-ton behemoth being launched and knowing another would be joining it in just a few days, surely felt reassured that 1943 would be a much better year.

Then came the night of January 16.

 

The Schenectady had just finished her sea trials, and everything had gone smoothly and satisfactorily. Now, moored at the fitting dock at Swan Island, she was being prepared to go into service, carrying fuel to the nation’s war machines, 7.5 million gallons at a time.

It was 11 p.m. on a bitter cold night — in the 10s or possibly lower, cold enough that Portlanders in the southeast quarter of the city were actually ice-skating on Laurelhurst Lake. The water in the river was right around 40 degrees. And although these temperatures aren’t exactly extreme by arctic-sea standards, investigators later fingered them as the decisive factor in what happened next.

With a cracking crash that one bystander said actually shook the ground, the huge ship simply cracked in half. The bow and stern dropped down into the water, jackknifing into the muddy bottom of the lagoon; the midline of the ship was thrust up high above the water; and the 30 crew members, who had been preparing the big ship to cast off and head out to sea, surely thought they were about to die.

Luckily, the water beneath the dock was shallow — barely deep enough to float the ship, which drew up to 30 feet depending on its load. The crew members were easily able to get up on deck — where the third mate supplied the only injury when, in a panic, he leaped down onto the dock and hurt his ankle.

And now, of course, the shipyard and military officials had a whale of a public-relations problem on their hands. Had such an embarrassing failure occurred someplace discreet, it could have been kept quiet; but this ship was in the middle of Oregon’s biggest city, bent like a piece of kindling cracked over a woodsman’s knee, a three-foot-wide crack on display for all to see.

The new employees at Kaiser’s new shipyard tried to keep their chins up, but it wasn’t easy. As a morale-booster, having one’s very first ship break in half a propos of nothing while innocuously tied to the pier leaves something to be desired.

Thoughts turned immediately to sabotage. Could this have been a deliberate act? It was hard to imagine that any saboteur could have engineered this kind of a break, but if one had, he or she would surely have earned a gold star for this job.

The F.B.I. moved with lightning speed to quell that rumor. The very next day, the bureau released a statement denying that sabotage was involved. Then Rear Admiral Howard L. Vickery arrived to lead the investigation.

 

The results were rather unsettling. Faulty welding was the first suspicion on everyone’s mind — remember, this was the first ship off a brand-new assembly line, so everyone working on it was new on the job, and many of the welders working on the Schenectady had never welded anything before the war broke out. And, frankly, faulty welding was what most people were hoping the trouble was. After all, that was a problem that could be easily fixed with more training and supervision of the welders.

But a careful inspection of the hull didn’t reveal any welds that might have failed. The crack had split right through the plates of steel themselves.

The report ended up pointing to an excessively stiff design, pre-existing stresses that had been somehow locked into the hull, and the relatively extreme temperature spread between the icy air and the temperate water.

It was also well known, by this time, that welded ships were more susceptible to this sort of thing than were the old-fashioned riveted kind, because once a crack gets started in a welded ship, it can spread all the way around, like a crack in a car windshield; in a riveted ship, the crack goes to the end of the plate and stops. This had happened to several other ships, and would happen to others later; but it took three times as long to rivet a ship together as it did to weld it, so the practice continued throughout the war.

Eventually, much later, the true culprit would be identified: The low-grade steel used for ships’ hulls was subject to brittle fractures when it got below a certain temperature, and when it did, invisible flaws in the steel would concentrate forces acting on the steel at certain vulnerable breaking points. So, if a flawed panel just happened to be installed in a high-stress location, the ship was essentially doomed. Those lessons wouldn’t be learned for some time after the war, however.

As for the Schenectady, because of where it was the repair was a simple one. Water was pumped into the compartments amidships, so that the entire hull could settle onto the river bottom; then scab steel was welded across the breach to hold her together and she was refloated. Towed to a dry dock, she was put back together with a heavy reinforcing plate across the spot where the crack had opened, and was out moving gasoline across the Atlantic Ocean just a few months later.

Still, the breaking of the Schenectady was so strange, and the F.B.I.’s response was so swift and decisive, that one just has to wonder … was it really just the weather? Or could this have actually been a case of sophisticated sabotage, covered up by the wartime government to prevent the public from learning what had really happened?

Almost certainly not. But it would make a whale of a plot for a paperback thriller, wouldn’t it?

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, Jan. 10, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23 and 24, 1943; Murray, Charles. “Engineering Disasters: S.S. Schenectady, a Lesson in Brittle Fracture,” Design News magazine, March 5, 2015)