“Christmas ship” could have used some navigation help from Santa
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's shiny nose would have been the only light showing on the Oregon Coast after the Pearl Harbor attack; unable to see its position, the ship piled onto the beach at full steam.
By Finn J.D. John — August 7, 2016
Early in December of 1941, the 421-foot steam freighter Mauna Ala was on her way to Honolulu with a cargo hold stuffed with Christmas cheer.
The steamer was hauling the load for the U.S. government, and she was that year’s “Christmas ship.” She was packing 60,000 Christmas trees; 10,000 frozen turkeys; 3,000 frozen chickens; and thousands more cases of prime steaks and Almond Roca candy. Her destination: Pearl Harbor, where the soldiers and sailors stationed at the base were eagerly waiting for her to arrive.
Of course, 1941 was the year something else would arrive at Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese airstrike of Dec. 7 happened when the Mauna Ala was still several thousand miles from her destination. The word went out immediately that the voyage was off. Pearl Harbor, heavily damaged and clotted with sunken Navy ships, was in no condition to be playing host to any ships whose errands weren’t absolutely essential. Plus, a state of war had just broken out, and the Japanese had a world-class submarine fleet. Now was not the time for big, slow, aging steamers like the Mauna Ala to be making unescorted trips across the Pacific.
So the Mauna Ala was ordered to make immediately for the nearest deepwater port. And, unfortunately for the Mauna Ala, the nearest port was Astoria, Oregon.
While the ship was getting turned around and headed back toward the continent, a couple things were happening that would essentially seal her fate. First, a order for radio silence went out. Radio transmissions could be triangulated upon, which meant that the enemy would quickly be able to figure out exactly where to send its submarines to intercept a ship whose radio officer was too chatty. So as the Mauna Ala steamed homeward, she was neither getting nor receiving any information.
And that was unfortunate, because had it not been the case, they surely would have learned that the well-meaning authorities in Oregon had decided to black out the entire coast. And they’d blacked it out completely — including lighthouses and navigational beacons.
Of course, the Mauna Ala’s crew did learn that eventually. But it was an expensive lesson. The lookout in the steamer’s bows learned it roughly an hour after dusk when he saw the ship’s running lights gleaming on the tops of breakers just ahead.
And so it was that, under full power at maximum cruising speed, the S.S. Mauna Ala piled onto the beach at Clatsop Spit, just south of the Columbia River entrance and a little way south of the wreckage of the Peter Iredale. Her screws were still turning, driving her steel hull deep into the sands and still churning up the waters behind her as she ground shuddering to a stop. When she hit, her officers on the bridge were still actively scanning the horizon around for the light of the Columbia River Lightship — never realizing that the light had been ordered doused to keep Japanese marauders from finding their way by it.
Meanwhile, the spectacle of a large ship driving onto the beach in the dark of night had not gone unremarked on shore. However, because it is not in the standard-operating-procedures manuals of blue-water freighters to drive head-on into beaches, some witnesses of the incident assumed they were looking at a ship of a type that WAS designed for that sort of thing — such as a landing craft.
So even as the Coast Guard got busy unloading the crew of the battered freighter, rumors were flying around that a big Japanese ship was dumping soldiers onto the outskirts of Warrenton for an invasion.
Companies of soldiers, locked and loaded and ready to show the Japanese what a big mistake they’d made, converged on the beach, joined by civilians carrying their Winchesters and Remingtons ready at port-arms, to find — a bunch of Coast Guard guys and other local residents salvaging Christmas trees and cases of steaks out of the surf near a big steamer lying stranded on the beach.
There were a couple of moments of high drama when the soldiers first arrived. The surf was full of baled Christmas trees, which looked a little bit like men swimming to shore. One or two of the trees got shot at before everyone realized what was going on, according to an oral-history interview with a soldier conducted by the Cannon Beach History Center.
Mindful of what happens to 10,000 turkeys when they’re left out in an unrefrigerated space for too long — even in December on the Oregon Coast — the military declared the contents of the Mauna Ala “open salvage,” essentially inviting local residents to come on down and get what they could. So, plenty of locals got to start off the nation’s four-year wartime run of scarcity and rationing with a whale of a Christmas feast, courtesy of the Mauna Ala and the U.S. military.
(Sources: Cannon Beach History Center and Museum, cbhistory.wordpress.com; Gibbs, James A. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950)