WW II: Astoria’s Epic Minesweeper Years

Astoria Shipyard’s Minesweeper (YMS) Production Remembered
The 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor last December gives us a chance to review the incredible history of the “war at home” in Astoria—a time when thousands of ordinary women performed extraordinary feats in many traditionally male-dominated jobs. Every aspect of their daily life was affected by the conflict; there was a constant demand from the government at all levels to produce more, consume less, and stay alert to threats real and imagined. As I write this in March 2017, I find it ironic to see how the nation is so divided by politicians who see enemies on all sides.
I hope this short history lesson will show what America can do when the country is truly united in working towards a single goal! Within days, the war had changed everything: families were separated and a simple chore like shopping became a daily struggle with every staple from gasoline to shoes rationed. Canned salmon was an important part of the food supply so had a high priority. Women already dominated the cannery workforce and now added tasks like loading and driving.
Younger women joined military auxiliary groups like the WACs, WAVES, and SPARs, to free up men for fighting duties. There were numerous other ways to serve on the home front including the Citizens Defense Corps, Aircraft Warning Service, Women’s Land Army, Women’s Ambulance Corps, Victory Gardens, Victory Book Campaign, etc. Barely a week went by without a scrap drive, bond sale, black-out test or bomb drill, plus spy rumors and invasion scares to keep everyone on their toes. The goal was always to support the troops overseas and ultimately win the war.
By the late 1930’s, Astoria already had wo established military posts: the Tongue Point Naval Air Station opened in 1938 and Fort Stevens 249th Coast Artillery (dating from the Civil War) plus the Coast Guard stations on both sides of the Columbia River. Catalina Seaplanes began patrolling the northwest coast from Tongue Point, where the hangars and ramp are still in use today. But there were also civilian facilities like the new airport in Warrenton (built 1935), the Port of Astoria docks, and the AMCCO boatyard south of the airport on the Lewis and Clark River/Netul River. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, all three were swept up in the national mobilization and were assigned a role in the war effort.
The first orders for warships actually came to Clatsop County before Pearl Harbor, from the faraway war in Europe when Britain announced that a state of war existed with Germany on September 3, 1939. The Brits were soon struggling to survive the predations of German U-boats (submarines) that threatened to stop the vital flow of food and industrial materials from North America. The federal government created the Lend-Lease program to build cargo ships for Britain, and it was signed into law by President Roosevelt on March 11, 1941. (That was how Henry Kaiser began building the original 60 “Liberty” ships for Britain nine months before the USA declared war on the Axis powers.)
The Royal Navy also asked for smaller military vessels to defend their coastline, especially wooden minesweepers. This was also the opportunity for the US Navy to acquire more modern vessels and they commissioned a new design for a wooden minesweeper.–because steel ships would be detected by magnetic mines. This began a short-lived revival in traditional marine construction skills in the USA as boatyards all around the country responded to the government’s invitation to submit bids. Oregon’s wooden shipbuilders in Astoria and Coos Bay won initial approval, with more on Puget Sound and northern California for a total of 19 west coast yards ready to leap into action.
The US Navy sent inspectors out to the west coast to inspect all these facilities and verify their sources of high-quality softwood lumber. On April 1, 1941, the Navy awarded AMCCO a $1,312,000 contract to build four minesweepers, called the Yard Mine Sweeper or YMS. However, Joe Dyer, the manager and one of the three owners, still needed to expand the shipyard, which only had one marine railway and 30 employees. So AMCCO began building wooden minesweepers for lend-lease to the British Navy in the summer of 1941.
These complex 136-foot warships were a giant step beyond the fine wooden yachts, ferries and fishing boats the yard had built since 1922. Dyer intended to create an assembly line system to increase efficiency and pre-fabricate parts for all four boats simultaneously, but was not sure how he would finance this ambitious plan. Fortunately the Navy, anticipating situations like AMCCO’s, allowed a 10% progress payment upon laying of the vessels’ keels. Dyer bought some adjoining tideland pasture, where he laid down four 110’ Douglas fir keels sawn at the mill in Westport, Oregon, then drew up plans for sheds, building ways, and workshops to be built when the money was paid.
As soon as the new buildings were roofed and the saws and planers set up, Dyer found more skilled carpenters and shipwrights who came out of retirement to start the pre-fabrication of parts for the second boat. Then the crew began attaching oak frames on the second keel for the YMS 101. The inner planking was 2” Douglas fir, the outer layer over 1” thick, to withstand the shock wave when mines were swept up and deliberately detonated by rifle or deck gun. It was powered by a pair of GM 400 HP diesels—long-lived engines that are still found today in some older working boats.
It had taken almost one year since the contract was signed, but the next three boats were all well on the way and methods of pre-fabricating the 24‘-wide glued wooden hull frames were being perfected. The company’s records state that the first vessel, YMS 100, was launched on April 12, 1942. The new boat shop complex was carefully organized to speed up production and the second minesweeper was delivered on July 17. The YMS 102 was sent out into the Columbia a month later, followed by the YMS 103 on September 18.
They were all commissioned as British Motor Minesweepers (BYMS) and were delivered to Britain by crews from the Royal Navy. This was an amazing feat, and the building team of over 200 were able to celebrate their incredible achievement of delivering the second pair only six months after the keels were laid. With all this bustle around the waterfront, we need to remember that there were constant reminders of the war in the Pacific. The Oregon coast was the most likely target of a Japanese attack—anything from landing a spy to a full-on D-Day type amphibious landing. The beaches were absolutely off-limits and were covered in barbed wire, and the Oregon Shore Patrol was organized by American Legion posts in coastal counties in December 1941. They were replaced by improved Coast Guard patrols and Army installations along the Oregon coast.
Oregonians watched news reels of the bombing of London and heard radio reports from pioneers like Edward R. Murrow, and wondered “could that really happen here?” Authorities answered with an emphatic “yes” and worked to prepare the state for the worst. This included organizing tens of thousands of Oregonians who volunteered for the Aircraft Warning Service and served as air raid wardens. But to be effective every citizen needed to be ready to respond to a variety of terrible weapons that could fall through their very roof.
By 1942 authorities across Oregon had organized complex civilian protection programs staffed by tens of thousands of volunteers. The work of these air raid wardens, auxiliary police and fire forces, fire guards, emergency medical teams, decontamination units, drivers, messengers, evacuation officers, public utility repair squads, and others (collectively known as the Citizens Defense Corps) was coordinated and integrated by the State Defense Council
 Coastal residents were commanded to black out their homes at night by covering windows with shades and blankets. Block wardens patrolled neighborhoods, looking for telltale lights and reprimanding offenders. Volunteers watched for airplanes, balloons from Tillamook kept watch from the sky. All shipping in and out of the river had to wait for an escort through the minefields, while nervous trainee pilots practiced landing on the short 500′ deck of the “baby flat top” aircraft carriers launched in Vancouver every few weeks.
And this was the summer when the Japanese made the well-known attack on Fort Stevens. On the night of June 21, 1942, an enemy submarine fired seventeen shells at Fort Stevens, near Astoria. Most of the shells landed in a swampy area at the edge of the fort, and some exploded on the beach or buried themselves in the sand. Undoubtedly that must have been a hot topic at AMCCO, which was now a full-blown marine industrial facility striving to meet the US Navy‘s demand for hundreds more minesweepers.
Overhead, delivery pilots ferried planes to the the airport across the Netul River. The city docks became the “last stop” before crossing the bar for all the 456 ships that emerged from the famous and amazingly efficient Kaiser shipyards upriver. There were no more (male) workers with shipyard experience in the region and the Kaiser shipyards wanted AMCCO to perform all the finishing work necessary to their Liberty Ships and oil tankers, plus last-minute modifications to the escort aircraft carriers. Kaiser was already employing thousands of women, and Dyer brought in the first women in April of 1943.
They were assigned to the sweeping crew, but soon they were training as drill press operators, light joiner workers, gluers, sanders, pipe threading machine operators, light deck caulkers, and lead and plugging workers. A total of about 70 women and 400 men ended up working at AMCCO at the end of 1943, when the company proudly announced: “201 Ships Built, Outfitted or Repaired!” And they had also won the Treasury T-flag for full participation in the year long bond drive, paid with 10% of their annual wages.
In 1944, the yard’s weekly newspaper, the AMCCO Log, reported that two welders, Garnet Verschuren and Harold Johnson married at the yard wearing their welding garb and attended by their workmates. (Could this happen today?) The Log also tell us that there were another 1,000 AMCCO workers on the port docks working on the carriers and armed transports streaming out of the Kaiser shipyards.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots used a WW II minesweeper as a station boat for 20 years.

In the three-year period from the spring of 1942 through December 1944, AMCCO built 18 identical wooden hulls, 16 as sweepers, two as sub-chasers/patrol craft. They also built six VT harbor tugs and 16 smaller tugs. The wood-hulled YMS proved to be one of the U.S. Navy’s more durable and versatile types through a quarter-century of service, filling a variety of roles for a number of navies. Over 400 were built at 35 yards around the USA. YMS 117 arrived on the Columbia in 1947 to serve as the Bar Pilot’s station boat on the ocean for over 20 years.
BYMS 26, built on Lake Union in Seattle served in the Mediterranean where it was converted into a car ferry. It was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950’s and was converted again into his dive-support ship Calypso. It became famous in the USA through the series the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran for ten years from 1966 to 1976. At a time when color television was a novelty, his programs opened the eyes of a generation to the wonders beneath the waves.
In the years immediately after WWII, AMCCO specialized in mothballing Navy ships that were moored in great fleets behind tongue Point. Many of those ships were eventually scrapped at the wartime shipyard in SW Portland beside the Ross Island Bridge. This still exists as Zidell’s yard and this June, they will launch their last barge and close. AMCCO is the most intact small shipyard on the west coast, thanks to its continued original use, hauling local fishing boats for repairs and maintenance. It has become a National Historic Monument—but one with a serious pollution problem from those desperate war years that is not going away….
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