Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

The Donbass Saga



A recent essay on the Clarke Historical Museum's website about how Eureka came to be electrified attracted a single, terse comment: "Nothing beats the story of the Donbass." Although the essay didn't mention the Donbass, old-timers will surely know what's being referred to. It's quite a tale.

Prior to Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to assist the Allies' fighting ability without actually bringing the U.S. into the war. His main way of doing so was via the Lend-Lease Act of March, 1941, which permitted the president to make "any defense article" available to — originally — Britain and, later that year, China and the Soviet Union. The latter was important to Roosevelt, since he believed that if Germany defeated the U.S.S.R., the Allies would probably lose against the Axis powers.

Which is how the oil tanker SS Beacon Rock, built in 1944 at industrialist Henry J. Kaiser's Swan Island shipyard outside Portland, Oregon, morphed into the Donbass III, flying the red hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. According to a Nov. 2, 1946 article in the Madera Tribune, it carried "aviation gas and deck loads of American-built airplanes and tanks" from West Coast ports through the Bering, Okhotsk and Japan seas to Vladivostok, the U.S.S.R.'s primary Pacific port.

The Beacon Rock/Donbass III was a 523-foot-long, 10,448-ton (gross registered), T2-SE-A1 type tanker, one of more than 500 built during WWII, all of which shared a deadly design flaw: They were prone to breaking in two under severe weather conditions. According to a board of inquiry, the ships were vulnerable to metal fatigue caused by welding high-sulfur content steel plates. (Wartime urgency meant that welding replaced more reliable but slower riveting that had previously been used for hulls.) So bad was the design that one T-2, the SS Schenectady, split in two while docked in Portland during calm weather.

Such was the fate of the Donbass III, on Feb. 17, 1946, except she was sailing in a storm though icy waters near the Aleutian Islands when she foundered. Fourteen crewmembers plus her captain were lost. That would have been the end of the story, except that she didn't sink — not all of her. The bow went down while the stern stayed afloat. Five days later another tanker, the War Shipping Administration's SS Puente Hills, found the still-floating rear section with several dozen surviving crew and put her under tow.

Three weeks later, the half-a-ship arrived in Seattle, from where she was towed down the coast to Eureka, having been acquired at auction by PG&E with a winning bid of $125,000. That was in November of 1946 and for the next 10 years she sat on bay mud as her 5,400-kilowatt steam turboelectric generator augmented PG&E's electricity supply via a bank of transformers on the adjacent dock.

Four years before PG&E's 65-megawatt "Unit 3" boiling water reactor (the country's first privately funded nuclear power plant) came online, the Donbass was deemed superfluous to the area's electricity needs.

 In January of 1959, she was towed to Terminal Island (adjacent to Long Beach) to be dismantled for scrap. Perhaps it's time to erect a memorial on Waterfront Drive to the old girl, given her importance in the history of our area.

Barry Evans ([email protected]) would like to see our local communities become power independent, as they were in the past. He prefers he/him.

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