ASTORIA — In 1943, in the midst of World War II, Navy ships and amphibious seaplanes moored in a sheltered harbor east of Astoria, then known as Naval Air Station Tongue Point.
Today, nearly 80 years later, one former Navy vessel still remains, and the owners and supporters hope it can serve once again in a new capacity with help from federal funding.
Since 2009, the Salvage Chief, a 202-foot re-purposed WWII-era landing vessel, has sat ‘retired’ at Tongue Point in Astoria, having completed its last salvage mission retrieving a buoy off the coast of Coos Bay in 2008.
Today, owner Floyd Holcom and former crewman Don Floyd have been leading a campaign to rehabilitate the aging ship, which they feel could serve a new role, particularly as an emergency response and training vessel.
Through Oregon Senate Bill 826, Holcom is seeking $1.9 million in federal funding that would be used to “Ready the Chief” as part of disaster relief preparations, particularly in the event of a Cascadia earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
“They’ve been talking about Cascadia and putting the Chief back into service,” Floyd said.
‘Doing the impossible’
The venerable vessel, built in 1945, served a significant role in hundreds of salvage operations from Alaska to Washington after initially being built to transport war armaments. Long-time coastal residents think of the vessel and crew as folk heroes.
The ship has been in Astoria since about 1948, but bounced around the Lower Columbia before being repurposed as a salvage vessel.
“Fred Devine was the founder. He had a diving and salvage ship. He had it up in yard in Portland, property that’s now the Port of Portland,” said Floyd, who worked on and has been involved with the vessel since 1972.
“They moved the ship to Astoria. We moored for many years, until about 1986 at East End Mooring Basin, then we moved back to Portland for about a year, then back to Astoria.”
In 1948, the first conversion of LSM 380 to the newly named Salvage Chief was completed, led by Devine.
“This ship was the LSM 380, a Landing Ship Medium. When Fred Devine built this, he bought these big winches and took a piece of LST deck and put a lid on it,” Floyd said. “They could haul tanks, trucks or lash equipment down in the bulk head. So when they made a beach landing, the bow doors would open and they would drop a ramp and hit the beach.”
Commissioned about six months after WWII ended, the ship features unique shallow-bottom abilities, a characteristic that was crucial for the new function envisioned by Devine.
Its first job, in 1952, involved pulling a barge off the beach about a mile north of the Grays Harbor Entrance, a feat that would inspire and give rise to the Salvage Chief’s reputation of ‘doing the impossible’ while sparing contaminate-related environmental catastrophes.
“It was historic because it was the first major ship pulled off the West Coast. They said it couldn’t be done. They were so sure that they were going to fail that they pre-dug a big pit. They were going to pump all the bunker oil off and burn it up on the sand dunes,” Floyd said.
“That’s what bugged Fred Devine. Ships would run aground and tugs just couldn’t do it. After the war, these boats came back and he knew they were perfect with their shallow draft.”
As the vessel was summoned for more jobs, it was made more capable. In 1956, a king post and a heavy lift boom were added for a job on Kiska Island, Alaska. In 1981, updated technology with new electronics, pilothouse, hydraulic cranes and a helicopter pad were installed.
In time, the Salvage Chief earned a reputation for achieving the seemingly impossible in successfully salvaging more than 300 vessels, but not every job was a major undertaking.
“We did a lot of anchor recovery — ships would lose their anchor in the river. A lot of the ships can’t sail without two anchors, so they would hire us to go get them. When the captain retired, he had drug up more than five miles of anchor chain,” Floyd said.
Other jobs often revolved around pulling or pushing vessels up the Columbia.
“A lot of ships had grain on them after the war. We often got jobs pushing those ships. We had a special fender made up where you get on their hip and push them up the river,” Floyd said.
The 1950s through the ‘80s were the most lucrative years for the Chief, Floyd said, before more efficient tugs and crane barges gradually began to sap opportunities away.
Ready the Chief
‘Ready the Chief’ has been a rallying call for supporters of the historic vessel on social media to ready the vessel for a potential return to action as part of natural disaster emergency preparedness, particularly in the event of a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Floyd and Holcom have spearheaded the effort, which they foresee as a greater new purpose for the Chief.
“It started out as a historic vessel turned into an emergency response vessel. There’s been high demand up and down the river to reactivate it,” Floyd said.
“If we make it functional we have more entities that could utilize it. It could be taken upriver for training different emergency management areas. We have a helo pad, so for an emergency vessel you could have a command center or evacuation center. You could bring people out. Say you had a hospital barge out here. If you were having trouble on shore, you could stage up an area to get medical support. The National Guard was looking at putting a medical barge out here [in the Tongue Point mooring basin] on anchor, in case a tsunami came. If a 30-foot swell hits here, with the way Tongue Point juts out, the model projected maybe a seven-foot swell in here, which is nothing for this ship.”
The future of the Chief currently hangs in the balance in the Oregon Senate, where Senate Bill 826 proposes $1.9 million to repair and upgrade the vessel. The bulk of the funding ($1.2 million) is earmarked for hull repairs with $400,000 allocated for engine and fire pump upgrades and $300,000 for communications improvements. Sen. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas, has been among the chief sponsors of the bill.
A public hearing regarding the bill was held April 29, where advocates provided support testimony on behalf of the Salvage Chief.
“They’ve been receptive toward issuing the money,” Floyd said. “It has a few more sessions to go through with the Ways and Means. I think it might be June when they make the decision.”