The Cannon Beach History Center & Museum’s latest exhibit World War II on the Oregon Coast explores a series of historic events, shared stories and artifacts. What it is missing are several stories that occurred in Oregon and pretty close by that not many recall or even know about.
One of our favorite stories came from the Oregon Military Museum and was contributed to by several 41st Infantry Division veterans. Many have heard of the 41st Infantry Division’s role during World War II, but prior to leaving the states this National Guard group was deployed to defend the Oregon and Washington coastline against possible Japanese landing. The story they shared was of the SS Mauna Ala, a Matson line freighter that was delivering Christmas supplies to the troops stationed at Pearl Harbor. The ship carried 60,000 Christmas trees, 10,000 turkeys, 3,000 chickens, tins of Almond Roca and more.
Unfortunately, while en route, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the ship rerouted back to Oregon. After the shocking attack on the Naval Station at Pearl Harbor, Oregon and much of the western coastline had enacted blackouts and radio silence, and of course, the captain of the SS Mauna Ala was unaware that these policies were in place. The ship was also under radio silence for fear of giving away their location to an enemy vessel.
The mouth of the Columbia River bar is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world, even under the best circumstances. A dark night in December without navigational aids didn’t make for an easy entry, so the SS Mauna Ala ran aground. Thankfully, the entire crew survived thanks to the Coast Guard from the Point Adams station. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Point Adams Station was in operation from 1889 until it was discontinued in 1967, although some documents indicate it may have ceased operation as early as 1963. It was located in Hammond, Oregon.
In an oral history interview conducted by the Oregon Military Museum, veteran Roy Brasfield remembered, “When war was declared, training was interrupted; that night the unit headed for the Longview Bridge on the Columbia River. They were there for a few days when they received a panic message from Seaside — a ship was unloading men on the beach.”
In another interview with veteran Carl Kostol, he shared, “On Dec. 10, 1941 they heard of an emergency at Camp Clatsop (Camp Rilea). An officers’ meeting was called by the Regimental C.O. for E and F Companies. The Regimental C.O. told them a convoy was coming down from the Gulf of Alaska — a suspected invasion. Clatsop Beach was the most likely site for this. So they all went out carrying a full load of ammunition.”
Like other Americans, those who lived on the Oregon coast were shocked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The fear that the Pacific Coast might be the next target was very real for all who lived here. “We all know,” the Tillamook Headlight-Herald wrote on Christmas Day, 1941, “that the coastal area is the first line of defense.”
With this in mind, men went to the beaches to defend the Oregon shores. Instead of Japanese troops they found something a little more benign.
Brasfield remembered that instead of troops off-loading on the beach, they found “the ‘men’ unloading were actually Christmas trees.”
With fully loaded weapons at the ready, Kostol remembered, “They were on post all night but there was not an invasion. A ship ran aground, a Christmas ship headed for Hawaii that had to turn back. Its cargo of Christmas trees started rolling in and some got shot at.” He added, “A case of steaks also washed ashore, as well as a case of Almond Roca candy.”
In the light of day, the “paratroopers” morphed in several thousand trees, turkey and chicken carcasses, cases of steak, and tins of Almond Roca. The military declared the contents of the SS Mauna Ala “open salvage.” The food and trees were gathered up by those stationed at Fort Stevens and Camp Clatsop and were cooked up for all to enjoy. Some of those stationed there were even able to send pounds of food, candy, and other items that washed up home. News spread pretty quickly, as this kind of news is apt to do, and soon beachcombers were milling around the beaches collecting Christmas goodies.
I’m sure a sense of relief came over those that watched Christmas trees float around in the tide. Perhaps that relief even turned into laughter, for what could have been a very serious threat, had become festive floaters. With the entire crew of the SS Mauna Ala saved and an invasion turned into something entirely benign, one hopes that those who picked up the butter, salt, steaks, turkeys, chickens, trees, and candy were able to enjoy at least one or two evenings of good food and good company without the threat of deciduous troopers knocking at their doors.
For more information about World War II on the Oregon Coast, visit the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum Wednesday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or check out the Oregon Military Museum’s website.