S. S. Red Oak Victory restoration in a race against Father Time
Ship's restoration in race against Father Time By Thomas Peele, MEDIANEWS STAFF
Inside Bay Area
Article Last Updated:11/15/2006 03:09:54 AM PST A rasping grinder reverberates in short bursts from the S.S. Red Oak Victory. Again, again and again, it gets down into the deck plates of the old cargo ship and makes them hum.
The shrillness of metal on metal blurs with a chugging air compressor and creates a cacophony that seems to reach from Richmond across San Francisco Bay to Angel Island and back.
On a ship once left for dead, 70-year-old Charles Stephens' work produces sounds and vibrations of life.
He and dozens of senior citizens, retired sailors and veterans toil to complete a nearly decade-old volunteer effort to convert the vessel to a museum in tribute to the 747 World War II ships built at Richmond's Kaiser yards.
As the years pass, it has become increasingly apparent that their race is against more than marine decay and unrelenting salt air and water. Many wonder what will come first their end or the end of their work.
"We have to hurry," says Lois Boyle, president of the Richmond Museum Association, the ship's owner. "These dear sweet men. They are getting feeble. If we don't get this done in the next two years, I am going to be very upset. We're losing them."
They say aboard ship that they could use a dozen more like Stephens. The saying is more than a recognition of his hard, unrelenting work. It is also an acknowledgment that when he is blasting away, they all know they're still going.
Wire scrapers rip into gray paint. Paint and ship metal, some of it reduced to the size of sand grains, fall away. A broom, half its straw worn down, lies on the deck next to a white bucket half filled with grindings.
Below, in a hold where shells for the big guns of battleships once were hauled to war, scores of barrels sit filled with the remnants of Stephens' labor. And yet more thick, gray marine paint peels from the Red Oak Victory like skin from the back of a badly sunburned child.
Stephens hunkers below a thick panel on the ship's port side that blocks a cold west wind. He wears sky-blue coveralls, heavy work gloves, a mask over his nose and mouth. His gray hair peeks out the back of a faded 49ers cap. Pink plugs are pushed deeply into his ears. Sound protectors that look like headphones cover them.
He raises himself slightly from a decrepit red stool, uses a knee to knock it a few inches to the side, and he sits again. He tugs the grinder, its red air hose suddenly lurching like a surprised serpent, and he gives it another blast.
Four or five hours at a time, two, sometimes three days a week, he climbs the Red Oak's gangplank, dons his work clothes, and reduces paint and metal to dust.
"I pour myself into this more than I should," says Stephens, a retired electrical inspector for Lockheed Martin. "I demand too much of myself."
He isn't alone.
One volunteer encapsulates asbestos that wraps old pipes. Another works behind Stephens, painting the scraped metal. Deep in the engine room, others crawl inside the ship's dormant boilers, preparing them to again make the steam that will turn the propeller shaft.
A few plan what they jokingly call "raiding parties" to "pillage" mothballed victory ships in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, where the Red Oak was mothballed for nearly 30 years and where the government sometimes lets them scavenge other ships for parts.
An act of Congress in 1996 that granted the Red Oak to the Richmond Museum saved the ship from scrapping. It was chosen because it was built here, and because it was thought to be in the best condition of ships available for donation.
"They won the war right here, you know," says Bruce Waygood, a 70-year old sailor from New Zealand who spends part of the year living in San Ramon so he can help in the restoration effort.
Without the vessels built in Richmond mostly unglamorous but vital cargo ships and troop transports the Allies could not have fought a two-front war, Waygood says.
The volunteers have, for years, gotten by on little money, raising most of it one pancake at a time at Sunday morning breakfasts, but they are buoyed by the recent promise of a state grant of $1.1 million somewhere between a third and a fifth of estimates of what is needed to make the ship seaworthy.
It will be used to pay for painting, repairs of the ship's bathrooms and work on the engines. The volunteers hope the grant also will make the ship eligible for more funds.
But while money is always a worry, time is the greatest concern. Most of their time, they know, is at the bottom of the hourglass. Money to finish their work won't matter if no one is left to do it.
The ship has been tied up in Richmond for eight years now, and still they climb aboard and go to work, and there is so much more to do.
One volunteer slipped on the wet deck and broke his hip. Another walks with a cane. A man who served on Victory ships and cooked meals for the volunteers in the Red Oak's galley, died recently.
Once a week, a husband and wife drive down from Lake County, pick up the wife's sister in San Pablo and meet two friends. The five of them work to refinish the ship's wooden doorways and bunks. They are old, and the work and the drive can tire them. After a few hours, they rest.
Out on the foredeck, 88-year-old William Jackson, who spent his life at sea and carries the title of ship's engineer, watches a crew using one of the ship's booms to lift and reposition a winch that weighs several tons.
A 3-inch gun, long rendered impotent, sits nearby, its barrel pointing across the Bay. Cables and masts rise into the sky. The winch is slowly lowered as half a dozen sets of eyes watch.
Richard Gifford, whose title is boatswain and who everyone calls "Boats," stops working to shed a sweat shirt. "Too hot for you, Boats?" Jackson says loudly, smiling.
Gifford, who is lean and ruddy-faced, wears a white cap called a Beacon Street Stetson. "West Coast sailors wear white hats. You can always tell them," Jackson says.
Jackson watches the work, then leans in to speak with Dick Bezman, a retired Chevron chemist in a yellow hard hat who is attaching bolts to the winch with a large wrench.
"Make sure you put the grease on," Jackson says. "Listen to the old man and you'll learn."
Jackson entered the Merchant Marine as an Oakland High School student in the 1930s. All a black teenager could do then was work in the galley.
Then came war. He tried to enter the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but a recruiter told him the Army wasn't taking African Americans. Jackson went back to sea, determined to make a life of it.
In May 1943, a merchant ship to which he was assigned supported troops invading the Japanese-held islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian archipelago. Enemy submarines and bombers lurked nearby.
Jackson told his captain, "I ain't gonna die serving food." He was assigned to the engine room, where racist officers gave him the most menial and filthy jobs, little more than cleaning up oil on the deck.
But he learned, eventually earned an engineer's license that is still valid, and sailed the world, visiting more ports than he can remember, working aboard all sorts of ships.
In 1990, when reserve vessels were activated to haul cargo to Saudi Arabia in support of the first Gulf War, some of the ships were so old that no one knew how to run their steam engines.
Jackson's phone rang. The country that once told him he couldn't join the Army asked him to come back and make steam. At age 72, he returned to active duty in the Merchant Marine and is thought to be the only World War II veteran to serve in Operation Desert Storm.
Now, he sometimes sleeps in a refurbished cabin on the Red Oak rather than go home at night. He's endured a five-valve heart bypass operation and cancer that he says is "under arrest." He desperately wants to make the Red Oak seaworthy, to once more steam through the Golden Gate into the Pacific's grandeur and dream of the world beyond.
"I want to sail it. I figure I got maybe four years left," he says. He climbs below decks and walks slowly through the engine room, a warren of pipes, vents, pumps and grated ladders.
Jackson leans against a sign left over from the Cold War that says "atomic attack instructions."
"It wouldn't take us six months to get up to steam if we had the money," he says.
First, the ship would need to go into a dry dock where its hull could be cleaned and inspected. Jackson talks with caution about all that needs to be done.
"I ain't about to get this ship flooded," he says.
Some of the less-critical, but historically important, work is finished.
Up in the radio room, Tom Horsfall, at 61 one of the younger volunteers, sits behind a massive green box with glowing tubes and dials. It took six months to restore the ship's communication system.
It picks up the bleats of Morse code sent by someone in Southern California who has encoded Bible verses and programmed a computer to broadcast them.
Horsfall, who sports a white beard that obscures most of his face, wears a blue baseball cap with sparks printed above the bill. On ships like the Red Oak, radio officers were called "Sparks" or "Sparky."
He is a self-described "ship freak" who retired from Lawrence Berkeley Lab and devoted himself to the Red Oak after volunteering on the restorations of several other vessels. He leans back in a chair. A beat-up Underwood typewriter once used to record messages that were passed on to the ship's captain sits before him.
The radio is the original issued to the ship in 1944. It was restored with a few scavenged parts. "You don't go to Radio Shack and buy this stuff," Horsfall says.
Having worked on other successful projects, like the restoration of Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco, Horsfall understands what is needed to finish the Red Oak.
"You have to have dreamers," he says. "And everybody has to believe in the dream."
Among the dreamers are members of a group who call themselves the "Red Oak strippers."
Unlike most of the Victory-class ships, the Red Oak was built with wooden doors and bunks. Door by door, bunk by bunk, the "strippers" brush those doors with a gooey varnish remover that fills the narrow, dim hallways with a thick chemical stench.
They wait a few minutes, then scrape it off. All of the wood is oak, but they are quick to point out it isn't "red" oak. (The ship is named for the city of Red Oak, Iowa, which lost dozens of native sons in the North African campaign of 1942).
Marjorie Curtis Hill, whose father worked as an accountant in the Kaiser shipyards, says she thinks of all the sailors who passed through the doors that she restores. Her work, she says, "is kind of my way of honoring them."
Next to her, Ella Gralund wears a floppy white hat, a gray sweat shirt and faded jeans. Soiled yellow rubber gloves cover her hands and extend nearly to her elbows. She is working on a door above which is a sign that says "Petty Officers Shower."
It is Gralund and her husband, Hugh, who drive down from Lake County on Tuesdays. Her sister, Edith Louise Cook, joins them.
Hugh's grandfather was a Kaiser cabinetmaker. In his heart, he believes his grandfather helped make the items he restores, something he says is unverifiable.
The sisters' mother also worked in the Kaiser yards, a place to which they sense a deep kinship. To contribute to the restoration, they say, is to honor their heritage.
To a person, the volunteers speak in similar phrases. They say they carry a deep need to finish what they started, to know that one of Richmond's ships will remain here long into the future. They also acknowledge that they could use a little help.
With more money, larger tasks could be hired out, said Tom Bernard, who helps run things and carries the title of port engineer. But no one thinks, he says, that someone will just show up one day and write a check.
What Bernard really would like are "more welders. And we need metal fabricators. We need electricians. People who can wire a lamp," he says, sitting near the ship's stern on a September afternoon, bolts, boxes and chains scattered around him.
"We need a storekeeper. We have a lot of parts in buckets," he says.
Bernard is a realist and also "only" 60. He has time that he knows some of the others don't. "I worry about burning out the volunteers. I worry about people not coming back to the ship."
Among the most dedicated workers is Millie Frederick, who trails so closely to Stephens that she, too, wears ear protectors. She doesn't remove paint. She applies it.
Two coats of primer, then two coats of gun metal-gray paint covers the metal that Stephens renders bare. Frederick, 64, wears pink gloves and blue pants and a heavy work shirt.
Her brush dips into a dented coffee can and then she works it over a rail, dabbing, reaching, stroking.
She is a retired Stanislaus County court clerk, a job she took after studying at the University of Washington but running out of money.
"My father sold Pontiacs," she says. "It put food on the table. It got us through the Depression. The Depression toughened people up."
She prefers the Bay vistas from the Red Oak's deck to her native Wyoming, where she was the youngest of nine children. "The wide open spaces are scary, ghostly," she says, sitting at a table in the officers' mess that is covered with a red and white checkered cloth. She is itchy to get back to work.
Once the grant money arrives, some of it will be used to pay a contractor, who will finish painting the ship's exterior. But that won't mean Stephens and Frederick will be finished.
There's plenty of scraping and painting left for them to do below decks, because on an old ship, an old ship that still needs so much, there is always work.
But when people like Stephens, Frederick, Jackson and their shipmates are gone, the question is, who will do it?