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SF Chronicle on Richmond's Red Oak Victory
Bringing a rust bucket back to seaworthiness

WWII cargo ship is being lovingly restored, right down to its steam engine

Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, February 12, 2007

Charles Stephens points a noisy power tool called a needle gun at a 3-foot-square slab of steel and, inch by inch, hour by hour, blasts away the rust.

"You hate to see a beautiful piece of metal go to waste," said Stephens, 71, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

"Instead of seeing it melted down into oblivion, you want to restore it," he said. "You want to see it glide across the water."

Someday, that chunk of steel might part the waters once again. Stephens and about 50 other volunteers -- mostly retirees and veterans -- are toiling seven days a week to restore the Red Oak Victory to its former glory. The goal: get the creaky old steam engine running for the first time since 1968 and sail the vessel from its berth in Richmond to the Golden Gate Bridge.

"I'm not sure when that's going to happen, but we're going to keep working on it," said Stephens, a retired electronics inspector for Lockheed. "I hope so, anyway."

Hope is what powers the Red Oak Victory these days. The World War II cargo ship -- the sole survivor of the 747 vessels built in the Richmond shipyards -- is spotted with rust and peeling paint. Not long ago, owls roosted in the great gray funnel.

To those devoted to restoring it, the Red Oak is as beloved as the Queen Mary 2 or the Jeremiah O'Brien, its celebrated cousin docked across the bay at Fisherman's Wharf. Managed by the Richmond Museum of History, the Red Oak is the crown jewel of the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park.

"You'll never see one like it again," said Jim Waite of Richmond, a retired machinist who spends his days trying to resurrect the Red Oak's massive steam engine. "We need to show people what it was like. Even if we just take it to the Golden Gate and back, it'd be worth it."

The Red Oak's volunteers consider themselves the ship's modern-day crew. Some work in the engine room, others scrape and paint, some make lunch in the galley. A few technicians got the Morse-code radio working, and they sometimes chat with their cohorts on the Jeremiah O'Brien.

The "chief engineer" is 88 years old. At least one volunteer, John Bates of Visalia, sleeps on board occasionally.

"Every now and then my wife tells me, 'It's time for you to go back to the boat,' " laughed Bates, a retired school maintenance worker. "I like it though. It's fun and interesting and educational. It's a real eye-opener."

The Red Oak was built in 86 days in the Richmond shipyards, the busiest ship producer in the United States during World War II. It was christened the Red Oak after the farming hamlet of Red Oak, Iowa, which lost more servicemen and women per capita than any other city in the United States. The mayor of Red Oak came to Richmond for the launch, and in a spray of champagne, the Red Oak Victory slipped into San Francisco Bay on Nov. 9, 1944.

The ship's role in World War II was short-lived, however. The Red Oak made only one voyage before the war ended. It hauled ammunition and supplies to the Ulithi atoll in the South Pacific, a coral reef where hundreds of U.S. ships were preparing for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. By 1945, the ship was mothballed.

When the Korean War broke out, the Luckenbach Steamship Co. leased the Red Oak as a merchant marine vessel. Again, the Red Oak hauled ammunition, food, medicine and other supplies -- including, in one case, 3,000 tons of Lone Star beer -- across the Pacific.

Then it was back to the mothball fleet until the Vietnam War. The Red Oak's only brush with combat occurred in the Saigon River, when the Viet Cong's guns left a dent in the hull. Porthole covers were added to the cockpit to protect the crew from gunfire.

The Red Oak's final cruise was to Saigon in 1968, after which it was retired to the mothball fleet in Benicia and, like hundreds of other World War II vessels, appeared headed for the scrap heap.

Enter a group of Richmond history buffs, who asked Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, in 1992 to help them get a World War II ship to restore as a monument to the city's home-front efforts.

"The federal government said, 'OK, fine, pick a ship,' " said Jerry Souza, a retired San Rafael police officer who now volunteers on the Red Oak. "I don't think the group had much of a choice. The Red Oak might have been the only one left."

The Red Oak got its reprieve because, due partly to the limited action it had seen, it was in the best shape of all the mothballed ships in the fleet.

By then, the Red Oak Victory was a hulk of rust and peeling paint, but volunteers were undeterred. In 1995, they began scraping, stripping, painting and raiding other mothballed ships for spare parts, preparing to bring the ship home.

In 1998, it was ready. Towed by two tugboats, the 456-foot, nearly solid steel vessel returned to its birthplace at the Richmond waterfront.

Like the day in 1944 when the Red Oak was first launched, the mayor of Red Oak, Iowa, was on hand for the homecoming.

"It was quite heartening," said the mayor, James Johnson, who was a kid in Red Oak during the war. "I remember the time when all that happened -- the telegrams coming down, people just standing around waiting for telegrams. I was thrilled as punch when I heard they were going to restore the Red Oak. It's quite a thing here."

To raise money for the restoration, volunteers hold pancake breakfasts, Fourth of July picnics and dances on board. The public is invited to tour the ship and, if so inclined, help scrape paint.

But even before the restoration is complete, the Red Oak is an invaluable historic resource, said Jeff Nilsson, executive director of the Historic Naval Ships Association in Virginia.

"There aren't any more left. Those old ships are going by the wayside fast and furious," he said. "But they're a part of the maritime history of this country. The Navy in the 1940s was so instrumental in winning the war -- this is a living museum to that time."

E-mail Carolyn Jones at carolynjones@sfchronicle.com.