The Wreck of the SS Willapa

The Wreck of the SS Willapa – December 3, 1941
Port Orford Coast Guardsmen Conduct Daring Night Rescue


36-Foot Motor Lifeboat in Action

On the night of December 3, 1941, Coast Guardsmen from the Port Orford Lifeboat Station rescued 24 crewmen from the SS Willapa as it began to break up two miles off the craggy shoreline of Humbug Mountain, six miles south of Port Orford, joining the long list of ships wrecked on the Oregon coast. The “Coasties” fought high winds and seas in a daring and successful attempt to save the crew.  The entire rescue took less than 95 minutes from the time the initial distress signal flare was fired from the Willapa.

The SS Willapa was a 213 feet long lumber schooner built at the Kruse and Banks Shipyard in North Bend. The keel was laid in 1916 and the ship was launched in 1917 under the name SS Florence Olsen. The wooden steamship had a 42 feet beam, and drew 16 feet of water. It was jointly owned by the Hart-Wood Lumber Company of San Francisco and two businessmen from North Bend, James Lyon and Howard Irwin.

The SS Willapa, under the command of Captain Oscar Petterson of San Francisco, departed Coos Bay on the morning of December 1, 1941, headed for San Francisco with a cargo of 1.1 million feet of lumber. The ship easily reached Cape Blanco the first day, sailing in good weather. A Pacific storm system closed in that night and raged through December 2, causing the ship to be tossed about  as she moved south past the Port Orford Heads. As she neared Humbug Mountain the next day, unusually high waves crashing over the deck caused the deck load to shift. The shifts were violent enough to throw some of the cargo overboard.  The stress on the vessel proved to be too much and caused ruptures in the seams of the wooden hull.


Life Ring from SS Willapa

Since the ship carried no radio, the crew launched a red flare distress signal at 7:40 PM. A motor lifeboat from the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Port Orford was launched with an eight-man crew commanded by Boatswain’s Mate Elmer Winback.  The remainder of the crew consisted of Odell Flake, Herbert Crowell, Emil Kazlarich, Dale Hansen, Donald George, Don Bert, and James Waugh.

Because of the high seas, the crew could only remove one person at a time from the Willapa. The crew had to time their approaches to the stricken vessel and carefully take one person off, then pull back and make repeated attempts. By 9:15 PM, all 24 crewmen from the Willapa had been rescued.


Metal Piece recovered from the Wreakage

This metal piece weighing approximately 60 pounds is from the SS Willapa.  It was found in the wreckage field along with the propeller (inscribed).  The bottom of the curved flange is approximately 10 inches in diameter. It is believed to be part of a boiler assembly. The item is on display at the museum.