S.S. Berkeley Victory

Have any of your relatives had close encounters with exploding ships? Tell at

Isaac Clemens


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When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta was honored as the California Alumni Association's Alumnus of the Year last month, he was presented with an additional trophy-the builder's plaque from the S.S. Berkeley.

The poignancy of the moment wasn't lost on any of those present-while Mineta is as American a human being as any you'll ever meet, his patriotism was tempered in a Japanese internment camp while the ship whose plaque was presented to him was being built. The story of Mineta's life is too fascinating and long to be handled here-suffice to say it's no surprise the members of the Maritime Administration went out of their way to put together an appropriate tribute to the man they call "boss." The only thing that gleamed brighter than that freshly polished brass plaque at the Charter Banquet was Mineta's grin when receiving a new office centerpiece.

My interest in the ship was piqued because of my family's own history with World War II cargo ships. My great-grandfather Guy Gage joined the Merchant Marine in his late 50s after working as a foreman in a naval shipyard in Oakland. On his most noteworthy voyage, Guy's ship was carrying high-test gas and demolition charges that were stored below the thin armor belt of the Liberty ship. Early one tropical morning, between Australia and New Zealand, the ship was torpedoed and the crew had just a few minutes to slow down the vessel so it could launch lifeboats.

Fortunately for the crew, the torpedo strike tore a hole in the boat that soaked the demolition charges and delayed the ship's eventual explosion. Eleven hours later when the ship exploded, the small collection of lifeboats and life-rafts were rocked by a blast powerful enough to blow three men from their craft where it lay at rest five miles away. Great-grandpa Guy spent another three weeks on those lifeboats and retired from service at the age of 65.

The story that brought the plaque to Mineta's office is just as interesting. The Berkeley was a Victory ship produced at Permanente Metals Shipyard #1 in Richmond in 1944 and delivered in 1945 for use in World War II. The Victorys were transport vessels designed as an upgrade to the Liberty vessels used by the Merchant Marine-534 were produced, with the first 34 named for each allied nation, the subsequent 218 for American cities, and the next 150 named after educational institutions-like the vessel named for our hometown.

The Berkeley sailed from 1945 to May of 1948, returning and redistributing the materials of World War II. In May it entered the National Defense Reserve Fleet at Wilmington, North Carolina. She was in the reserves for just two years before steaming to Bethlehem Steel's Shipyards in Boston for activation for the Korean War in October 1950. While it sailed under charter to the Shepard Steam Ship Company, there is no record to indicate it actually entered Korean waters.

August of 1965 saw the Berkeley Victory activated for war once more. The ship was turned over to the Military Sea Transport Service and staffed by the American Presidents Line Steam Ship Company for crewing and operation. After four years in service during the Vietnam War, she re-entered the reserves at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet. After five years at Suisun Bay, on Oct. 26, 1970 the ship entered a month-long deactivation dry-docking for long term storage. The S.S. Berkeley Victory rested that way for 23 years until she was sold for scrap on Jan. 1, 1993.

Certain items are taken off vessels going to scrap. The ship's wheel, the builder's plaque, sometimes the engine order telegraph-all are considered artifacts of maritime history. The ship's bell is collected, too, if it's still there-half the time the bell has already been quietly looted. These items are usually removed and warehoused, but the custom will likely not survive another mass retirement of ships as the cost of labor involved salvaging such items is prohibitive.

There aren't any Victory ships out sailing around any longer. One, the Lane Victory, is capable of putting to sea but only in its capacity as a preserved memorial ship.

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