Air Guard Base Survives the Vanport Flood of 1948

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
It was 65 years ago this week that Oregon's second largest city was decimated by one of the largest floods in American history. The Columbia River broke through the level on May 30, 1948 at about 4:15 p.m., and a 10-foot wall of water engulfed the city of Vanport and the Portland Air National Guard Base within hours.

Vanport City was a hastily constructed city located in Multnomah County, between the contemporary Portland city boundary and the Columbia River. It is currently the site of Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway. At its peak, the city was home to nearly 40,000 people who had been brought in to work the shipyards during World War II (1940-45).

The winter of 1947-48 brought substantial snowfall to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and by the spring a high volume of rain. The Columbia River rose throughout May 1948 and by Memorial Day weekend was approaching the 30-foot level on the Vancouver, Wash., gauge on the north side of the river. Because it was a holiday weekend, many citizens were away at the time, yet 15 deaths were attributed to the flood.

Vanport was dramatically destroyed that day when a section of the dike holding back the Columbia River collapsed. The city was underwater by nightfall, leaving its inhabitants homeless.

Having spent most of Saturday, May 29, 1948 on duty, newly-promoted Sergeant Jack Klein, radar operator with the 142nd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, was just returning home from work early Sunday morning. He had promised to take the Patton Church Scout Troop out for the day. When he returned that evening, his wife told him that Captain Gemmel from the base had called.

Recalling that moment, Klein said, "She was very anxious and told me to call the base as soon as I got home. When I called, Capt. Gemmel informed me the west dike had just breached and I needed to report as soon as I could. She told me to wear a sidearm if I had one."

There were still a few hours before the water would begin to overwhelm the base. Klein arrived at the squadron headquarters where he was greeted by the commander, Maj. Cladius G. Farrow, and a small group of officers and non-commissioned officers. They began to load files, typewriters, and other equipment to another unit member's home, which was close to the base.

This small team of about 10 men worked all night and into the morning. They moved weapons from the vault and secured most of the assets of the new unit's materials to the Colwood Golf Course on Alderwood Drive and Columbia Boulevard.

Klein remembers eating breakfast at Obie Nagel's Big Apple Restaurant. "At breakfast, Maj. Farrow called me aside and told me to take charge of the intersection at Alderwood Drive and Columbia Boulevard."

Evetually Klein would have 30 young Airmen under his watch, all issued carbine rifles to keep order and protect the government property at the Colwood parking area.

Before the flood, all the capable planes were flown to McNary Field in Salem, Ore., and the planes that could not fly were towed from the base up to Alderwood Drive and parked at the Colwood parking lot.

By Tuesday afternoon, with no sleep or ability to change and bathe, Klein was able to finally get home and clean up. On Wednesday, June 2, the Airmen tasked for security began moving into the gymnasium at the Kennedy School at NE 33rd and Killingsworth Street.

"I got called into the Lieutenant's office, and he had a special job for me to do," Klein said.

The Army Corps of Engineers needed to borrow a portable power unit and had to get to the Fighter Group's motor pool to find a vehicle to deliver equipment. The only vehicle capable of getting through all the check points was a military ambulance. Klein would tow the PE-95 trailer - a gasoline-powered 10 Kilowatt AC power unit - to a Portland Police checkpoint at Marine Drive and North Interstate Avenue. When he met the Corps of Engineers' representative, he signed a simple hand receipt and turned over the power unit.

When he returned to the Kennedy School, the gym had become the unit's temporary orderly room. Klein recalls how lumber floors were brought in to cover the gymnasium's maple floor to protect the surface.

"We needed to bring in the squadron's steel lockers and other equipment as we did not know how long the school would be our transitory base."

Returning to the Portland Air Base would be still be many days away. On June 11, 1948, President Harry S. Truman flew to Portland to examine the damage caused by the flooding. The recovery effort for the city of Vanport was assisted by Vanport College and the Red Cross.

Work began anew at the Portland Air Base when the floods finally subsided. Klein remembers spending more than three days working for the Armament Chief, disassembling weapons and parts.

"We dipped wire baskets of parts in various chemical solutions then eventually into the 'Black Magic' plating solution, which left a black finish on the parts," said Klein.

The base would take time to clean up as well. Buildings had to be cleaned inside and out. Aircraft had to be return to base and the temporary orderly room readied for school in the fall.

Vanport went away rather quickly that day in 1948, but it left its imprint on the neighbouring city of Portland in many ways. The hastily-erected public housing that lured as many as 100,000 new residents to the area during the height of the war and played a vital role in providing victory for the United States during World War II at sea.

Today the Portland International Raceway and the Expo Center have replaced the flooded Vanport homes and shipyards. The Portland Air National Guard base weathered the flood and still remains mission ready today.