Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fighting World War I in the woods of the Pacific Northwest

World War I in the Pacific Northwest saw the discovery of a new strategic war material, the Sitka Spruce, that supported a rapidly growing new war technology, the combat aircraft. Getting the spruce out of the forests while a rapidly growing and aggressive labor movement began to take charge of the woods was a major challenge. Added to a volatile labor issue was a fundamental change in how the Spruce was harvested and milled along with an exploding, world-wide demand. And don’t forget another ingredient, the deadliest epidemic of modern times, the so-called Spanish Flu. Finally, let’s add in four events that just scared the hell out of people. The Everett Massacre just before the US entry into the war, the Centralia Massacre, on the first anniversary of the armistice, The Seattle General Strike and the Russian Revolution.

Everett Library Northwest Collection
The first event was the Everett Massacre in November of 1916.  In support of a Shingle Weaver’s Union strike in Everett, two boats containing 300 men chartered in Seattle by the Industrial Workers of the World attempted to land at an Everett dock.

As the passengers on the first boat, the Verona, approached, they were greeted by 200 armed men deputized by Snohomish County Sheriff Don McCrae.  The Sheriff and his deputies believed that the IWW radicals were going to burn down their city and Sheriff McCrae shouted at the men on the boats that they were not going tie up in Everett.  There was a shot, stunned silence for half a breath, and then an enormous barrage that killed five on the boat and two on the dock and wounding many.  It is quite possible that others on the boat were killed but never found as they fell, wounded or dead, into the receding tide. 

Jack Miller, last surviving passenger on the Verona.
He died in 1986.  This is his booking picture taken the day
after Bloody Sunday
Everett Library Northwest Collection 
When the Verona and the Calista returned to Seattle, 30 miles south, many who had been on those boats were arrested and returned to Everett.  Ultimately, only one person on the Verona was tried for murder and he was acquitted.  No one on the dock was tried.

Another event was the Centralia Massacre.  Four young veterans were killed, along with a Lewis County deputy sheriff and an IWW veteran during a November 11, 1919 parade celebrating the first anniversary of the Armistice.  The IWW had opposed America’s fighting in Europe and had tried to close the woods with a vigorously enforced strike over the eight hour day and the appalling conditions for loggers even as timber was becoming a critically important part of the war effort.

Clockwise, from left.  Ben Casagranda, Warren Grimm,    
Arthur McElfresh, Dale Hubbard, Legionnaires killed.
The IWW and the citizens of Centralia had tangled the year before during a parade and the IWW hall had been destroyed and its inhabitants beaten.  This time, the seven men waiting in the union hall were armed and they had stationed other armed men with line of sight to the hall. 

The men in the parade were set on violence, prepared for it and, as expected, charged the hall.  While it is not entirely clear, I think it is more likely than not that the Wobblies fired first.  Two in the parade died immediately and two others were shot by Wesley Everest, a veteran and IWW organizer, as he dashed out the back door and was cornered.  Everest was captured, jailed and later mutilated and lynched by a mob who broke into the jail and hung him on a bridge over the Skookumchuck River.

In between these events, the Spanish Flu ebbed and flowed, piling up the bodies of far more people than the fighting in Europe or at home. 

Perry Cross
At this moment John Cross, who preferred his middle name, Perry, reported for duty in the US Army at the Vancouver Barracks, across the Columbia River from Portland. Cross was homesteading and making moonshine near the Crook County village of Hampton, Oregon 60 miles southeast of Bend in what is the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert. His mother, Mary was with him as was his older brother, Frank. Hampton had enough rain to support cattle then and even had a post office, which would close in 1953.  The cattle were mostly gone by the time Perry left his claim as the desert crept north.

The picture here shows him in a US Navy uniform.  It’s hard to read on his cap the ship he’s assigned to, but it’s the Charleston.  The ship was stationed at the Bremerton Navy Yard between 1912 and 1916 and served as a “receiving ship,” a temporary assignment for new recruits until things got sorted out and a permanent assignment for the recruit was found. 

The USS Charleston on Puget Sound
The temporary assignment never got permanent and Cross left the Navy after just five months, likely sometime in 1916, I believe.  When he registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, he noted his Navy experience and wrote that he had been a coal passer, a person with a shovel at the interface of a very hot fire and a very large pile of coal.  Clearly, the Navy assignment didn’t go well for Perry.  Perhaps he couldn’t stand the dust, heat and noise in the bowels of the Charleston, or perhaps he busted something up in Bremerton, maybe a colleague.  His kids think the jagged scar on his throat stemmed from that time.

Spruce Loggers
Note that they are splitting this log in two, lengthwise
Cross was thirty when he registered for the draft, which would put him at the high end of the draftee manpower pool.  Perhaps that was the reason for his assignment to the Vancouver Barracks, a place where he and 30,000 other soldiers reported to the Spruce Production Division and fanned out across the Northwest to logging camps.  His assignment was a camp not far from Grays Harbor, along a narrow band of the Pacific coast where the Spruce thrived.  It had become a strategic war material critical for use in wood frame airplanes. 

The combination of strength and flexibility made the Sitka Spruce the ideal wood for the cloth covered bombers and fighters used by the allies.  British airframe manufacturers had identified the value of Sitka Spruce and had tested it in British Columbia in 1914.  As Europe began blundering into war, they decided it was by far the best airplane material for their air force, overtaking Fir, not as strong and 35% heavier than Sitka Spruce.

Spruce Production Division
Meeting the design requirements for aircraft quality wood was difficult and the demand for properly prepared Sitka Spruce seemed impossible meet.  There could be no knots of any kind in the wood.  Knots created weak points unable to stand up to the stresses of flying.  Milling the wood to keep the grain in the wood at its strongest, required techniques not invented before the war.  Initially, only ten percent of the Spruce tree would meet design requirements after it was milled.  Drying the wood properly took many months.  But national security is a powerful motivator and problems got solved with enough money and men.  Work at the University of Wisconsin led to a new technique that would dry the wood in a matter of days and loggers started splitting the wood in the field to keep the grain intact and also made the giant logs more manageable.

Demand was massive.  At the beginning of World War I, Russia, France, Great Britain, Italy and the United States had just 688 warplanes between them and they played a limited role in combat strategy.  By the end of the war, the allies were flying more than 12,000 combat aircraft in many different strategic roles.  There were long range bombers, anti-submarine aircraft, torpedo fighters and many other specialized planes being built and deployed. Aircraft were also falling out of the sky in astonishing numbers.  France, England and Russia lost 116,000 planes in just four years.

Price for Sitka Spruce was twice what Fir could command and airplane quality wood was selling at $105/thousand board feet.  Despite a strong price incentive, the demand continued to exceed delivery. According to the Lumberman, an industry publication in Portland, there just weren’t enough workers in the woods. Combined with the technical problems and the difficulty of getting equipment to the right stands of trees, production of aircraft quality wood was well-below the expectations of the war managers.  The workforce left in the woods was unreliable and highly politicized.  Many former loggers were now fighting or working in European forests and the percentage of IWW men in the woods was higher than ever before. Their strikes, slowdowns and industrial sabotage was becoming a national issue. In 1917, the Lumberman published a tough editorial outlining the problem:

“In the Spruce camps of Oregon and Washington are to be found a steadily decreasing number of Americans...Among the men of the woods there is to be found a certain percentage who have developed an outright antagonism to this
Fine Art America
country and its institutions.  We will not stop to consider or analyze the causes of their mental attitude.   They are bitter. They have no interest in the nation’s affairs at home and are not concerned with its success on the battlefields. Their resentment is manifest.  Their influence for evil is world-wide.

The nation must rise to the emergency.  This is not the time to quibble over hours, or the price of logs or the percentage of acceptable grades.  This is a national crisis.  To delay action with the view of harmonizing individualistic views is well nigh treasonable.  Unionism and employers’ associations should be forgotten while the insidious, stealthy and criminal acts of sabotage should, upon conviction, be met by death.”

Spruce Production Division
Military intelligence had labeled the woods of the Pacific Northwest a volcano ready to explode.  The war department decided that a fresh set of eyes were necessary and they found them in a retired Lieutenant Colonel who had, before the war, decided to start a new career as the warden of the Michigan State Prison System.  As the American entry into the war became more evident, Brice Disque wanted to get into the European fight as an infantry commander and was lobbying the army for a command.  Instead, he was asked to remain a civilian and make a study of the situation in the Pacific Northwest forests and bring back recommendations to meet the demand for Sitka Spruce. 

A University of Washington professor who studied union/management issues, Carlton Parker, was one of the people Disque turned to for advice.  Parker was a student of working conditions in the woods and was aware of a recent study by the Commission on Industrial Relations that specified the cruel conditions in the logging camps.   Half of the camps were infested with bed bugs and only half had showers.  Forty people slept in a tent designed for twelve, two people sleeping in the lower bunk with another two overhead.  The majority of mattresses were nothing more than hay dumped into a bunk.  Food was dreadful, turnover was off the charts.  

Parker took Disque on a tour of the camps.  Disque, who had served during the
Henry Suzzallo
UW Collections
Philippine Insurrection, noted that they had treated prisoners there better.  He was appalled by the conditions and thought attitudes of the companies and the IWW and the other forest unions had long since frozen in place.  Company spies were everywhere and The IWW was growing in strength, as many as 100,000 IWW in the northwest forests. 

“My wonder was not that production was low but that there was any production at all,” Disque wrote. 

Working with Parker and with University of Washington President Henry Suzzallo, who was serving as Chairman of the Washington State Board of Defense, Disque devised a plan that would address working conditions, install military discipline and standards and create a labor union that could work with the companies and have the respect of workers.

Spruce Production Division
Disque recommended that military camps be set up near the Spruce forests and the private camps were expected to apply the same standards to their workers as the military.  Each camp had to have designs for sleeping quarters, bathing, latrines and recreation that met US Army standards.  If the private companies could not, military teams would step in and build them.  The food was double the military ration in Europe and mostly better in quality.

General Black Jack Pershing, head of the War Department, liked the recommendations and asked Disque to implement them. 

As 1918 approached, Disque, who was suspicious of politics, showed some excellent political instincts.  The pay would be standardized and each skill would be paid accordingly, the same for the civilians as for the military.  Also, Disque announced that there would be an eight hour day in the forests of the United States Army.

The companies preferred firing people rather than compromising with them and were completely shocked by what Disque was doing.  So was the IWW and the American Federation of Labor, who competed for the loyalty of the loggers.  The unions thought the Army was simply a strikebreaker, but here they were giving the unions their key issues -- the eight hour day, on-site medical care, better food, better pay and decent housing.

There was a catch.  Workers and companies who did not sign the patriotic pledge as a member of the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen had a tough time finding work in the woods.  While never claiming to be a labor union, the Spruce Division made the LLLL the only game in the forests.  The constitution of the LLLL defines a role far more benign that it actually was: 

“The Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen is not a labor union in the common acceptance of that term, but is purely a patriotic association of both operators and operatives engaged in this essential war industry.”

In the twelve months from November 1917 to October 1918, aircraft quality Sitka Spruce production went from under 3,000,000 board feet/month to well over 30,000,000/month.  Not only did actual logging and milling increase dramatically, but the infrastructure being built by the army was an asset of considerable future value to the region.  New logging roads, bridges and rail lines opened up billions of board feet to Sitka Spruce production, but also for whatever other forest products were in the way.  

In November of 1918, an exhausted Europe laid down its arms and the Spruce Production Division its shovels, axes and saws.  Men like Perry Cross were sent to the Vancouver Barracks to be mustered out. At the same time the great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, was at its peak in Portland and on the way to killing 50,000,000 people in the rest of the world by the end of 1919.

The flu was always big news in our family.  It took the man who would have been my uncle.  Joe Royer died at 18 years in Missoula, Montana, one of three people who died that day, about an average day at the Railroad Hospital.  The disease ended my father’s formal education.  The schools closed in St.  Ignatius and my father, an eighth grader, never returned. 

When Cross left the woods, he likely would have spent some time quarantined at the Vancouver Barracks.  Had he gone into Portland, he likely would not have seen one of the vaudeville shows at the Pantages Theater.  He might have been unable to join other soldiers at a bar. It's possible he would have been barred from riding a trolley without a cotton mask.  Portland was ambivalent about preventative measures like these because of their impacts on business, and put them in place and abandoned them throughout 1918.  The mayor and others in Portland found a silver lining just about everywhere, and decided to believe the epidemic was on its last legs.  Some weeks cases might wane somewhat, but they came back with a vengeance throughout the year and well into 1919.

The disease was especially hard on young, healthy people for reasons still unknown today.  Here are the heartbreaking death notices for December 27, 1918 from the Seattle Times:

Charles Henry Herman, 3; Matilda Kotiranta, 28; Victor Denton, 51; Leonard S.  Martin, 25; Marjorie Hilda, Dolores, Howard Prosser, 4, 2, and 6 months; Myrtle Hoffman, 33; Frederick Harvey, 55; Wells Perigo, 36. 

December, 1918 nurses log at the Long Beach, Washington
 hospital in Southwestern Washington coast
Who can say how many fatalities might have happened in the woods if the conditions Brice Disque found in 1917 existed in the flu years?  Medical care, better food and clothing, and better housing kept fatalities in the Northwest woods in the lowest quartile of death rates around the country.

A unique 1919 study among wage earners across the US, Harvard professors Lee Frankel and Louis Dublin studied rates of death based on insurance claims among 12,000,000 policy holders across the United States.  The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company sold life insurance policies to industrial workers over
many years.  Analyzing that data base, the two professors compared claims before and after the pandemic. They found that the rate of death from flu and pneumonia between the pre-influenza years 1911-1917, was 125/100,000.  If that number were applied to 1918, it would have meant 14,000 deaths.  However, the death rate they found during the epidemic was 774/100,000, translating to more than 71,000 deaths of policyholders between October of 1918 and June of 1919.  Nearly 75% of those deaths happened in the Fall of 1918.  

National Geographic
Spanish Flu got the name because Spain was neutral during World War I and did not have the kind of press censorship the allies practiced.  Accordingly, it seemed worse in Spain than anywhere else.  The real origins of the flu are disturbingly vague.  An early outbreak occurred at Fort Riley near Manhattan, Kansas and killed 48 soldiers in March of 1918.  It has long been thought as the beginning of the pandemic.  Today, a Canadian historian points to the formation of the Chinese Labor Corps, a 100,000 people who came to Canada from China by boat and shipped across Canada by train before reporting to France as laborers, freeing up servicemen for the front. 

Before leaving, the Chinese had been exposed to an evolving flu virus coming from the mixing of birds and pigs in China that produces our influenza today. As the virus evolved, it would soon turn into the killer it became in 1918/1919.  The laborers' early exposure to a more benign virus made them less susceptible to being sick later.  People born after 1889 and never been exposed to a flu epidemic were highly vulnerable.

Like so many other veterans demobilized at the Vancouver Barracks, Cross felt fine in the morning and sick as hell in the afternoon. Soon, he was wheezing inside a hospital tent, the regular hospital completely full and he toes poking into and under the wet canvas.  He couldn’t keep track of the time, dozed on and off and woke to a strange voice above him saying:  

“Well, this one’s moving.”

His mother and brother were then in Portland and Cross recuperated there before making his way to Hampton where he found his homestead stripped of most things that were useful.  The house still stands though the bunch grass that surrounded the place, “belly deep to a steer,” no longer is part of the desert landscape.

He wasn’t long for Hampton.  In a couple of years he traded the homestead for an orchard in Mosier, in the heart of cherry country near The Dalles. He met a woman there and she moved in.  Just about the time she thought they had become orchardists, they moved on to Harrison, Idaho, where Cross made his life as a ranch hand and whiskey-making entrepreneur way up lake Couer d’Alene.  He said he never drank his own. There, even in the mid-twenties, people needed a good ranch hand and especially someone good with all animals.  He rode horses everyday until one day he couldn’t get up on one.  He had six children.

The Charleston is still working.  Towed to a Powell River log pond next to a mill, she was part of a breakwater fleet of hulks on Vancouver Island keeping the logs close to the mill.  In danger of sinking, she was towed a short distance away and protects Kelsey Bay, though scuttled now and sitting on the shallow bottom. 

Brice Disque was made a Brigadier General by the end of the war but soon found himself before The House Investigations Committee on Wartime Spending trying to explain why a railroad he built into the Olympic Peninsula cost so damned much a mile.  

A great many things came together after the war that made the wartime decision to send 30,000 troops into the woods of the Pacific Northwest seem as radical as it was.  The 1920 presidential election loomed.  Some private lumber companies who felt they could have done it better than the government wanted an opportunity to complain.  Other timber companies wanted a return to the 50 hour week and the two dollar day.  Canada, they said, didn’t put its army in its forests and still put out Spruce in the millions of board feet. Still others saw the infrastructure in place and wanted to buy it or steal it.  

Disque was a guy who liked the offense, felt partisan politics a despicable profession and was proud of what he’d done.  He didn't like where he was and the pique came out. In a deposition, he was told by his inquisitors that the person who was going to testify negatively was the brother of the President of Columbia University:

“The brothers of a lot of prominent men are the worst crooks that you meet,” he said.  Later, he asked the the statement be dropped from the record.

The storm passed and Disque supervised the biggest surplus sale of federal equipment since the building of the Panama Canal. 

The Sitka Spruce has none of the elegance, say, of a True Cedar, Sequoia or Ponderosa Pine.  It is simply big, often with great burls just above its feet, limbs pointing every which way, moss along its shaded side.  It is a loner, a kind of alien dropped into a community of meek, skinny trees keeping their distance. 

On the road between Seaside and Portland our family drove by such a tree for years, a sign by the road saying “World’s Biggest Sitka Spruce.”  It stood close to the highway, down a path from a small parking lot.
Klootchy Creek Spruce
The conversation, starting in the early 1950s and lasting, with mostly different participants, until 2007, started this way, beginning in the back seat:

“Daddy.  Can we see the tree?”
“No, it’s late.  We have to keep going?”
“Just this time?”
“Okay.  Just this time.”