Fishing Vessels at War: The Seafood Industry Fills Transportation Gaps in World War II

Through late May and early June of 1940, a motley fleet of 850 recreational, commercial, and fishing boats sailed from England to Dunkirk, France to evacuate 338,000 Allied troops. The “little ships of Dunkirk” had a shallow draft which allowed the vessels to get close enough to shore to retrieve troops without the use of docks. Some of these vessels ferried troops to destroyers that waited further off-shore, while others sailed troops to England. This privately owned auxiliary fleet helped salvage one of Britain’s largest-ever military defeats and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

A year and a half later, the United States entered World War II. The military uneasily eyed the expansive, unprotected coast of Alaska and considered the logistical challenges of outfitting Alaska, still unconnected by road, for the war. The federal government assessed the “floating equipment” that was required to patrol Alaska’s coast, transport materials for the construction of military installations across the Territory, and transport troops to crew the newly-established posts. The military did not have the vessels required for the task. Similar to the nation’s British allies, the federal government turned to the private fleet to fill war-time transportation needs.

Military themes were adopted on salmon can labels. Courtesy Karen Hofstad. 

Military themes were adopted on salmon can labels. Courtesy Karen Hofstad. 

In Alaska, no other industry had the capacity to stand up to the challenge as well as the seafood industry. In 1944 alone, the federal government requisitioned 236 vessels from the seafood industry. In 1943, the commercial fishing trade journal Pacific Fisherman reported that “…military operations … have required the acquisition of a more varied fleet than has been the case elsewhere. The fishing vessels required for military service in Alaska have ranged from four-masted codfish schooners down to gillnet boats and dories, and have included cannery tenders, fish scows and pile drivers.”

Some vessels the military bought outright, while others were leased. At the time, most fishing activities centered around the salmon season, so canneries were able to earn money leasing equipment that otherwise laid idle during the rest of the year. Private fishermen, too, leased their vessels. John Molver of Petersburg made an agreement with the Assistant Secretary of Small Boat Procurement to lease his 61-foot packer/longliner Excel for $3000. The Navy painted her gray, placed a 30 caliber machine gun on her bow and a 20 millimeter anti-aircraft gun on her stern, and renamed her P-18 for the duration of her wartime service.

Some seafood industry vessels, like seiners, proved especially useful for the Pacific war effort. Seiners used in the tuna and sardine fishery were particularly prized, being lauded as “a vessel of utmost capability, while the design fits these boats admirably for use as minesweepers and similar duty. Moreover, they are capable of carrying full crews in comfortable quarters.”

Robinson Fisheries and Pacific Coast Codfish Company both had their fleets of codfish schooners requisitioned. Only one schooner continued to fish during the war, the rest of the vessels being converted into barges. The Sophie Christensen, for example, was towed to the Aleutian Islands and used to transport materials to the far-flung military outposts out west, plying the same waters that she usually sailed to fish for cod.

In many cases fishermen’s knowledge and aptitude were put to service in the military. As Pacific Fisherman opined, “Fishermen are hardy and handy, and equipped with particular skills which are in primary demand in a nation at war.”  Take fisherman Oliver Hofstad of Petersburg, who joined the Navy and was sent back to Alaska to captain the Excel, navigating in waters with which he was familiar.

The seafood industry provided other essential services to the federal government during World War II, like supplying food for the war effort. But surrendering vessels typically employed in catching, processing, and delivering fish in order to advance the Alaskan war effort certainly merits mention.