Times were tough. The Great Depression dragged into its 9th year as war clouds were gathering in Europe.
Many folks were barely hanging on.
When the ship Norwegian Elg ran aground in heavy fog during the early morning hours of September 9, 1938 to some it seemed like their ship had come in, though some would pay at the cost of their lives. There was a mad rush to the beach to scavenge what had been thrown overboard in the attempt to re-float the ship. A range of human drama plays out on the beach as fortune appears to be on the horizon.
It was the big news of the day, the paper to generated a rare local four-column-wide photo topped with a full page headline.
Racial prejudices of the era can be seen in the writing. Three years later, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor Japanese families were taken from their west coast homes and sent to internment camps.
From the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram, September 13, 1938:
Deaths, fights mark lumber salvaging
Battle over timber
Drownings, fist fights, heroic rescues and arguments over ownership of jettisoned timber made news Tuesday on the waterfront at Oceano as crowds of milling people scrambled for the lumber thrown overboard from the cargo motorship Elg which went ashore on the Oceano beach Friday at 2 a.m., and was still fast in the sand Tuesday despite repeated efforts to dislodge her.
Says 7 Drowned
A telegram from the master of the ship to M.R. Van Wormer, district attorney, Tuesday noon, stated that seven had been drowned and many more were endangered.
The second authenticated report of a drowning was made Tuesday morning when a police report from Santa Maria asked local authorities to aid in recovering the body of John Simpson, 17, of Santa Maria. Parents of the young man stated another Santa Maria lad had reported to them that the two youths were together in deep water near the Elg when young Simpson was seen to go down. His companion was certain he had been drowned when he failed to reappear above the waves after a long search.
The first reported drowning was a Japanese, Yutaka Tanaka, 21, reported drowned at 6:30 a.m., after being struck by a heavy piece of lumber tossed toward him in the choppy sea.
Witnesses saw the young Japanese raise his arm in signal of distress, then disappear. His uncle, T. Tanaka, of Arroyo Grande, later obtained a small boat and made an unsuccessful search for the body.
The body of Tanaka was found Monday at 8:15 p.m. by Harlan Ramage of the State Highway Patrol, and Golden of the Marine Patrol, about 100 yards from the point where the Oso Flaco creek empties into the ocean.
Oceano Beach Monday had the aspect of a gold rush. Trucks, trailers and tractors arrived from points as far away as Paso Robles and Santa Maria to carry away loads of lumber varying from a few hundreds of board feet to thousands of board feet. Stories circulated regarding men being hired by contractors at $1 and even $1.50 an hour to salvage the lumber as it washed ashore. Excited salvagers declared this one or that one had salvaged quantities as large as 40,000 or 50,000 board feet of the jettisoned cargo.
Customs officials told anxious inquirers they had good legal right to the lumber when Sheriff Harry Haskins and Deputies Charles Lewellen and Ed Skinner appeared and raised doubts regarding ownership.
To Maintain Order.
Sheriff Haskins stated Tuesday morning that he and his deputies were at the beach for the purpose of maintaining order after reports of a number of fights between salvagers.
"I have no statement to make regarding whether it is legal for persons to carry the lumber away," Sheriff Haskins stated Tuesday. "That is a matter for lawyers to decide."
Trucks loaded with lumber from the beach were turned back by customs officers Tuesday at 2 p.m. following receipt of word from the San Luis Obispo County officers. Lumber was still being thrown overboard, however, and hundreds were wading ans swimming after it, apparently as heedless of the demands of the ship's captain to stop "stealing" it as they were of the waves that buffeted them about.
Meanwhile, boats continued to pull on the beached vessel and had turned her almost 45 degrees, with nose toward the shore instead of broadside.
Saves a Life.
Hero stories also marked Monday. At 6:15 p.m. Monday Fred Eslich, Pismo Beach, saved the life of Irwin Stewart of Paso Robles, who was caught in the currents 150 feet from the beach and was going down when Eslich, who saw his predicament from the beach reached him and succeeded in towing him to safety.
Elwyn Righetti, 22, Edna Road, San Luis Obispo, was rescued early Monday and revived with artificial respiration. He was reported in good condition Monday evening.
Truman Wilson, 35, who lives 1 1/2 miles south of Pismo Beach on Highway 101, was rescued from the waves, revived with artificial respiration and taken to the office of Dr. Justin Frank for further treatment.
Jess Urey, acting sergeant of the State Highway Patrol in San Luis Obispo, gave artificial respiration to Wilson and later took him to the doctor. Sergeant Urey said Wilson showed little sign of life when the assistance was given.
One man had all the fingers of his right hand crushed when it was caught between two large timbers in the surf, it was reported, and a woman lost three fingers of her right hand, it was stated.
With the tide conditions favorable Tuesday, it was believed that the Elg may be floated within another 24 hours.
Move Ship Slightly
Towing operations Monday night succeeded in moving the bow of the vessel toward the open sea and gave the salvagers reason to believe the hull was not deep in the sands as had been feared. With either the bow or stern free of the bottom and in position where the tugs could work the ship toward deep water the chances of getting the vessel off the beach without further lightening the cargo were considered good.
Two tugs and the coast guard cutter Itanca were standing by Tuesday morning to continue towing operations at the next high tide at 11:30 a.m.
Henry Z. Fune of Avila, professional diver, who made a survey of the underwater conditions of the Elg's hull, had no bad leaks to report Tuesday morning and it was believed that the damages to the vessel as a result of the grounding on the beach have not been serious.
Ingenuity and the human element were apparent in scores of incidents among the thousands along two miles of beach Monday and Tuesday as many scrambled for the lumber in hopes of building or selling their garnered hoards.
Two man were seen fighting viciously over a single stick.
Blood streamed down the face of one. Both had been on the beach all night and suddenly decided to fight for their "rights". Emulating King Solomon of old a conciliator arrived and after "talking reason" for a few moments settled the dispute by sawing the timber in two. Both contestants went away satisfied.
Knowing an opportunity when he saw one a man sent his small daughter to Pismo for a quantity of frankfurters and rolls and set up a hotdog stand on the rear of his truck while waiting to move up the beach where he could salvage lumber.
A trick that netted much lumber to several and resulted in two of the reported drownings was invented by some of the good swimmers. Swimming out to the side of the ship where the lumber was being thrown into the sea in bunches of several pieces at a time, these adventurers managed to get ropes around the bundles before the lumber separated and built rafts. One of these rafts was caught by the currents and swept around the stern of the Elg, the erstwhile raftsman abandoning his treasure and swimming back to safety just in time.
Three rescues were effected by crew members of the Elg who put a small boat overside when it was seen that three young men had reached the ship's side exhausted after swimming from shore and were in immediate danger.
Fishing launches and other small craft from Avila swarmed about the Elg all of Monday and were on hand again early Tuesday. Varying loads of lumber were hauled aboard the small boats according to the skill of the boat-men and the loads dispatched to safer points high and dry at Avila.
"Stole" His Lumber
Weary watchers who had stood by piles of lumber along more than a mile of beach through Sunday night, waiting for trucks to arrive had difficulties galore. A man, red-eyed from sleeplessness, said he had left his wife to watch his salvaged lumber while he left to find food and on his return his wife weepingly reported that strangers with a truck had pushed her aside and taken the lumber.
Hundreds built campfires and stayed with piles of lumber prepared to fight if necessary to protect their holdings. Some went hungry, some were well supplied with food wand hot coffee by members of their families or friends. Partnerships were formed and squabbles arose.
Consternation was rife regarding what was happening or would happen following the arrival on the beach of Sheriff Haskins and his deputies. It was claimed that the sheriff had ordered watchers away from their piled lumber and ordered lumber unloaded from trucks. Rumor exaggerated these stories. Another rumor spread by the lumber salvagers was that an argument had ensued between county and federal officers. Sheriff Haskings stuck to his story Tuesday, however, that his purpose in going to the beach was to maintain peace. He reported no serious fighting.
Sergeant Urey and other officers of the highway patrol, along with local and county officers, worked without pause at the beach to maintain order and to prevent accidents. Urey said people were turned back at Oceano only in the interests of their own safety after a headon collision and many minor accidents had happened.
District Attorney M.R. Van Wormer who received a telegram Tuesday noon from the master of the ship, demanding that the county prevent further "stealing" of the lumber and asking that the sheriff patrol the beach in order to prevent further drownings and thefts, went to the beach Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Van Wormer said he would further advise the sheriff regarding the law in the matter and would advise the people gathering up the lumber that the ship's master is claiming the lumber and if they persist in taking it they will face arrest for grand theft or petty theft, depending on the amount of lumber they were taking.
In the opinion of the district attorney, Sheriff Haskins has not exercised all his powers in protecting the lumber, under the marine law.
Officers were investigating the possibility of another drowning Tuesday when Sergeant Urey of the Highway Patrol received a small purse and automobile operator's license which had been washed ashore, found by William Budones of Pismo Beach. It was in the name of Wade Briton Manlove, 1313 South Main street, Larned Kansas, 18 years old, five feet seven inches tall, dark hair and brown eyes and weighing 100 pounds.
The following day's story said that the ship was floated at 11 pm Tuesday and under tow to dry dock in San Fransisco. The rudder was gone but the hull was undamaged after 5 days on the beach. United States deputy marshals moved in early Wednesday and seized lumber on the beach. Salvors at the Oceano Pavillion willing to pay duty were allowed to haul it away.
A strong foreshadowing of World War II was front page news that day. Adolph Hitler was marching troops into Czechoslovakian territory, Sudetenland, to take it for Germany. Europe tried to appease Germany and avoid war with peace conferences. A little over a year later war would become a hard reality with Germany's invasion of Poland. I was surprised to see the name of my grandmother's brother in the list of lumber salvage survivors. Six years later Elwyn Righetti would be shot down during a World War II mission, flying a P-51 fighter plane over Germany. His body was never recovered.
Another ship, the Ellin, would run aground further south in 1963.