Dr. Phil Corson was ten years old and one of the first to discover the dike had broke. He sent his memories to the Vanport Mosaic, and we are thrilled to share them with you! We are continuing recording oral histories of those who lived in Vanport, but we are starting to gather and publish essays and written memories in an effort to honor everyone's story. If you need our support to record yours or your loved ones' memories, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We were no different than hundreds of other families who moved into Vanport so dad could work for Kaiser Shipyards. The war effort was humming at top speed with one Victory ship created every day. I was little brother at age six in 1944 and the five of us moved into a tiny little two bedroom apartment and mom cooked on a two burner hotplate. It was kinda funny, but we really didn't know that we were poor.
When I was nine, dad made ice carts for my big brother and me to carry 50 & 100 pound cakes of ice from the ice house to ice boxes in other apartments. Once or twice I dumped one on the ground but I wasn't big enough to put it back in the cart. Us kids played marbles, carved wooden rubber guns using strips of old tire tubes and when we played cowboys and indians we used sticky stripes of paper from Swifts Meat packing plant for our makeshift headdresses.
But my most vivid memory was of Memorial Day 1948 when Vanport, the second largest city in Oregon, disappeared under ten feet of water from the Columbia River. It was flood season again and rumors were rampant that the dyke might not hold that year and the city would be flooded. My adult uncle Tom was visiting from the east coast and we got on two bikes that beautiful Sunday afternoon to ride about a mile north to check on the condition of the dyke. What I saw is with me today, imprinted on the mind of a ten year old. The railroad track which was on top of the dyke was now hanging over a gaping hole in the dyke and water from the Columbia River was rushing in with great force.
Uncle Tom and I sped back home yelling the dyke has broken, the dyke has broken! I will never know how many believed a ten year old, but it gave my parents several minutes head start on the rush to drive out. Mom made my older brother and me promise to take Spot, the dog of our out of town neighbors, and ride our bikes straight to our favorite gas station on Lombard Street. When we rode up onto Interstate Road, we stood and looked back at the most enthralling scene two young boys could ever see. The dozens of 14 unit apartment buildings were beginning to float around and crash into each other. Wow! What drama! Finally, my brother said, let's go! I will never forget my frantic mother standing off the curb at the gas station on Lombard looking for her boys.
Officials said only a couple dozen were killed by the flood that fateful day, but we know that there were many more than that. Just in our unit alone, two wonderful older ladies were killed. Mrs. Wonderlin was invited by her neighbor upstairs to ride out the flood, but they were never seen alive again. I have a VCR tape of footage taken from the air by a friend of our family. The film was so good that Newsreel paid him to use it on national television. If you would like to see it, let me know. After 68 years, the Vanport flood is still a vivid memory.