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Eileen Colhour learned the story of her father surviving cannibalism ship in 1918

by: VERN UYETAKE - Eileen Colhour of Lake Oswego has the book that tells one of the most shocking stories of World War I. After so many years, the wreck of the SS Dumaru is still hard to believe.When the Staff Jennings Marina was recently closed to make way for the new Sellwood Bridge, it marked the end of a chapter of the history of this area.

Yet it also brought back memories of one of the most shocking and disturbing incidents of World War I: the sinking of the wooden steamship SS Dumaru after being struck by a bolt of lightning, and the horrifying aftermath in which survivors on an overcrowded lifeboat were forced to resort to cannibalism to SUBMITTED - The SS Dumaru was launched in the Willamette River in April of 1918. But it did not survive its maiden voyage six months later.

One of the 14 survivors of the original 32 on the ill-fated life raft was Stafford Jennings, then just an 18-year-old lad who had thought he was going on a high-seas adventure with his father, Harold D. Jennings, in October of 1918. The Dumaru (pronounced DOOM-aru) was launched from Portland on its maiden voyage, with the mission of transporting a cargo of munitions to Manila in the Philippines. Instead, the Dumaru proved to be a death ship.

Eileen Colhour of Lake Oswego knows this tragic story so well because her father survived and her grandfather died. Because her father never talked about the incident, it was difficult for Colhour to discover what had happened. Over the years, she slowly gathered the facts.

“To see his dad buried at sea, that was horrible for him,” Colhour said. “Staff was very, very close to his dad. It was such a fluke what happened. The other rescue boat took off early. There were only nine survivors on it, but it had most of the supplies. It was awful later for my grandmother because for a long time she didn’t know if her son or her husband had died.”

Harold and Staff Jennings were anticipating only a routine adventure at the beginning. But some people thought the Dumaru was doomed from the start because when it was launched it drifted clear across the Willamette River. An old sea proverb was that a ship was doomed when it had trouble getting launched.

Doom arrived on Oct. 16, 1918, when a terrific electrical storm broke out over the ocean near Guam. One bolt of lightning hit nearby, then another. The third bolt hit the Dumaru, causing the decks to break out in flames that moved quickly toward the cargo of high explosives. It would be only minutes before the ship blew up, and the crew and passengers (46 in total) had to act quickly to save their lives. But the evacuation of the ship was poorly executed, with one lifeboat getting only nine survivors. They were saved nine days later. Five more clung to a raft that managed to stay within the vicinity of the ship and were later rescued. Meanwhile, the second lifeboat, with hardly any food or water on board, filled up with 32 survivors, and their journey into a nightmare began. The little boat drifted at sea for 1,000 miles and 24 days.

In the end 16 passengers died during the open sea voyage, and those who lived were forced to devour the bodies of the dead.

Colhour noted, “My dad swore he didn’t eat anything.”

Even the deliverance of the survivors was cruel when it came on Nov. 9, just two days before the end of World War I, on a small island in the Philippines. When their lifeboat finally reached shore, it was met by crashing waves, and the survivors again had to fight for their lives as they battled to get over the jagged coral reef and reach safety. Two of them couldn’t make it and their bodies were washed out to sea.

In its dramatic report of the incident in 1919, Popular Science monthly magazine wrote this account: “We 14 survivors knelt down on the beach and gave thanks.”

The tragedy remained fresh in the public mind for years, and in 1930 Lowell Thomas, the most famous journalist of his day, wrote a book entitled “The Wreck of the Dumaru.” It had a striking cover: a black background with an orange lightning bolt in the foreground.

Eileen Colhour has a copy of that book, and she worked hard to get copies of it for her grandchildren. Still, the wreck of the Dumaru remains difficult to believe.

“What happened is hard to imagine,” Colhour said, “especially when you read the letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother on the way to Guam. The last letter came from Hawaii, right out of Guam, as they were heading toward the Philippines.”

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