Seattle Port of Embarkation begins operations on January 17, 1942.

  • By Alan Stein
  • Posted 12/08/2014
  • Essay 10986
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On January 17, 1942, the Seattle Port of Embarkation begins operations at Pier A (later Pier 36) on Seattle's waterfront. Over the next 14 years, the Port of Embarkation will become one of the United States Army's busiest terminals for moving troops and supplies overseas during both World War II and the Korean War.

A Beehive of Activity

Prior to World War II, the movement of supplies and troops from the Northwest across the Pacific was handled by the Seattle Quartermaster Depot and the Army Transportation Service. On November 1, 1941, the army's San Francisco Port of Embarkation -- which had jurisdiction over warehouses and docking space for army vessels all along the West Coast -- established the Seattle Sub-Port of Embarkation, based at Piers A and B (later renamed Piers 36 and 37.)

The distinction as a sub-port didn't last long. War broke out one month later, and on January 17, 1942, the Seattle Port of Embarkation began operating independently from the San Francisco port, and quickly became a strategic link in handling the growing numbers of troops and supplies needed in Alaska, Canada, and the Aleutian Islands. Military needs became so great that Piers C and D (later renamed Piers 38 and 39) were built to accommodate more ships.

Throughout the war, the Port of Embarkation was constantly busy. The exact number of troops and supplies were kept secret from the public, as were the exact number of military personnel and civilians who worked at the facility. Nevertheless, Seattle watched as countless ships sailed in and out, practically around the clock.

Postwar Service

The Port of Embarkation stayed in operation after World War II ended in 1945, and although it handled less shipping traffic than it did during the height of the war, it became very active again once the Korean War began in 1950. But after that conflict ended in 1953, the army began investigating the use of cargo planes to move supplies faster and more efficiently.

In 1955, the army changed the official name of the Seattle Port of Embarkation to the Seattle Army Terminal. With the country no longer at war, there was no need for secrecy as to the amount of traffic the port generated, and the numbers the army released were staggering. Since its start of operations in 1942, the Seattle Port of Embarkation had handled more than 39,000,000 tons of cargo, and more than 3,325,000 passengers had passed through its gates to and from military destinations in the Pacific, Far East, and Alaska.

In 1957, the Department of Defense closed the Seattle Army Terminal, and consolidated its West Coast operations in Oakland, California. In 1964, Piers 36, 37, 38, and 39 were purchased by the Port of Seattle, and in 1966, it began leasing Pier 36 to the United States Coast Guard. The other piers were later incorporated into a container terminal.

Sources: "Big Army Depot Here Declared NW Key Point," The Seattle Times, November 25, 1941, p. 17; "New Terminal Soon Available," The Seattle Times, April 13, 1942, p. 13; "Seattle Port of Embarkation Heart of Great War Machine," The Seattle Times., March 8, 1944, p. 4; "War Causes Big Rise in Port Volume," The Seattle Times, August 13, 1950, p. 22; "More Than Birthday, A Regional Milestone," The Seattle Times, July 29, 1955, p. 7; "Former Seattle Port of Embarkation Sold to Port," The Seattle Times, September 11, 1964; James W. Hamilton, and William J. Bolce, Jr., Gateway to Victory: The Wartime Story of the San Francisco Army Port of Embarkation (Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 1946); Kit Oldham, Peter Blecha, and the HistoryLink Staff, Rising Tides and Tailwinds: The Story of the Port of Seattle, 1911-2011 (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 2011); Richard Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: from Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992).

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