USS Donner shipmates visit namesake
Kenneth Winter was a young Navy crane operator when his boat, the USS Donner, was sent to retrieve a space ape floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite a leaking space capsule and rough seas, Ham the chimpanzee was hoisted aboard the USS Donner alive and well in January 1961 after a brief trip to space.
Monday, as Winter led his USS Donner association members around Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, the story of Ham was only one of the many sea tales swapped between old shipmates.
Dozens of USS Donner crewmembers from all over the United States visited the park to see firsthand the history that led to the naming of their U.S. Navy vessel.
They gathered beneath the Donner Party monument to honor departed veterans and commemorate the pioneer spirit that led to the naming of their ship.
“The ship was named not only for the Donner Party, but for the whole westward migration and the fortitude it took,” said Greg Hackett, supervising park ranger for California State Parks, who welcomed the visitors.
Former sailor Ed Smith didn’t know about the origins of the ship’s name before serving aboard the vessel “everywhere from Thule, Greenland to Aruba,” he said.
“I don’t think they’re naming ships after disasters anymore,” said Smith with a laugh, referring to the ship’s connection to the disastrous Donner Party expedition.
The ship was a 458-foot-long “Loading Ship Dock” or LSD for short, although Smith said the running joke on board was that LSD stood for “Large Sitting Duck.”
The vessel had a helicopter pad, which made it the flagship for the recovery missions of orbital space capsules. It was in service in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Atlantic from 1946 to 1970.
The USS Donner is gone now, made into “razor blades” in 2004 after sitting in a scrap yard in Brownsville, Texas, Smith said.
But the memories for the dozens of Donner veterans live on.
Jim Phillips from Ohio remembers the two times the ship was ripped apart by huge chunks of ice off of Greenland.
“There is nothing like the sound of metal ripping apart,” Phillips said.
The veterans said their time on the ship did more than forge lasting memories.
“I think we all got our direction in life from the Donner,” said Ron Luxon, who was on board when the ship retrieved Ham the chimpanzee.
Winter, who went on to become an electrician from the skills he learned on the ship, agreed.
“It helped me the rest of my life,” Winter said.
The USS Donner by the numbers
— Length: 458 feet
— Weight: 9,375 tons
— Top speed: 17 knots
— Crew: 332 sailors
— Armaments: one 5-inch gun; 12, 40mm machine guns and 16, 20mm machine guns
— Carrying capacity: nine helicopters and 40 small landing craft
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