What does a shipwreck off the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the 1960s have to do with Melville Jacoby's death across the Pacific during World War II?
A lot, if you knew the ship that sank was originally christened the S.S. Melville Jacoby.
That's the invitation my family received from the Walsh-Kaiser Company and the United States Maritime Commission for the 1944 launch of the Melville Jacoby. The ship was one of 2,710 liberty ships built during World War II to ferry supplies for the U.S. War effort.
A few years after the war, the ship was sold. Renamed a few times, it finally became known as the S.S. Dominator. It sailed under that name until one foggy night off the coast of Los Angeles. That night, fifty-one years ago today, the S.S. Dominator, née the S.S. Melville Jacoby, sunk off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. According to the Web site of the California Wreck Divers, the ship carried a cargo of beef and wheat from Vancouver, B.C. bound for the Port of Los Angeles, just around the bend from the point where the ship wrecked. Two days of crew and Coast Guard efforts to save the ship failed (and may have led to rescuers' shipwrecks as well), and the wreckage remains to this day.
Another Web site has an even more detailed description of the wreck and the salvage operation (if this topic interests you, do check out the epic word document about the shipwreck and salvage linked on that site). One artist even painted a great depiction of the wreckage and the beach.
Perhaps the most interesting consequence of the shipwreck is what LAist describes in a 2008 "LAistory" story, which also has a good description of the Dominator's demise and the salvage operation that followed. According to the LAist piece, thousands of tons of grain that spilled from the ship fed generations of lobster crawling across the wreckage (most likely because the porridge that emerged from the ship drew insects and other creatures that in turn attracted the lobster).
Of course, all of this is only tangentially related to Melville Jacoby's already fascinating story. I think, though, with the tragedy and sadness that comes with the death of such a young man, it's encouraging that this ship became a fixture for Southern California residents and visitors. Sure, it wasn't the greatest news that the ship named after him eventually sank, but there's some poetry in the fact it gave root to a marine ecosystem. In a way, it's a reminder that some aspects of Mel's legacy persist in new ways.
Jackee, my great aunt, reminded me about the ship this weekend. Since she lives in the L.A. area, she was able to pick up a piece of the wreckage after the shipwreck. She still has it, though she's not certain what part of the boat it came from. The twisted piece of metal now graces her yard, as you can see here.
Though shipwrecks aren't particularly positive affairs, there's something about this thread of the Melville Jacoby story that heartens me. It helps that nobody died in the shipwreck. Sure, naming a ship doesn't bring back a lost loved one. Nor does the random debris from that ship's destruction. But meaning is so individually defined that it's no less poetic that this tribute to Mel found its way back to his family.
Moreover, it now appears that the ship's wreckage is a popular hiking destination for Angelenos.
Hey, perhaps you'll get a chance to see the remains of the S.S. Melville Jacoby yourself. Two people willing to back my project at my top tier -- $10,000 -- will get a custom train trip and tour of the Los Angeles sites of significance to Melville Jacoby's life. I'd be happy to lead you on a hike down to the wreckage as part of that visit. Perhaps we'll later dine on some Palos Verdes lobster! And though support at that level will definitely be welcome, any backing, even a few dollars, is thrilling, and I look forward to keeping you up to date on this project.
Special thanks to Marc V. Nessen, who first brought the S.S. Melville Jacoby to my attention in a comment on my Web site a couple years ago.