The USS Donner: Warship’s name anchored in the Sierra
The Donner name has become well known nationwide as a result of the tragedy that occurred at both Donner Lake and on Alder Creek in the winter of 1846-47.
From the Donner family we get Donner Lake and Donner Pass. Using Donner Pass, the United States Navy named a fighting ship.
The USS Donner was commissioned on July 3, 1945 and launched from the Boston Navy Yard on April 6, 1946. The designation of the ship was that of a Landing Ship Dock, meant to carry and serve as a floating dock for landing craft of various sizes.
The ship was planned during the final stages of World War II, but was launched after the war was over. Like many ships in the postwar period, she cruised to many places around the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea from her home at the Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia.
The ship was 457 feet 9 inches long and weighed in at 9,375 tons with a top speed of 17 knots. Her draft was 16 feet allowing for work up close to shorelines in landing craft support. The ship was built to have a crew of 332 sailors.
The ship could defend itself from minor attacks with a five inch gun, twelve 40mm machine guns and 16 20mm guns for landing craft cover fire.
The ship had a helicopter deck in the aft section capable of carrying 9 helicopters. Under that deck was a flooded well dock that launched and docked a variety of landing craft for shore invasion. It could carry and support as many as 40 small landing craft, or as few as 3 large landing craft.
The back of the ship had hinged doors that allowed landing craft in and out. It had large cranes to load and unload the craft and cargo from the deck into the well dock.
The USS Donner’s first captain was Lieutenant Commander P.V. McPeake. The shake-down runs kept the Donner on the East Coast performing boat pools. In November of 1946 she sailed for the Mediterranean, followed by voyages to Argentina, Newfoundland, Labrador and the Carribean. At the time she was attached to the Second Fleet.
As the war-time Navy shrunk to a much smaller peacetime level, many ships, including the USS Donner, were placed in a reserve fleet. In August, 1949 the Donner was decommissioned and sent to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, the eastern counterpart to the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay.
Her stay was not long as the Donner was recommissioned in September of 1950 and assigned to the 6th fleet based at Norfolk. Cruising from warm tropics of the Caribbean to the icy waters off Greenland, off to the Mediterranean again, she steamed her way around the Atlantic Ocean region during the 1950s.
The Donner was one of the task force of Navy ships that cruised up the newly dedicated Saint Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes in 1959.
In 1960 the Donner was overhauled and modernized at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and joined the space age.
As America entered the Space Age, the first missions were the Mercury-Redstone missions. These rocket launches required an ocean recovery, and these tasks were assigned to the Navy. The USS Donner was given the flagship role of the capsule recovery.
The Donner was involved in recovering the first two Mercury Redstone instrument laden capsules. These 15 minute sub-orbital flights in 1961 were the first attempts at rocket science.
The third flight was the most important as it contained a chimpanzee named Ham. On January 31, 1961, the Donner was in position in the Atlantic off of Florida, with a small fleet of ships for the 16 minute flight. The group, commanded by Admiral Reed, monitored the expected splashdown site from the Donner.
As primitive as things were in the early space flights, the exact location was a bit unpredictable. A launch miscalculation sent it 40 miles higher than expected. The capsule did not land where it was expected and the Donner led group began a search by air and sea towards the observed site.
The air search found the nose cone 60 miles from the nearest ship, and the Donner launched helicopters on a flight to recovery the capsule. By being buffeted by ocean waves longer than planned, damage to the capsule was extensive and an extra 800 pounds of seawater had seeped in.
Still it took two hours for the helicopter to lift the capsule, laying on its side instead of upright, off of the ocean and fly it back to the Donner.
Waiting nervously on board the ship were crews who opened the capsule and found Ham in good condition. Ham was taken to the ship’s sick bay and given a physical examination, which he passed with flying colors.
The Donner continued as Admiral Reed’s Sixth Fleet flagship on cruises to South Africa and the Southern Atlantic for the rest of 1961. She spent the rest of the 1960s on missions around the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Atlantic Ocean, doing her part in the Cold War with the Soviet empire.
The Donner was decommissioned in December of 1970 and again placed in the Reserve Fleet. She was struck from the Naval Register in 1976, and moved to the
National Defense Reserve Fleet in the James River.
Her service earned her four medals, the American campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, two National Defense Service Medals, and two Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals.
The Donner was taken to Texas in 2004 on her last voyage, where she was cut up for scrap metal in 2005.
The men who sailed the USS Donner L.S.D. 20 live on. They are spread out all over the country but have reunions on a regular basis. This year’s reunion is based in Reno, but will be in Truckee, visiting Donner Lake on May 1.