Local Architect Helped Naval War Effort

G. Sam Piatt

August 17, 2009

When he graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1938, James Donaldson knew his vocational calling was to be an architect. His father, Charles M. Donaldson, was a long-time Portsmouth architect. He served in World War I and started the business right after the war. He designed many of Portsmouths early school buildings. Young Jim had worked for his fathers office off and on since he was 8 years old.
And so that fall he was off to The Ohio State University to work toward a degree in architecture, a course of study requiring five years to complete. He sailed through his freshman year and there did not appear to be any obstacle on the horizon that could interfere with his plan to graduate and join his fathers firm.
But on Sept. 1, 1939, there was an event taking place 5,000 miles away, in central Europe, that would eventually affect the plans of young American men all across the nation. Hitlers German armies invaded Poland on that date and many historians consider that atrocity to be the beginning of World War II.
World War II would kill more people, cost more money, damage more property, bring about more far-reaching changes -- it opened the Atomic Age -- than any other war in history.
More than 50 countries took part in the war, and every nation on earth felt its effects.
Bombers and guided rockets rained death and destruction on soldiers, sailors and civilians alike.
The number of people killed, wounded or missing from September 1939 until Japan surrendered in September 1945 can never be calculated. More than 9 million Allied servicemen and about 6 million men from the Axis countries died in the war.
America entered the war just after Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. As Donaldson finished his fourth year at Ohio State in the spring of 1942, he wasnt sure if the draft would get him or not.
I had taken extra courses in celestial navigation, and rather than wait to see if the draft board would call, I went down to the Army Air Force recruiters office and told them I wanted to be a navigator on one of the big bombers, he said. But I couldnt pass the physical. My eyesight was so bad that the recruiter told me to go home and forget about the military.
But in 1943, as Donaldson was about to get his degree in architecture, Navy recruiters came onto the Ohio State campus and told students how desperately in need they were for architects and engineers.
Civilians working for the Navy had already proven their great worth to the military. In late 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked the Navys Bureau of Ships to design a landing craft that could cross the ocean with vehicles and have a bow with such a shallow draw that it could pull in and disgorge its war machines right on to enemy beachheads.
Architects, led by John Niedemair, went to work on it and designed the LST (Landing Ship, Tanks). It was just more than 300 feet long and could carry more than 2,000 tons of tanks and vehicles. More than 1,000 LSTs were built and they helped turn the course of the war in favor of America and its Allies.
Donaldson agreed to go if he could be allowed to graduate.
They agreed to let me finish that last quarter. So, with my bachelors degree in architecture in hand, I graduated from OSU on a Friday and the following Monday I was in Washington, D.C., working for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships, he said. Our drawing boards and offices were located just off the National Mall in buildings erected during World War I. They are, of course, all gone now.
Donaldson was first assigned to the Hull Arrangements section, working on battleships. He was on the shakedown cruise of the mighty USS Iowa (BB 61) out of Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic coast. The 887-foot long battleship carried a compliment of 2,800 men and had nine 16-inch guns and 20 five-inch guns.
She was brand new. This was before she had been turned over to the Navy. When they shifted from full forward to full reverse, I thought she was going to pull herself apart, Donaldson said. We spent a week or two on there. I came back and designed spaces for various parts of the ship, along with sleeping quarters and galleys.
They had cast iron mailboxes like the civilian post offices have. When they fired those big guns the lids would fall off the boxes. I invented a new style boxes of welded steel that could withstand the shaking. I guess that might have been my main contribution to the war office.
Eventually he was taken off design and put in Materials and Repair Scheduling.
The Japanese Kamikaze pilots were damaging our aircraft carriers, which had to be repaired and gotten back to sea fast. I worked then on both coasts. Some of them were brought into Newport News and some of them into Seattle, so I was out of Washington most of the time for a while.
In November 1943 he married Frances Clara Elkins and brought her from Portsmouth to Washington for the remainder of the war. They experienced Washington life as much as could be enjoyed by an architect working for the Bureau of Ships during the black-out days of war.
We lived in an apartment run by a Danish lady who lived in the other half. We shared a bathroom with her, a door leading from each apartment. That was interesting, Donaldson said. There was an Italian family lived just down the street from us. They had a lot of kids. I bet you they ate a washtub of spaghetti for supper most every night.
With the surrender of Japan, Donaldsons temporary war service appointment ended. He and Frances Clara piled into the car, headed west, and were glad to be home in Portsmouth again.
They set up housekeeping. Jim went to work with his father. Some of the structures he designed include the Alexandria House in Portsmouth and the John Glenn Memorial Hospital in Concord, Ohio.
He and his wife have five children and one granddaughter. Frances Clara died in 2002, just a few days before what would have been their 60th wedding anniversary. Donaldson lives alone now in Hill View Retirement Center.
It was a dreadful war, yet it was an exciting time to be alive and to know that you contributed in some small way to your countrys efforts in preserving democracy, Donaldson said.

G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.