PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Korean War veteran Roger Gertenrich has a long history of public service and volunteerism. Now he is working to memorialize Portland’s maritime history, including its wartime ship building history and other links to naval history.
“Why hasn’t the maritime history been on display years ago? There is not even one sign of the Willamette River identifying it, yet it is the reason Portland exists,” Gertenrich said.
Since moving to Portland in in 1988, Gertenrich has built public and private support for an Outdoor Maritime Display with markers and artifacts along the Willamette River Greenway between the Marquam and Ross Island bridges on the west side of the river. Local companies that built Liberty Ships during WWII will be among those honored.
“My father served on a Liberty Ship,” said Gertenrich, revealing a personal interest in the project. It is expected to get underway when the city of Portland and the Zidell Corp. come to terms over redeveloping the barge building facility along the river in the South Waterfront neighborhood.
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More recently, Gertenrich arranged to save the smokestacks and anchor of the USS Oregon. They had been stored for years on the Zidell property but needed to be moved or scrapped. Gertenrich persuaded internationally recognized large scale mover Terry Emmert to relocate them to his headquarters and storage yard in Clackamas, where they will be restored and then put on public display at the Asian marketplace Emmert owns at Southeast Foster and 82nd Avenue.
The mast already is a memorial in Tom McCall Waterfront Park but the smokestacks and anchor are too large to fit there. The battleship was the third and final member of the Indiana class pre-dreadnought battleships built for the U.S. Navy in the 1890s. It helped win the Spanish-American War and demonstrated the strategic need for the Panama Canal before being decommissioned in 1919.
In 1920, the Navy loaned the ship to Portland to be used as a floating museum in the Willamette River. It was recommissioned and saw service again in WWII hauling ammunition in the Pacific before finally being scrapped locally in the 1950s. President Franklin Roosevelt call the USS Oregon the fourth most historic ship in America behind the USS Constitution, the USS Constellation and the USS Hartford.
“The smokestacks and anchor seemed headed for the scrapyard, which was definitely the wrong thing to do. Fortunately Terry stepped up when I asked him, and he moved them for free, too,” Gertenrich said.
Gertenrich was born on June 17, 1934, in Illinois to Roger and Merle Heurlin Gertenrich. His parents ran the Wild Rose Hotel in the 1940s and 1950s, and he attended Wild Rose High School, where he was class president, played basketball, baseball, volleyball and ran track.
After high school, Gertenrich went to Ripon College in Wisconsin, where he joined the ROTC. As a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, he served as the executive officer of a medical and dental unit in Korea from 1956 to 1958 before being discharged.
“I was stationed just below the DMZ for two cold winters. We spent much of our time helping Koreans who stepped on land mines,” Gertenrich said.
Gertenrich married Caryl Harrington on Dec. 21, 1959, in Cook County, Illinois. After Gertenrich earned a degree in dentistry from Northwestern University in Illinois, they moved to Salem because of Oregon’s outdoor recreational opportunities. Gertenrich initially practiced dentistry at the Fairview Training Center for the disabled. He found little medical literature about treating the disabled and began innovating services, such as modifying drinking cups for those with limited mobility. After a while, he published a few papers on his work.
“Suddenly I was a leading expert in the field,” Gertenrich said.
He went into private practice and served on numerous civic committees before being elected to the Salem City Council and subsequently serving as mayor from 1995 to 1996. Among other things, he spearheaded the restoration of the condemned downtown Elsinore Theater into a performing arts center and the creation of the acclaimed three-story high Eco-Earth Globe in the city’s Riverfront Park.
Roger and Caryle have four daughters. After he retired, the couple moved to Portland to see what the bigger city had to offer. They were among the first to move into one of the new apartment buildings in the emerging South Waterfront neighborhood, where Gertenrich ended up volunteering for several civic committees involved in planning the larger North Macadam Urban Renewal District.
After reading about the lack of a memorial to the Liberty Ship built in Portland during WWII in the Portland Tribune, Gertenrich began soliciting support for the maritime display project. Because of his work, he was appointed to the city’s North Reach River Plan Committee, which is helping to plan the part of the Willamette Greenway where the display will be located. The committee has endorsed it, and so has Mayor Ted Wheeler and dozens of businesses and nonprofit organizations, including the Oregon Historical Society and the Working Waterfront Coalition, which represents businesses in the Portland Harbor.
“The project is supported by liberals and conservatives, and it’s the right thing to do,” Gertenrich said.