Nick Bez and the Pacific Explorer
We’ve been getting ready to teach, and that means we have been thinking about telling stories about the development of fishing and fisheries science in the Pacific. This is one of our favorite things to do, and it’s pretty challenging, since there so many pieces missing. As we often lament, there is not a great deal of scholarship on Pacific fishery issues!
Bob Hitz has been busy exploring the early days of the Experimental Gear Group, headed by Lee Alverson, during the early 1950s. And that brings up the four 80-foot steel trawlers that pioneered much of the early oceanography and fishery work, not only on the West Coast, but nationally as well: the Oregon, the Washington, the California, and the Alaska.
And bringing up the boats brings up the curious story of how the boats were built, and that is the story of Nick Bez and the Pacific Explorer. In 1946, the Pacific Explorer was the world’s largest and most expensive fishing boat. It was the flagship that was going to pioneer the Pacific fisheries frontier, from the waters off Alaska to the Mandated Islands, staking an American claim on for king crab, bottomfish, and, most importantly, tuna. It made two voyages, was sold for scrap, and then vanished from sight.
The government sank $3.5 million into refurbishing an old World War I tanker and transforming it into the world’s largest and most expensive fishing boat. It was going to do it all: fish for bottomfish, use tangle nets for king crab in Alaska, and scout for tuna in the Mandated Islands. When it wasn’t fishing, it was going to do research and Milner B. Schaefer (known to his friends as Benny and one of the intellectual lights of post-war American fisheries science) signed on as its first research biologist (we wonder if he left it off his resume after that)?
When we to graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, as part of the coursework, we arranged to do a work study in the archives at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library (a beautiful building that is sadly, now closed). Under the guidance of archivist Deborah Day, we were going to archive some of the massive collection of material the American Tuna Association has turned over to the library. There were 236 boxes, from the days when the ATA, from its offices on the dock in San Diego, One Tuna Lane, was the headquarters for development of the tuna industry in the Pacific.
It was fascinating stuff, a rich collection of broth, everything from gas receipts to lists of groceries supplied to the boats, newspaper clippings and pictures. But mostly there were letters, reams and reams of letters.
We started with the correspondence of George Wallace, who was head of the ATA in 1947. The folder labeled the “Panama Correspondence,” mainly between Wallace and the ATA’s agent in Balboa, Paul A. Sullivan. In April of 1947, Sullivan wrote that Nick Bez was in town with the boat and that the president and his wife had been spotted on board. Who was Nick Bez? And why would a president and his wife be onboard a tuna fishing boat? And then I found Wallace’s reply, dated April 15, 1947:
“We received your wire Sunday morning advising us of the arrival of the “Pacific Explorer” with the President and his wife and party onboard. This is the first news we have had on this development, and it was very interesting and suggestive apparently of the fact that the President evidentialy isn’t much concerned of whether or not this was known. Surely, our connections at San Jose will pounce on this choice bit of information and use it to good advantage in their propaganda. It definitely confirms the relation of the power that be there with the Bez crowd.”
“PS: I intend to be in Washington, D.C. on April 24th to attend the hearing that is to come off there regarding the “Pacific Explorer.” We are hopeful that the result of that hearing may be the end of the “Pacific Explorer” in those waters—but then again we are not sure.”
Once a newspaper reporter, always a newspaper reporter. We started collecting anything we could find on Nick Bez—and it turned out to be a lot. Bez was one of the dominant figures in the industrialization of the West Coast fishing industry, the first man to start an airline between Seattle and Alaska, and, most famously the man who rowed the boat when President Harry Truman came to town ion September of 1945. Two days after the Truman visit, Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson announced that the Defense Plant Corporation would make a $2 million loan to the newly formed Pacific Exploration Company, headed by Bez, to engage in exploratory deep-sea fishing on the continental shelf off the coast of Alaska. The exploration would be done using a 423-foot World War I freighter, turned into the world’s largest fishing boat, the Pacific Explorer.
By the time the conversion of the Pacific Explorer was completed in late 1946, Bez had become a national figure, a penniless immigrant who now owned three of the largest canneries in Alaska and two gold mines.
He was born Nikola Bezmalinovic, on Aug. 25, 1895, on the island of Brac in the Adriatic Sea, the oldest of six children. He learned to fish as a child. When he was fifteen, he borrowed $50 from his father and booked passage to New York, where he worked in a Brooklyn restaurant for the train fare west, where there was a community of Dalmatians in Tacoma, Wash. He shipped as a deckhand on a towboat bound for Alaska, and when he returned to Seattle, he acquired a rowboat, then a gas boat; by 1914, he had his first seine boat. In 1922, he went to work as a superintendent at an Alaskan cannery, saving his money until he heard about an abandoned cannery on Peril Strait, near Sitka. He paid $5,000 for the plant and went into debt to buy $150,000 worth of canning machinery. The first year he paid the bills. The second year the cannery netted $175,000. In 1931, he bought three single-motored Lockheed Vegas, recruited a cadre of bush pilots, and a few weeks later, Alaska Southern Airways was making the first scheduled flights in the history of the Alaska territory. Bez sold out to Pan American three years later, and plowed the profits back into the salmon business.
“The West had had blustering barons by the barrel, but Nick Bez, the lord-high-everything of the salmon industry and friend of Presidents, tops them all for color,” wrote Richard J. Neuberger (1912-1960), who made a virtual career out of selling the Bez story to a variety of national magazines and newspapers. Neuberger was a correspondent for The New York Times between 1939 until 1954, when he was elected to represent Oregon in the Senate. Bez very much fit the image of Neuberger’s heroic vision of the development of the West. Time magazine weighed in, calling Bez “The Baron of the Brine,” and saying the vessel “hopes to prove that U.S. fishermen can replace the Japanese who, prewar, caught and processed 66% of the world’s tuna in their floating canneries, virtually monopolizing the $8 million-a-year catch of the Bering Sea’s huge king crabs.”
The original plan had been to send the Pacific Explorer to Alaska, to explore for king crab. But the conversion took longer than expected and when the vessel was finally delivered to Bez in late 1946, he decided to make the shakedown cruise in the warm tropical waters of Costa Rica. And that’s where the Pacific Explorer ran into its first big storm, the American Tuna Association and its clipper ships, who bitterly resented the entry of more boats into their lucrative tuna fishery off Central America.
 Ronald L. McGlothlen, Controlling the Waves: Dean Acheson and U.S. Foreign Policy in Asia (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993). p. 21
 ATA files, Box 76, Folder Panama Correspondent Sullivan, Paul A
 Time. Nov. 4, 1945, “The Baron of the Brine,” 92-93.
Mary Ann Petrich and Barbara Roje, The Yugoslav in Washington State: Among the Early Settlers (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1984), 59.
 R.H. Calkins. “Captains of the Pacific Northwest Maritime Industry.” The Marine Digest. Sept. 20, 1952, 25.
 William Robbins, Landscape of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 294.
 Time, Nov. 4, 1946, 94.