Friday, March 17, 2006
Tug of history
By John Woestendiek
March 13, 2006
The Tamaroa rescued ships and sailors for nearly 50 years. Now a group of volunteers is trying to save it.
During World War II, the Navy fleet tug known as the Zuni spent 31 days supporting the invasion of Iwo Jima.
As a Coast Guard ship - renamed the Tamaroa - it was among the first to the scene when the ocean liner Andrea Doria sank in the summer of 1956. It was still going strong 35 years later, when it saved seven lives during what became known as "The Perfect Storm."
But for the Zuni/Tamaroa - a plodding, 200-foot-long tugboat with a Forrest Gump-like knack of being where history was being made during 51 years of government service - getting out of Baltimore may be the biggest challenge yet. Or at least the most protracted.
Nearly four years after a nonprofit organization bought the retired ship with hopes of restoring it as a floating classroom and museum, it remains moored in Baltimore Harbor, where the welcome has, at times, been less than universal. At one of the five docks where it has tied up, it was all but evicted.
For the past nine months, it has been docked at Harborview Marina, directly in front of Little Havana, a Key Highway bar and restaurant, where the once-sweeping Inner Harbor view is now blocked by what some see as nothing more than a rusty old tugboat.
Even when it wore the uniform, the Zuni/Tamaroa was never the sexiest ship in the sea. But it was among the hardest-working - whether it was seizing marijuana shipments, intercepting migrants on rafts from Cuba or rescuing a sinking fishing boat.
Thousands of Navy sailors, and countless others saved at sea, owe their lives to fleet tugs. And thousands more, who served as crew, remain smitten with them - that kind of undying love between a sailor and his first ship that still makes him misty-eyed half a century later.
"She was the workhorse of the U.S. Navy," said Bob Fowler of Howard County, rolling gray primer on the Tamaroa's hull one recent weekend. Fowler, 80, served in World War II on a fleet tug called the Cherokee. "We're trying to preserve the ship for future generations. A lot has been done, but there's still a lot to do."
Every other weekend, the volunteers - mostly Coast Guard veterans who served on the Tamaroa or similar ships - gather aboard to scrape rust, slap on paint and relive the past.
"This ship today could tie up to any ship in this harbor and tow it away," boasted Harry Jaeger, director of operations for the Tamaroa Maritime Foundation Inc.
The nonprofit foundation plans to restore the ship to World War II condition and move it to the Pamunkey River near West Point, Va., where it would be open for tours and serve as a training center for Sea Cadets, Sea Scouts and NROTC and Junior NROTC programs.
Jaeger, a smudge of battleship gray primer on his cheek, admitted that the job is big and funding is tight - money is needed to finish restoring the ship in dry dock, to prepare its new home and to keep up with marina fees in the interim.
But it's worth it when he sees former crew members reconnect, he said. "That's where the excitement is," said Jaeger, who drives from Richmond every other weekend to tend to the ship, "when you see these old guys come aboard for the first time in 60 years."
Four of the 24 living Zuni crew members have visited the ship, said Tom Robinson, head of publicity for the foundation, as have more than 100 Coast Guard veterans who served on the Tamaroa.
"A lot of these were old guys, in their 70s and 80s, with arthritis, congestive heart failure and everything else," he said. "But when they stepped on that deck, it was like they were 19 years old again."
In the Pacific Theater
Glenn Fox was just 17 when he joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to the Zuni - a new ship and one of 67 fleet tugs the Navy would commission to tow, salvage and rescue other ships in trouble.
Fox was on board for all the action the Zuni saw in World War II - supporting U.S. attacks on Luzon, Formosa and the China coast; towing the light cruiser USS Houston to safety after it was hit by two torpedoes off Taiwan; rescuing the USS Reno after it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippines; then heading for Iwo Jima, where it would assist huge landing ships, or LSTs, ashore to unload their tanks.
At one point, well into the invasion, the Zuni's tow cable got caught in its propeller, killing the engines and causing it to wash up on shore sideways, and on top of a tank.
During the days the Zuni spent aground, its hull getting punctured as it rocked back and forth in the waves, Fox remembers seeing Marines raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi, a photograph of which would become the war's most lasting image.
"I seen the fellas raise the flag on top of the mountain," said Fox, now 81 and living in Troy, Ohio. "It's one thing that I have been proud of for years."
After several days aground, the crew used cement to patch holes in the hull, and another ship arrived to pull her off the beach. During that process, the Zuni suffered its only casualties.
Fox had just returned to the deck from getting a cup of coffee, when the tightened tow line came off its roller and whipped across the ships deck, killing Frederick F. Pavlovics of New Jersey and James M. Byres of New York.
"I was standing talking to Byres when the cable snapped across the stern of the ship like a bow string. It threw Pavlovics 100 yards out in the water, and killed Byres instantly. I was standing about 3 feet from him," Fox said.
Due to the damage, the Zuni was taken to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and was there when the war ended. The ship received four Battle Stars for heroic efforts and was decommissioned by the Navy in 1946.
Fox hadn't seen her since - until last year, when he and his wife came to Baltimore and spent the night aboard at the invitation of the group restoring the ship.
"I got goose bumps," he said. "It brought back a lot of old memories."
In the Coast Guard
In the summer of 1946, the USS Zuni became the USCGC Tamaroa, one of five Navy fleet tugs that became Coast Guard cutters, and for the next 40 years it called New York City home.
In 1956, it was the first on the scene after the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm collided in the fog off the coast of Nantucket. In the 1960s, its responsibilities included servicing a Cold War early warning system operated by the Air Force. In the 1970s, it hunted down illegal fishing boats. That decade also saw it take one of her least glamorous assignments - hauling garbage barges during the lengthy New York sanitation department strike.
In 1985, its home port became New Castle, N.H. There, besides monitoring icebergs, it continued to be used for search-and-rescue missions, the most publicized of which was 1991's "Perfect Storm."
Amid the huge waves and high winds of that storm, which inspired a book and movie, the Tamaroa rescued three crew members aboard the sailboat Satori, then joined in the search for five Air National Guard crewmen whose rescue helicopter went down when it ran out of fuel. Four were found and hauled to safety aboard the Tamaroa.
At the end of 1993, in need of a $1 million overhaul, the Tamaroa was decommissioned by the Coast Guard and transferred to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. Far from becoming a showpiece alongside the famed aircraft carrier, though, its condition continued to deteriorate.
It was there that Bill Doherty, a former Tamaroa crew member who was living in New York, spotted it one Saturday in 1994 and, seeing its condition, began a drive to spruce up, then save, the ship.
By 2000, though, the ship had been transferred to the Hudson River Park Trust, where it was destined for use as office space, and, in 2001, it was turned over to the federal government and put up for auction. Doherty led an effort to raise money from investors to buy the ship, but it wasn't enough. An Alabama ship broker bought it for $60,000 and had it towed to Baltimore to be repaired and sold.
By then, Jaeger, serving as president of the National Association of Fleet Tug Sailors, had joined in the effort to save the ship, part of a contingent interested in restoring the Tamaroa and moving it to Richmond.
When the ship went back on the market in 2002, an anonymous donor stepped in, bought it and turned it over to its boosters, now organized as the Tamaroa Maritime Foundation.
The donor, Doherty said, "prefers to stay anonymous, and I must honor his wishes."
Doherty, 57, said his own motivation to save the ship was, at first, "anger at the way I saw her being ignored back in 1994. It grew to something more personal, though, when I had a chance to step on her decks for the first time in 27 years. It was like I stepped in a time machine and the years melted away. ... "
The Baltimore shuffle
The foundation planned on a short stay in Baltimore. But restoring or preserving historical ships, history shows, seldom goes according to plan. Difficulties in finding funding and locating a new home have kept the ship here longer than anyone envisioned.
For a while, the Zuni/Tamaroa was able to dock for free - first at Domino Sugars, then at Canton Pier, next to the USNS Comfort. When a local tugboat operator suggested the foundation look into an empty dock behind Sam's Club and Wal-Mart in Port Covington, Jaeger said he got permission from the company. The ship stayed there for two years - until the foundation received word that Wal-Mart didn't own the pier.
Jaeger said he doesn't know if Wal-Mart sold the dock, or had never owned it. "All I know is we got a letter from the owner saying get out of Dodge, now."
Some members of the group say they'd like to see the ship - the only operable fleet tug remaining in the United States that was involved in the battle of Iwo Jima - stay in Baltimore, joining such other restored vessels as the Constellation, Torsk, Taney and John Brown. But Jaeger said city officials have shown little interest in keeping the ship here.
As for when the Zuni/Tamaroa might set sail, Jaeger, who served on two fleet tugs during his 34 years in the Navy, couldn't predict that. "If we had enough money we could take it away tomorrow," he said. "As soon as the opportunity presents itself, we're gone. But we can't go until we have a place to go."
Current plans call for the ship to be docked on the Pamunkey River near West Point, Va. While the foundation is leasing the land there for $500 a year, pier improvements will be necessary, and Jaeger said plans could change if a better and more affordable home were found.
Jaeger says foundation volunteers - about a dozen of them from Baltimore - have put in more than 9,000 hours working on the ship. One of them, Chris Kozak, a Coast Guard veteran and owner of Baltimore's Mount Royal Tavern, had just read about the Tamaroa in The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger when, driving through Port Covington, he was surprised to see it docked there. He went aboard, met Jaeger, and has been among the volunteers ever since.
Kozak, who served on a sister ship, the Chilula, in the 1960s and '70s, recently held a fundraiser for the ship at the bar.
"I'd love to see it stay in Baltimore. But just to see her survive and get restored is enough," Kozak said. "I know a lot of the former crew feel the same way. I've seen them stand at the pier and cry just seeing it."