Trying to Save a Ship That Performed Rescues During ‘The Perfect Storm’


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The Tamaroa on the way to help the crew of the sailboat Satori. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard, 1991

No ship has cut a path through history quite like the Zuni/Tamaroa. Soon after the Navy commissioned the 205-foot salvage tug the Zuni on October 9, 1943, the vessel traveled all over the Pacific Theatre rescuing other ships during World War II. The Navy transferred the boat to the Coast Guard on June 29, 1946. They renamed her the Tamaroa and let her loose to arrest illegal fishing vessels, intercept migrants, and perform rescue operations, including helping to save the lives of a sailboat crew and helicopter crew mentioned in the book The Perfect Storm.

Now, she needs a little help. Ten years after first forming a non-profit to restore the ship, Zuni Maritime Foundation head of operations Harry Jaeger and executive director spokesman Tom Robinson are looking to raise more money to turn the vessel into a floating museum. The funds would help repair damages from a major leak that occurred this past May and help restore the ship to its original Naval colors and conditions. The interior would be turned into a museum showcasing the vessel's Coast Guard service. It's not the first time the group has reached out to try and secure funding, but the pair say they are running out of time.

“We need about $30,000 to satisfy the USCG’s demand to make her seaworthy before the ship can leave where she is located at this time,” says 76-year-old Harry Jaeger, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer. “Then $500,000 to complete the estimated drydock repairs.”

The two men say she is the last of 800 vessels used during the battle of Iwo Jima. (There are two other tugs used that are currently in a scrapyard in Vallejo, California.) Here’s an excerpt from an article written by John Woestendiek in 2006 for the Sun Reporter that details some of the Zuni/Tamaroa's missions during World War II:

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.” 

The Zuni at Iwo Jima, 1945, Photo: Zuni Maritime Foundation

After she was transferred to the Coast Guard in 1946, the ship took on a variety of missions.

In the 1950s she helped rescue men from sinking Navy ships and fishing boats. After the June 20, 1956, crash of the Venezuelan Airlines Super Constellation 32 miles from Asbury Park, New Jersey, she helped retrieve the bodies of some of the 74 fatalities. When the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria collided with the Stockholm 50 miles off of Nantucket on July 26, 1956, she was the first ship to respond. The Andrea Doria sank. The Tamaroa teamed up with another tug to tow the Stockholm to New York Harbor.

In the 1960s she continued her search and rescue missions, towed numerous damaged fishing vessels into harbor, and had a close call of her own. A story lifted from the Coast Guard history page on the ship describes how she was almost lost in the 1960s:

She became known as the Coast Guard submarine after an incident that occurred while she was undergoing repairs while in drydock 14 March 1963, when a disgruntled crewman opened the drydock's seacocks, sinking both the drydock and the Tamaroa….

James Perkins, a crew member at the time, wrote later, 'Pause for a second, if you will, and take note of the fact that the Tam is in port, out of the water, and some idiot sounds the alarm to abandon ship at midnight.' It's December 22, colder than a well digger's belt buckle outside, the keel is above water and (someone) wants me to go outside?…

The Tam had every sea cock cut out of her, the stern tube packing was out [and] she went down like a lead sinker. It took nine months and $3.2 million to rebuild Tamaroa.”

In the late '70s she intercepted illegal international fishing vessels in U.S. waters and helped haul garbage barges during the New York sanitation department strike.

In the '80s she seized migrants sailing to the U.S. via overloaded and questionable vessels, including a Cuban who had paddled 40 miles out to sea on an innertube. She also intercepted smugglers carrying large shipments of drugs into the U.S., including a 28-foot sailboat stuffed with 400 pounds of marijuana that was turned over in Key West to Vice President George Bush's Task Force for Narcotics Interdiction.

In the early '90s she rescued damaged fishing ships and men knocked overboard during storms, including her most famous Coast Guard mission. During the “No Name Storm of Halloween, 1991” made famous in the book The Perfect Storm, the Tamaroa helped rescue three persons washed overboard by the sailboat Satori in seas roughly 75 miles off Nantucket Island. Roughly 10 minutes after that she responded to a call to help a downed Air National Guard helicopter. She rescued four of the five downed Air National Guardsmen in 40-foot seas and 60-knot winds, which led her to roll up to 50 degrees.

Here's a bit more on that mission from a Coast Guard remembrance, written 20 years after the rescue:

After nearly three hours, Tamaroa arrived on scene in the dead of night. With the assistance of aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, they located two sets of strobes about two miles apart.

“If not for those strobe lights, the aircraft and the Tamaroa would have never seen those survivors in the water,” said Furtney.

Trying multiple approaches over the next two and a half hours, they settled on using large cargo nets to pick up the survivors. During the rescue, the ship was put beam to the sea and the crew experienced 52-degree rolls for more than an hour.

“Visibility was severely impaired and water was blowing off the top of the high seas,” recalled Furtney.

At the height of the rescue, seas were greater than 40 feet and winds exceeded 80 knots. Pressing on, they were fueled by adrenaline and an intense desire to help. Although Tamaroa’s crew successfully rescued four Air National Guardsmen, there was one man still missing.

Furtney discussed the exhaustive search to locate the highly-decorated pararescueman Rick Smith and recalled the emotional roller coaster that came from numerous unconfirmed sightings in the water over the next 48 hours.

At the height of the rescue, the crew of Tamaroa had been working with little or no sleep. Many were ordered to get some rest.

“Adrenaline can only take you so far,” said Furtney.

The Tamaroa continued missions for a few more years. She was decommissioned by the Coast Guard on February 1, 1994, in the face of an expected $1 million overhaul. At that time, she was transferred to the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum in New York City. In 2002, she was donated purchased by a ship broker who sold her to an investor who gave custody to the Tamaroa Maritime Foundation, which changed its name in 2006 to the Zuni Maritime Foundation. The organization hopes to get the funds needed to turn her into a museum.

“Visiting tourists, youth groups, school classes, etc. will learn, through hands-on activities, what it was like to live and work aboard a WWII warship,” said Robinson in an e-mail. “They will hear actual crewmembers and veterens of Iwo Jima (as long as they are able) tell of their heroic exploits in defense of our nation during the various actions and battles throughout the South Pacific. They will also learn of the historic ship's duties as a maritime policeman and rescuer from 1946 through her retirement in 1994.” 

If the money doesn't start coming in soon, the Zuni/Tamaroa will instead be turned into scrap metal. For now, she floats in the waters off a dock in South Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for a rescue.

For more, read “Tug of History,” Sebastian Junger's original article “The Storm” and his book The Perfect Storm, the U.S. Coast Guard page on Tamaroa, and the Zuni Maritime Foundation.

H/T: The Philadelphia Inquirer

—Joe Spring