Tamaroa was there for century's maritime milestones

WAY BACK WHEN

World War II, the 'Andrea Doria' and `The Perfect Storm'

July 24, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Shoppers and the just plain curious must wonder how a former sea-scarred Coast Guard vessel - often confused with a cutter- has come to rest in a forlorn weed-grown corner of Port Covington.

For the last 18 months or so, the USCG Tamaroa, a 205-foot former 1,600-ton Navy salvage tug has been tied up behind the Sam's Club and Wal-Mart now occupying the former heavy industrial site.

During its 61 years afloat, the stout-hearted vessel, which served both in the Atlantic and Pacific, compiled an impressive record.

It participated in some of the fiercest and most historic Pacific naval engagements of World War II and was the first rescue vessel on the scene after the Italian Line's Andrea Doria collided with the Stockholm off Nantucket and sank in 1956.

The Tamaroa was a welcome sight to storm-tossed victims of the powerful 1991 "Halloween Storm" so vividly chronicled by Sebastian Junger in his book, The Perfect Storm.

At the height of the storm, the ship steamed from the harbor at Provincetown, Mass., out into the roaring Atlantic in search of the sailing vessel Satori, whose crew had called in a mayday. Thirteen hours later, after steaming through 75 miles of pounding seas that reached some 60 feet and dogged by howling, 80-mile-an-hour winds, the tug's crew finally located the stricken vessel off Nantucket and rescued its frightened crew.

During the same storm, the Tam, as it was dubbed by its crew, was called to the rescue of an Air National Guard helicopter that had plunged into the boiling sea after running out of fuel during a rescue of its own. The Tam crew saved the lives of four of the five airmen.

Commissioned the Zuni by the Navy in 1943, the ship arrived at Pearl Harbor in February of 1944 and began combat duty in May when it participated in the invasion of Kwajelein Atoll. A month later found the new vessel at Tinian, followed by the Saipan and Philippines campaigns.

The tug came by her nickname of the "Mighty Z" honestly when it towed the light cruiser USS Houston to safety after the vessel had been hit by two torpedoes off Taiwan. It repeated the feat after the cruiser USS Reno suffered a similar fate.

By war's end, the Zuni had teceived four Battle Stars for heroic efforts. In 1946, the vessel was transferred to the Coast Guard, which renamed her theTamaroa, after the Tamaroa Indians of the Illini Confederacy.

The Tamaroa's home ports from 1946 to 1985 included New York's Staten Island and Governors Island. In 1985, it was reassigned to New Castle, N.H., home port until decommissioning in 1994.

Since then, the Tamaroa was bought, sold, abandoned and escaped the breaker's yard when a donor who prefers to remain anonymous donated the vessel in 2002 to the 100-member Tamaroa Maritime Foundation Inc., which seeks to restore and operate the vessel.

On a recent hot and humid Saturday morning, Harry A. Jaeger, a retired old salt who spent 34 years in the Navy as a senior chief petty officer, hails two shoreside visitors.

Jaeger, 68, who is the foundation's director of operations, had arrived the day before from his Richmond, Va., home with his wife, Shirley, who runs the ship's galley and sleeping accommodations, to direct and work alongside other weekend volunteers.

While there is plenty of work from the top of the ship's masts to its bilge, Jaeger envisions the proud old ship under way again.

The Tamaroa will finally put Baltimore astern in a few weeks when it is towed to its new home at West Point, Va., on the York River.

"The ship has been here for nearly two years and no one showed any interest in us staying here," Jaeger said. "People brushed us off like we never existed. We called the mayor's office and television stations and no one ever showed up."

Jaeger, who had served on naval tugs, says the Tam is so powerful that it could tow the new Queen Mary II if it had to.

"The Tamaroa is a great story - it's the only ship of its type still around," he said. "Our mission is not like the Torsk or Taney. Our goal is to be a real, live operating ship like the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown. We also have an educational mission. The possibilities are endless," he said.

Jaeger is proud of the volunteers who pour hours of work into restoring the vessel.

"There's a lot of sweat equity here," he said. "This is what we do. This is our mission. And it's going to happen."

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