Tug Of History

The Tamaroa rescued ships and sailors for nearly 50 years. Now a group of volunteers is trying to save it

March 13, 2006|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

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.

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