The Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa survived the invasion of Iwo Jima, avoided the ignominy of the scrap heap, and braved towering seas 20 years ago this month in a pair of rescue missions during the maelstrom of the so-called “Perfect Storm.’’
Now, an alliance that includes military buffs, veterans, and former crew members is angling to give the ship a permanent home in Alexandria, Va., where its refurbished decks would be a museum and provide oceangoing training for thousands of Sea Scouts and Junior ROTC cadets.
“I think it’s a great idea,’’ said Rich Perry, 55, of Boston, a retired chief quartermaster who was aboard the 205-foot Tamaroa when three weather systems collided off New England to produce the monstrous storm on Halloween weekend 1991. “The ship has an illustrious history. It was one of those rescues that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’’
Made famous in a movie about the no-name storm based on the Sebastian Junger book, in which the loss of the Gloucester fishing boat Andrea Gail and its crew also was chronicled, the Tamaroa was decommissioned in 1994 and donated to the Intrepid Museum on the Hudson River in New York City.
The ship fell into disrepair, became a home for squatters, and lay neglected until former crew members brought attention to its plight, said Tom Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit group that is working to find a home for the ship.
“It had started to sink and take on water,’’ Robinson said. Through the efforts of the nonprofit Zuma Maritime Foundation, the ship is safely in Chesapeake, Va., as its future takes shape.
Lance Mallamo, city director of the Office for Historic Alexandria, said the Potomac River port might have interest in the ship if a pending plan for waterfront development is approved. “The educational, historical, and interpretive aspects are very interesting,’’ Mallamo said of the Tamaroa.
Museum status will be a new star-turn for the former Navy tug, which was commissioned in 1943 as the USS Zuma and earned four battle stars in the Pacific during World War II. The ship is the only surviving US naval vessel from the invasion of Iwo Jima in 1945.
Transferred to the Coast Guard in 1946 and renamed the Tamaroa, the ship responded to the calls of the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, which sank in 1956 off Nantucket after colliding with a smaller Swedish passenger ship. Forty-six people died in that accident; 1,660 passengers and crew survived.
The Tamaroa’s fame, however, became cemented with its daring rescues during the Perfect Storm. Moored inside Provincetown Harbor just after midnight on Oct. 29, 1991, the Tamaroa and its crew of 80 set course for the Cape Cod Canal and a sailboat in distress about 75 miles south of Nantucket.
As the Northeaster gathered strength, lashing the cutter with winds that exceeded 80 miles per hour and seas that topped 40 feet, the Tamaroa reached the sailboat and its three passengers in late morning.
A small boat dispatched from the Tamaroa to rescue the trio was tossed onto the sloop, puncturing one of its pontoons and making a safe evacuation even more dangerous. As a result, a Coast Guard helicopter was summoned from Cape Cod and hoisted the three sailboat passengers and three Tamaroa crew members to safety.
The cutter’s adventure had only begun, however, because a Coast Guard helicopter from Long Island ran out fuel and was forced to ditch, about 15 miles away after an unsuccessful attempt to rescue another civilian sailor in distress.
In seas that Perry recalled reached 70 or 80 feet high, the Tamaroa labored into the early hours of Oct. 31 to rescue four of the five helicopter crew members. The fifth was never seen again after he jumped out of the helicopter, as instructed, before the pilot ditched the craft.
‘The educational, historical, and interpretive aspects are very interesting.’Lance Mallamo About the Tamaroa
“We had an extremely experienced crew with a very reliable vessel,’’ Perry said. “There was never any doubt in our minds that we wouldn’t at least be able to get on scene.’’
If all goes well, that war horse vessel - four, 12-cylinder diesel engines, each the size of a Volkswagen bus; 3.5-ton propeller; 19-foot keel - will remain a hulking, working testament to the perilous challenges of sea duty.
The Tamaroa is expected to cruise again, about four times a year, as a World War II Navy museum and training ship. But its role in the life-saving saga of the 1991 storm will be a prominent attraction, Robinson said, featured in historical displays and a continuously shown film.
“This was probably the only ship in the Coast Guard and the Navy that could have done that rescue and brought this crew back alive,’’ Robinson said of the Tamaroa’s sturdy seaworthiness. “The ‘Perfect Storm’ was a rescue like none other.’’Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com