THE SINKING OF THE TAMAROA

by Jim Perkins

 

My first encounter with the TAMAROA was in the middle of the winter in 1964. Having just completed the Engineman training classes at Groton, Connecticut, I was transferred to wonderful(?) New York City. The TAMAROA was in port for repairs and refitting. They must have needed an FN/EN as I had received orders to report henceforth. In retrospect, had I known what I was getting into, I would have gone AWOL.

The TAMAROA was located at Bushey Shipyard in Brooklyn, in the nicer part of the wrong side of town. What a Godforsaken sight it was, the shipyard looked like something straight out of WW II. In the midst of rusty hulls, floating drydocks, pieces of ships and abandoned landing craft, there sat the TAMAROA on her own floating drydock. Orders are orders, on board I went.

Once aboard, the crew overwhelmed me with friendliness, which I thought strange. Fresh meat. It didn't take too long to figure out what the story was, they wanted off that ship, and fresh meat meant one of them could leave. The story of the ship's sinking intrigued me, although I wasn't sure I wanted to be stationed aboard something that resembled a lifeboat from the TITANIC. The crew had been there for the main event, so I got the sinking story straight from the horse's mouth(s).

The night of the sinking, they told me about coming off the 2000 to 2400 watch and sitting on the mess deck, taking a shower, or sacking out for the night when there was a ruckus in the berthing area. One of the crew had been out sampling some of Jack Daniels'? brown poison, and a fight had ensued. The OOD went aft and settled things down, or so he thought. A little while later it started up all over again, same guy, different victim. Enough was enough, off the ship. Take your rotten attitude and spend the night ashore sailor, no time for any of your drunken behavior. All quieted down once again.

Upon leaving the ship, the drunken sailor went to the port side of the drydock and opened one of the many large valves which flood the inner compartments of the floating drydock. He then left the shipyard and returned to his favorite watering hole, probably to imbibe in more of that liquid brown poison.

Someone first noticed a slight list to port, but nothing came of it. After several hours, an alarm sounded on the drydock (not aboard ship). An investigation brought to light the fact that something was definitely amiss, as the ship is now listing 10 degrees. The OOD sounded the Abandon Ship alarm.

Now, pause for a second, if you will, and take note of the fact that the ship is in port, out of the water, and some idiot sounded the Abandon Ship alarm at midnight. Blow it out your dufflebag fella. It's December 22nd outside, colder that a well digger's belt buckle, the keel's above the water and you want me to go outside. Bullroar.

The seriousness of the situation was spreading, the crew sensed something was wrong and finally did abandon ship. Down the gangplank, into the snow and cold. Some people had blankets, some were in their skivvies, some barefoot. The temperature was 20 degrees, the wind was howling. Someone caved in the window of a car or two, and a mess of people crawled in there. Anything to get out of the wind. The shipyard buildings were all locked up, no heat there anyway. The ship listed further to port, things started to creak and groan in the dark and no one knew the cause.

In the midst of all the confusion, everyone had forgotten that the Captain was on board that night. The ship is about to fall over and the Captain is sleeping in his cabin! One of the crew clad in only a towel, ran up the ladder, jumped on board and rousted the C.O. from a solid sleep. They flew down the ladder to escape an impending disaster. Upon reaching land, the whole flippin' mess went over. As the TAMAROA had every sea cock cut out of her and the stern tube packing was out, she went down like a lead sinker. Pictures taken soon after this illustrate the results of the sinking, but tell nothing of the massive restoration effort required to make the ship seaworthy.

The Tam was under water for about ten days, as best I can recall. When I reported for duty the TAMAROA was back in position in the floating drydock, as she had been prior to the sinking. The crew had spent many hours cleaning her up by that time. You could hardly tell. There was oil oozing from the paint on the bulkheads and overhead, and cardboard was on the deck everywhere. Without the cardboard the oil made it near impossible to walk, and when replaced, zillions of cockroach bodies were exposed. To this day I hate those $#<?(&%@ things with a passion.

The entire ship was incapacitated--no galley, no heat, none of the few conveniences sailors could enjoy while living aboard ship. Our meals came to us via 40 footers from the Coast Guard station at the tip of Manhattan ("the Battery"). The food was cold and tasted like it looked.

Waking up in the morning in a cold berthing area, it was not uncommon to see one's breath. The cleanup effort involved everyone, as officers pulled twelve hour days right beside the enlisted personnel. You can't imagine how dirty it was--once cleaned up and painted, the bulkheads oozed oil and had to be stripped and repainted.

One of my shipmates described trying to shove an oil-soaked mattress through a porthole, damn thing stuck. He was giving it his best shot when someone gave him the push needed to accomplish the task. As it turned out, it was the Captain, just as dirty as any sailor on that ship. Didn't matter, can't have an oil-soaked mattress in the crew's quarters. At that point it wasn't Captain, officers and crew, it was sailors with their backs against the wall--rank didn't count.

Steam from shore supplies was eventually restored, but it failed often, leaving us without heat and hot water for showers, let alone cooking on a daily basis. The lack of heat in the berthing areas was the worst to endure.

My first assignment aboard this "ship out of water" was fire watch in B2 engineroom. The shipyard workers were using torches to cut away damaged portions of the hull, and fires sometimes resulted. I extinguished a fire in the bilge’s one day by shoving a fog nozzle right into the flames. The guys wielding the cutting torch on the outside of the hull decided to take a coffee break after their unexpected shower. Scared the hell outta me to see six-foot flames coming out of the bilge’s.

On the main deck the crew was busy stripping the ship of years of old paint. One of the crew pointed out gray paint from when the Navy owned the ship. It was buried under several layers of white, but it was definitely not primer. The noise from air-powered chipping hammers was next to unbearable, and earmuffs were not available for those of us on the inside. The boom, which was part of the "A" frame on the 01 deck was removed at one end of the ship, while the 3"50 cannon was removed at the other end of the ship. The port lifeboat was smashed to toothpicks when the ship fell over, and the davits had to be completely rebuilt.

After the shipyard crews made repairs, and the hull received the customary paint job, the TAMAROA was ready to be refloated. As the large valves of the drydock were opened, the ship sank slowly into the water. It was a strange sensation, sitting in the engineroom in complete darkness, listening for leaks. That's what I was told--listen for leaks. A large tug towed us out of the shipyard to Staten Island where the ship was chained to the pier. When I questioned why the chains, I was told it was necessary as we had no form of propulsion. If we broke loose from the pier we were a shipping hazard.

My first ship--chained to the pier!

When we settled into a work routine in our new home, it was just as demanding as the shipyard. The hours were just as long, the dirt was still there, but at least we had heat and hot meals. In the engine rooms the main engines had to be stripped down to their blocks. The propulsion motors were removed through a large hole cut through the main and 01 decks just forward of the "A" frame. Just about anything that was under salt water was carted off the ship. The electricians had as heavy a task as the enginemen, deckhands, or Captain. I won't tell you how much gear went over the side on the mid-watch, but at low tide we didn't sink as far down as the other ships.

Nine months, that's what it took to rebuild the TAMAROA. Nine months, $3.25 million, and the sweat of every one of the crew. Finally, the ship was ready for sea trials. The main engines, pumps, blowers and generators (in B2 upper and lower levels) were rebuilt, ready for action. We eased away from the pier, made our way out of the harbor and headed to sea. I watched the bow cut through the water. No more of that chained to the pier stuff for us, we were underway.

The watches changed, and I had my first opportunity to witness the hustle and bustle of the crew going about their duties. Walking through the messdeck, I smelled paint burning. The bulkhead between the scullery on the port side, and the ship's store on the starboard was hot as hell. The paint started to blister and smoke. I yelled for a seaman to get the OOD. The bulkhead buckled out a couple of inches as the paint peeled and burned. The next thing I know an officer asked me what the problem was and I pointed to the bulkhead. He reached over and touched it--although not for very long. As fast as he could move, he took off for the bridge. All hands to General Quarters.

There was one hell of a raging fire inside the stack. The insulating material wrapped around the exhaust tubes from the main engines had been soaked with oil when the ship went down, and something had ignited them. The result was a fire which had burned undetected for quite some time. The only access to the source of the flames was through a small hatch in B1 upper engine room, just above the boiler. By this time, paint was burning, peeling off the stack and falling all over the 01 deck. A fire-fighting crew went into the stack with fog nozzles and extinguished the blaze.

As the Captain realized the severity of the situation with the fire aboard, he ordered "head for shore, put her on the beach." It never came to that, but it was close. Later the Captain had a hatch cut in the side of the stack to make the area accessible from the 01 deck. Upon returning to port from that near disastrous first trip to sea, the deck crew hung the traditional broom from the ship's mast, indicating a "clean sweep." As we pulled in, one of the crew of the other Cutters yelled, "Did you guys finally realize that you weren't attached to the bottom by coffee grounds?" I flipped him a big fat bird.

Trips to sea after that experience were just as exciting. The large forward hatch on the main deck leaked while in rough seas, flooding the compartment below. We made a hasty retreat toward home port to dewater the compartment. As the ship entered the calm waters of Gravesend Bay, the bow was so low in the water I had to transfer fuel aft from B1 and B2 fuel tanks to put us on an even keel. In another instance there was a major electrical failure leaving the ship dead in the water. And then there was an electrical fire behind the panel in B2 upper--another near disaster. Shipboard fires are a nasty business, take my word for it, we had our share. We didn't have to practice too many fire drills, having the real thing so often, and it was deadly serious each and every time. By now we were going to sea regularly, putting the ship through its paces and tuning the crew with man overboard, gunnery, and abandon ship drills.

Once the long work hours ceased, the original members of the crew figured the ocean patrols were about to resume. After all, that's what the TAMAROA was there for, search and rescue duty, not excursions. One day word was passed through the crew that we were going to Bermuda on an R&R cruise. Needless to say the crew was ready for a break, we did our time in hell. We left Staten Island early one morning, headed south at two-thirds speed. None to soon, Bermuda was on the horizon.

The rules are different in Bermuda, the locals dislike people in uniforms walking the streets--if we want to go ashore we have to buy civvies. No problem, just let me off of this ship. Before the lines are fully secured to the pier, a Bobby (a British policeman) came aboard and affixed a notice to the bulletin board on the mess deck. It's a list of off-limits establishments for military personnel. Of course the whole crew read it, and now we know exactly where to go to have a good time. The list contained some additional rules, something about not urinating in the streets, and don't pick any of the flowers.

The next morning I woke up and couldn't believe my eyes. The berthing area was full of plants, whole branches from trees, flowers everywhere, and a stuffed fish was staring down at me from the overhead. That list the Bobby posted on the mess deck really gave the guys something to strive for, and they did everything they weren't supposed to. I still remember the story of how they lined up and urinated in the street as a taxi drove by. And the night eight of them missed the last liberty launch and swam back to the ship in the middle of St George Harbor. Come to think of it, we never did thank that Bobby for being so helpful.

The TAMAROA made two trips to Bermuda, for a total stay of one month. We engaged in short day trips and once we were first at the scene of an aircraft which had crashed just short of landfall. A small boat was launched to spray foam on the fuel burning on the water. A gust of wind blew the burning mass toward the small boat and the crew found themselves surrounded by flames. Needless to say, a quick retreat was made.

Upon return to Coast Guard Base Staten Island, the TAMAROA resumed search and rescue patrols as she had done for many years prior to the sinking. There are additional tales of beastly storms we rode out, or of additional breakdown we encountered, but why bother. What happened that many years back is water over the dam.

To former crew members like myself, there will always be a TAMAROA. Even at the end of her useful life, when they cut her up for scrap, the TAMAROA will live on in the memories of everyone who served aboard her. She has served her country well in times of war and peace.

The TAMAROA will be especially remembered by a crew whose esprit de corps brought her back from a watery grave in 1964.

Tamaroa Tipped Off Of The Drydock - Photo Courtesy Of Fred's Place

Postscript

The sailor who sank the TAMAROA was sentenced to two years at a Marine Prison facility and was reduced in rank from Petty Officer 3rd class to Seaman Recruit. Being married, his wife's $100 monthly allowance was not reduced or revoked.

After completing his prison sentence, he was faced with making up two years of "bad time" and was shipped to Boston to complete it--no more ships--on a land base. Lord only knows how it happened, but the Commander of his new assignment in Boston just happened to be the same commanding officer of the TAMAROA the night she sank. One can only imagine how easy the next two years were.

In 1969, while a student at Newark College of Engineering, I was dumbfounded to hear an all-too-familiar name called out during roll call. The individual was absent, his buddy explained to the instructor. Later on I asked if his friend was ever in the Coast Guard.

"Sure," he said, "he was stationed up in Boston somewhere."

The next week when we got back to class, I leaned over a certain individual's shoulder and said, "all the guys from the TAMAROA just wanted to say `hello’ to you." Without a second's hesitation, he grabbed his books and took off down the hall.

I attended school twice-a-week for the next two years but never saw him again.

 

You can learn more about the Tamaroa by going to their website.

Return to Coast Guard Stories