The 180's from Duluth

by Ray Wiemer (USCG 1952-56) and Tom Bourne (USCG 1951-54)

Updated and Pictures added 12/8/98


Normally Jack's Joint likes to post sea stories and sand tales with a personal story line. This article, written about 1995 is an exception. There has been no real effort made to update this article. The 180 has been an important part of the Coast Guard's working fleet. The purpose of posting this article is to provide a frame of reference for follow-on 180 stories.

At age 50 years plus, 26 of the original 180' Seagoing Buoy Tenders are still on the job.

The 180' Buoy Tenders (WLB's formerly WAGL's) were built from 1942-44. A total of 39 were built, all but one in Duluth, MN. The IRONWOOD (WLB-297) was built at the Coast Guard Yard, Curtis Bay, MO.

The preliminary design was initiated by the U.S. Light House Service prior to its amalgamation into the Coast Guard in 1939. The final design was executed by Marine Iron & Shipbuilding Corp., Duluth, MN.

CGC Bittersweet

The design was intended to replace all large or Class A Lighthouse Tenders. For the first time Search & Rescue features were added to a ship designed for tending buoys and servicing lighthouses. Following the USLHS/USCG merger, ice-breaking capability was added to the design.

The final design produced a single-screw ship with considerable slack bilges and a cutaway forefoot. In addition, the deckhouse was extended outboard to the ships sides to increase interior space. The search and rescue requirement caused a reduction in beam-to-length ratio and gave the ship finer lines at the bow and stern.

Faced with the problem of turning out 38 ships in just three years time, Marine Iron and Zenith Dredge Company, also of Duluth, were awarded contracts to build the new ships. At the end of 1944, Marine Iron had built 21, Zenith Dredge 17, and Curtis Bay 1. The cost for hull and machinery was $850-950,000.

All the 180's have 3 digit hull numbers except for BALSAM (WLB-62). The first one built at Duluth was CACTUS (WLB-270) commissioned in September 1942.

The quality of construction of these cutters was unparalleled in Coast Guard history. Proof of this lies in the fact that 26 of the original 39 are still in active service today. With the exception of BLACKTHORN (WLB-391) and MESQUITE (WLB-305) which were lost due to accidents, others were decommissioned or sold. Following is a list of all of the 180's and their current status.

Name Hull # Builder Comm. Status Current Home Port

Class A (CACTUS)

BALSAM WLB-62 Zenith Dredge 10/42 Decomm. 3/75 - Sold 9/77

CACTUS WLB-270 Marine Iron 9/42 Decomm. 11/71 - Sold 10/73

COWSLIP WLB-277 Marine Iron 10/42 Active - Portsmouth, VA

WOODBINE WLB-289 Zenith Dredge 11/42 Decomm. - Donated 6/72

GENTIAN WLB-290 Zenith Dredge 11/42 Active - Atl. Beach, NC

LAUREL WLB-291 Zenith Dredge 11/42 Active - Mayport, FL

CLOVER WLB-292 Marine Iron 11/42 Decomm. 6/90

EVERGREEN WLB-295 Marine Iron 4/43 Decomm. 6/90

SORREL WLB-296 Zenith Dredge 4/43 Active - New York, NY

CITRUS WLB-300 Marine Iron 5/43 Decomm. 9/94

CONIFER WLB-301 Marine Iron 7/43 Active - San Pedro, CA

MADRONA WLB-302 Zenith Dredge 5/43 Active - Charleston, SC

TUPELO WLB-303 Zenith Dredge 8/43 Decomm. 9/75 - Sold 9/77


IRONWOOD WLB-297 Curtis Bay 8/43 Active - Kodiak, AK

MESQUITE WLB-305 Marine Iron 8/43 Scrapped & Sunk 5/89

BUTTONWOOD WLB-306 Marine Iron 9/43 Active - Alameda, CA

PLANETREE WLB-307 Marine Iron 11/43 Active - Ketchikan, AK

PAPAW WLB-308 Marine Iron 10/43 Active - Galveston, TX

SWEETGUM WLB-309 Marine Iron 11/43 Active - Mobile, AL

Class C (IRIS)

BASSWOOD WLB-388 Marine Iron 1/44 Active - Guam

BITTERSWEET WLB-389 Zenith Dredge 5/44 Active - Woods Hole, MA

BLACKHAW WLB-390 Marine Iron 2/44 Decomm. 4/93

BLACKTHORN WLB-391 Marine Iron 3/44 Sunk Tampa Bay 1/80

BRAMBLE WLB-392 Zenith Dredge 4/44 Active - Port Huron, MI

FIREBUSH WLB-393 Zenith Dredge 7/44 Active - Kodiak, AK

HORNBEAM WLB-394 Marine Iron 4/44 Active - Cape May, NJ

IRIS WLB-395 Zenith Dredge 8/44 Active - Astoria, OR

MALLOW WLB-396 Zenith Dredge 6/44 Active - Honolulu, HA

MARIPOSA WLB-397 Zenith Dredge 7/44 Active - Seattle, WA

REDBUD WLB-398 Marine Iron 5/44 Trans. to Philippines '72

SAGEBRUSH WLB-399 Zenith Dredge 4/44 Decomm. 4/88

SALVIA WLB-400 Zenith Dredge 2/44 Decomm. 4/91

SASSAFRAS WLB-401 Marine Iron 5/44 Active - Honolulu, HA

SEDGE WLB-402 Marine Iron 7/44 Active - Homer, AK

SPAR WLB-403 Marine Iron 6/44 Active - Portland, ME

SUNDEW WLB-404 Marine Iron 8/44 Active - Duluth, MN

SWEETBRIER WLB-405 Marine Iron 7/44 Active - Cordova, AK

ACACIA WLB-406 Zenith Dredge 9/44 Active - Charlevoix, MI

WOODRUSH WLB-407 Zenith Dredge 9/44 Active - Sitka, AK

In the 1970's and 80's, the Coast Guard executed modernization and renovation plans to extend the service life of these cutters by replacing the main engines and main motors, replacing electric buoy handling systems with hydraulics, installing bow thrusters, and improving accommodations for crews of both sexes. The Coast Guard referred to this as SLEP (Service Life Extension Program).

The 180's have traveled many of the oceans of the world. While service is generally limited to coastal waters, the Great Lakes and Alaska (where the majority of the buoys and lighthouses are), search and rescue missions, law enforcement, drug interdiction and the recent Cuban and Haitian "boat people" problems have brought the 180's from a wide area to assist in the efforts. ACACIA, out of Charlevoix, MI, has recently completed its second trip to the 7th District (Miami).

The 180's have proven their durability. Now they are showing their versatility. Unlike the white cutters, the "Black Hull Fleet" are work boats, pure and simple, yet they perform virtually every service the Coast Guard demands - A to N, S&R, environmental, law enforcement and, yet, ice breaking.

CGC Ironwood

Twenty-six of these cutters are still in service today, but after more than 50 years the end is near. It is no longer cost effective to put more money into ships of this vintage. They have served their time and earned their stripes. Those of us who served on them will never forget the unique role they played in the history of the United States Coast Guard. Yet it will be a few more years before we write "Finis" to the chapter on the 180's. It will be at least the year 2000 before enough new replacement ships are available for service.

We all hope that the 140' Bay Class cutters can handle an increasing ice-breaking role, and we all look forward to seeing the new JUNIPER Class cutter now under construction at Marinette Marine, Marinette, WI due to be commissioned in the summer of 1995. At 225' x 45' x 13' it will be a major addition/ replacement to the seagoing buoy tender fleet. JUNIPER is the first of a planned 16 ship fleet, four of which are part of the pilot contract with Marinette Marine.

Although JUNIPER's primary mission will be buoy tending, she will be a multi-mission vessel with capabilities to recover spilled oil, perform ice-breaking, service fixed stations and other vessels with fuel, water and cargo, and conduct search and rescue and law enforcement operations. It will be outfitted with the latest and most sophisticated electronic navigation gear.

It will be a real challenge for a new ship and a new crew to perform all of the chores assigned to it, but in the true spirit of the United States Coast Guard, "SEMPER PARATUS".

(Also under design and construction at Marinette Marine is a new Coastal Buoy Tender, The KEEPER Class, at 176'6" x 36 x 8'4").


Ray Wiemer of Cleveland, OH served aboard CGC ACACIA at Detroit, MI 1952-54.

Tom Bourne of Pittsburgh, PA served aboard CGC WOODRUSH at Duluth, MN 1952-54.

The authors can be contacted at:

Ray Wiemer

115 Cliffside Commons

Rocky River, OH 44116

Tom Bourne

5314 Highgrove Road

Pittsburgh, PA 15236

*** The design information for the 180's included in this article is an excerpt from "Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of WW II" by Robert L. Scheina.

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