Over 70 years, vessel at Astoria has served many

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) Former U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Bruce Toney and Tongue Point Job Corps seamanship student Darryl McFadden stood less than 50 feet from each other.

They looked on as a rotating cast of notables from the city of Astoria, Coast Guard and Job Corps took a podium and laid honors on the vessel Ironwood, celebrating its 70th birthday. Toney was the former was a commander of the Ironwood, and McFadden is training to be an able-bodied (AB) seaman.

"For 57 of those years, it was setting buoys as a Coast Guard buoy tender, and for 11 years now as the primary training vessel at our seamanship program," said Capt. Len Tumbarello, a former deputy commander of Sector Columbia River who retired in June and took over Tongue Point's seamanship program, learning to captain the Ironwood.

"By all account and historical background, this old girl has seen and done a great deal," he said.

The 180-foot Ironwood, christened after construction in Curtis Bay, Md., March 16, 1943, saw eight homeports, 34 commanding officers, more than 1,200 crew members and more than a half a million nautical miles as a Coast Guard buoy tender until it was decommissioned Oct. 6, 2000, in Kodiak, Alaska.

It has been stationed in Boston, San Francisco, Monterey, Calif., Guam, Honolulu and Homer, Adak and Kodiak, Alaska, primarily conducting aids to navigation operations around the Pacific Ocean.

During wartimes, it helped establish a harbor on Midway Island during World War II, recovered submarines and earned a Korean Service Medal supplying radio stations during the Korean War. It built shore aids deep in hostile territory during the Vietnam War, and once purposely ran aground to appease a U.S. Army general who wanted a buoy placed 30 feet up a sand bar.

"It took two days, and two or three tugs and a bulldozer at the bow to get it afloat again," said Lt. Cmdr. Joanna Nunan, the last commander of the Ironwood, during her decommissioning speech in 2000.

"If the Ironwood's career had been set in a story or a movie, I would have never believed it," said Nunan about the Ironwood, which in some of its quirkier exploits plucked NASA space capsules out of the Pacific and took the first scientists to return to the Marshall Islands after U.S. nuclear testing.

It's escaped typhoons, survived being buried by up to 70-foot waves and losing all power and been run aground numerous times and on both sides of the Pacific, both on purpose and by accident.

The waters around Alaska were home for years.

"We worked the Bering Sea to the Aleutian Islands," said Toney, who commanded the vessel from 1996 to 1999 and said it was based in Kodiak from 1974 to 2000, patrolling the fisheries, keeping waterways open and conducting searches and rescues.

Out of the more than 1,200 crew member and 34 commanders that plied the Pacific aboard the Ironwood, many went on to become admirals and leaders in the Coast Guard.

"I first stepped aboard the Ironwood in 1975 following my graduation from the United States Coast Guard Academy," wrote Adm. Robert J. Papp, the current commandant of the Coast Guard, in a letter for the birthday party. "As I imagine it is for many of you who work and sail aboard this great cutter today, the time I spent aboard the Ironwood was formative.

"It is my great hope that all those who continue to walk Ironwood's decks come away with the same invaluable experience, fond memories, and love for the sea that I did."

At the end of her decommissioning speech, Nunan bade farewell to the Ironwood, which shortly thereafter sailed for San Pedro, Calif. There it was purchased by a private individual who later gifted it to the U.S. Department of Labor as a tax write off. The department then passed it on to Job Corps, which incorporated the Ironwood in 2002 to replace its aging training vessel, the Betsy Ross.

Tongue Point operates the only seamanship program among Job Corps' 125 centers nationwide, making Astoria a destination for young men and women from all around the U.S.

The Ironwood runs with a crew of about 60 students and six instructors, going out every week to train. They spend at least 18 months in the program, learning anything from galley cooking to engine room and deck operations.

"The Ironwood, that's the best part of being out here," said the 23-year-old McFadden, who traveled from Portsmouth, Va., to Astoria to train as an AB seaman and a qualified member of the engineering department.

McFadden hopes to find a job near home with the Military Sealift Command, a transportation provider for the Department of Defense, or in Alaska with Foss Maritime, two common destinations for seamanship graduates.

"This 70-year-old ship, it has its moments," McFadden said. "It's nice. It's very hot down there (in the engine room). But it's tolerable; there's a lot of ventilation, so it's comfortable. You really don't realize the conditions, because you're so focused."

The Ironwood's crews still help the Coast Guard during training maneuvers. They play victims in mock fires, attacks and other emergencies, and they help maintain wave-tracking buoys to keep Columbia River traffic moving.

Last weekend was a birthday, not a memorial, for the Ironwood, which keeps building its civilian resume more than a decade after its retirement from the Coast Guard.


Information from: The Daily Astorian,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press