Former Coast Guard vessel turns 70

Cutter now used by Job Corps for its seamanship training program

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ASTORIA, Ore. — 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 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.

Colorful history

During wartime, 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.

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

After it was decommissioned, the Ironwood 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.

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.