On September 6 Tongue Point Job Corp will pay honor to a remarkable vessel that has for many years served as a training ship for those seeking to be able-bodied Seamen through the Job Corps program. This year marks the 70th year of service for the Ironwood. Beginning it's service as a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Ironwood was decommissioned in 2000 in Kodiak, Alaska and the news release for that event explains the great significance of the ship that has served so many, so well.
In the early morning autumn light, the 180-foot buoy tender looked like it had just finished its shakedown cruise and just been declared ready for sea. The bright work was shined and the faint smell of fresh paint hung in the air while crewmen moved around the passageways with purpose. Some cleaned the galley after the morning meal while others busied themselves washing down topside. A petty officer on the bridge sipped coffee while he corrected charts for an upcoming trip. To someone unfamiliar with the Coast Guard, the ship might be mistaken as a new buoy tender making its first trip. But the ship's rounded shape and old-style bridges are just a few of the telltale signs that the Ironwood is from another era. After nearly six decades of service the ship is getting ready for another first - its first trip as a former Coast Guard cutter.After 57 years of service, three wars and more than a half-million miles of sea passing beneath the keel, the Coast Guard cutter Ironwood was decommissioned Oct. 6, 2000, during a ceremony in Kodiak, Alaska. More than 250 people gathered to bid the vessel farewell and to honor past and present crews during the solemn and, at times, humorous decommissioning ceremony.
As a part of the ceremony, Lt. Cmdr. Joanna Nunan, the last commanding officer of Ironwood, gave a farewell speech to summarize the Ironwood's Coast Guard service. Unlike some Coast Guard vessels, such as the Bear, the Hudson and the Taney, the Ironwood didn't have a singular event that placed it firm in the annals of history. The only clues to its travels were the awards on the cutter's bridge wing and a thin folder containing a few historical documents. Armed with a list of previous commanding officers, Nunan began compiling a partial oral record of Ironwood's history to include in her speech. "If Ironwood's career had been set in a story or a movie, I never would have believed it," said Nunan.
Ironwood's tale would be epic. It has seen eight different homeports, served in three wars and traveled more than a half-million miles. It saw the Coast Guard's transition from the Navy during World War II back to the Treasury Department and then to the Department of Transportation. It served 14 Commandant's of the Coast Guard, 34 commanding officers and more than 1,200 crewmembers. It participated in the space program, helped conduct nuclear test monitoring, and survived typhoons and groundings while still conducting day-to-day aids to navigation operations throughout the Pacific Ocean for almost six decades.
According to Nunan, two things set the tone for her research of the vessel's history. "The first is not really a story; it's a photograph that nobody can place, which made me painfully aware that we will never know the full Ironwood story," she said. The photograph was from a former commanding officer that showed the Ironwood hoisting a NASA space capsule from the water.
The second was a story about the cutter visiting the village of Shaktoolik, Alaska, far north of the cutter's present-day operating area. While at Shaktoolik, village elder Crazy Charlie All-Eye visited the cutter. According to Nunan's research, Crazy Charlie wasn't pleased when all he was offered was coffee during the cutter's visit. Their last Coast Guard visitor was the Revenue Cutter Bear under the Command of Captain Mike Healy. Healy had offered Crazy Charlie's father something a little bit stronger than coffee and in much larger quantity during his visits.
In retirement comes the freedom to tell stories that otherwise couldn't be told in public. The same is true for the Ironwood. On a less serious note, Nunan told some flamboyant stories of the Ironwood's antics relayed to her by former commanding officers. In Vietnam, the Ironwood again faced many hostile environments but this time it came from an American Army general who wanted a buoy placed onto a sandbar 30 feet above the waterline. The general wanted the job done "pronto." To oblige, the Ironwood's captain ordered the vessel to run aground on the sandbar. "It took two days and two or three tugs, and a bulldozer at the bow to get it afloat again," said Nunan.
Although it would seem almost absurd to sail a buoy tender into battle today, Ironwood is a decorated war hero. It saw action in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It helped establish the harbor on Midway Island during World War II. It supplied loran stations throughout the South Pacific during the Korean War and also helped with ocean weather station duty. It was the last United States military vessel on active duty to have served in the Korean theatre and carry the Korean Service Medal. During its Vietnam service, the cutter's crew even built a shore-side aid to navigation while the Missouri and its battle group shelled a nearby beach. It was also the ship that brought the first scientist back into the Marshall Islands a decade after atomic bomb tests.
The public is invited to a 1pm ceremony at the 17th street dock in Astoria marking occassion of the ship's 70th birthday then Saturday, September 7 there will be a public open house from 8am to 10am then again from 1pm to 4pm. Former crew from around he nation will be in attendence to mark the event.